“Acting is not stupid, but it’s a very strange profession, honestly,” confessed Elisabeth Moss more than three years ago, when the last season of Mad Men was about to air. “My job is to get up, and get dressed in someone else’s clothes, and go and pretend that I’m someone else. Who does that?” It’s a funny observation, but if anything is certain, it’s that Moss is better at it than almost anyone. She’s a master of “pretending” – of making her own on-screen illusions feel raw, immediate, and undeniably real.
Art runs in her family, and Moss knew from a very young age that she wanted to be a performer. Her passion for the arts began with dance. She trained at the School of American Ballet and at the Kennedy Center in D.C. with the legendary Suzanne Farrell. Looking back, Moss believes that her dual pursuit of acting and dance ultimately facilitated her career by giving her another creative outlet and preventing her from becoming unhealthily wedded to the idea of Hollywood fame.
As a kid, she acted in the TV miniseries Lucky Chances and in the filmic adaptation of the Broadway production Gypsy, with Bette Midler. But her breakout role came in Girl, Interrupted, where she portrayed a burn victim at a mental institution. So fully did she inhabit her character that when Whoopi Goldberg first saw the film, she mistook Moss for a real-life burn victim who’d been hired to play the part.
Moss’s other film roles have also been defined by her gift for giving dimension to emotionally scarred characters. In Listen Up Philip, her first collaboration with director Alex Ross Perry, she plays a photographer in a dysfunctional relationship with a narcissistic novelist. Referencing the final scene, which has a close-up of Moss “choking and sobbing with defiance,” The Guardian wrote that she “deserved an award for that moment alone.” Her equally wrenching performance in Perry’s Queen of Earth prompted Slate to declare her every facial expression “a small gem of portraiture.”
Television, however, is where Moss reigns supreme, so much so that Vulture crowned her “the Queen of peak TV.” She was nominated six times for her role as Peggy Olson on AMC’s drama Mad Men, and yet another time for her lead role as a detective in Jane Campion’s crime drama Top of the Lake. For a long time, she was the “Leonardo DiCaprio” of the Emmy world, nominated time after time but never winning – until this year, with her performance as Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale.
Uniting Moss’s television work is a fierce feminist streak. In Mad Men, she’s the company’s lone female copywriter, determined to compete with the men and receive recognition for her work – normalizing the idea of the “career woman” as she blazes a trail in the all-male corporate world for future generations. In Top of the Lake, Moss’s character also battles sexism – this time, in the coarse, violent, and wholly unglamorous domain of law enforcement. She plays detective Robin Griffin, whose determination to solve the disappearance of a pregnant 12-year-old girl in the small town of Laketop, New Zealand is driven by a gruesome incident of sexual abuse from her own past.
It was while filming Top of the Lake’s second season that Moss first received the script for the show that’s now become the centerpiece of her feminist roles: The Handmaid’s Tale. Recognizing the unique opportunity it offered, Moss accepted on the condition that she could also be a producer. It was through Moss that Reed Morano came to play an integral role in the show’s direction, as the two had worked together previously on the set of Meadowland. Morano’s camerawork seizes every ounce of rawness and rigidity in Moss’s performance as Offred, one of the handmaids, or sex slaves for the religious rulers that control a near-future dystopian America. Together, they’ve defined the tone and texture of the show, elevating it to an icy damnation of sexism, male violence, and societal repression, while chiseling Moss’s character into an icon of resistance.
At the Tribeca Film Festival, Moss came under fire for appearing to shy away from the feminist label when talking about The Handmaid’s Tale. But seeing the political relevance of the show and how it has galvanized the country’s reproductive rights activists before the looming onslaught of conservative healthcare bills, she’s now begun to unambiguously embrace her role as a spokesperson for feminist causes. She’s also getting ready to reprise her role as Offred, as The Handmaid’s Tale gears up for a second, and apparently, more sinister season. It’s rumored that, in this next chapter, the rebellion begins, and that Moss will be where she always is: at the helm.