The (Un)Method to Elisabeth Moss’s Madness

During a day of furniture shopping, the Her Smell actress ponders just how dark she can get.

“I just have a severe attraction to unplayable characters,” says Moss. Photo: Landon Nordeman
“I just have a severe attraction to unplayable characters,” says Moss. Photo: Landon Nordeman
“I just have a severe attraction to unplayable characters,” says Moss. Photo: Landon Nordeman

Elisabeth Moss has stabbed at least three men onscreen: one with a broken beer bottle, one with a pen, one with a kitchen knife strapped to a broom. She’s also stabbed herself in the face, stabbed her evil clone to death, held a gun to a child’s head, and given birth alone in captivity. She’s given up or lost at least three children, investigated pedophile rings, and lit herself on fire. She has dismembered dead bodies, murdered her best friend, and fatally shot at least two abusive ex-husbands. In her latest film, Alex Ross Perry’s excruciating Her Smell, she drops her baby on the floor, runs onstage in handcuffs with a bloody nose, and rakes another jagged beer bottle down her own arm.

Today, however, she is at West Elm, where she is overflowing with enthusiasm about a fluffy pink duvet and two matching shams. “I love pink. I love rose gold,” she says, bouncing slightly, stroking the pillows. She points at a blush rug. “I have that!” It’s 4 p.m. on a Wednesday and we are surrounded by Upper West Side bubbies, new mothers hoisting chunky infants, and people pushing their small dogs in expensive strollers. Moss is literally wearing her contradictions on her sleeve; she’s paired a black leather Rag & Bone jacket and studded biker boots with a floral dress and a key-shaped necklace that reads “Fight.” (“I just liked how it sounded,” she says. “I’m attracted to the idea of softness and strength.”) Hair wet from the shower and in minimal makeup, she is happily oblivious to her effect on fellow shoppers, more than one of whom brake shopping carts to do a double take — Is that …? 

We came to West Elm at Moss’s suggestion to look for a desk, but she cannot stop pausing mid-hunt to examine everything within the aforementioned color family. “My entire bedroom is pink and blush,” she says as she runs her hand across a chair that she already owns. “It’s now going to be this weird pink room that scares people.” Though she’s lived in her Upper West Side apartment for four years, and the city of New York for 17, she cheerfully explains that she has been too busy to fully decorate, and it’s only now — facing a rare month or so off work after wrapping Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man and before she heads to Hawaii to film Taika Waititi’s latest movie — that she’s able to ponder the idea of turning what she calls her “box room” into a proper office. “The box room is basically full of boxes and suitcases, from moving to Australia, then Toronto,” she says. “There’s a brief two-week period where it’s unpacked, and then it just gets filled with shit again. I haven’t been home for longer than two weeks in three years.”

Moss, whom this magazine once coined the “Queen of Peak TV,” is not exaggerating about her schedule. Since concluding her role as the shy-secretary-turned-feminist-icon Peggy Olson on AMC’s Mad Men in 2015, Moss has made 17 movies, done a stint on Broadway, wrapped two seasons of Jane Campion’s pitch-black Top of the Lake, and starred in and produced Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale. This year alone, she’s prepped the fourth season of Handmaid’s, filmed a role in Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch, played Shirley Jackson in an upcoming biopic, run from her dead ex-boyfriend in 2020’s Invisible Man, calmly murdered herself in Jordan Peele’s Us, took over the Irish mob in The Kitchen, and played the human equivalent of nails on a chalkboard, Becky Something, in the blistering indie drama Her Smell, which she also produced and for which she’s just been nominated for a Gotham Award.  

“It was one of the only characters where I didn’t love playing her at every moment,” Moss says of her Her Smell character, Becky Something. “I wanted to shake her off and didn’t want to be her anymore.” Photo: Donald Stahl/Gunpowder & Sky

Moss knows she has a propensity for choosing what she calls “specific, odd, dark” roles. It’s rare that she plays a woman who isn’t teetering on the edge of her own sanity or confronting some chaotic truth at the core of the human experience — even her very first part, in a miniseries at the age of 7, required her to stare at Sandra Bullock’s floating corpse. But in a world where the Joaquin Phoenixes and the Christian Bales and the Jared Letos get into character by dropping 50 pounds and sending dead pigs to their co-stars, Moss is delightfully unprecious. “I don’t think I’m better at those sorts of parts than anyone else,” she laughs. “I just have a severe attraction to unplayable characters. I wish I could say something deep about it. But I can’t.”

