The adage goes, 'give a busy person a job', and it seems tailor made for Elisabeth Moss. The star of The Handmaid's Tale is an unabashed workaholic, playing the titular role of hellraising Handmaid June Osborne, in addition to being an incredibly hands-on executive producer of the hit show. Now, in the much-anticipated fourth season of the drama, Moss adds to that considerable workload, by making her directorial debut. She helms three episodes across the season, commencing with episode 3 ('The Crossing'), which is shaping up to be a season (series?) standout.
On the eve of the premiere of season 4, we joined Moss for a conversation about her desire to direct, how she adjusted to directing her co-stars, and how she copes with pressure.
"I do operate really well under pressure. I love it," she says, of wearing so many hats. "The more I have to do, the happier I am. And, I don't feel like it's something that is a burden at all. I feel like it's a privilege, and I feel that I also... It's also selective. No, one's forcing me to do this. I love it, and I thrive on it. The more pots I can get my hands into, the happier I am.
"And I will say though, I am extremely supported by an incredible group of people. I mean, we've got not only [fellow executive producers, Bruce Miller and Warren Littlefield], but all of our writers and producers. And then also my incredible cast and crew here in Toronto. None of this is done by myself. And I couldn't do any of it without the expertise and brilliance and creative energy and kindness of the crew here. They make all of us look good. So I will say that it's yes, I do thrive under pressure, but I have a lot of help with that pressure."
Warren Littlefield, one of Moss' fellow EPs (and a seasoned television executive whose credits stem back to The Golden Girls), recalls that Moss first expressed a wish to direct episodes of Handmaid's back in season one of the show, in relation to the upcoming season two. But he says they were concerned about burdening her with too much to do.
"I'm working seven days a week anyway"
"We looked at everything that was literally on her shoulders, and what we were going to have to go through. And, we waited, and we waited and then Lizzie said, 'Look, I'm ready.' And we said, 'Absolutely you are.' And then came this COVID year, where we [were reluctant to add more responsibility] and put even more on her plate. We were honest, we said: 'If we kill you, like, that's it. Like, if you get sick, if you go down, we can't function. We can't work.' And Lizzie said, 'I'm working seven days a week anyway. And I'm in the middle of all of it as an executive producer with you'. Which was absolutely correct. We knew that. And, she said, 'I believe I can do it'. And that was really all we had to hear.
"And then, because [episode 3] went so incredibly well, we gave Lizzie an additional block. And so she has directed three of the 10 hours: 30 percent of the season. So again, she doesn't take baby steps. She just doesn't know how."
Moss considers the comment and says, "I guess because I don't feel the pressure, it couldn't be pressure, right? Because I like it?"
Littlefield interjects: "You're mortal. That's pressure."
Moss responds: "Um, says Warren Littlefield, who is not a stranger to challenge or pressure!"
Moss says that she gravitated towards directing naturally, having spent almost her entire life on screen, being directed by others. She is a TV veteran at 38, with on screen credits from the age of 6.
"I just felt that I was up to the task after a few years of watching and learning and working with some really incredible directors, and watching them with the intention of possibly doing it at some point, which is a different lens to look through. And, I had so much support. I also had incredible scripts."
Her debut episode, 'The Crossing' has premiered to widespread acclaim. You can stream it now at SBS on Demand, or watch it on SBS from 8.30pm on Thursday 6 May. It ties together a number of elements in the evolution of Moss' character, June Osborne. In the best tradition of the show, it manages to be both moving and terrifying, at once. She also directs the two penultimate episodes of the 10-episode season.
"Episode three is my personal favourite," Moss says. "But I'm a little biased! Bruce wrote it, I think it's the best script. I love it. And then I had these incredible episodes, eight and nine written by Eric Tuchman and Kira Snyder."
"You're not supposed to give notes to other actors when you're an actor"
When asked how she characterises the difference between 'actor Lizzie' and 'director Lizzie', Moss pauses for reflection.
