“This is boring…” Elisabeth Moss warns before rattling off her travel itinerary for the last year. “We wrapped ‘Mad Men’ on July 3rd and then by mid-July, I was in Ireland. Then I came back to New York, and then LA for ‘The One I Love’ and ‘Listen Up Philip’ were coming out and I went back to Ireland [to shoot ‘High Rise’]. Then I came back to New York and did ‘Meadowland.’ Then upstate for ‘Queen of Earth’ and then I went to LA… I don’t know why. Then I went to Australia.”
While she’ll allow at the end that the last few months sounds “fuckin’ nuts,” it’s understandable that this is what dull sounds like to an actress as exciting as Elisabeth Moss. Wherever she’s been physically pales in comparison to all the new places she’s taken audiences, fearlessly throwing herself into a number of roles at the behest of burgeoning auteurs in which she gradually (and expertly) peels back the layers of her characters until you feel the exact emotions that she does, whether in agony or ecstasy, or more often than not, both.
“I love working so much and it’s very difficult for me to stop,” she says, when asked if she’s emotionally drained after giving such performances that clearly demand her all. “I have to try to balance that and I’m doing better at it.”
Maybe that’s because her actual travel has had its moments too. Recently at the Toronto Film Festival, she had the happy problem of premiering two new films in less than 24 hours that couldn’t possibly be any more different – “Truth,” James Vanderbilt’s stirring account of CBS News’ handling of the “60 Minutes” story on President George W. Bush’s military record that ultimately led to the resignation of Dan Rather, and “High Rise,” Ben Wheatley’s anarchic adaptation of JG Ballard’s class struggle thriller – and not only wasn’t tired from shuffling from one theater to another or the accompanying sprints through red carpet interviewers, but when a catcall came from a lonely Canadian in the upper balcony of the Elgin Theatre asking her to join him, she didn’t miss a beat as she left the stage, saying “I’ll be right up.” (The fact that her voice carried to the rafters without actually sounding as if she didn’t have to raise it is surely a testament to her acclaimed turn on Broadway earlier this year in a revival of Wendy Wasserstein’s “The Heidi Chronicles.”)
This is the kind of poise and charm that likely made “Truth” writer/director James Vanderbilt think of the actress when looking to cast the part of Lucy Scott, a freelance CBS News producer who struggles to get anyone to speak on the record about President Bush’s time in the Texas Air National Guard. The role itself is just as thankless, but also crucial – Scott becomes our way into the story, and with Vanderbilt striking the same serious tenor as other journalistic thrillers such as “All the President’s Men” and his own “Zodiac,” which he wrote for David Fincher to direct, Moss brings a much-needed warmth and conscience to the proceedings that underlines how in spite of all the institutions at play in “Truth,” they are still human-run enterprises.
Given Moss’ remarkable recent run, I couldn’t help but jump around to ask about her performances big and small in recent months, including her devastating single scene in her “Kill Your Darlings” cinematographer Reed Morano’s directorial debut “Meadowland,” as well as how she’s gone about choosing roles and filmmakers to work with after playing such an iconic character on “Mad Men.”
Cate [Blanchett] and Bob [Redford] were attached and the idea of working with them was incredibly exciting for me. I probably would have said “yes” no matter what it was, but then I read the script and really beautiful script and well done. It was one of those scripts that you could already see on the screen, so it was a no brainer for me and I went out to Australia pretty quickly and it was great.
Was this actually the first time you’ve played somebody that exists in real life?
I think so. I’ve been wondering the same thing because that’s come up now in interviews. I’ve never met her, so I was just playing what was in the book and the script. She’s a very intelligent, warm person and it was more important for me to be a part of the story as opposed to playing Lucy Scott as she is.
Is it any different to approach something from knowing that you’re going to be part of an ensemble piece as opposed to playing the lead?
The only difference is that you have less time to develop the character, so you have to figure out who you are and how to play it with not as much time on screen. But this wasn’t a very complicated character necessarily and it was an ensemble that I felt I was really happy to be a part of. That’s why they got people like Dennis [Quaid] and Topher [Grace] and John Benjamin Hickey and all these great people to be in it because it is a great script. You can tend to get actors that maybe wouldn’t necessarily do a smaller role because it’s a story that they want to be a part of.
This would be something I wouldn’t notice if I didn’t know I’d be talking to you later, but your character actually serves the role of driving the exposition for the first half of the film. Is it tricky to humanize that and hide the story mechanics at work?
