Elisabeth Moss and Alex Ross Perry on the Thread Connecting Her Smell and The Phantom of the Opera

Elisabeth Moss. Photo: Donald Stahl/Gunpowder & Sky

In case this past awards season hadn’t made it abundantly clear, we’re in the middle of a small boom of movies about musicians — perhaps going back to Terrence Malick’s Song to Song, up to and including Netflix’s Mötley Crüe biopic. No matter how high- or low- or middlebrow, even the best of them eventually adhere to all or most of a series of the genre’s tropes: the thrilling breakout, the compromises made on the road to success, the downward spiral, addiction, depression, and (if the artist in question is lucky) the redemption. Alex Ross Perry’s Her Smell, a portrait of a fictional ’90s rock star played with wounded, caustic furor by Elisabeth Moss, doesn’t put those tropes in a blender so much as it artfully rearranges them. “Most stories of a rock star or rock band start with them coming up and then falling,” Moss said when I talked to both her and Perry at this year’s SXSW Film Festival. “We started with the fall, and that’s one of the things I found the most unique about the idea and the script.”

It’s a choice that makes for a fresh, oftentimes brutal depiction of what it takes mentally and emotionally to be a performer. Through five scenes spread out over the course of a decade, we watch as Moss’s Becky Something — a woman as magnetic as she is unbearable to be around — abuses and manipulates her fellow band members, family members, and would-be protégés as her once-hot musical career begins to fade. This is Perry and Moss’s third time working together (the first was 2014’s Listen Up Philip and the second 2015’s Queen of Earth), and it’s far and away their most sophisticated collaboration yet. I spoke to them about the limitations of music biopic, rediscovering the breadth of ’90s female-fronted rock, and Her Smell’s theatrical inspiration — equal parts David Mamet and Andrew Lloyd Webber, it turns out.

Maybe it’s the 20-year cycle, but it feels like we’re really in the middle of a re-appreciation of how many interesting and singular women were dominating rock and pop music in the ’90s. I would love to know what both of you immersed yourselves in, as preparation for this movie — what scenes and bands in particular.
Elisabeth Moss: I was sort of presented with this buffet of information over a few months from people that Alex was talking to, and from Agy [Deyn] when she got involved. She’s very involved in the music scene. Gayle [Rankin] and I leaned heavily on her. I was sort of presented with, like … “Okay, there’s this book; there are these documentaries; there are these YouTube videos; there’s all this stuff that you can watch and read. Take what you want and leave the rest behind.” And I think that’s what we all did as actors. Quite honestly, the script was my main influence and inspiration. I probably could have done absolutely nothing and just followed the script. In the end, I think that was the most helpful thing that I did because we never wanted to base it on any particular person or any particular band or anything like that. It was just … I don’t know anyone like Becky. There are people that have similar traits or experiences, but there’s nobody like her, I think.

Alex Ross Perry: I grew up in this era, and was probably a much bigger fan of this music than [Elisabeth was] at the time, so writing the thing it was very clear that this is the world, this is the milieu, these are the women that exist there. But then in the year between finishing the script and then making it, I was listening to even more music — I grew up with a lot of this, but there are hundreds of bands that I missed and never knew about. And then I kind of picked the spectrum of the seven women in this movie; they all represent aspects of this general genre. The closer you get to it, you start to pay attention to the differences between Becky and Mari, or Becky and Ali, the drummer in the band. To me, [differences] in their backgrounds, in their style, in their culture are huge. All these women come from these different shades of what, from a distance, just looks like “women in music.”

It’s interesting to hear Elisabeth say that so much just came from the words on the page. Becky Something goes on a lot of tirades over the course of the film, these kind of rambling monologues with all sorts of plays on words, while she’s pacing, banging on the walls — that was all word for word in the script?
Perry: That entire stream of consciousness is word for word. That’s kind of a fun thing that I got excited by, to the potential detriment of the actors. [Laughs.]

Moss: It sounds nonsensical. But I found very, very quickly when we started that if I didn’t say it exactly right, it really didn’t work. So it sounds like it doesn’t make sense but you cannot say it any other way. I worked for Aaron Sorkin; I worked for Matt Weiner; I’ve done a David Mamet play. This script was single-handedly the most difficult to memorize, and the most difficult to perform word for word. All those three writers that I mentioned are word-for-word writers. This was far more difficult than any of that because what Alex did was maddening. We would have a catchphrase, but [Becky would] just change one word in it. So you couldn’t just remember the catchphrase, you had to remember the way that Becky changed it to be her own. That was honestly the most difficult part for me and I have no problem memorizing lines. It’s actually one of my specialties.

