Elisabeth Moss (London Sunday Times Magazine, September 1, 2019)

Elisabeth Moss and Chrissy Iley
Elisabeth Moss and Chrissy Iley

I’m waiting for Elisabeth Moss in the bar of the Four Seasons hotel Beverley Hills. I’ve actually waited a long time to meet her and suddenly I wonder is she the person I hope she will be? The intelligent, sensitive, feminist who wove her way all the epic television series -her character Peggy in Mad Men starts off as a secretary and ends up a boss, through to Handmaid’s Tale, the Margaret Attwood vision of a dystopian future where women are slaves and wombs for hire. And she is the subversive insider.

The series hits all of the feminist marks. Browbeaten women will overcome, so on trend that Kylie Kardashian threw a Handmaid’s Tale themed party for her friend where all the women wore the red capes and white bonnets.

Before Handmaid’s, Moss was in the other great American series, The West Wing. There’s got to be something right about a woman who chooses what are largely considered the top 3 series of television’s golden age.

She has won the Emmy, the Globe and the Critics Choice Award for The Handmaid’s Tale, the SAG Award for Mad Men, the Globe and Critics Choice for Top of the Lake and the Producers Guild of America award for the Handmaid’s Tale.

When she plays Offred in Handmaid’s she is mesmerising. She fills the screen with an expression and inhabits the character. Her acting is considered and intelligent. She makes something unbelievable totally believable. Even when she is not saying anything onscreen, she is emotionally porous. You feel it all with her.

I’m at a corner table and Moss arrives –  a white T shirt, cut off denim shorts, a reversible bomber jacket with palm tree motif. She says she couldn’t decide what to wear as she’s in vacay mode. Her hair is blonder and thicker than you’d expect and her eyes have some crazy powerful inner sparkle.

We talk about how it’s not easy to find one outfit for hanging out by the pool, doing interviews and going to a fitting for an awards ceremony all in one day (It was the MTV Award for Handmaid’s Tale, which she won). Then she alights on my cat diary. I’d been sitting transferring events from my hardbacked diary into my phone. She picks it up, exploring each hand painted cat. It turns out she’s a cat woman. Or maybe THE cat woman. When she shows me her ginger girls Lucy, bright red, named after Lucille Ball and Ethel, pale blonde ginger, we coo and then she shows me the picture that would break the internet. Ethel wearing a Handmaid’s tale outfit, the red cape, the bonnet, designed by the Handmaid’s costumer designer Anne Crabtree. This revelation puts me in a kind of trance of admiration and ecstasy. How can I get one for my Lola?

This works on so many levels. A cat with claws being forced into the ultimate submissive outfit. Feisty and volatile, wearing a bonnet.  The paradox speaks to us all. And with this I realise Moss is everything I hope she’d be.

“Obviously I wouldn’t be a cat lady if I didn’t have pictures. My cat sitter just sent me a couple of videos.” We look at the pale ginger little tiny faced girl and super confident red ginger Lucy. “They’re my babies. I love them.”

She’s just coming up in The Kitchen – set in 70’s New York in Hell’s Kitchen when 3 mob husbands go to jail, their 3 wives take over.  She co-stars with Melissa McCarthy and Tiffany Haddish and it’s written and directed by Andrea Berloff, the Straight Outta Compton writer. It’s thrilling with a killer soundtrack. Moss is a person who chooses her projects cleverly.

Her character Clare has the most interesting arc. She starts off as the woman who always gets beaten up and later channels that into becoming a killer. Once again, there’s that theme of victim to self-empowerment that we all love to watch.

“I’ve never played an assassin or a hit woman, so it was definitely new and interesting. I thought it was a very compelling storyline. The idea of this woman who was so abused and such a “victim” and so interesting to try to understand her instinct of taking her own life back in an extreme way and thinking I’m actually going to own this.”

She had movie assassin training by actor Domhall Gleason with whom her character falls in love. “This isn’t a crazy character arc of all of a sudden she’s a hit woman. Even when she’s abused, she’s not meek. Maybe because of the violence she’s received, she can accept acting violent towards someone else.  Of course, she’s had a lot of emotional pain and we learn that she lost a baby when she was abused.”

Her characters are always losing babies or giving them up – Peggy, June/Offred, Robin in Top of the Lake and now Clare.

