“I feel awkward when I am supposedly not supposed to feel awkward, like doing talk shows. I get really nervous. I usually have to have a cocktail beforehand. I try to pretend that I am good at talk shows,” Elisabeth Moss told me while we sat at the table next to the swimming pool at the French Riviera.
The L.A. born actress that the global audience fell in love with, for her role of Peggy Olson, secretary-turned-copywriter in Mad Men, is now much talked about for her leading role of Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale. This year, she came to Cannes with a small, but significant role in The Square, a satirical drama directed by Ruben Östlund, which received the Palme d’Or for the best movie.
Elisabeth is fast thinking, bubbly and constantly on point. She wears no makeup and her hair is pulled back simply and elegantly into a bun. The vintage white cotton dress gives off simplicity and intrigue, while concurrently her blue, piercing eyes divulge a woman who is intelligent and a very good judge of human character.
The actress who portrayed Zoey Bartlet in the White House television drama, The West Wing, is political when she wants to be and does not hide her criticism of the Trump administration, particularly in the context of feminist issues. For The Pavlovic Today, Elisabeth Moss talks about what it means to be a woman and explains why she does not have a problem if the bold heroines she portraits on the television screen are sometimes dancing to the male’s ego.
It seems that the powerful female roles always find their way to you, how do you choose them?
Elisabeth Moss: I think it is a privilege to be responsible as a woman in your roles. I don’t necessarily choose roles based on that, but I like when they align with me being able to show a strong woman. I think the best roles for me are the ones that embody woman for who they really are. A woman who is a human being. A woman who is strong, and vulnerable and smart and naïve. A woman can be complicated and complex, and these are the roles that I think work best for me. For me, it is a privilege to play a role like in The Handmaid’s Tale, due to the fact that it is a great political statement on feminism and women.
The Square received The Palme d’Or at Cannes film festival invites passersby to altruism, reminding them of their role as responsible fellow human beings. Have you ever asked for help and have had someone reject you? Do you have problems asking others for help?
Elisabeth Moss: No, I do not really have the problem to ask for help actually, I mean what comes to mind is…I am a really nice person and if you ask me for help, I will probably help you. So whenever someone is mean to me I get so upset, as it really hurts and I can be quite sensitive sometimes. So if I am driving and I want to change lanes and someone is an asshole about it, I get really upset. It really hurts. I take it personally. “I would have let you in,” you know what I mean? I would have done the same for you.
I heard you saying you are a cinephile, what are your must see classics?
Elisabeth Moss: I watch so many things. For me, a wonderful thing that I did, that I recommend to any young actor starting out, is to get into The French New Way. I got really into it, and I watched all the movies you are supposed to watch. I am so glad that I did that because it really set the foundation for what the great cinema should be. And cinema, that you know, I do not think we see all the time, and we certainly do not see it all the time in America. That is why I am a huge fan of international films. So, I think that it is important for everybody to have that foundation of classic cinema knowledge.
Is that a reason that you predominantly do TV?
Elisabeth Moss: No. I think that largely that’s due to the writing. And you know, I am not exactly smart enough to speak as to why is that happened but I do think that the writing for TV, especially in America, is the where the best scripts are.
Were you expecting such big success of The Handmaid’s Tale?
Elisabeth Moss: We wanted to make it as good as possible, and we knew we had a big task set out for us, so we tried to meet that. We tried to meet our expectations because we really wanted to do another season. The fact that it had such a positive and overarching reception is something similar to Mad Men. You can never expect success like that.
Is that why you have not been part of big Hollywood production?
Elisabeth Moss: I have not been asked to do a big Hollywood production. ( laughs) I would say yes if it pays okay ( laughs). I think especially in America, there is a very small pool of people that is constantly changing. One day it’ll be this person and then next year all of a sudden, it’ll be someone new. This is the way it has always been, it’s fine, but you have to be able to get into that small pool. In my opinion, I don’t think that this is necessarily the way you should choose your work. I think that working with great writers and directors is the best way to go, and I don’t necessarily make a distinction between big films and small films. For me, it has always been all about the script. But, I also would like to have a long career. You know, the actresses that I admire the most are generally those that have carried longevity both in Hollywood and beyond. I would like to have a career like them because they have chosen their projects wisely. I like Kristin Scott Thomas, I love Maggie Smith, she is probably my favorite actress, I love Judi Dench, Helen Mirren. These are the names and careers that have inspired me throughout my own.
