“Wowzers,” Elisabeth Moss said, looking at a bloodied silicone corpse. It was January, and Moss was on the Toronto set of “The Handmaid’s Tale», the Hulu series on which she plays June, an escapee from a patriarchal dystopia known as Gilead. The series, based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, imagines a repressive theocracy that has overthrown the United States and forced women into regimented roles, including servants, who are ceremonially raped and impregnated by their commanders. The first season, inspired by Atwood’s book, featured June’s life as Offred, renamed to mark her ownership by Commander Fred Waterford, played by Joseph Fiennes. By Season 5, which Moss was in pre-production for, June fled to Canada and, along with a group of former maids, cast Fred into oblivion. The nude silicone body, rolled on a metal tray, was his.
Moss inspected his exposed shins, mangled wrists, and clawed chest. “Anyone want a charcuterie plate?” she said laughing. Moss was checking out the corpse in her role as director of the first two episodes of the season; she started directing in season 4 and she is also an executive producer. The day had been set aside for camera testing, with the crew sorting out details such as the exact shade of red June’s bloody fingerprint should leave on a car window.
“I have a penile note,” Moss said, brilliantly.
“Continued? Less?” asked a prosthetic designer named Zane, as they examined Fred’s damaged genitals.
“Well, I don’t want it to feel like they bit extinct.
“We could always add more.”
“Maybe,” Moss said. “So it looks more like he’s broken.” His eyes trailed down. “The toes look so real!”
Moss had freshly dyed blonde hair and wore a T-shirt that read “Freedom!” Equality! Motherhood!” At thirty-nine, she’s worked on TV sets for more than three decades, and she projects a casual professionalism. “The Handmaid’s Tale” may be relentlessly awful, but Moss’ off-screen presence is as light as it gets. she broke bubble gum, cracked jokes and showed me pictures of her two Mandarin cats, Lucy and Ethel. everyone calls her Lizzie.
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On camera, however, Moss has an almost alien self-possession, channeling extreme states of trauma, rage, fear, or savagery. His characters are often at the crossroads of gentleness and ferocity. Directors like to shoot her in lingering close-ups, her gnarled, expressive face becoming void of detachment or flashing wildness, her eyes staring at her beaky nose like a pair of determined headlights. Alex Ross Perry, who directed her in three independent films, described her talent for “looking in the dark and coming back with a little gleam in her eye”.
Moss, who grew up in the Church of Scientology, is one of the most unconventional stars of her generation, and her career traces the trajectory of television’s last quarter century. At seventeen, she began playing the president’s daughter in “The West Wing,” perhaps the pinnacle of turn-of-the-millennium network drama. At twenty-three, she starred as Peggy Olson in ‘Mad Men,’ which starred Jon Hamm as publicist Don Draper, part of a wave of high-profile anti-terrorist-centric TV series. male heroes. But as the show progressed – and Peggy transformed from shy secretary to editorial prodigy – she became its stealthy heroine, paving the way for the next, more female-centric phase of television. . (Moss received six Emmy nominations.) Before “Mad Men” ended, she starred in Jane Campion and Gerard Lee’s limited series, “Top of the Lake,” a precursor to such scholarly thrillers as “Mare of Easttown”. Then came “The Handmaid’s Tale”. If “The West Wing” was America’s liberal alternative to the Bush administration, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which premiered in the spring of 2017, halfway between Trump’s inauguration and #MeToo, was scheduled for the Resistance. Women protesting against abortion in bonnets and red dresses are now a staple of American activism. Moss won her first Emmy for the role.
At the same time, she has built herself an idiosyncratic cinematic resume, choosing projects that reflect her penchant for dark, even wild characters. She played a woman stabbed in the neck by her own doppelganger in Jordan Peele’s ‘We’ and a demonic version of writer Shirley Jackson in Josephine Decker’s ‘Shirley’. Many of her roles deal with violence against women. In 2020, she starred in Leigh Whannell’s “The Invisible Man,” which recast HG Wells’ novel as the story of a woman terrorized by her abusive ex-tech tycoon, who uses her invisibility suit to stalk her. She told me with a laugh, “I can’t tell you how many children I’ve lost in roles. They are either taken away or stolen. It’s like, jesus christ.”
