Whether you loved it or, um, you didn’t, it’s hard not to be happy that Elisabeth Moss has already earned some recognition for her phenomenal performance in Alex Ross Perry’s “Her Smell.” So far this season, Moss has landed Gotham Award and Independent Spirit Award nominations for her portrayal of Becky Something, the drug-addicted lead singer of the rock band Something She in Perry’s fictional music industry drama. The fact Moss’ work in the April release hasn’t been forgotten is a testament to how deserving she is among the deluge of year-end contenders.
A few weeks ago, Moss sat down to chat about the challenges of the role (mainly, she had never sung professionally or knew how to play the guitar or piano) and why “Her Smell” turned out to be her third collaboration with Perry. We also touched on her upcoming role in “The Invisible Woman,” prepping for “The Handmaid’s Tale” season four, Wes Anderson, taking a break with “Next Goal Wins” and her predilection to play characters who are often going through the absolute worst times of their lives.
And, yes, she knows it’s hard to watch “The Handmaid’s Tale,” but as she notes, “I always think I get it when people say you know, ‘Oh, it’s too depressing or it’s too sad.’ But I’m also like, ‘Well, then you have a big fucking problem on your hands because this is fake.'”
Yep, it’s that sort of interview.
The Playlist: How have you been?
Elisabeth Moss: Good, yeah, thank you.
So, I watched Her Smell again last night.
Congratulations. Every person that watches that movie I’m like, “Good job.” It’s a tough movie to watch.
Really? When you were making it did you know what Alex was going to do with the almost non-stop sound, etc?
100% yeah, that’s what we wanted. That’s what it was supposed to be. We talked about like the only way we could fuck up that movie was if we didn’t go far enough, if we didn’t do enough, if she wasn’t big enough, fast enough, crazy enough, if the sound design wasn’t what we wanted it to be, if the visuals didn’t represent what we wanted them to represent. Like if we soft balled it, that was the only way we would be disappointed in the film ourselves. So yeah, the sound design thing, that was all planned. I mean it was far more intense than I think I thought it was going to be. Hearing it when I watched the film I was like, “Oh wow, that’s really present.” But it definitely was something that we knew he wanted to do.
But when the story finds her in the house in the fourth act, it’s such a stark change that in many ways it’s worth the wait to get there to see how different her life is. I feel that in many movies you don’t see that necessarily because you have to believe and go with the actor and assume that she’s changed so much.
This is the third time you’ve worked with Alex. What about him as a filmmaker makes you want to keep collaborating with him?
I think the number thing is he’s a brilliant writer. I mean that script didn’t change that much from when it came in. He has an idea and he doesn’t give you the script in a form that he is not proud of and it arrives pretty complete. And then we go in and change a few things and talk about a few things and add stuff or whatever, but it arrives pretty ready to go. Reading his scripts is really fun. Because they’re actually really cool to read like the stage directions and everything. Then there’s some sort of balance of strengths and weaknesses that work out really well for us. What he’s good at, I’m not as good at sometimes [and] what I’m good at he’s not as good at. We really balance each other out. And then there’s this commonality that we have is this insatiable need to push the envelope. “Listen Up Philip” was the first time we worked together and it was the first time we were like, “Oh you like to do this too. O.K., cool.” And then “Queen of Earth” we were like, “Let’s push in this direction and see if anyone will let us do it.” And we thought everyone was going to hate that movie. Then it was really well-reviewed and we were like, “O.K., that’s cool.” And then same with “Her Smell,” we were like, “People are going to fucking hate this movie.” And then it was [also] really well-reviewed and people really responded to it. So, we kind of just keep pushing in different directions to see how far we can go. We’re going to hit a wall at some point. At some point, we’re going to do something people are going to like, “No. We’re done with you.”
It seems like you enjoy working with filmmakers who want to sort of push the boundaries. Whether it’s Ruben Östlund with “The Square” or “Madeline’s Madeline” director Josephine Decker, who you just made a movie with.
It sounds like such a cliche question, but is that what acting is to you? It’s just challenging in terms of the art form or are those the sort of projects that you’re sort of gravitating towards now?
