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Elisabeth Moss on Top of the Lake, Working With Jane Campion, and Getting Naked

Elisabeth Moss. Photo: Getty Images

If you can’t imagine Peggy from Mad Men as a hardened New Zealand detective investigating the case of a missing pregnant 12-year-old, then join the club. At the seven-hour premiere (six hours of viewing material, plus breaks) of her new Jane Campion miniseries, Top of the Lake, Elisabeth Moss explained just how hard she had to fight to get taken seriously for the starring role. Good thing Campion has an open mind; it’s a brave, epic performance, with Moss revealing not just her inner–Clarice Starling, but also outer parts of herself we’ve never seen onscreen. We talked to Moss about her many sex scenes and why she didn’t feel the need to actually spend the night at the camp in the movie, where damaged fortysomething women sleep in shipping crates.

Did you actually sit through all six hours?
No, just five and six. I’ve seen the first four.

Do you think you could have sat through all six in a theater?
I think it would have been an incredible experience. But I would’ve had to get up very early and get here, and that’s not something I really wanted to do. But I probably will see all six at once at some point.

With a live audience?
I don’t know. [Laughs.] I don’t know if everybody’s going to be watching it again for all six hours. I mean, I was so impressed and flattered that people came and sat through all six hours. It was a big group and they were all there and it didn’t look like anybody left, and it looked like people came back after lunch.

Did I hear it took eighteen months to shoot?
Eighteen weeks! [Laughs.]

Ha, I heard eighteen months and I was like, ‘This shoot was as long as Lord of the Rings?!’
Yes, it was just like Lord of the Rings. We beat The Hobbit for longest production ever. [Laughs.] No, eighteen weeks. Everything in New Zealand just takes forever! It really is not … just everyone is really slow. [Laughs.]

You said you were a fan of Jane’s. Did The Piano make a big impression on you?
Yeah, The Piano I saw when I was young and then saw it again later on, and Holy Smoke I’m a big fan of, and Bright Star, obviously, was the most recent one that I was taken by. And it’s hard not to be a fan of hers. It’s like not being a fan of … I’m trying to think of a writer… of, like, Hemingway. Of course you like Hemingway. [Laughs.] But for me it wasn’t just as a filmmaker, it was as a filmmaker who works so well with actresses and is so known for female performances. And I think she’s got such a great female energy about her, I really responded to it, and she makes you feel really safe. I don’t know what it is. She just gets great performances out of women. And out of men, too, obviously. But a lot of her leads have been women, so I was very excited to be able to see what that was about and be at her mercy.

You said that you weren’t taken seriously as being able to play tough and strong because of playing Peggy for so long. But Peggy’s pretty strong.
She is, but in a very different way. She gains strength. And she’s strong, but she makes a lot of mistakes to get there. This is a different kind. This is someone who’s very closed off and becomes strong, if that makes any sense. And it was also the detective aspect of it, you know? I was like, “How are they going to think that I’m strong and tough and can be a detective?” But luckily, as I said, Jane has an incredible ability to change your mind and be open and look for what tells the story the best.

Did you have to do anything to get them to see you that way? Work with guns before your audition?
Not before the audition. Honestly, the audition, I just wanted to present this kind of skeletal picture of the emotional side of the character. I knew all that stuff with guns and running and the detective stuff and how to hold a gun — I knew I’d be trained in that and they’d teach me how to do that, and that would come. That’s not easy, but it is something that you can learn. One of the things Jane talked to me about before my audition was showing … she was like, “I know you can do vulnerable, but can you cover it up with something else? I need to see this strength and the vulnerability underneath.” That was the most important thing for me to show her, and that was what I felt was the core of the character, and if I had that, everything else I could learn.

Did you spend time in the feminist camp, spending the night in those shipping crates?
God, no. [Laughs a lot.]

Publicist: She’s committed, Jada, but she’s not that committed.

Moss: I’m committed, but I’m not crazy. Committed, but I don’t need to be committed.

I remember interviewing you for that movie you did with Sarah Jessica Parker about city folks who head out to the country, and you said you don’t do roughing it.
I really don’t! And you should have seen me from the beginning to the end of this. I completely changed. At the beginning, I would sort of stumble over the rocks and be like, “Oh, the water is cold!” And by the end, I was running, I was hiking, I was jumping over things. You just got to the point where you just threw yourself into it, literally. You’d throw yourself into the water. And that was the only thing you could do. And I actually became a little bit less of a princess doing this. I mean, I’m a city girl, but I really became somebody who can do those things. But my character doesn’t have to spend the night in the containers too much, so I didn’t feel it was reeeaallly necessary to do that.

I’m so excited for people to see you in this role. Peggy has a pretty active sex life, but this is the most you’ve ever done, right?
Onscreen, yes. Definitely. [Laughs.] Yeah, that was an interesting part of it, because I knew there was going to be some nudity, and I didn’t want to do it at first. I sort of balked at it and scrutinized it and went over it, but in my initial conversations with Jane, I’d get off the phone with her and be like, “You know, I just feel safe. I have a feeling that this is going to be fine.” And it wasn’t just that she told me it was gonna be fine and she told me it was gonna be safe. But Jane Campion is going to be the last … she’s the most feminist woman in the world. You know, she’s going to be the last person to take advantage of you. Most importantly, too, she was like, “You’re gonna look great.” [Laughs.] And as a female, an actress, that’s important. And you don’t want to be put in any position — pun intended — that’s not good. And she just made me feel safe. I was able to look at playback on set and make sure that things were going in the right direction. And there’s actually a lot less in [the miniseries] than we shot.

What’s going on next with your other job?
I can’t talk about it!

Why not? It’s like Peggy’s gone. She’s not even in the office.
I know. I can say even less now than I could before, because I used to be able to at least say that I was at Sterling Cooper, and now I can’t even say where I’m working. So I can say even less. The only thing I can even say is that she’s trying on new things. She’s trying to figure out who she is, still, and she hasn’t quite found it yet. But I think her journey in trying to figure out who she is … she’s getting closer. She’s getting closer.

Elisabeth Moss on Top of the Lake, Getting Naked