Yes, that is the challenge with something like this. Jamie [Vanderbilt] and I joke that Dennis [Quaid]’s character will go on for an entire page about something and I’m the person that says, “So, what you’re saying is …” and then I sum it up for the audience to understand. That is an important part of the film for people like me who are watching and maybe don’t understand something to go, “Okay, that’s what he just said.” And it is difficult to make that kind of dialogue and exposition real and interesting. I didn’t want it to be an episode of “Law and Order,” though I love “Law and Order” — I’ve done “Law and Order,” but I wanted it to be something that fit into the film.
Has it been easy for you to place your trust in first-time directors like James?
It’s so much about scripts for me and I’ve had really good experience with first-time directors, so I’ve been really lucky and it’s worked out for me. I just worked with another first-time director Jason Lew for “The Free World,” and I don’t care whether it’s a director that’s done 20 films or a director that this is their first. A good script is the most important thing that you have to have and I also like being part of [the filmmaker’s] experience from the beginning. Alex [Ross Perry] is the only person that I’ve done a second film with so far and when you get so comfortable with somebody and you have this shorthand, you really feel like you’re a part of their filmography.
I’ve read on “Mad Men” you always knew what kind of lens they’d shoot your scenes with. Is that much of a consideration during your performances?
Very much so. Occasionally, I don’t care or I’ll just forget to ask, but it is important whether or not they’re seeing your entire body or they’re this close [putting a hand up to her face]. It makes a huge difference as to what you can do and what you can’t do. I believe it’s my job to help tell the story with the director, so the more that I can know about what he is seeing and the objective viewpoint of it, the better job I feel I can do as a cog in that machine.
Have the roles you’ve taken lately actually been a reaction to each other? Of course, it could be happenstance, but they’ve felt so different it seems like you want to try something new each time out.
It’s not ever really one thing. Sometimes it’s circumstantial — something will come up at the right time and it’s so much about timing. But I’ve had occasions where I’ve just done a film and then I’ll get offered something that’s too similar, maybe not even the character, but in the tone of the film, so I’ll pass on it just because I don’t want to be repeating myself. I don’t necessarily consciously look for different roles. I look for great material and what I react to. Alex Ross Perry, who did “Listen Up Philip” and “Queen of Earth” says that the way to get me to do a movie is to tell me that I’ve never done anything like it before. He’s joking, but it’s true. [You say] “I’ve never seen you do this,” and that, to me, is exciting.
Judging from how much you’ve traveled in the past year, is it fair to say you’d go anywhere for a good role?
Yes, pretty much. I love acting, but the second favorite part of my job is traveling, you get to go to different places. I don’t even care where it is. I’ll go to the smallest town in America or some far-flung country. To me, it’s an opportunity to get to see things I don’t usually see and what’s great is when you’re doing a film, you tend to be there for a while, as opposed to going on vacation. When I went and did “Top of the Lake” in New Zealand, I had this amazing experience of going for five months, so I now know that area so well — where the stores are, the roads — I know how to get places. I love immersing myself in a different place.
It may not be something you’re asked about much since it’s just a single scene, but you have a scene in Reed Morano’s “Meadowland,” which has seared itself into my memory as one of the best I’ve seen in some time since you play a negligent mother and you can tell everything about the son just by the way you look in the few moments you have onscreen. How did that come about?
That was really cool. Reed, the director, is a friend, and this was her first feature, so obviously I wanted to help her out and she asked me to do this little role. For me, [I thought] it was Jersey crack whore — when am I ever going to play that? And by the way, I want to play that in a longer film because it was so fun to dress different with the hair and the earrings and the accent. I actually wanted them to not even say that I was in the movie because it would be cool as a total cameo, but obviously I understand that’s not how things work. But it was a really fun two-day experience for me that I did in between “High-Rise” and “Queen of Earth.”
After doing something like “Mad Men” for years, does that provide a certain stability that allows you to pick these super daring parts?
Actually, my kind of movie is “High-Rise” or “Queen of Earth.” That’s what I enjoy doing. I’m not excited by doing unchallenging material. I was so lucky on “Mad Men” to be able to have that arc with Peggy and to be able to change that character so much that I never felt bored there. And I’ve gotten used to that feeling, of not being bored. But it’s not so much me pushing to try to do different things. It’s what literally excites me, and when I read something, if it has a scene where I go insane or has a scene where I’m eight months pregnant and giving birth to a baby like “High-Rise,” that’s exciting for me.