“Aren’t they? It’s a theme and so weird. Since I was 19 when one of the first films I did, the Virgin, a tiny independent film in which I play a woman who is raped while she’s unconscious, gets pregnant and thinks it’s the second coming. And Peggy in Mad Men of course gave her baby away. June lost two of them. It’s really weird. I don’t know what it is.”

Once could say there’s no such thing as coincidence. Is she really saying I keep losing these movie babies because I have to have a real one?

“No, I don’t think so. I think it’s more that I seem to be drawn to a character that has conflict and it’s the ultimate conflict for a woman. You bond with your child, it presents great conflict and drama, the idea of losing that child. I don’t think it’s a conscious thing but it’s a theme I’ve been aware of for a while. I always try my hardest to keep hold of those babies.” She shakes her head.

She’s ordered Greek yoghurt and honey. It looks good. She invites me to taste it even though I’m wearing bright red gooey lipstick which will make the yoghurt pink. She doesn’t care.

Does she have a really close bond with her mother? “Yes, pretty much so. Maybe it’s manifesting that. We are very close and not in a ‘best friends’ kind of way. You know how some people say I’m best friends with my mom. No, that’s not us. She’s still my mom and I’m her daughter. We’re very, very close and she’s been incredible.

If I ever have a baby though, I’m going to hold onto that thing for dear f***ing life. I’ll have it chained to me. It’ll be a 50 year old kid and I’ll be ‘no, you’re staying with me.’”

Don’t you think the child might rebel? “Probably but I don’t care. I know what happens when you let them out of your sight.”

Did her mother ever let her out of her sight? “Yes, she was great. I moved to New York when I was 19 which now as I’m 36 seems so young, but at 19 you don’t think you’re young at all. I look back and think my God, she let me go to New York at 19. I suppose I was always considered a mature person. You sometimes need somebody to believe in you and not doubt you. A lot of people don’t have that kind of support.”

She started her acting career at seventeen on the West Wing where she played Zoe (President Bartlett’s/Martin Sheen’s daughter). I’ve never met a person who didn’t love The West Wing. Or Mad Men. Or Handmaid’s Tale. How did she pick these compelling women in these pioneering series?

“My guiding principal for picking anything is the writing, whether it’s a film, television or play it’s always the writing. If it’s not well written there’s nothing you can do, no matter how good the director is or the actor is. So that’s always been the biggest guiding principle and this coincided with what is now called the golden age of television. No one can plan something. I was seventeen, I got cast in the West Wing. That and The Sopranos were one of the shows that started the golden age. And then I got Mad Men.”

It’s hard to imagine that former age where it was all about the movies or all about the stage and television actors were dismissed. Now anyone can do anything but mostly it’s the TV actors who rule.

“I did a play the Heidi Chronicles, written by Wendy Wasserstein in the eighties and there’s a line in the play that comes from a television actor. It goes Meryl Streep would never do television.  And one of the biggest posters on Sunset Boulevard is for Meryl in Big Little Lies, along with some of the other biggest movie stars (Kidman, Kravitz, Witherspoon). So that’s the end of that. The line that used to exist between film and television. I’ve lived through it. It was a gradual fading but there’s no line anymore. It’s done. And that’s a wonderful thing because now there’s so many great opportunities in all fields.”

Does she feel that woman are more powerful in the industry than they were 10/20/30 years ago? In the years of the kitchen where they turned from wives to mob leaders.

“Absolutely, but that’s not to say they are equal yet. I was reading some numbers on Instagram on the percentage of women who are behind the camera and it’s still really low but it’s not equal yet. But it’s a hundred times better.”

As well as acting the lead role in Handmaid’s, she also produces the show, something she takes very seriously –  it’s all-encompassing. Checking casts, checking scripts, checking edits. It’s a role which doesn’t stop when the series does because there’s pre and post production. She’s also involved in the hiring process.

“There are women directors but they need to be hired. When we start looking at directors for Handmaid’s tale which we do at the beginning of each season, we have this incredible grid that’s sent to us. It’s mostly women because we try to hire mostly female directors. There are so many out there that are talented and we don’t have space for them all. It’s the same with cinematographers. They are out there. I think there’s an awakening and a realisation of the inequality and a necessity rising in people for people to fix that which is good.”

Big Little Lies and Handmaids have been pioneers in this respect.

“We have a 50% female hire this year. Over 50% of female directors. We have a male DP and a female DP.”