Over the past decade, Moss has become something of a muse for Alex Ross Perry. After casting her in the literary satire “Listen Up Philip,” Perry cast her as the protagonist, a woman on the brink of madness, in his micro-budget drama “Queen of Earth.” Then he wrote him a tour de force role as a self-destructive punk rocker, in “His smell.” Anyone who still thought of Moss as a secretary in a peter pan collar was wry, watching her prowl rock clubs with slathered mascara, growling lines such as “Ding-dong, the female dog is back!” During awards season, Perry wrote a letter to the New York Film Critics Circle pleading for Moss to be recognized, to no avail. “It obviously remains a black mark for any organization – all of them – that did not award this performance appropriately,” he told me.
During the pandemic, Moss and former WME agent Lindsey McManus started a production company, Love & Squalor Pictures. Her debut project, “Shining Girls,” a crime thriller with sci-fi touches, just premiered on Apple TV+. The show, based on a 2013 novel by Lauren Beukes, stars Moss, who also directed two episodes, as a newspaper archivist in early ’90s Chicago. After surviving a near-fatal assault, she is pursued by a time-bending serial killer.
“I like to play roles that are very conflicted or have major trauma, which is very different in my life,” Moss told me one day, applying lip balm with her little finger. She watches romantic comedies and Marvel movies, but in acting she travels to an emotional underworld, a process she likes to describe as “fun”.
Moss, who wouldn’t dream of going camping, loves extreme sports documentaries. “I’m fascinated by this need to climb that mountain, this need to show what you can do,” she said. The game is his version of free solo. At the start of “The Handmaid’s Tale”, Margaret Atwood made a cameo appearance as an aunt, one of Gilead’s matrons, who punches June in the face during an indoctrination. “We had to shoot four times, because I apparently wasn’t doing it with enough strength or enough frown and determination,” Atwood told me. “So I had the weird experience of my leading lady turning around and saying, ‘Hit me harder! Come on, give me a shot! ”
One afternoon, Moss was sitting in her “Handmaid’s Tale” production office, in an unglamorous building on the outskirts of Toronto. The walls were covered with storyboards and film shots (“Moonlight”, “Black Swan”) whose look she wanted to imitate. From time to time, an associate would show him head shots of potential extras. “Every day we lose a Handmaiden,” Moss lamented. “Search the couch cushions!” (Some actors, she said, had dropped out because of the show’s requirement for vaccines.) She had nailed John Everett Millais’ painting of Drowned Ophelia to the door. “One of the themes this season is water,” she explained. “There’s definitely a theme of rebirth and finding out who you are.”
Moss was also in post-production for “Shining Girls”; McManus, his producing partner, calls him “an absolute workhorse.” “I went to dinner a few weeks ago with some of the actors, and you would have thought I was going to the fucking Oscars,” Moss told me. “I’m not used to having a life outside of work.” In her office, she held up a display of costume samples. “I love the preparation,” she said. “I’m much more laissez-faire about playing.” Her aides say she can instantly go from casual banter to heartbreaking emotion. “Lizzie has an incredible ability to turn it on and off,” Jon Hamm told me.
When I asked Moss about a heartbreaking scene in “The Handmaid’s Tale” in which June confronts her former tormentor, Mrs. Waterford, with such seismic fury that she spews shoots from her mouth, she laughed and said: ” The funny thing is, in real life, you’re not supposed to go and yell in people’s faces like that. Music is essential to her approach. She creates a detailed playlist for each character, to That of “The Handmaid’s Tale” includes works by post-minimalist composer Max Richter, Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack for “Interstellar” and, when June is in revenge mode, “Formation” by Beyoncé. “Her Smell,” she listened to Radiohead. “AirPods have been a huge addition to my career because I’m not completely wrapped in wires anymore,” she said.
In Toronto, Moss showed up at the studio for a whereabouts investigation. Hiding among the crew was Bradley Whitford, who played a commander and shadowed Moss before directing an episode himself. “I’m just here out of fear,” he said dryly. Whitford has known Moss from “The West Wing,” and as she led the tour, he beamed with avuncular pride. “It’s a very strange combination of being able to be the bird that flies in the cage and worrying about how the cage is built,” he said. “It’s extremely impressive to me, and my heart is the size of a raisin.”
We went to a small park next to a cathedral, the site of a scene in which June sits on a bench in Canada. Although she escaped Gilead, she struggles to adjust to her freedom, her anger turning into a kind of damaged joy. A blizzard had dumped more than a foot of snow on the city, and Moss was barely visible behind his scarf, hat, and sunglasses. She talked about removing recycling bins on the day of filming. “How are you, boss? she asked an assistant director, Michael Johnson, known as MJ.