How Elisabeth Moss became the dark lady of the small screen

“Wowzers,” said Elisabeth Moss, peering at a bloodied silicone corpse. It was January and Moss was on the Toronto set of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the Hulu series in which she plays June, a refugee from a patriarchal dystopia known as Gilead. Based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, the series depicts a repressive theocracy that has overthrown the United States and forced women into disciplined roles, including Handmaids, who are ceremonially raped and impregnated by their commanders. The first season, based on Atwood’s book, introduced June’s life as Offred, renamed to mark her ownership by Commander Fred Waterford, played by Joseph Fiennes. In Season 5, for which Moss was in pre-production, June fled to Canada and, along with a group of former Handmaids, Fred fell into obscurity. The naked silicone body, wheeled out on a metal tray, belonged to him.

Moss inspected his exposed shins, mutilated wrists and raised chest. “Would anyone like a plate of charcuterie?” she said with a laugh. Moss examined the corpse in her role as the director of the first two episodes of the season; she started directing in season 4, and she is also an executive producer. The day was set aside for camera tests, with the crew sorting out details like the exact shade of red June’s bloody handprint should leave on a car window.

“I do have a penis note,” Moss said cheerfully.

“More less?” asked a prosthetic designer named Zane as they examined Fred’s damaged genitals.

“Well I just don’t want it to look like her” bit it out.”

“We can always add more.”

“Maybe,” Moss said. “So it looks more like it’s broken.” Her eyes drifted down. “The toes look so real!”

Moss had freshly dyed blond hair and was wearing a T-shirt that read ‘Liberté! Egalité! Maternity!” At thirty-nine, she has been working on television sets for more than three decades and exudes a cheerful professionalism. “The Handmaid’s Tale” may be brutally gruesome, but Moss’s off-screen presence is as light as tulle. She chewed gum, joked, and showed me pictures of her two mandarin cats, Lucy and Ethel. Born in Los Angeles, she has the occasional Valley girl “Totally!” Everyone calls her Lizzie.

[Support The New Yorker’s award-winning journalism. Subscribe today »]

In front of the camera, however, Moss has an almost otherworldly self-control, channeling extreme states of trauma, anger, fear or cruelty. Her characters often find themselves at the intersection of meekness and cruelty. Directors like to film her in lingering close-ups, her gnarled, expressive face blanks with detachment or flashes with wildness, her eyes stare down her beaked nose like a pair of determined headlights. Alex Ross Perry, who has directed her in three independent films, described her talent for “looking into the darkness and coming back with a bit of a glint in her eye.”

Moss, who grew up in the Church of Scientology, is one of the most unconventional stars of her generation, and her career follows the trajectory of the past quarter-century of television. At seventeen, she began playing the president’s daughter in “The West Wing,” arguably the pinnacle of the turn of the millennium network drama. When she was twenty-three, she was cast as Peggy Olson in ‘Mad Men’, with Jon Hamm as advertising executive Don Draper, part of a wave of prestigious cable series centered around male anti-heroes. But as the show progressed — and Peggy went from mousy secretary to sharp copywriting freak — she became the stealth heroine, pointing the way to TV’s more female-centric next phase. (Moss received six Emmy nominations.) Before “Mad Men” was over, she starred in Jane Campion and Gerard Lee’s limited series, “Top of the Lake,” a precursor to such elite whodunnits as “Mare of Easttown.” Then came ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. If “The West Wing” was America’s liberal alternative to the Bush administration, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which premiered in the spring of 2017, halfway through Trump’s inauguration and #MeToo, was timed for the Resistance. Women protesting the reversal of abortion in hats and red robes is now a staple of American activism. Moss won her first Emmy for the role.

At the same time, she has built up an idiosyncratic film resume, choosing projects that reflect her penchant for dark, even wild characters. She played a woman stabbed in the neck by her own doppelganger, in Jordan Peele’s “Us,” and a demonic version of writer Shirley Jackson, in Josephine Decker’s “Shirley.” Many of her roles deal with violence against women. In 2020, she starred in Leigh Whannell’s “The Invisible Man,” which morphed HG Wells’ novel into the story of a woman terrorized by her abusive tech mogul ex, who uses his invisibility suit to stalk her. She told me with a giggle, “I can’t tell you how many children I’ve lost in roles. They are taken or stolen. It’s like, Jesus Christ

Over the past decade, Moss has become something of a muse for Alex Ross Perry. After casting her in the literary satire “Listen Up Philip,” Perry made her the protagonist, a woman on the brink of madness, of his micro-budget drama “Queen of Earth.” He then wrote her a tour-de-force role as a self-destructive punk rocker, in ‘Her Smell’. Anyone who still saw Moss as a secretary in a Peter Pan collar was disillusioned and saw her sneaking around rock clubs in smeared mascara, growling lines like “Ding-dong, the bitch is back!” During the award season, Perry wrote a letter to the New York Film Critics Circle begging for recognition from Moss, but without success. “It clearly remains a black mark on any organization – all of them – that failed to properly award that feat,” he told me.