At this point, a tall tanned blonde arrives and hugs her. It turns out she’s a rep for Dior and she’s going to Paris with her mother for a Dior couture show. “What a dream come true to take my mother to the Dior couture show in Paris. That’s definitely like a wow, I never thought I’d get to do that.”

Her black canvas bag is this season’s Dior. “They gave me the bag. When I go to shops it’s much less expensive places. I’m a huge Chicago Cubs fan, 4th generation. I was looking at Cubs outfits for cats the other day.”

She grew up in Los Angeles.  Her mother Linda is a harmonica player, maybe even THE harmonica player who has played with blues superstars like BB King. “She’s really good. She started when she was 15 in Chicago.”

Her father Ron manages musicians. She has one brother. As a child she wanted to be a dancer. As a young teen, she went to New York to study ballet at the School of American Ballet. She home schooled and graduated aged 16. Always wise for her years, she realised that by now her dancing career would be over. As it stands an actress and producer she is one of the queens of the golden age of television.

Her parents are both Scientologists. I’m not sure how serious she is about that religion. She drinks Moscow Mules and Rose wine, both of which are frowned upon by Scientology.

Her role in Handmaid’s Tale has often been described as being part of a scary cult and she’s often asked the questions of how this relates to being part of the scary cult of Scientology and her Scientology beliefs.   She thinks it directly relates. “Religious freedom and tolerance and understanding the truth and equal rights for every race, religion and creed are extremely important to me.”

She has a way of saying things simply that are profound and so to the point they feel powerful and heartfelt.”

Her upbringing wasn’t in any way starry or privileged or deprived or oppressed, yet her roles have spoken more about feminism than any current pundit.

“I think there’s something about my generation where feminism woke back up. When I was a teenager and in my early twenties there was no concept that something like Roe vs Wade could be reversed. I didn’t even know you could do that. I didn’t even know they could take that away. So, there’s something about the work that I do and gravitate towards that’s important to me and important to my generation and it’s coincided into this perfect storm.”

We foray into worldwide abortion rights being reduced, how women have gained a little power in one direction and then it’s grabbed away. She nods. “It’s weird, right.”

I wonder how much of The Kitchen is based on reality. “It’s based on a comic book, but I don’t know how much the comic book was based on reality. I know there was an Irish Mob in Hell’s Kitchen and an Italian Mob and they were both extremely violent. But the three women, I don’t think so. For me this story wasn’t just about three women who become best friends and everything ends happily ever after. They’re on top of the world of crime. They had conflicts. Women don’t always get along. It doesn’t end happily for everyone. They become more powerful but there are challenges that come with power. They are three very different women from completely different backgrounds, linked only because their partners are in the mob and led by a necessity to make money and take care of their children. That doesn’t mean everything’s going to be perfect and it doesn’t mean there won’t be a reckoning.”

Although her character Clare is tinged with tragedy, she is the one that gets the hot guy who understands her – Domhall Gleason.

“He’s a fantastic actor who I have admired for a long time. We got the most incredible cast of supporting actors (including Margo Martindale (Sneaky Pete) and superstar rapper turned actor Common).

Being a feminist does not mean that all women love women. It means there’s conflict and competition. That’s why All About Eve is one of the most enduring movies of all time. It was made into a movie in 1950 and it starred Bette Davis, then in her forties. A woman in a lead role over forty is very rare today today.

Moss corrects, “I don’t know. We’ve got Meryl, Diane Keaton, Ellen Burstyn. All About Eve was great writing, great performance.  We don’t remember all the shitty movies they made at that time.”

Does she think more interesting female roles are written now or is it just her who happens to get them all?

“I do think they are being written. I think the industry has realised that women go and see things and we are getting more and more opportunities to put women at the forefront. We are a huge audience and we want to see ourselves represented.”

That’s why it works to have three women stars of The Kitchen. We can find ourselves in one of them for sure. What does she watch?

“I watch everything. I’m always looking for new things. I just watched Fleabag and Phoebe Waller Bridge is genius. She’s literally the second coming. I’ve also enjoyed After Life with Ricky Gervais, The Office was one of my favourite shows. Fleabag’s probably the most significant one.”

She lives in New York – Upper East Side. Came back to LA briefly to film Mad Men. As well as losing babies in every role she does, she seems to drink whisky.”

“I think it’s easy to recognise whisky as alcohol in TV and film. A Moscow Mule is less obvious.” We wonder if she should order Moscow Mules now, but she decides that it might make her fall asleep during her fitting. She’s a little bit on East Coast jetlag.

