How Elisabeth Moss Became an Accidental Activist When 'Handmaid's Tale' Took on Trump

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With her Hulu breakout scoring 13 Emmy noms, including best actress, television’s reigning (and surprisingly foul-mouthed) star opens up about Season 2 and her political awakening: “I’m a staunch believer in women’s rights. I don’t really give a s— about anybody who isn’t.”

The morning of July 13 started like any other, with Elisabeth Moss trying to eke out a little more time in bed. She is not, by all accounts, an early riser, and this sticky Thursday was no different, save for the locale, South Florida, where she was enjoying a rare few days off.

Then came the midday text from her publicist: a GIF of Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo, shirtless and clapping. “I knew it was good news,” says Moss, a fourth-generation Cubs fan, “because a shirtless Anthony Rizzo is always good news.”

And it was: The Handmaid’s Tale had just scooped up 13 Emmy nominations, including a best actress nom for Moss, the dystopian drama’s producer and star. In short order, she began scrolling through the 49 congratulatory texts that had already come in. Before long, there would be a lengthy email chain among the actors and a back and forth with showrunner Bruce Miller as well. By 3 p.m., Moss was still working her way through the deluge.

This isn’t new territory for the 34-year-old actress, whose pileup of critical hits — The West Wing, Mad Men, Top of the Lake and now The Handmaid’s Tale — has led to her media moniker: the “Queen of Peak TV.” She earned six nominations for what was once her career-defining role as copywriter turned feminist heroine Peggy Olson on AMC’s long-running Mad Men and a seventh for her star turn as a cop in Jane Campion’s 2013 Sundance Channel miniseries Top of the Lake. But for reasons that still confound a large contingent of TV critics, Moss has never won an Emmy. “It’s lucky number eight,” she teases, turning more serious as she continues: “But if you’ve been nominated seven times and lost seven times, you learn to be pretty excited about being nominated. You feel this sense of, ‘Well, at least I seem to be doing well consistently.’ “

What makes this round of recognition different is not simply that her odds of taking home a statuette are greater than they’ve ever been but also that the universally lauded Hulu series has redefined Moss’ career — as an actress, a producer and, at first reluctantly, an activist for women’s rights. “What I’ve learned is, now is not really a time to stand in the middle,” she says. “You’ve got to pick a side.”

Jumping so quickly into another series was not initially part of Moss’ plan. She liked the idea of dabbling in the film world, throwing herself into a string of indies within days of Mad Men wrapping, and then a second installment of Top of the Lake, which she was busy filming when her reps sent her a copy of Miller’s Handmaid’s pilot. His take on Margaret Atwood’s seminal novel — first published in 1985 and now back on the best-seller list — centers on Offred, the titular Handmaid, whose world has been overtaken by a theocratic regime under which all fertile women are stripped of their rights and forced into sexual slavery. Despite her initial hesitation, Moss, who goes by Lizzie, recognized that the opportunity was one she couldn’t pass up. Her one stipulation: She insisted on being an active producer as well.

The demand didn’t faze Miller and executive producer Warren Littlefield, who both chuckle at the mere suggestion that Moss’ could be a vanity title, as is often the case when TV stars transition to producing. “At the beginning, I’d send Lizzie five different films, and I’d say, ‘This one is just about color palette; this one there’s a tone.’ And she’s in Australia starring in Top of the Lake, and a few days later, I’d get these detailed analyses: ‘I completely see this, and I love this, and what about this woman as a production designer?’ ” recalls Littlefield. “I said to her, ‘Do you sleep at all?’ She said, ‘Well, I had a weekend here.’ ‘Yeah,’ I said, ‘but you could go to the gym, maybe out to dinner — I’ve been on location before. I also eat.’ She was quiet, and even though it was over the phone, I could feel her smiling, and she said, ‘This is really important to me.’ “

Some 300 emails and nearly as many conference calls followed before the trio first met face-to-face on the Toronto set in the summer of 2016. In that time, Moss also had weighed in on directors — recommending Reed Morano, with whom she’d worked on the 2015 film Meadowland, to helm the first three episodes — as well as on casting, marketing and even wardrobe. At one point, she had costume designer Ane Crabtree send her swatches of the handmaids’ robes so that she could chime in on the autumn-red hue. “I may have taken it just a little bit too far,” she laughs. (Her self-deprecating charm notwithstanding, it’s clear Moss has the instincts and the eye of a producer, which she is bringing to bear on a slew of other projects. More on that later.)