I think definitely that’s what acting is to me. I mean it’s just what excites me and interests me and challenges me. I don’t like to be bored. I don’t like to repeat myself. A common question I will ask on set is like, “Do we have that? Because now I will do something different.” If we didn’t get it for some technical reason then I’ll try to do that again. But I like to try something else because I feel like we have that now, “Why am I doing it again?” Now is an opportunity to try something else. That’s just kind of how I approach every project is trying to push myself to do something I haven’t done before.
Where did you find Becky? Was there someone that was an inspiration for you or was it just literally conversations with him?
On the page.
Really? It was that defined?
Yeah. If you just followed that roadmap, if you just played that girl the way that he had written it, if you just embraced her the way that he had written her and not shying away from it, that’s who Becky was. I thought like, “Oh, I’ll have to do this research or that research or I’ll have to like look at this person or that person.” And I ended up not really having to do that because it was just her.
Was it weird? Because I feel like I read some reviews there was like, “Oh it’s inspired by this person or this person.” Were you surprised at all some people thought it was based on whoever or whatever?
No. We knew that would happen for sure. I mean it’s like an obvious thing. But it is an obvious thing. He based her on Axl Rose.
But a female, a female incarnation of Axl.
I don’t know anything about Axl Rose. But if he based the character on him then I did because I played the character that he wrote. But I don’t know… I mean she was kind of an amalgamation of so many things and stories and peoples and personalities, you know? That all that stuff is totally plausible. Some of it actually definitely happened, but it’s really like a mashup of different people.
Your resume doesn’t show any project where you’ve sung professionally before. Did Alex ask you about your singing skills before he sent the script? Did he know that you could sing and you’d talked about it in the past?
I don’t know. I think he kind of knew, I must’ve mentioned it at some point. But it wasn’t like a big deal for him. Alex would just do this thing where he’ll be like, “You can do it.” Like he just thinks I can do things. He thinks I can do anything. And when we first started there was a point when I was like, “Alex, you know, I have to like learn to play the guitar. I don’t play the guitar.” And he was like, “Uh-huh, yeah.” And I was like, “I don’t play piano either.” And he’s like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah you just have to learn to play the piano.” I was like, “You know it’s not easy, right? You know that’s like a thing that I don’t do.” And he was like, “I know. You’ll figure it out.” Like he just has this blind faith.
How much time did you have to learn?
I practiced for about five months.
What was harder, the piano or the guitar?
The guitar. Only because on the piano I just had to do one song. But the piano was hard in a way because the guitar, I’m very much faking it. Like I learned to play different chords and I learned to look like I could, you know. And by the way, that’s fucking hard enough to learn to look like you’re playing the right chords and your hands are in the right spots at the right fucking time, and as fast as you have to go with like “Another Girl, Another Planet,” like the first song’s really fast and that’s hard enough. But the piano had its own level of difficulty even though it was a very, very, very simple composition. And that was intentional. That was harder because that was me live and it was the singing, piano, that was all live and not rerecorded or nothing like that.
That one scene where you are on the piano with Becky’s daughter. Must have been hard because it’s one shot too.
Yeah. So fucked up. He wrote it in the script that it was going to be one unbroken shot.
How many takes did it take to get it right?
I think eight and that’s take six [in the movie].
Were you nervous through it?
I was terrified. In the beginning, I was terrified. I was so, so nervous, like shaking nervous. So it took me a few takes just to kind of get over that and get over just the chords and the lyrics. And then at one point, I was like, “Oh shit, I have to act.” I forgot. So it was around take three or four I was like, “Oh right. I have to act now.” Layered that onto it, and then by the time we got to take six, that was just like the perfect one.
In general, do you like to watch playback at all for certain scenes?
Yeah, I do.
Is it important to you?