“I used to live in the East Village for about 13 years. Then I moved because I got a little bit older and I thought it’s too noisy and there are too many bars. I need to go uptown with children and dogs.”

Did she think she wanted children and dogs? “No.” At this time she did get married and unmarried to Saturday Night Live actor/comedian Fred Armison. They met in October 2008, married in October 2009 and in September 2010 filed for divorce.

Did it feel that it all happened in five minutes?

“Probably, but it does seem a long time ago.” Her answers are small but heartfelt. There’s no defensiveness. There’s no weird atmosphere. I’d read that she was so busy acting and producing, she didn’t have any time for dating and then she was dating but deciding not to name the person.

“Well that’s true but I now think who cares? His name is John. We’ve been together for over a year and he’s by the pool right now.  In a way you want to preserve your privacy but in another way I don’t care. I love him, I’m playing it by ear, he’s lovely and I’m happy.” And they have two ginger fur daughters together.  Does he at least have red hair?

“No, that would be amazing. But their actual daddy is a street cat in Brooklyn.”

There was a tabloid frenzy linking Moss to Tom Cruise. According to OK Magazine US edition, he wants to marry her and have babies.

“Not as far as I know. It would be awful for me and my boyfriend. I’m sure he’s perfectly nice but I’ve never met him.”

I wonder if the Tom Cruise rumour came about because they’re both Scientologists? “I have literally never met him.”

I’m glad.

So many women of all ages love her, in part because she’s been a vulnerable power taker, a transformer. Somehow that doesn’t fit with becoming a Tom Cruise girlfriend.

“I always try to make my characters end up being heroines and representing feminism. I always try and make them real, whether it’s representing a woman in the workplace or a mother. I never think that’s why I identify with them. I think they’re just like you and I – not special, not perfect. We are not birds that are caged and cannot fly. Nobody is 100% good all of the time. We don’t have special powers. We’re women and we’re human. But real women who are not perfect can find their strength, whether that’s getting out of a bad relationship, telling your boss you want a raise or marching on the capital in a red costume.”

In a way, the red capes are part of a new wave or superhero costumes. “Yes. When I put that on, I feel proud. It represents something important to me. I feel there’s a responsibility in that costume. It’s red. It represents blood, it represents fertility and it can also represent adultery. It’s evocative. There’s a good reason why Margaret Attwood made the Handmaid’s dress red. We feel something when we see that colour.”

She worries that her face is shining so she touches up with Charlotte Tilbury powder “the best,” and a slash of super red lip colour.

Attwood has written a new book so there will be another Handmaid series. “I hope so. I hope I’m involved. There’s a gap between the current Handmaid and the new book which means we can finish our story and do whatever we want with it and it won’t have an effect on the book that’s been written.”

At the end of series 2 there was a decision where June/Offred could escape but she went back to fight from the inside.  “There was no way she was gonna leave her daughter there and she has to be on the inside.”

Does she watch on a weekly basis? “As a producer I want to air one a week. As a viewer I love bingeing.” Is this her foray into producing? “No, I produced a film called Queen of Earth with Alex Ross Perry. Producing Handmaid’s is a big job. We’re going over who we’re hiring for season 4 and I’ve got 20 hours of cuts I need to make on episode 11, 12 and 13. It’s a round the year job because I’ve got to be in pre and post production.”

Working and juggling so much may mean that her red cape does indeed have super-powers. “I love working, I love my job, I love what I do. I don’t consider it a job. It’s my vocation. I feel very grateful that I have the opportunity to do it. Not a lot of people get the opportunity to do what they love and make a living.

Up next, she’s in a remake of the horror film The Invisible Man. “It’s the lead but it’s not what you think. It’s a story of female empowerment, not an invisible woman but a woman going from victimised position to a powerful one. You can spend years on television doing that (like Peggy). I’m born and bred in television and I love the longform exploration. I don’t know if the tighter turnaround is easier or more difficult. It’s just you know exactly where you’re going to end up and it’s nice to be able to plot that – whole arc from beginning to end. In a series you don’t know that.”

We look again at Ethel in her outfit looking vulnerable and fierce. “I’m interested in exploring vulnerability and the duality in characters. Most people have both.”

She says this looking vulnerable and fierce and that’s exactly why so many people relate to Moss.

HER SMELL is out in the UK on Sept 9.and The Kitchen is out Sept 20