Elisabeth Moss: In America, we have an economic system that requires a giant movie or a little movie, and there is little in the middle that gets financing. It is unbelievably difficult to get financing for films in that middle range. It does happen, but not as much. I think there is much more room for author filmmakers who strive for that middle range internationally. Many filmmakers are doing things that are artistic and creative, not just about the bottom line of making money. It is also about the financial system in our country, as opposed to Scandinavia, where you get so much support for your film from your country. You know that is incredible that they allow someone to shoot for 4 months. That is amazing, and something like that could never happen in the States. I hope we could adopt similar principles in order to make great movies.
What can you tell us about the new season of The Handmaid’s Tale?
Season Two is more about the wilderness from within, it is much more personal. It is much more interior, both in its location, and the characters themselves. It is also much more complete with the script being much darker. I said to Jane “if I do this, you have to do it, if you don’t, I can do it.” At one point I also said that “ you have to make it darker, it has to be worse. And it has to be challenging as if not, what’s the point?” And then she did.
How was it to work with Ruben Östlund, the director of The Square, who happens to be an intellectual type of director?
Elisabeth Moss: Yes, he is. I love him so much, I was such a big fan of his work. It was one of the most unique and challenging experiences in my life. In America, we work twelve hours a minimum, and Europeans work 8 hours a day. I thought to myself – why it is only eight hours? Because it is so hard. You’re improvising, constantly thinking and working. You’re not looking at your phone, you’re not at the table snacking, you’re working, working, working all day and you can only work like that for eight hours. It is actually far more difficult than working fifteen hours a day. I found it very challenging.
You touched on feminism before but what is very interesting about Peggy Olson, your character in Mad Men, is that she always dances to male’s ego. Is that something that happened to you or something you looked for in a role?
Elisabeth Moss: Ha. It is not really something I necessarily look for in a character but I do think that something happens when you play a strong woman in the patriarchy. Whether it is the patriarchy of the 60s in the men’s world of advertising, or whether is legitimate patriarchy that is overtaking the country as in The Handmaid’s Tale. And there is something happens when a complicated, strong, intelligent woman tries to question that. And if she dances to the male’s ego, that is a byproduct of that fight for equality. It is not something I look for, but strong characters, yes. That’s what I look for.
How do you prepare for TV roles and how for movie roles?
Elisabeth Moss: There is not really much of a preparation difference. It’s more of the time commitment difference. Like in Mad Men that goes on for nine years and you spend nine years with the character. From 23 to almost 32 so it is a big part of my life. I changed so much during the shooting of the show. So then the character changes as I am changing. So the time commitment is so different, and I love that. That is one of the reasons why I love television so much, I love this idea that you get to spend a few years playing a character. Or with Top of the Lake, getting to go back to to the character for four years, it’s so cool.
What are your impressions from walking the Red Carpet in Cannes for The Square?
Elisabeth Moss: I get chills just thinking about it. Red carpets are very awkward and scary. You just feel awkward asking yourself, “where should I put my legs,” and “I don’t look good,” you know? You’re just spending all this time getting ready and trying to look your best. Trying to do the job and I gotta say I would probably do that red carpet again in a heartbeat. It was so exciting! They played music, there are no interviews so they play that song from The Square, and I was like in the movie, I was like a model on the runway, just working it. I love French paparazzi and French photographers because they are so warm and enthusiastic and if you do something. They get excited and very passionate about it, which is very different from America where they yell your name over and over. In France, they have actually some enthusiasm for what you are doing. It was a big, epic, seminal moment for me that I was just had no idea that I was gonna love so much.
You are a feminist. Is the gender equality in jeopardy with the new Government in the United States?
Elisabeth Moss: Yes. Absolutely. On a daily basis. And it gets worse and worse. I do not want for people to get used to it. It should not be a new normal. You know there is a line in The Handmaid’s Tale when she talks about:” This will one day seem ordinary to you.” You know, and I just do not want for this to become ordinary. It’s a ridiculous situation, it is ridiculous that we have Trump as a president. We just have to make sure that we don’t think that this is ordinary.
What have you realized is the biggest misconception of fame?
Elisabeth Moss: That it’s glamorous all the time. It is not. And that is not to say this is due to quote on quote “hard work,” because hard work is actually being a doctor or a teacher and doing something useful. Not everything can always be glamorous. You are often somewhere peeing in a porta potty or trying to fix your dress. (Laughs) You know, fame is not exactly what it seems.