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Emmy Watch: Elisabeth Moss on 'Top of the Lake'

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Parisa Taghizadeh

Between now and June 28, the deadline for Emmy voters to submit nomination ballots, EW.com will feature interviews with some of the actors and actresses whose names we hope to hear when nominations are announced on July 18.

Increasingly there’s the sense that Elisabeth Moss can do anything. After six seasons of playing such a marvelous character like Peggy Olson on Mad Men, some actresses would have a hard time ever sliding out of such a comfortable wheelhouse. But this spring Moss, 30, reinvented herself in Jane Campion’s dark and moody miniseries masterpiece Top of the Lake.

As detective Robin Griffin, driven wild to solve the mystery of a missing pregnant 12-year-old girl, Moss was a churning ball of opposing forces. She was brittle (“You can be very hard,” Robin’s mother warned her at one point, “and what I don’t like is, you think it’s strength.”) and vulnerable and deeply wounded and weary and magnificently capable and a total mess. She was at once the youngest and oldest person in the room. She seemed always dangerous of both cracking open and throwing down, a tricky combination she nailed in a blistering scene in episode 4 when she attacks her childhood rapist in a bar. She is magnificent, boiling with feeling, and it’s pleasure to talk about a performance outside of her Mad Men‘s walls that’s worthy of Emmy consideration.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How hard did you have to work for Jane Campion to consider you for this role?

ELISABETH MOSS: The first conversation that I had with Jane, before my audition, she said ‘I know that you can do vulnerable. I’ve seen that. I need to see that you can cover it up.’ When she said that to me I sort of completely agreed with her. Not just the aspect of playing a detective but also someone who was tough and angry. That was something that was difficult for me. I don’t play that kind of anger often and tapping into that was so new for me.

There’s that ferocious scene at the bar where Robin sidles up to her clueless childhood rapist and then beats the stuffing out of him with a broken bottle. She’s full of such primal rage.

Oh, that was one of my favorites honestly. It’s that moment where you get to do what you fantasize about doing to such a person. It was absolutely a thrill and I know it’s strange to say but it was so much fun. (Laughing) It’s fun to scream and get really angry at somebody and let  all of that out. It’s not real and I’m not a method actor so I don’t get actually upset…

You don’t retreat to your trailer and start smashing mirrors. Elisabeth angry!

No. (Laughing) But of course there’s been times I’ve been angry in my life and wanted to cause physical harm to somebody. So you do tap into those moments where you’ve been pissed off and it was fun. It was difficult in the stunt of it, breaking the bottle. He had a blood pack under his shirt so I had to hit it in the right spot to make the blood pack burst and I would get blood all over my hands. My makeup artist was cleaning the blood off my hands in between takes and we found that it kept coming back until we realized that it was my blood and I was bleeding from the broken bottle. I had bruises all over my body from him dragging me out of the bar. We did the scene probably 10 times, more even. I was definitely shaken afterwards. It took me a few minutes to stop shaking from the adrenaline of it all but it was super fun too.

At what point did you feel like you had the accent under your belt?

I never relaxed in it. I thought ‘Oh my God, there is a possibility that I can get so f—ing creamed for this.’ People get so mad and so territorial when you do a bad accent. If it didn’t work it could ruin anything. So I was always vigilant up until the last day. I didn’t need it to be a perfect accent but I just didn’t want people to be distracted by it. I worked on it for months, Jane was my # 1 go-to as a watch dog besides my dialect coach. I had script supervisors that were helpful and the sound department helped me too. The best thing that’s happened is nobody ahs really said anything about it and that’s exactly what I wanted.

It was so interesting to see you, our beloved Peggy Olson, in a parka and jeans.

That was a huge draw for me. It’s interesting that would be something unusual for an actress. Jeans! (laughing) Usually it’s ‘Oh look, they’re doing a period project and they have to pretend they’re in the 60s.’ So for me it was great to show another side to myself, that’s closer to me in the physicality and modernity of I and that’s not hard when no one’s ever seen me in jeans.

In approaching Robin I wonder if you thought of who her sisters might be in cinematic history. She and Clarice Starling would recognize each other as kindred spirits.

That’s so funny that you say that because that’s exactly who I thought of. She was a massive inspiration for me. Thinking about that character and Jodie Foster’s performance gave me a lot of courage—there was somebody who was feminine, vulnerable, sensitive, and physically small. One of my big stresses when I got the role was ‘Am I believable as a detective? I’m 5’3, I’m not that muscular, is it believable that I would carry a gun and be a detective?’ And I thought about her. Also Mireille [Enos] from The Killing, who I think is also small in stature and very feminine and very much a woman and yet is this very strong, tough detective. Those two were beacons for me. Okay, well they did it. I have a shot at being believable.

A lot of the miniseries’ fans want another round. Has there been any serious talk of ‘You know, we could do this again…’

It’s not up to me obviously. That’s up to Jane and I’m sure she has some other ideas. We did talk, sometimes almost jokingly about how this would continue. I shouldn’t tell you the serious idea that we had because it was actually a very good one. But we used to joke about how we didn’t want Top of the Lake to ever become CSI: NZ. (Laughing) That show is obviously fantastic but we didn’t want to make the standard detective procedural. We wanted to make something weird and unusual and nonlinear.

Read more:

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Emmy Watch: Parker Posey on channeling Ruth Gordon in ‘Louie’

Emmy Watch: Adam Scott on Ben and Leslie’s wedding