From Academy Award-winning writer/director Jane Campion, Top of the Lake: China Girl sees Detective Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss) having recently returned to Sydney and trying to rebuild her life. When the body of a girl washes up on the beach with little hope of finding the killer, Robin gets drawn deeper and deeper into the investigation while she’s also trying to reconnect with the daughter she gave up at birth. The six-hour story also stars Gwendoline Christie, Nicole Kidman, Alice Englert, David Dencik and Ewen Leslie.
During a small roundtable to promote the return of Top of the Lake, actress Elisabeth Moss talked about how exciting things are in her career right now, what she looks for in a project, the through-lines she sees in her own work, how thankful she is that The Handmaid’s Tale has moved so many people, sex scenes, identifying as a feminist, and finding her own voice.
Question: You’ve been in this business for a long time. How do you feel about having so much attention and acclaim right now?
ELISABETH MOSS: It is really exciting, honestly. This is what I love to do. I love acting very much. It really is my passion, ever since I was a little girl. Now, I get to do some producing, as well, so that’s been really fulfilling and amazing. Having that creative control has been very gratifying. Maybe there’s a chance, at a certain point, that you get jaded or wonder what else you can do, but I just don’t feel that way. I still feel so excited about the projects that I’m doing, and I feel that there’s so much to do, but not enough time. There’s just not enough time and I’m only one person, so that’s my frustration. There are so many good things out there right now and so many good scripts being written. I’m very much enjoying it.
Coming off of Mad Men, Top of the Lake and The Handmaid’s Tale, what do you look for in a project? What gets you to commit yourself to something?
MOSS: For me, writing is first and foremost. It’s not necessarily all about my character, but about the script, in general. It’s about all of the characters in the story. That’s the first thing because you really can’t do anything about bad writing except fix it. As far as my character goes, it’s all about complexity and duality. It’s all about subverting the audience’s expectations. It’s all about an arc and making sure that somebody starts somewhere and ends up somewhere else, and hopefully goes through a lot, in the process. I want to see more than one thing in that person. I don’t even necessarily have to understand it right away, or understand what those things are, but it has to be something that is complex. I’m not interested in one-dimensional characters and stories. That’s my thing that I look for.
Do you see any thematic through-lines in the work that you do?
MOSS: Yeah, absolutely! I’m a 35-year-old woman American woman. These are the through-lines of my life. This is what I deal with, and I deal with a tiny bit of it. As a white woman in America, I get the good end of the fucking stick. These are the through-lines of our existence, so yeah, I absolutely see them. It’s what I’m interested in, as a person, and usually what you’re interested in, as a person, is also what you’re interested in, as an artist.
Looking back on The Handmaid’s Tale, could you have ever imagined just how much it would move people?
MOSS: Not at all, honestly. We definitely didn’t expect it. We loved it and we tried to do our best with it and do it justice. We hoped that it would find an audience, even a small one, and get some good reviews, and that we’d get picked up for another season, so that we could go back and do more. That’s the most you can hope for, especially in this landscape that’s full of good material and good content. We were aiming for excellence in our own opinions, but we didn’t know if anybody else would think so. It’s been incredibly gratifying. It feels so personal to me. Every single person who says they watch the show and like the show, I feel very personally thankful for them. We worked really hard on it and it meant a lot to us. We took it personally, and the fact that everyone else took it personally was just so awesome.
At the beginning of Top of the Lake: China Girl, Robin is celibate, but that doesn’t stick. How did you want to approach her sexuality?
MOSS: I never believed her when she said that. I don’t know if I believe anyone when they say that. I think that she’s just so burned and that she’s protecting herself. She just doesn’t want to be vulnerable, in any way and with anyone, whether it’s a sexual partner or a friend. But then, the juxtaposition with that is looking for her daughter and opening herself up to that relationship. It’s the total opposite of everything else that she’s doing because she puts herself in the most vulnerable position by going after Mary. Those two things are at odds, which is really interesting. She just wants to find the right guy. We’ve all been there. You say, “I’m not dating anymore!,” when really you mean that you just don’t want to date an asshole.
How does meeting her daughter change Robin, as a woman?