Perry: That’s the thing, those writers [Sorkin, Weiner, Mamet], who are such incredible talents, they’re always writing about people who have it together. So by using that style of writing — which I’m hugely influenced by — but doing it with someone who’s just off the rails, writing it in that kind of theatrical rhythm … it’s a combination that I don’t really see that often. That’s what was exciting about the writing — doing a kind of Sorkin idea, but not about the smartest guy in the room.

Moss: Two out of those three writers are playwrights, and it’s just an interesting parallel because this film was very much written like a play, inspired by Alex going to see a lot of theater. And we shot 10 to 12 pages a day, so you would memorize and perform this mini-play every day. You weren’t just remembering the lines that you had in one little scene, that two-and-eighths page of a scene you were doing at the moment. You had to know the play that you were doing that day.

You had to prepare for the entire arc of it.
Moss: Yeah. Starting in one room, or starting [by] entering the room banging the wall and singing a song, knowing that you later had to go in to some soliloquy.

I was trying to think of performances that seemed this demanding, or that required such an expenditure of energy, and Denzel Washington in Fences was the most recent comparison point I could think of. They are both exhausting characters, physically and emotionally, for themselves and everyone in the room with them. I can imagine it’s something you really have to prepare for.
Moss: Thank you. I hope to always be compared to Denzel Washington. I’ve been waiting for that my whole life. [Laughs.]

Perry: I would love to see the two of you onstage. I mean, that was kind of the size of the performance. I used to joke that this woman would eat Daniel Plainview for breakfast. I watch There Will Be Blood and I’m like, Imagine being in the room with that. Imagine being on the crew while that guy is doing that, and you kind of just have to look away. I wanted to do a movie with a character and a performance like that. Where it’s like — forever when you watch it, you’re like, People had to make this. I wanted that kind of a character.

I think it’s also such a bracing role to watch Elisabeth perform because we rarely see women in roles as this kind of domineering abuser figure … I mean, I think Becky Something is an abuser. I hope it’s okay to say that.
Moss: Oh, for sure.

So it’s interesting to watch this woman command a room almost without thinking about it, and not in an aspirational girl-boss way. It’s just her default mode to be this center of gravity that bends people to her will, or makes people react to her.
Moss: Yeah, and the guiding idea for me was that she doesn’t think she’s abusing anybody. When she’s angry at somebody, she thinks she’s 100 percent in the right and they have fucked her over. And she’s going to tell them that they fucked her over. When she’s having the best three minutes of her night, when she’s on that high, she thinks everyone’s also having the best three minutes of their night. Everyone else is also having a great fucking time.

Switching topics slightly … I wanted to talk about the Phantom T-shirt.
Moss: Favorite costume. It was awesome.

Perry: It’s now my favorite T-shirt. A very specific piece of wardrobe design.

So I actually saw The Phantom of the Opera somewhat recently, for the first time since high school. I actually hadn’t been that big of a fan of it and then my friend surprised me with tickets.
Perry: What a great friend.

It really was amazing. And I came away with a whole new appreciation for the show. But also, Becky Something is totally the Phantom.
Perry: This was very important to me, that she’s just like this monster that lives in the bowels of people’s imagination, creates music, and then kind of wreaks havoc on people. This was very exciting to me because by the time we made the movie, Phantom was very fresh in my mind. I had just seen it and it changed my life and I was so happy. It was very influential. And then Amanda Ford, the wardrobe designer who’s done four movies with me, generally knows I don’t like things that are crazy, bold proclamation pieces. So she was like, “I don’t know if you’re going to like this but I found this Phantom shirt.” And I said, “I actually have that at home on my eBay watch list as well.”

It was the exact same shirt?
Perry: It was the same shirt. She had flagged the same item on eBay that I had saved. And then found a picture of Kim Deal wearing the shirt. I was like, “Well, generally I would not want to do the thing that someone famous did … but in this case we’ll make an exception because this is actually influential on the movie.” So it kind of was a perfect storm. I wear that shirt very proudly now.