"Forgive me. This is the first interview I've done where anyone's asked me questions about being a director, so I don't know if I have good answers yet. I don't know if there's a really big difference between 'actor Lizzie' and 'director Lizzie'. I mean, I feel like, as June, I've been so intrinsically involved in so much of this show from the very beginning, that I know it so well. So, it exists in my bones, this show. And so it's not as big of a shift as you would think to take on that new position.
"Then again, at the same time, I've learned so much more and I've had different experiences that I haven't had before. I think the biggest difference for me is that, the thing I was most nervous about was directing the actors. Because I was just nervous that I wouldn't know what to say. Or that I wouldn't say the right thing.
"Also, you're not supposed to give notes to other actors when you're an actor. It's the worst thing you could possibly do, to give a note to another actor. I'm trained not to do that, and not to judge their performances like that. So I was very nervous about that part and I was like, "I'm not going to be any good at that." And then that ended up becoming my favourite part of the whole experience. I love that part so much, and I'm very lucky in the sense of I have this incredible cast to work with. So it's like, I mean, it's like tinkering with like a Maserati where you're like, I mean, I guess I could make it a little, I don't know. Do you want to try this?
It's not like you're ever fixing anything; you're just trying to give them something to play with, or give them a thought that might make them go in a different direction, or encourage them to go in the direction they're already going in. But when you've got these actors, all you've got to do is just pluck one little string and they just, all of a sudden, vibrate into this entirely new world. It makes your job very, very easy. That's the thing that is probably the biggest difference between 'Lizzie Actor' and even 'Lizzie Producer'. We don't as producers necessarily go give notes to actors on set. That's the director's job, and it's supposed to be, anyway.
At this point, creator and showrunner Bruce Miller offers his own observations of Moss' directing style.
"I think the thing that Lizzie did that was so amazing is she directed as Lizzie; she didn't try to be somebody else. So it was more an extension of how she prepares as an actress and how she works as a producer, to be a director. And, I think that she is... [to Moss] Plug your ears, Lizzie... [she does]. She is a generational talent in terms of being an actress. She's just remarkable and unique. And she brought that to her directing, as opposed to changing gears and saying, 'I'm going to stop being Elisabeth Moss, and I'm going to start being a first time director'. She was Elisabeth Moss with those years of television experience, with those years of acting experience, bringing those things to bear.
"The intelligent, decent kind person that you see here is the intelligent, decent kind person who I work with. Certainly, if I didn't think she could direct, I would never have said yes. And the reason I knew she could, was because of just the amount of respect and intelligence and depth as a human being that she brings to all the stuff that she does, and she brought it to directing. And I wasn't surprised."
Littlefield concurs: "You know what, the only other thing I would try and even say is she does the work. She had every right to say, 'I can't go on that [location] scout. Just show me pictures'. She had every right to not give it a 24/7 commitment. But with the director crown on her head she said, 'I'm going to do all the work, cover all the details. I'm going to learn what this is. I've observed it for my whole life, but now I'm actually going to do it'. And so there was no red carpet, there was mud and cold and snow, and it was ugly.
"And I think it's fair to say she relished it. I think that the best tribute I have is like, 'Wow, no one held the door open. She did it herself'.
An appreciative Moss replies, "Thanks, Warren. Thanks, Bruce. I mean, I love this show so much and I respect it and value it so much. I just don't take it for granted. I've been acting for 32 years and you can't take this a job for granted. These kind of scripts for granted. And this opportunity, you just can never do that. So for me, I just wanted to do it justice. I just wanted to live up to the show, live up to the material and live up to this thing that I'm so proud of."
Watch 'The Handmaid's Tale Episode 403 'The Crossing' - directed by Elisabeth Moss at SBS On Demand now.
And then listen to SBS' companion podcast Eyes on Gilead recap the momentous events within the episode.
Episodes 1-3 are now available at SBS On Demand. A double episode (3 and 4) will air on SBS on Thursday 6 May at 8.30pm, with weekly episodes to follow at 9.30pm. All episodes will be available to stream weekly at SBS On Demand.
Season four of The Handmaid’s Tale will be subtitled in Simplified Chinese and Arabic, and added to the subtitled collection on SBS On Demand, available after the episodes air.