Yeah, it’s not important in the sense of like I can do it without it, but it’s helpful to me, especially in the beginning of things to kind of get an idea. It’s funny because on “The Invisible Man” I wasn’t a producer, but I remember talking to Lee about it, I was like, “This is something that I’m used to doing. This is something that helps me.” And the way that it helped was if he or if I get a direction that I don’t understand if I get something that’s like that terrible thing that happens when you get a direction and you feel like you’re already doing that, it’s the worst. It’s like the worst feeling for an actor because you’re like, “I feel like I’m doing that.” You know what I mean? And you’re like, “Oh my god, if I can’t see it then what is it? What am I doing?” It helps to watch it back because 100% of the time I’ll watch it back and I’ll go, “I get it, I get it, I get it. I get what you want, I get what you want.”
You brought up “The Invisible Man” and obviously you’ve also done three seasons of “Handmaid’s Tale” where you’re character been put through the wringer almost non-stop. You also did “Her Smell,” which is a rough ride, you’re in “Us,” which even if that was only just a couple of weeks, certainly wasn’t easy. Was appearing in Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch” like the most pleasant, relaxing thing you’ve done in forever?
It was. [Laughs.] It was really nice. I mean I have a very small part in the movie. So it wasn’t even like I had to do that much on it at all. But I’m such a humongous fan of his. He’s just the best. And so to be in a film of his was like such a dream come true. And it was like walking into, as silly as this sounds, it was like walking into a “Wes Anderson movie” you know? And there are the people that are in Wes Anderson movies and they look like they’re in a Wes Anderson film and there’s Wes Anderson. He looks like he’s in a Wes Anderson film. And it was just this very, very surreal experience, where you’re just like “This is so weird.” It’s like having a dream that you’re in a Wes Anderson movie, you know?
And you’re in France or wherever it was shooting.
[And it’s] respectable hours. And he knows exactly what he’s doing. It’s all planned out. And he’s very willing for you to try something and then, “Okay great, let’s do that. Could you just do a little bit of that?” And it’s all just like the most lovely, civil experience. And he works with all the same people all the time, so everyone knows each other, like in the crew and everything.
Oh, now you’re in his collective. You know this now, right? You’re in.
I hope so. That’s what I think. I’m hoping I am.
I talked to a Willem Dafoe recently and he also has a small part.
It’s a gigantic cast, yeah.
I’m convinced that if I talk to enough people who are in the movie, I will eventually find out what it’s about before the trailer comes out because I know he likes to keep things secret.
That’s so funny.
I want to ask since you’re becoming slightly prolific, do you love producing?
I love it. I really do. It’s the only thing I have really found that I almost love it as much as acting. Of course, acting is my first love. But I love producing and I don’t know why. I think it’s something that I’ve taken to really well.
Do you have projects in development?
Yeah, I do. Nothing that is obviously too early to talk about, but yeah. And I’m constantly reading things and everything’s in different stages of development. So there’s one that’s like, “O.K, this one we’re looking for directors. And this one is we’re looking for a home for it. And this one’s just a book that I’m going to buy.” So, they’re all in various different stages. But I love it. It’s so fulfilling to me. And the idea of being able to create things that I want to watch, I think is really fun and cool. I don’t need to be in them all the time. I like many different genres of things and there’s stuff that I can’t do, so I like to get involved in something that I can’t do where I don’t fit the role or whatever and it doesn’t mean that we can’t make it.
From an audience’s perspective, you seem to inhabit them so richly and not that they weigh on you or anything, but it doesn’t seem like it’s always you. Like you transform very often into your characters. How do you do that with something like “The Handmaid’s Tale” where you’re shooting it for what, four months, five months, a year?
Ooh, like six months, seven months, yeah.
All while multitask doing all these other things and then you’re not an actor who shoots one movie during your break. You’re shooting multiple things. Where does your energy come from?
I don’t know. It runs out sometimes. It all comes in waves, you know? So, there are some times when I know that like, “All right, I’m looking ahead and I know that I’m going to start a period where I’m going to hopefully work for a couple of years straight.” So I’ll just hit the brakes just a little bit and just make sure that I have the artistic energy to kind of put everything into something. Because it does take, you don’t want to get bored and you don’t want to feel like it’s a job and you want to feel like you’re really putting everything into it.
But I love what I do. I love what I do. Acting is my happy place. I’m never more relaxed or happier than when I’m in front of a camera. Unless of course, I’m just like hanging out with my friend having a cocktail that’s also really nice. And I can’t figure out how to mix drinking and acting yet. It’s not working out for me.