What no one involved in The Handmaid’s Tale could have predicted while filming last fall was just how relevant the drama would become in Trump’s America. Launched three months into his presidency, the series hinges on plot points — right down to the all-female street protests — that mirror the real-world news cycle with unsettling frequency. The handmaids’ robes and bonnets have become the de facto uniform for women’s rights activists, and references to the Hulu drama seem to be fueling the feminist movement. “This show has prompted important conversations about women’s rights and autonomy,” Hillary Clinton told a crowd gathered at Planned Parenthood’s centennial celebration in May, referencing a particularly poignant scene in which one character says, “We didn’t look up from our phones until it was too late.”

Along the way, the series has put Hulu on the creative map in the same way Mad Men once did AMC, and Moss, whose unflinching performance has lapped up praise as “chilling” and “brilliant,” was catapulted into the unexpected role of spokesperson — with which she’s only now getting comfortable. “I guess I just didn’t know anyone gave a shit about what I had to say,” she says with the kind of wide smile you rarely see from her onscreen.

•••

Over a late lunch at a cafe on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where Moss shares an apartment with her two cats, Lucy and Ethel, I wonder aloud how she handles the exceedingly dark world of Handmaid’s, rife with rape and physical abuse.

Moving a bed of lettuce leaves around her plate, she recalls how famously blunt French film star Isabelle Huppert responded (during a roundtable discussion for THR) to a question about whether rape scenes in particular can be more challenging to shake. “She was like, ‘Noooo.’ Like, ‘It’s my job, and I go and do my work and I go home.’ I was literally like, ‘Praise Jesus, she is my fuckin’ hero,’ ” says Moss, whose propensity for profanity can be jarring at times. “Some of the other actresses [at the table, including Natalie Portman and Amy Adams] probably wanted to answer like that, but sometimes you feel like you shouldn’t because you should take things seriously. But I just love that she is so fuckin’ French that she just was like, ‘Noooo,’ and that’s more of the camp that I subscribe to.”

It’s an approach to acting that Morano, 40, finds herself marveling at each time the pair is together on set. “Lizzie has this uncanny ability to transport herself, and it happens very quickly,” she says. “We’d be joking around, making fun of someone on the crew, and then two seconds later I’d have a camera on her and she’d be crying in a scene.”

Moss has felt comfortable pingponging between real life and make-believe, however grim it may be, for as long as she can remember. “Acting has always just been play for me,” she says, harkening back to her debut as Sandra Bullock’s 6-year-old daughter in a 1990 Jackie Collins miniseries. “All I remember is doing the scene where I find [Bullock’s] body in the pool,” she says. By 10, Moss was being snatched from her family in the Harvey Keitel movie Imaginary Crimes; parts in other disturbing flicks, including Girl, Interrupted, starring a young Angelina Jolie, followed. “So yeah,” she says, “I’ve never really done the lighter stuff, even as a fuckin’ kid.”

Initially, all of it was just a sideshow to her first love, ballet, which Moss studied at the School of American Ballet in New York and with Suzanne Farrell at the Kennedy Center in D.C. But having picked up some early lessons in discipline and hardship, she hung up her pointe shoes at 15 and by 17 found herself back in her native L.A., auditioning for a role on The West Wing before a fast-talking man who seemed particularly at ease with the material. “Later I found out that that was Aaron Sorkin,” she says of the series’ famed creator, adding in her own defense, “I didn’t know who the fuck anyone was.” Moss was cast as Zoey Bartlet, the president’s daughter, and over seven seasons on The West Wing earned a formative education in the power of good writing.

Upon its wrap, Moss jumped immediately to Mad Men as then-awkward secretary Peggy Olson. It wasn’t the simplest decision. Back then, AMC was known for airing crusty old movies, and her agents, since replaced, were trying to sell her on a forgettable indie casting at the same time. But Moss, who was struck by both the world and the script of Matthew Weiner’s series, was insistent: “I just kept saying, ‘Do not let Mad Men go.’ ” Over seven seasons, the drama about 1960s ad men (and women) helped usher in the golden age of television, with Moss’ character ascending the corporate ladder to become something of a feminist icon. The status still tickles her, she admits, as she searches her phone for her favorite Peggy memes. She finds one in which the Mad Men character, with shades on and a cigarette dangling from her lips, shares the screen with a bonneted Offred. “I fuckin’ love this,” she says with a giant smile.