MOSS: I think the best part of that storyline is the beginning of it, where she first meets Mary and she has this really honest reaction, which Jane told me she was going to have before it was written. I really loved the idea of her meeting her daughter and not feeling like a mother. She just feels like, here is this stranger. Here is this 18-year-old girl that she doesn’t know. There’s this idea that you’re supposed to have a child and meet your baby, and you just start feeling like the queen mother, all of a sudden, and lactating. From the women that I’ve spoken to, that’s not exactly true, all the time. Everyone has a different experience with motherhood. So, I loved that. I thought that was really honest. She has to figure out what her relationship is with Mary and she has to figure out how she is a mother to this child. The way that she does it is by embracing her best qualities that she already has and that she’s used with other children. She has this caretaker thing and a search for the truth and honesty. She uses that to figure out how to be Mary’s mom.
How did the sex scenes in Top of the Lake: China Girl compare to the sex scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale?
MOSS: They’re very different to me. There’s a passion to the Nick one (in The Handmaid’s Tale), with that built up pressure that explodes. That was a fun one to do because it was just this passionate thing. And then, the Pyke one (in Top of the Lake: China Girl) is much more tender and filled with love and more cautious, in a way. And filming those things is something you have to do. You know everyone is a professional and you know that it isn’t supposed to be sexy, or anything like that, but it’s just weird. It’s just odd. There’s usually a little bit of alcohol involved, as well.
How was it to work with Nicole Kidman?
MOSS: It was great! We only had a couple of scenes together. She came in towards the end of filming, for 10 days, and it was great because I got a few days off. I was like, “Hi! Welcome! Bye!” That was actually really nice. But yeah, it was interesting. You think you might be intimidated because she’s this giant movie star, but she’s very normal, very nice and very down home. I thought maybe I’d be intimidated, but I didn’t feel that way, at all. From what I’d heard about her, everyone had spoken so highly of her, so I expected that. It was very cool. Honestly, there were a couple of times doing a scene where I was looking at her and thinking, “Oh, my god, I’m doing a scene with Nicole Kidman! This is so cool!”
Do you ever worry about how you’re perceived when you speak up? Are you ever concerned about whether people think it’s too much?
MOSS: I don’t pay much attention to whether anyone thinks I’m too much, but I think it’s a very valid, common thing. As women, we’re supposed to be quiet and stay in line and not be too vocal. It’s that old thing of, if you’re outspoken about something, or you’re harsh or aggressive about something, you’re called a bitch while a man is called powerful and in control, and all of these other nicer words. That’s an age-old thing. I just don’t pay any attention to it or care. Maybe people do think that, but I don’t know. My experience has been that every time I’ve spoken up, in a way that maybe was going to piss somebody off, I have received nothing but respect and kindness. I think if you’re kind and professional and you’re willing to have a conversation about something, I’ve found that people are mostly very respectful and it’s worked out okay. There’s no reason to be an asshole. I think we’re just afraid of [speaking up].
You identify as a feminist, right?
Do you think how it’s perceived has gotten any better?
MOSS: Yeah. For me, it’s better than it’s ever been. Women are embracing it in a way that they never have before, and men are embracing it in a way that they never have before. Obviously, it needs to reflect a little bit more in our politics and in our government, but as a people, we’re on pretty much the same page. Art often reflects what’s going on in the world, and we’re seeing stories that are very diverse and that are lead and made by women because that’s what’s in our world.
Is it surreal to you that you’ve become the face of that because of the characters that you’ve played, and do you embrace that?
MOSS: It is surreal, and I embrace it. It’s awesome! I love it! It’s something I’m intensely flattered by. This is shit that’s really important to me, as a woman. These are issues that are really near and dear to my heart. So, to be associated with that movement, in any way, is incredibly flattering for me. It’s a great honor, it really is. When somebody like Hillary [Clinton] talks about Handmaid’s at the Planned Parenthood fundraiser, that’s a fucking wet dream for me! Jesus Christ! That was amazing! It’s a huge honor, it really is, and it’s very surreal.
Top of the Lake: China Girl airs on SundanceTV on September 10th, 11th and 12th.