I think it’s “Drunk History.” I think it’s that show.
Yes. That would be like my ideal scene. I would love that. [Laughs.] But unfortunately, I can’t act and drink at the same time. So yeah, I don’t know, it’s something that I find it gives me energy instead of takes it away. Does that make sense?
It’s like it’s so fulfilling that I actually don’t find it exhausting. I actually find that it’s satisfying to me.
Does it surprise you when people say that watching something like “The Handmaid’s Tale” gets them depressed because they feel like it’s so real? Does it surprise you when people say that they take it so much to heart?
No, not at all. I hope they do. That’s the point. I think if the people weren’t like sad watching it, then we’d have a really big problem. You know? If we became immune to something like “The Handmaid’s Tale” and felt nothing, that’d be bad. But I know what you’re saying.
They see so much of today in the show. I guess that sort of sadness. As opposed to just watching, no offense to “This Is Us,” but “This Is Us.”
Right, something that makes you sad. Yeah, totally. I mean, I don’t see any way around it. I mean the parallels are just too strong. I get, yeah, it’s depressing. But also, it’s really depressing what’s happening out there in the world.
And this one isn’t real. So it’s like, I always think I get it when people say you know, “Oh, it’s too depressing or it’s too sad.” But I’m also like, “Well, then you have a big fucking problem on your hands because this is fake.”
It’s not real.
“This isn’t real. And so if you can’t face this then how are you going to face what’s actually going on?” You know? But I get it. I’ll never have the perspective of watching the show from the outside. But also, the show makes me cry sometimes, like scenes that I’m not in and scenes that like, you know, I get it.
So in a rare move, a Hulu put out a release saying that the third season’s ratings were higher than the first two seasons. This really surprised a lot of people because even streaming shows fade a bit after the first season. What was your reaction?
It’s fantastic. I mean, honestly, you don’t want to make something in a vacuum. You want people to watch the show. And we’re not making it for just our own sick pleasure. We want people to watch it and we want people to enjoy it. And yeah, we got those numbers like early on. And I believe it was kind of a significant jump.
And getting rewarded in its off-year too. You guys won Emmys when, in theory, you wouldn’t have just because most voters thought you hadn’t qualified, but you had for some episodes the year before.
Yeah, the weird, “bonus” Emmy year. Everyone was so confused about that. It was so funny, like other people who aren’t involved in the business, they were like, “I don’t understand is this season three or season two? Or what is this? What’s happening?” And I had people were a little bit precious with me and they thought I didn’t get nominated. Like the show didn’t get nominated.
You couldn’t. You didn’t qualify!
But I’m not going to say that to people, like, “Don’t worry.” But I could tell that they thought I didn’t get nominated. I’d be like, “You know this was like the same season.” And they were like, “Oh, thank god. I thought that you had not gotten nominated and I was so upset.” And I was like, “No no, it’s all good guys. Everyone’s fine. We’re all good. We’ve already done that one. We’re good.” [Laughs.]
Have you shot season four yet?
No, no, no, no, no. You just gave me a heart attack. [Laughs]
Do you know when you’re going back?
Yeah, we’re in prep. We start shooting in March. And I don’t know if I’m allowed to say that actually. Hee-hee.
I guess the bigger question is, are you shooting anything else before then?
Yeah, I’m doing Taika Waititi’s film, “Next Goal Winds”
Oh, in Hawaii?
With Michael Fassbender.
You know, my life sucks.
I was talking to his DP and he was so joking about it. He was like, “Yeah, you know, we’re just going to Hawaii, we’re going to have some fun.” So, finally, this is your non-stressful movie.
Yes! This is my vacation. And I get to go work with Taika Waititi and Michael Fassbender in Hawaii. It’s like a sick joke. Yeah, we go back in March. But we are 100% in prep for season four, like phone calls every day, hiring outlines.
You’ll go and shoot this movie and then go back to your trailer and do other stuff, keep working on prep?
Yeah. It’s every day.
That’s a producer.
“Her Smell” is available for digital download. “The Handmaid’s Tale” season 1-3 are available on Hulu.