There have been a fair amount of notable movies about musicians and bands recently, and I don’t want to make you throw any of them under the bus, but …
Perry: I’ll do it.

Moss: He’ll do it!

Well, watching a lot of the more recent ones, it seems apparent to me that there’s no reason to tell one of these stories unless the filmmaker is willing to get into the psychology of what it’s like to be that kind of performer, or at least some kind of approximation of that perspective. A retelling of events isn’t interesting on its own. And it seems like movies about fictional artists, including yours, tend to be able to speak more to that stuff.
Perry: Well, it liberates you. For me, as a writer … if you’re telling a true story, great. That’s what you’re inspired by. But then you’re backed into a corner. That’s why I love Sorkin’s Steve Jobs script, because he backed himself out of that corner by just saying, “I’m going to do three 40-minute scenes and I’m not going to show anything else.” Other than that, I’ve never seen it done in a way that I was blown away by, because, as you said, you kind of owe the audience an insight into a real psychology that everyone can at least learn about. You probably owe them the biggest moment of that person’s career. You probably owe them the low point. As a writer, I think it would be very restrictive to be obligated to be like, “Of course, we’ve got to build up to that famous moment where Becky did this or that.”

Moss: Then you’re just making a documentary.

Perry: Yeah. It’s just like, great, that’s the story. But for me it was like … anything that I want to happen, can happen. So I could be inspired by all kinds of things. The world of this film is so much more influential than any one artist’s story. No one thing anyone did is better than something you could invent, if you have freedom to do whatever you like.

Moss: For me, the fact that she was a rock star in a band is so secondary. For me, what the movie was about was an addict, a mother, a person who is destroying her life and everyone in her vortex. For reasons that we don’t really get into because they’re, in a way, not important. That’s not our story that we’re telling with this movie. But she sabotages her life and then kind of wakes up and tries to get it back, but it might be too late. And to me that was the story that I wanted to tell. Somebody who is incredibly manipulative, very exciting to be around when she’s at her best, but then could just also destroy you if she felt like it. She could have been a painter; she could have been an actress; she could have been a writer. It wasn’t important to me what she did as much.

Perry: In my mind, the movie’s not about a band. The movie’s not about grunge. It’s not about women in rock. It’s not about the record industry. It’s not about the ’90s. It’s about women with split-identity issues. It’s about groups of women that all have these tunings, and every character in the movie, no more so than Becky, is trying to figure out how to live with one name or the other. To live either as Becky or Rebecca. Everyone in the movie has this dilemma, even Dan Stevens’s character, Dirtbag Danny. And that, to me, is what the movie is about.

Right, a story about artists — successful artists — is an opportunity to dramatize the way in which having to maintain a kind of public persona can exacerbate perhaps already existent issues. Which is becoming more and more relatable for non-famous people.
Moss: I think a lot of artists experience this, where you have extreme confidence in what you do and then extreme insecurity in your personal life. And I think that’s something Becky’s definitely dealing with. I think she feels like a rock star when she’s onstage, and she feels like the most powerful and sexy and interesting and fun person. And I don’t think she feels like that as Rebecca. And reconciling those two people in a spotlight is really difficult. Add drugs and alcohol to the mix, and the actual addiction, and you have a mess. I’ve never met a rock star like that, but I’ve certainly met or worked with people that I felt like had that crazy mix of extreme confidence and extreme insecurity. I’ve seen that a lot in my industry.

The final act of the film is one of the most viscerally honest depictions I’ve seen of being a recovering addict. Becky is sober, but nothing feels safe. There’s not this feeling of, “Yay, we beat it; everything is going to be fine or at least boring from here on out.”
Moss: Yeah, or, “I’m better for the experience.” Not necessarily. Her life is possibly destroyed. That was really important to us about Act Four and Five … to make sure that when she’s in recovery in Act Four that she hasn’t become this perfect person. She’s not relaxed, she’s not safe, she’s not balanced, she’s possibly at her absolute most fragile and vulnerable, and it was really important to make sure that it was like, “No, no, she’s not okay.” And then Act Five, same thing. She’s just barely holding it together. I think Becky went back to rehab several times before she’s able to get sober. I think it took many, many, many tries. It’s important to us to be more realistic about addiction and sobriety than trying to tell some sort of glamour story.

Elisabeth Moss, Alex Ross Perry on Who Inspired Her Smell