During the pandemic, Moss and former WME agent Lindsey McManus launched a production company, Love & Squalor Pictures. The first project, “Shining Girls”, a sci-fi flecked crime thriller, has just premiered on Apple TV+. The show, based on a 2013 novel by Lauren Beukes, stars Moss, who also directed two episodes, as a newspaper archivist in early 1990s Chicago. After surviving a near-fatal attack, she is pursued by an ageless serial killer.

“I like to play roles that are very contradictory or have major trauma, which are all very different from my life,” Moss told me one day, applying lip balm with her little finger. She watches rom-coms and Marvel movies, but through acting, she travels to an emotional underworld, a process she likes to describe as “fun.”

Moss, who doesn’t dream of going camping, enjoys extreme sports documentaries. “I’m fascinated by this need to climb that mountain, this need to show yourself what you can do,” she said. Acting is her version of free solos. In the beginning of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Margaret Atwood had a cameo as an aunt, one of Gilead’s maternal enforcers, who punches June in the face during an indoctrination. “We had to shoot it four times because apparently I didn’t do it with enough force or with enough frown and determination,” Atwood told me. “So I had the bizarre experience of my lead actress turning around and saying to me, ‘Hit me harder! Come on, slap me!’ †

One afternoon, Moss was sitting in her “Handmaid’s Tale” production office, in an unglamorous building on the outskirts of Toronto. The walls were covered with storyboards and shots from movies (“Moonlight”, “Black Swan”) whose appearance she wanted to match. Every now and then an employee would come in to show her main photos of potential extras. “Every day we lose a maidservant,” Moss complained. “Find the sofa cushions!” (Some of the actors, she said, had dropped out because of the show’s vaccination requirement.) She had taped John Everett Millais’ painting of the drowned Ophelia to the door. “One of the themes this season is water,” she explains. “There’s definitely a theme of being born again and discovering who you are.”

Moss was also in post-production for “Shining Girls”; McManus, her production partner, calls her “an absolute workhorse.” “I went out to dinner with some of the cast a few weeks ago, and you would have thought I was going to the damn Oscars,” Moss told me. “I’m not used to having a life outside of work.” In her office, she held up a display of costume samples. “I like preparation,” she said. “I’m much more laissez-faire about acting.” Employees say she can instantly switch from casual teasing to earth-shattering emotion. “Lizzie has an incredible ability to turn it on and off,” Jon Hamm told me.

When I asked Moss about a harrowing scene in “The Handmaid’s Tale,” in which June confronts her former tormentor Mrs. Waterford with such seismic fury that the saliva shoots out of her mouth, she laughed and said, “The funny thing is, in the life, you’re not supposed to scream in people’s faces like that.” Music is essential in her process. She makes a detailed playlist for each character, to get you in the mood. The track for “The Handmaid’s Tale” features works by post-minimalist composer Max Richter, the soundtrack by Hans Zimmer for “Interstellar” and, when June is in revenge mode, Beyoncé’s “Formation.” For ‘Her Smell’ she listened to Radiohead. “AirPods have been a huge addition to my career, as I’m not completely stuck with cables now,” she said.

In Toronto, Moss reported to the studio for a site survey. Lurking among the crew was Bradley Whitford, who plays a commander and observed Moss before directing an episode of his own. “I’m just here out of fear,” he said dryly. Whitford has known Moss since ‘The West Wing’ and as she led the way, he beamed with paternal pride. “It’s a very strange combination of being able to be the bird flying around in the cage and caring about how the cage is built,” he said. “It’s extremely impressive to me, and my heart is the size of a raisin.”

We drove to a small park next to a cathedral, the site of a scene in which June sits on a bench in Canada. Though she has escaped Gilead, she struggles to adjust to her freedom, her anger fading into a kind of damaged glee. A blizzard had poured more than a foot of snow onto the town, and Moss was barely visible behind her scarf, hat, and sunglasses. She discussed removing some trash cans on the day of the shoot. “We’re good, boss?” she asked an assistant director, Michael Johnson, known as MJ.

Leave a Comment