“Indescribable” is how Elisabeth Moss defines The Handmaid’s Tale. “It's very hard to put this show in a box,” she continues. That’s an appropriate observation, offered by someone who would know. It’s also a statement that applies just as perfectly to the star of the TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s acclaimed 1985 dystopian novel: Moss herself.
Watch the first episode of The Handmaid's Tale now:
Reflecting upon The Handmaid’s Tale’s 10-episode first season, the Mad Men, Top of the Lake and The West Wing actress doesn’t stop there. “It has complexities and horror and terrible truths in it. At the same time it has a very dark, but also humorous, side to it,” she explains. “It has love. It has romance. It has moments that are so inspiring and positive that it will make you cry out of hope and inspiration. It's very difficult to categorise.”
Moss plays Offred, the titular Handmaid. In the patriarchal world of Gilead, she’s in possession of the only thing that matters: fertility. Formerly part of the United States, the society is now ruled by fundamentalists with a drastic method of addressing the dramatically decreasing birth rate. Here, those still capable of giving birth are captured, stripped of their identities and rights, classed as Handmaids and sexually enslaved to powerful but barren couples eager to have children. Able to remember her previous existence as a mother to her own now-lost daughter, Offred isn’t completely willing to comply with the new regime.
It’s a complicated role, drawn from a multi-layered text that probes a system of oppression and subjugation. And it’s a character made all the more complex by the fact she’s an ordinary woman forced to face extraordinary circumstances and to do so without being able to speak out, although her voiceover narration helps fill in the gaps for viewers. As Moss advises, “She's not a fighter. She doesn't know how to use a weapon. She doesn't have any special skills. She worked at a book publishing company. She's one of us.” She adds, “What attracted me so much at the beginning was how close she was to me. If Gilead happened now, I would be a Handmaid. That was something that really struck me.”
Of course, anyone familiar with her career will have noticed Moss keeps gravitating to these types of characters. Her first screen credit might've been in a Jackie Collins-penned miniseries, 1990’s Lucky/Chances, but playing everyday women — or finding the everyday core of women who don’t necessarily fit that description — has become her calling card. Whether she’s stepping into the shoes of the US president’s daughter, working her way through the advertising ranks or tracking the disappearance of a New Zealand girl, she’s always relatable.
Indeed, Moss’s best roles allow audiences to look into a mirror. Viewers mightn’t always share her characters’ specific situations — although there are parallels to be found in blazing a trail for women in the workplace, standing up for what you believe in dark circumstances and fighting for survival, as three of her highest-profile efforts have explored — but they’re certain to recognise her reactions. “I love the juxtaposition of vulnerability and strength,” she told TV Insider, “and the idea that we all have a person in us who can be strong and smart and still scared.”
As The Handmaid’s Tale showrunner Bruce Miller explained to Vulture, Moss has a “remarkable capability to seem like a normal person onscreen”. Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner and star Jon Hamm share the same sentiments — the former says she excels at “radiating reality”, while the latter calls her onscreen presence “approachable, familiar”. For Top of the Lake writer/director Jane Campion, Moss “is subversive and exciting” and yet simultaneously “modest and vulnerable”. If the praise from her colleagues sounds like the same statement uttered in different ways, it couldn’t be more fitting — they’re simply reflecting Moss’ abilities, after all. Again and again during her 28 years on screen, she has dissected the familiar, compiling a resume any actor would envy in the process.
After nabbing her first part at the age of eight, it was a seven-episode arc on ’90s drama Picket Fences that helped paved the way for bigger roles to come. Film appearances would follow, including in made-for-TV remake Escape to Witch Mountain and playing Harvey Keitel’s daughter in Imaginary Crimes. Next came Anywhere But Here with Susan Sarandon and Natalie Portman, and featuring alongside Angelina Jolie and Winona Ryder in the star-studded Girl, Interrupted. Then the biggest break of her career at the time would send Moss hurtling towards a fictionalised version of the White House.