The Mad Men cast became a de facto family for Moss, who’d been home-schooled during her early teen years by her mother, a harmonica player, and father, a music manager. Most of her 20s were spent on that downtown L.A. set; and given her dedication to ensuring everyone there was having a good time, often by way of competitive parlor games that Moss frequently would win, her fellow castmembers anointed her president of base camp. “I was like, ‘I’ll pay for the flowers,’ and they were like, ‘Done! You’re elected,’ ” she jokes. Her co-star Jon Hamm, base camp’s self-appointed sergeant-at-arms, recalls Moss being critical to the cast’s morale. “For a girl who has made her bones being a very heavy and very capable dramatic actress,” he says, “she has a wicked sense of humor, and she gives as good as she gets.”

During that time, Moss married — then quickly divorced — Saturday Night Live alum Fred Armisen. The tabloids attributed the relationship’s demise to Moss’ devotion to Scientology, a theory later dispelled by Armisen when he told Howard Stern that he was a “terrible husband” and then, on Marc Maron’s podcast, admitted that he struggled with “cheating and infidelity.” At one point, Moss chimed in, too, telling the New York Post, “The greatest impersonation [Armisen] does is that of a normal person.” While she learned quickly that “if you don’t want people talking about stuff, don’t talk about it yourself,” she can acknowledge it was a good line, adding with a chuckle: “I was holding on to that one for a while.”

Though the Armisen mentions figure less prominently in her recent round of press coverage, no profile of Moss is complete without reference to Scientology, which she was reportedly born into via her parents. New York magazine once called her affiliation with the church “the strange, odd fact of her biography, the thing that does not belong in her regular-chick story,” and sites like Jezebel have argued that it’s relevant that “the star of The Handmaid’s Tale belongs to a secretive, allegedly oppressive religion.” Moss has come to expect the line of questioning, even if she consistently declines to respond. “It doesn’t surprise me [that it’s always mentioned] because I think if there was anything unusual, it would be there [in a piece about me],” she says with a shrug. “So when it was my marriage and I was going through that, it was that. If something else happened to me, it would be that. And I [understand the interest], I’m happy to read about the thing that I don’t know anything about, too.”

She tucks her shoulder-length blond hair behind her ears, and continues, now with that smile reemerging: “There’s just not a lot else to explore here. I mean, my cat has asthma. It’s something that we’re dealing with: medicine twice a day and she gets a little inhaler. You want to talk about that?”

•••

You don’t need to spend much time with Moss to see that she still has reservations about her own soaring profile and the attention that comes with it.

She talks about stars as though she isn’t one and describes her life, though it includes such things as stylists on her payroll, as devoid of any glamour. One of the last times she can remember going out at night, she says, was Nov. 8, and that was only because she expected the first female president to be elected that evening. Any free time she does have these days is spent in front of the TV (Veep and This Is Us are current staples) or out to eat with her mom, Linda, who lives a couple of blocks away, and her small circle of friends, all of whom she has known for more than a decade and many of whom she has worked with at some point during her career.

“If Lizzie had her druthers, she’d probably stay in bed all day,” says her best friend, Susan “Goldie” Goldberg, a former AMC exec who met Moss on the pilot of Mad Men. Though the two text often and share a “borderline obsession” with Disneyland, there are a handful of subjects on which they don’t see eye to eye. “Lizzie’s a diehard Chicago Cubs fan, and I’m a longtime Mets fan, so we agree not to talk about that,” says Goldberg, now an exec at Annapurna. “Or I love hiking in L.A., and Lizzie dismisses the whole notion of hikes, making fun of me and my ‘urban walks,’ as she calls them.” Other Moss favorites: Central Park, sushi and a decent Moscow Mule.