Her first “really weird” movie was an indie called Virgin, in which she plays a teen who’s raped while unconscious and wakes up believing she’s pregnant with the second coming of Christ. “It was so fun for me,” she says. “It was my first experience with, ‘Can I take this thing that’s totally crazy and make you believe it?’ And now I love doing that.” Diving into that inky darkness has little effect on her — between filming rape scenes on The Handmaid’s Tale, she listens to Taylor Swift. (“I feel like I’ve been on a journey with her,” she says. “I’ve had breakups at the same time as her, found people at the same time as her. I would die to be in her squad.”) On the rare occasions she isn’t filming, she stays home with her two beloved cats who have “fucked up all my furniture,” has dinner with her mom (who lives one block away) and her best friends (Annapurna exec Susan “Goldie” Goldberg and actresses Patrizia Hernandez and Caitlin FitzGerald), stays up until 3 a.m. watching rom-coms, and sleeps until noon. “I hate activities,” she tells me, when we first meet, to partake in an activity. “I don’t do anything. Why isn’t drinking considered an activity?”

Perhaps Moss’s refreshing lack of pretension about her acting process can be attributed to the fact that she’s been doing this for so long — by her count, at least 31 years. (She’s 37.) Perhaps it’s because she’s incapable of taking anything about herself very seriously. She’s the sort of person who unironically downloads the Hallmark movies app for her iPhone, who believes Christmas celebrations should begin immediately after Halloween, and whose most malevolent feelings are leveled at the White Sox (her mom grew up in Chicago and she’s an intense Cubs fan). Or it might be that she’s a good enough actress that she doesn’t need to go full Daniel Day-Lewis to convince us that she’s falling apart at the seams. All I can say for sure is that rather than exaggerate the difficulty of it all, she prefers to discuss how little she spent on her coffee table ($50, from a neighbor) and how many times she has seen When Harry Met Sally (“one zillion”).

“It’s different strokes, I guess,” she says diplomatically, studying a bar cart she thinks she might already own. “I toy with being a Method actor. I often think, Wow, maybe I should do that. Maybe I need to get more fucked up.

Her Smell, she concedes, was slightly different. Moss is in every scene for five harrowing acts, spouting pseudo-Shakespearean dialogue in the manner of a person on metric tons of meth, glittery eye makeup smeared haphazardly across her cheeks as she violently lashes out at loved ones and strangers alike. “Because it was so extreme, and we were doing so much in such a short amount of time, I’d not completely come out of it between takes. But I wouldn’t worry about it. It was just a sort of mind train I was on,” she says. “It was one of the only characters where I didn’t love playing her at every moment. I wanted to shake her off and didn’t want to be her anymore. She’d exhaust me, because I pushed myself so much. But I remember thinking, The only thing I’ll regret is if I didn’t go far enough with this.

So she went “full-on” for a month straight. “If I wasn’t going as fast I could, or being as facile as I could, being open to doing something totally crazy in the moment, allowing myself to have no rules — and yet at the same time, very specifically hit this dialogue, because Alex is a taskmaster about that — it didn’t work,” she says. Though she’s normally “very chatty between takes,” on Her Smell, she’d have to preserve her energy for the scenes where she, for example, tackles her former bandmate and attempts to stab her with (yet another) beer bottle. “Everyone would be hanging out and I’d be in the corner, practicing my guitar,” she laughs. “They knew what I had to do, so nobody took any offense.”

Still, Moss scoffs at the notion that Her Smell — or acting in general — can be qualified as a “difficult experience.” “It’s such a great job, and one I sign up for. Nobody is making me do this,” she says, pausing to wonder about the pitfalls of purchasing a desk without any drawers. “So whenever actors are like, ‘It was sooo hard …’ I’m like, ‘Come on! I get it, it’s tiring … I don’t always want to wake up at 4 in the fucking morning. But … come on. That’s bullshit. You’re fine.”

Moss on her Handmaid’s Tale character, June: “Bitch is a cat who has had nine fucking lives. She 100 percent probably should be dead.” Photo: Sophie Giraud/Hulu

One thing Moss does take rather seriously is the makeup that’s frequently seen dripping down her face onscreen. Earlier this year, I wrote a painstaking celebration of her consistently runny mascara; she proceeded to tell Stephen Colbert that she was going to get a restraining order against me. When we meet at West Elm, I hand her a waterproof Cover Girl Great Lash as a joke, and she flips out: “I only want to talk about mascara!” She briefly outlines a few tips: On Handmaid’s, “we use mostly waterproof — it really depends on what kind of look you want under the eye when crying.”