In The West Wing, Moss’s Zoey Bartlet wasn’t a regular character, but she did make a definite impact. Appearing in 25 episodes over the show’s seven seasons, she helped bring the President’s personal life into the Oval Office — and Moss turned a figure initially defined by their position into a regular person in the process. In fact, while the Aaron Sorkin-created series boasted an impressive cast all often walking and talking while spouting whip-smart dialogue, her presence was keenly felt.
Stealing scenes from Martin Sheen helped bring Moss to broader attention, but soon she’d grow from the commander-in-chief’s daughter into a force to be reckoned with in the advertising realm. It’s Mad Men that instantly springs to mind whenever Moss’s name is mentioned, and with good reason. In Peggy Olson, she gained a career-changing role that would garner her six Emmy nominations from seven seasons, while audiences found a kindred spirit. And, to the delight of fans everywhere, Peggy also inspired perhaps the best gif ever made.
Two years after Mad Men came to an end, the sight of Peggy confidently strutting down the hallway — sunglasses shielding her hungover eyes, a cigarette hanging from her mouth and a devil-may-care attitude oozing from her pores — could just be the show’s most famous image. A moment of triumph for a character positioned at the audience’s relatable touchstone throughout the series, it’s the zenith of her evolution from mousy secretary to ambitious creative to gender equality crusader to determined leader. It strikes a chord in the same way that many of Moss’s performances do.
It’s easy for viewers to see themselves in Peggy, but, as her defiant jaunt through the McCann office demonstrated, she has never neatly adhered to expectations. Moss sees Peggy’s pioneering ways as a feat of practicality above all else. “She didn’t set out going like, ‘I’m going to fight for equal pay and I’m going to get promoted and I’m going to have everything that men have,’” she advised Vulture. “She was like, ‘Wait, what? I thought you like what I wrote and now you pay me for what I did, right?’”
Jumping from Mad Men to a New Zealand-shot miniseries might’ve seemed like quite a leap, but while Moss’s best work involves characters who seem like they could walk beside any one of us, that’s not the same as playing the same part over and over again. In Top of the Lake, she’s Detective Robin Griffin, investigating the disappearance of a pregnant 12-year-old and coping with the revelations that follow as well as with her own experiences. In an ideal thematic companion to The Handmaid’s Tale, Moss serves up a compelling portrait of a complicated woman trying to navigate present trauma while sifting through the past. The show’s second season premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and will screen on TV later in 2017.
As the Sydney detective in New Zealand, Moss adopted a pitch-perfect accent — and it’s her approach to her vocal tones that truly characterises her unassuming, astute acting style and her appeal. “I didn’t want anybody to say, “Wow, Elisabeth Moss is doing an amazing Australian accent!” We wanted nobody to notice,” she told The Daily Beast, speaking about her work with a voice coach. “We wanted her to sound like she existed in that world, and we wanted you to get wrapped up in the story.”
Indeed, Moss’ determination to play recognisable, relatable characters continues to see her thrive. It’s a crucial trait in a job she deems “a very strange profession, honestly”. She continues, “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? Nobody does that. Strippers and actors do that.”
Perhaps a story from her preparations for The Handmaid’s Tale sums up her talents best — or as best they can given Moss’s penchant for fleshing out the intricacies and intimacies of seemingly everyday women. Describing Offred as “a character who is essentially forbidden from speaking and from showing her feelings”, she notes, “It became really fun trying to figure out when we show the audience what she's thinking and feeling and when she's allowed to say something.”
She explains, “I remember having dinner with Margaret Atwood and, after she left, my co-stars Samira Wiley and Alexis Bledel and I were standing outside and trying to figure out the mechanics of our characters. They were like, 'So, how far down do you put your head and how do you look from the side?' We were practising on the street, at 11pm, trying to figure out how to be Handmaids. That was an interesting challenge because you want to do justice to the book but you need to be practical.”
The Handmaid’s Tale is available to stream at SBS On Demand.