Moss is equally skilled at downplaying her professional accomplishments. Ask about her first visit to the Cannes Film Festival in May, when her indie The Square, a satire of the art world, won the Palme d’Or and her upcoming season of Top of the Lake earned rapturous reviews, and she tries to refocus the conversation on the surrealness of the festival. (“It’s like a French Fellini movie,” she says. “Everyone’s walking around in tuxedos with people taking pictures of them, and you’re like, ‘Who the hell are these people?’ “) After a fair amount of prodding, she finally accepts that her recent track record is noteworthy. “Yeah,” she allows, “I recognize that I seem to be on a streak of finding really good stuff and people liking it.”

Looking ahead, that “stuff” will include many projects that she’ll be intimately involved in from the start — such as Fever, the story of Typhoid Mary, which she acquired the rights to and is starring in and producing with one of her mentors, Annapurna’s Sue Naegle, for BBC America. She has been busy meeting with other female producers, too, including Girls‘ Jenni Konner, who calls Moss “our generation’s Meryl Streep,” about potential collaborations; and she’s in the process of setting up a production company with two other women, citing actress turned prolific producer Reese Witherspoon as an inspiration. Though female-led projects will almost certainly be her bailiwick, she’ll continue partnering with liberal-minded men, too, including filmmaker Alex Ross Perry, with whom she already has done two films. The pair is quietly prepping a third, for which Moss reveals she’ll play the lead of a female rock group who’s also an alcoholic, drug-addicted mother. “Come on,” she jokes, “she couldn’t just be a rock star.”

Like Ross Perry, most who have teamed with Moss try to do so again. Campion wasn’t interested in returning to Top of the Lake for a second installment unless she knew Moss was on board. She proposed the idea on a coaster that she slipped under Moss’ hotel room door when they were both in L.A. for the Emmys. “An actor like her is often relegated to sidekicks, characters and best friends, but beginning with Top of the Lake, Lizzie proved she could be a lead — that she had the charisma and gravitas to pull it off,” says Campion, who adds that she’s accessible as an actress and humble as a human in a way that so many are not.

Weiner, her former Mad Men boss, has been busy writing his Amazon anthology series, about descendants of the Romanov family, and while he hasn’t begun casting, he has said publicly that he’d like to have past castmembers like Moss drop in. Though she has yet to have that conversation with him, she says she’d “love to do it.” Her current boss Miller says he can’t fathom doing another project without Moss by his side. Sure, he has been blown away by her talent onscreen (“She’s a miracle to watch,” he says), but it’s her contributions as a producer on Handmaid’s that he hadn’t anticipated valuing so much. “Lizzie brings something that you don’t normally get from producers, and once you get it, you never want to not have it,” he explains. “Someone who’s an expert on actors. A lot of the work that she did the first season was just managing this cast of players and getting a great performance out of all of them.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean it has always been smooth with Moss at the helm. She famously put her foot in her mouth when promoting the series at the Tribeca Film Festival in April. When asked whether the show’s feminist themes drew her to the project, she responded, “Honestly, for me, it’s not a feminist story. It’s a human story because women’s rights are human rights. … I never intended to play Offred as a feminist.” Within minutes, the Twitter mob had pounced, and the media began blasting her “striking and somewhat baffling” reluctance to associate with the feminist movement. The experience proved a wake-up call for Moss. “I was asked a question about my character, and I was thinking about my character and about the TV show,” she says, “not that I was speaking for feminists.”

In the months since, she has warmed up to her new platform, even if it can still leave her with a pit in her stomach. “If you’re spending a year on something and you’re thinking about it, you’re reading a book over and over and you’re having to do these scenes, it sinks in, this idea of like, what happens if we don’t say anything or what happens if I don’t speak up?” she says. She has started donating to both the ACLU and Planned Parenthood and has found ways to incorporate the organizations’ pins and ribbons into her red carpet looks and her Instagram feed for her quarter-million followers to see.

After the lunch bill has been paid, I ask whether she worries about alienating the part of her audience that might not feel the same way she does on these issues. Her response is immediate and emphatic: “I’m such a staunch believer in women’s rights, I don’t really give a shit about anybody who isn’t. It’s like, I don’t need them to watch the show. At a certain point, things are more important than your job.” Which is why when you see Moss back on the red carpet at the Emmys in September, you can expect some kind of political statement. “There will probably be a pin or a ribbon involved,” she says, giggling as her mind wanders. “Or maybe I’ll just wear a giant ACLU ribbon and a really good spray tan.”

This story first appeared in the July 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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