Elisabeth Moss on Shining Girls, Handmaid’s Tale, and Playing Difficult Roles

Few actors know TV like Elisabeth Moss. The 39-year-old once dubbed “the queen of peak TV” has been a small-screen staple since she was about eight years old. She stopped by classics ranging from Picket Fences and Animaniacs to The Practice as a young guest star. Into adulthood, she seamlessly transitioned from one era-defining hit to another: as the president’s college-age daughter Zoey Bartlet on The West Wing; as secretary turned copywriter Peggy Olson on Mad Men; and as Gilead resistance leader June Osborne on The Handmaid’s Tale. Now, while that show is in production for its fifth season, Moss has got Shining Girls, a trippy thriller on Apple TV+ generating more rave reviews for its star.

“I certainly never anticipated having that track record that you speak of,” she tells me on this week’s Little Gold Men (listen to the full interview below). “I just—I love television. That’s the only thing I can kind of say. I watch a lot of stuff. Good television very much influenced me as an actor growing up. Claire Danes doing My So-Called Life was the thing—when I was like 13, 14—that showed me, oh, my God, you can act like that on TV.”


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Now with two Emmys under her belt, as both actor and producer, Moss has emerged as a full-blown power player in the medium, developing projects from the ground up and adding directing credits to her résumé. You’d think that the acting tests presented by projects like Mad Men or Handmaid’s, both of which feature massive story arcs and command uncommon nuance, would keep Moss content. Indeed, for many actors, they’re once-in-a-lifetime roles. But the creative thrill of a rich, intense, exhausting character only fuels her to take things a step further. “I’m never looking to make it easier on myself,” she says. “For me at this point, it’s more about how do I make it harder? How do I find something that I haven’t done yet?”

Loosely adapted from the Lauren Beukes novel, Shining Girls presented that opportunity. Set in ’90s Chicago, Moss plays Kirby, an archivist at the Chicago Sun-Times trying to get her reporting career back on track. Recovering from an attack by an unknown assailant years earlier, Kirby lives with her highly dysfunctional mother (Amy Brenneman) and experiences disorienting visions of alternating realities, or dimensions, or eras, or something—though this is less a symptom of her trauma, we learn, than the key to the mystery of what happened to her. The man who nearly took Kirby’s life appears to be a time-hopping serial killer named Harper (Jamie Bell), and as he settles on the identity of his next victim, we’re thrust into a fascinating, confounding cat-and-mouse game.

In the eight-episode season’s first half, particularly, Kirby must stay quiet. Alongside us, the audience, she gathers details of the elusive killer. Moss has gained esteem in movies for horror roles like those in The Invisible Man and Us, but this felt distinct from those too, as Moss found Kirby’s audience-proxy quality suitably unusual, fresh, and difficult to play. “People are going to think she’s crazy. That was the hardest thing: registering that, showing to the audience that there was some feeling or emotion about something changing, but not being able to say anything,” Moss says. “That happens over and over and over and over again, so the other challenge is how do I keep doing it? How do I keep rediscovering this? How do I keep having this thing happen and not make it boring?”

In Moss’s hands—her extraordinarily expressive eyes, her perceptiveness, her adeptness at portraying women who gradually find their voice, from Peggy to June—it’s never boring. The show can be hard to follow, by design, but the scripts stay snappy; the direction, split between TV vets Michelle MacLaren and Daina Reid and Moss herself, establishes a clear, compelling visual language. In an era of streaming bloat and consolidation, it feels about the furthest thing from algorithm-driven.

That’s how Moss likes it. She pays close attention to how networks and studios evaluate content. With Shining Girls, created by Silka Luisa, Moss joined a show from its very inception, when it hadn’t yet found a home, for the first time. (She signed on to produce and star in Handmaid’s after Hulu had landed the series.) She knew exactly what to look for as the team shopped the potential series around town, in a brave new era for the medium that’s been her home her whole career. “Apple TV+ felt like it had this hunger and it had this need for new material—and I have found that pretty much everything I’ve done has been at a home at a time when that was the case,” Moss says.

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