Back to the “midcentury mini desk.” “I could go full Mad Men!she exclaims of the style. After all, she already has a chair from set, a typewriter, a telephone, the New York Film Festival poster from Peggy’s wall — and that thermos. She stops and stares at the piece of furniture wistfully. “No. People would think I was insane. That would be so pathetic. It’s a terrible idea.” Moss tells me she rarely thinks about Mad Men these days, but does stay in touch with the cast. She’s closest to “the Jo(h)ns” (Slattery and Hamm) and Vincent Kartheiser, whose wife, Alexis Bledel, stars alongside her on Handmaid’s. They still have a text chain, and while Moss would be up for returning to Peggy for a Mad Men movie, she and her castmates haven’t been approached. “It wasn’t just a show — it was my life,” she says. “It’s fucking nuts that it was 14 years ago. I feel like I’m exactly the same person I was then.”

That person is still as removed from the concept of celebrity as she ever was; she is “super” interested in Jennifer Lawrence’s recent marriage, as if the two haven’t been photographed within feet of each other at the same red-carpet event. “Tell me everything. I want to know who was there. Who did she marry? How long have they been together?” We spend at least five minutes trying to figure out why Ashley Olsen was in attendance, but not Mary Kate. “Maybe she was busy.” Moss admits to being riveted by the fact that she shares the same pet-sitter as Meghan Markle in Toronto, but the moment the spotlight comes back to her, she demurs. She regrets bringing up her own dating life in a recent interview. “I’m not dating that person anymore,” she says. “I’m fine, he’s fine, everyone’s fine. But I learned my lesson.”

That thermos. Photo: Courtesy of AMC

Unable to pull the trigger on the desk, Moss asks if we “have done an acceptable amount of the activity and can drink now.” She suggests we walk a few blocks away for a cocktail at her favorite restaurant, Lincoln Ristorante. There, I admit to Moss that we have another, non-mascara-related connection: Years ago, I was one of the attendees who called out the Handmaid’s cast on Twitter for constantly referring to the show as a “human story” instead of a “feminist story” at a Tribeca Film Festival panel. In the years since, Moss been asked about her feminism in nearly every interview she’s ever done. “That’s really funny,” she says, totally unruffled by my admission. “We were definitely being confusing. But what I never got the chance to say is, the context of that was so weird. We’re 12 people onstage. We’ve only just seen the episode. I kind of don’t understand the moderator. We were a little green. I did misspeak. Of course it’s a feminist show. Of course I’m a fucking feminist. It was a teaching moment for me — I didn’t know people gave a shit about what I said. But if people need me to say it, I’ll say it over and over again.”

Moss hasn’t read Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s follow-up yet, because “I’m so connected to the story now, I almost can’t handle it.” But she is aware of the critics who suggest that June should, well, die already. “I totally understand,” she laughs. “Bitch is a cat who has had nine fucking lives. She 100 percent probably should be dead. But also — she’s the lead character, what do you want us to do?” She teases that season four will have more narrative propulsion than the last. “Season three was like, Okay, okay, I know we’re pushing it, I know … We all agree it’s time to take it somewhere else. She can’t go back [to Gilead]!” We cheers to the bitch with nine lives.

These days, despite her abiding love for June and Peggy, Moss says she’s ready to stop playing feminist heroes for a spell. “I really want to play a real villain,” she says. “Becky Something is a villain, in a way, but I want Nazis.” First, she’ll appear as a woman tormented by her questionably dead, abusive ex in Universal’s reimagining of The Invisible Man. She tells me the movie is “dark, but not in a Her Smell way — not prohibitively dark … I learned from Jordan Peele, doing Us, that you can have both. You can have people in the theater laughing at how scared they are.”

She’s also got her Anderson project on the way, but tells me she has “this general feeling that I’m not supposed to say anything” about it. She will say that it’s a very small part — shot in only four days — and that filming it “felt like being dropped into a Wes Anderson movie. Everyone stays in the same hotel, everyone has dinner every night. Every morning Bill Murray wanders in with his morning coffee, comes back in with a fez, and wanders back out.”

Suddenly, Moss jumps up. “Oh, fuck, man! I gotta go. My mom is here.” And her mom does, in fact, appear as if out of nowhere, looking like a carbon copy of Moss. Before they depart, I manage to ask Moss one last question: What’s the darkest thing she’s ever done onscreen? “You know, I’m not supposed to tell you this,” Moss adds, grinning mischievously, “but in something coming out soon, I stab somebody with the same weapon I’ve used before, which was an unusual weapon. I had this funny conversation with the director, like, ‘You know I’ve killed a man with a weapon like this.’” I ask if she’s referring to The Invisible Man, and if I can guess which weapon, and she nods.

“A broken bottle?” I ask.

“No,” she says.

“A knife?”

“Nope,” she says.

“A pen?”

She laughs loudly. “Yeah, it’s a pen,” she says. “I’m terrible at keeping secrets.”

How Dark Can Elisabeth Moss Get?