Written and directed by Academy Award winner Jane Campion, the stunning, evocative and often unsettling seven-part mini-series Top of the Lake follows Detective Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss), who returns home to care for her sick mother and finds herself caught up in the missing persons investigation of Tui Mitcham, a young girl who is 12 years old and five months pregnant. But, in this breathtaking but remote mountain town, Robin quickly realizes that this case is far from simple and that she must face her own haunting past, along with evil forces as powerful as the land itself, if she is ever to uncover the answers. The mini-series also stars Holly Hunter, David Wenham, Peter Mullan, Thomas M. Wright and Jay Ryan.
During this recent exclusive phone interview with Collider, actress Elisabeth Moss talked about how she came to be a part of this mini-series, the most challenging aspects of the role, the experience of shooting in such a desolate and vast part of New Zealand, how she approached playing this character, collaborating with filmmaker Jane Campion, that the story will continue to get darker and creepier as it evolves, the experience of working with co-star Holly Hunter, and how cool it was to work on a series where the story has the closure of a film. Check out what she had to say after the jump.
ELISABETH MOSS: They sent me the first three scripts, and told me about Jane Campion’s involvement and that it would be shooting in New Zealand. I immediately wanted to get involved just based on Jane Campion, and then when I read the scripts and they were really good and interesting and different, and the role was really different and challenging for me, I definitely wanted to be a part of it, but it’s never that easy. So, I went through the process and spoke to the casting director, and I spoke to Jane, and then I auditioned. It wasn’t a hard process, but it was definitely something that I had to audition for and had to prove that I could do it.
When it’s a project like that, where you really want the role, does it get more nerve-wracking?
MOSS: Yeah, absolutely! Especially if it’s something that you really want and that you’d love to do. But, I spoke to Jane before my audition and she said, “You don’t have to worry about hitting the bullseye. Just get the dart on the board.” That really helped me and it really relaxed me. When you audition for things, there’s pressure to go in there with a complete performance, and it’s kind of unfair because, if you get it, you’ll have rehearsal and talk about it, and you’ll have plenty of time with the script. So, for me, I really do feel like an audition is a sketch of what you might do. Her allowing me to present my sketch really took me out of the hot seat.
What was the scariest thing about signing on to do this mini-series?
MOSS: There were so many parts of it that were totally scary. I’d never been to New Zealand, which is on the other side of the world. I had to do an accent. I wasn’t working with one single soul that I had ever met before, including Jane. I didn’t meet her until I went to New Zealand. We’d spoken on the phone, but I hadn’t met her in person. And they’d only seen me do three scenes, in my audition. So, there was definitely a huge feeling of, “I hope I can do this!” It was kind of too late, but I was scared. I felt like I was standing at the bottom of the mountain, looking up and going, “I don’t know how I’m going to get up there.” But, you want to be challenged and you want to try to do something different that you’ve never done before.
How was the experience of shooting somewhere that looks so desolate with so much vast space?
MOSS: It was so informative to the project, that feeling of being all alone. With Robin’s search for Tui, at a certain point, she’s the only one who wants to look for her, for the right reasons. You get that sense of this vast landscape with those helicopter shots going over that. Those helicopter shots were the only way to show how impossible it would be to find this tiny girl in that world. It was such an important part of the whole thing. That landscape really is another character.
MOSS: Both. It’s a character that I definitely found similarities in, but she takes them to the extreme, so that was challenging. I remember Jane saying to me, in our very first conversation, before I even auditioned, “I know you can do vulnerable. I need to see if you can cover it up.” She was very clear with me about that, and I really appreciated that. Once I got the role, we continue to work on that and she would remind me to keep up the exterior, as long as I could, and to not let the audience in until it was time to show where she was coming from and to show her vulnerability. She worked with me on lowering my vocal register and making my voice a little bit deeper, so that gave me a bit more strength. There were all these elements to it, like the accent, that were incredibly challenging. In the first two hours, Robin is very hard and very strong, and she’s trying to keep up that exterior. And then, in Episode 3, you get a major breakdown of where she’s coming from and her past and why she keeps that hard exterior up. She falls down a rabbit hole and loses herself in this case. By losing herself and completely letting go, that’s the only way she can solve it, and she literally comes face to face with everything she’s been running from, for the past 15 years.
Was it important to you that, even though this story has a missing persons investigation and your character is trying to solve this crime, the mini-series never feel like a procedural, but always feels character-driven?
MOSS: Absolutely! What I first felt about the scripts was that it has this basic structure of being a detective story and being a crime thriller, and then you get this weird idea that something else is going on and that it’s a lot darker than that. That’s all Jane Campion. We would always joke that we didn’t want to make CSI: New Zealand. We wanted to make a dark fantasy that is character-driven, and is about people and the dark underbelly of this town.
As the story evolves, it seems as though it’s getting darker and creepier. Was that gradual development intentional, to ease the viewers into that world?
MOSS: Absolutely! It was completely intentional and very much in the scripts. The first two are very developmental. You’re introducing the characters and you’re introducing the case, and you get the spooky feeling that something is going to go wrong. Episode 3 gives you a lot more of the history and a lot more of Robin’s past. And then, I always describe Episode 4 as this long, beautiful, Jane Campion poem that really takes its time. The cool thing about it, as well, that you’ll see when you watch Episodes 5 and 6, is that it does retain those entertainment value elements of a crime thriller. You’re gonna wanna know who the bad guy is. You’re gonna be like, “I wanna know who did it!” It retains that, and we didn’t shy away from that either. It doesn’t get too artsy fartsy.
MOSS: I loved the idea that GJ is everything that Robin disagrees with. Robin is constantly searching for the truth and for answers, and GJ seems to believe that there are no answers. Everything that GJ is, is the anti-thesis of Robin and what she’s trying to do. These two people that are polar opposites meet in the second episode, and I was really nervous about the women’s camp/GJ stuff. I was like, “Oh, god, it’s so weird! Is it going to be pretentious with all these naked women? What is this?” And when I heard that they had cast Holly as GJ and that she had agreed to do it, I was like, “Okay, we’re good.” She makes it so interesting, and she makes it real. It’s not this hifalutin, in-the-clouds guru thing. She makes it like a real person, and I don’t know anyone else who could have done that.
Was it refreshing to do a series where you knew there would be a feeling of closure at the end, and you knew that the creative team had no interest in continuing this for future seasons?
MOSS: Yeah, it was very cool. It was cool to know what was going to happen. It was cool to know where we were going, and to have an objective to work for. It felt like making a long movie. With a film, you know what’s going to happen, and there’s a beginning, middle and end, and it did have that feeling about it. I love episodic television, as well. I feel like there are virtues to that, that are really cool, but it was nice to have an idea of where you’re character is going to end up. You’re really allowed to plan out what you’re going to do. You’re allowed to go, “Okay, I’m not going to show that part of the character yet because I’m going to show it in Episode 4, in this scene.” You’re allowed to plot it out, in a way that really allows for you to discover the character throughout the whole thing.
Top of the Lake airs on Monday nights on the Sundance Channel.