Elisabeth Moss: six essential performances

From Mad Men to The Handmaid’s Tale, Elisabeth Moss has quickly become one of the most exciting actors on big screens and small.

Lou Thomas

The Handmaid’s Tale (2017-)

The Handmaid’s Tale (2017-)

Since her first, fleeting film role as a child in the Hulk Hogan comedy Suburban Commando (1991) Elisabeth Moss has conquered big and small screens alike. Aaron Sorkin’s gripping drama The West Wing (1999-2006), in which she excelled as president’s daughter Zoey Bartlet, first brought her to TV prominence, while film fans truly began to take note after her turn as Polly in mental-institution Oscar-winner Girl, Interrupted (1999).

Aside from her six greatest roles, Moss acquitted herself well in an underused part in Ben Wheatley’s J.G. Ballard adaptation High-Rise (2015), and she is a key figure in this year’s Palme d’Or winner, The Square. In 2018 she will appear in the third collaboration between director David Lowery and Casey Affleck, Old Man and the Gun, which will also star Robert Redford.

A typical Moss role has depth but is usually introspective, unhappy or both. She often appears in bleak, uncompromising work, though she has also proven herself adept at comedy. Her defiantly feminist creations are frequently under pressure in the worst possible situations, but she is never a victim.

Mad Men (2007-15)

Creator Matthew Weiner

Mad Men (2007-15)

Jon Hamm’s suave 1960s Manhattan ad man Don Draper is its protagonist and Christina Hendricks’ tough office manager Joan Harris its beating heart. But Peggy Olson is the true hero of Mad Men.

Over seven series and eight years, playing Peggy in AMC’s ace satire made Moss a star. Starting as a meek secretary, Peggy becomes a top-class copywriter and a formidable manager of staff and ideas. Her character arc is the most satisfying in the show, as she hits brutal setbacks aplenty. Unwanted pregnancy, endemic sexism and poisonous office politics are just three banes of Peggy’s life, but the conclusion of her story will have compassionate souls leaping to their feet in admiration and pride.

That you can invest so much in a TV character is partly due to showrunner Matthew Weiner’s team of fine directors and writers, but the buck stops with Moss once the camera is on. Her mannerisms, body language and line delivery are all weighted with precision. If the job of an actor is to elicit the most emotional and empathetic response from viewers, Moss triumphs with Peggy.

Top of the Lake (2013–)

Creators Jane Campion and Gerard Lee

Top of the Lake (2013)

Sydney detective Robin Griffin returns to the New Zealand lakes of her childhood in order to attend to her ill mother while she receives cancer treatment. As a specialist in cases involving children, Griffin is called in when a 12-year-old tries to drown herself and is found to be pregnant.

Unpleasant, unusual characters populate the insular community in Top of the Lake, where disturbing secrets lurk in every family. An excellent Peter Mullan portrays the girl’s vulgar, untrustworthy father, and Holly Hunter is an oddball guru. Moss’s Griffin is steadfast but is damaged by an adolescent trauma that seems connected to the case she’s investigating. The actor impressed to such an extent that co-creator Jane Campion reneged on her promise not to make a second series. The new season sees Griffin’s work back in Sydney become fraught, with Nicole Kidman and Game of Thrones’ Gwendoline Christie co-starring.

Listen Up Philip (2014)

Director Alex Ross Perry

Listen Up Philip (2014)

Listen Up Philip is a bleak comedy about selfish, self-absorbed novelist Philip Lewis Friedman (Jason Schwartzman), who leaves the Brooklyn home of his long-suffering photographer girlfriend, Ashley (Moss), to stay at the country retreat of obnoxious veteran writer Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce).

Writer-director Alex Ross Perry’s scathing dialogue is relentlessly harsh and erudite as Schwartzman alienates himself and isolates Ashley. Although the focus is on Philip, large parts of the film show Ashley dealing with life, despairing and alone, as the wheels come off their disastrous relationship.

Moss is completely believable as the deflated Ashley, crisply delivering heartbreaking dialogue such as, “You stood in my way when I had so many opportunities” and “You used to be so exciting, now you’re just pitiful.” She has an excellent way of portraying despondency in her eyes. In a pivotal bedroom confrontation scene she makes viewers sense the rotten sadness Ashley feels without saying a word, using only a series of head tilts, nods and expressive frowns.

The One I Love (2014)

Director Charlie McDowell

The One I Love (2014)

This low-budget sci-fi oddity concerns unhappy spouses Ethan (Mark Duplass) and Sophie (Moss), who visit a secluded estate at the suggestion of a couples therapist. The pair quickly find each other’s behaviour unusual, and it becomes clear they each have a doppelgänger seemingly comprised of their best qualities staying in a guest house on the estate.

A slight but funny, charming tale, The One I Love has plenty to say about the difficulties of keeping relationships fresh and potential approaches to take when things are failing. Moss is resigned as Sophie yet bright and effervescent as her mirror image Sophie II. By containing such unusual duo roles, The One I Love would have provided a fascinating test for any actor, but it’s one that Moss passes with assurance.

Queen of Earth (2015)

Director Alex Ross Perry

Queen of Earth (2015)

Again centring on the eloquent angst of the privileged classes, the second collaboration between Moss and Alex Ross Perry is even tougher to watch than Listen Up Philip. This time, Perry’s film is about the breakdown of a friendship rather than a failed romance, and the laughs are as rare as rocking horse excretion.

Moss plays Catherine, formerly the PA of her artist father. Now her father is dead and Catherine has split up with her boyfriend. As in Listen Up Philip, the lead character retreats from the city to find mental peace. Catherine stays at an idyllic lake house owned by the parents of her lapsed friend Virginia (an excellent Katherine Waterston) and years of resentment and neglect tumble out. If Listen Up Philip is Woody Allen with heightened severity, Queen of Earth is scathing and Bergmanesque, a draining dirge full of paranoia and unhappiness. If it sounds like a difficult watch, it is, but Moss’s tremendous performance contains many shades of upset. Her fraught facial expressions alone, abetted by Perry’s generous use of close-up, speak volumes of regret and hint at a lifetime of wrong decisions.

The Handmaid’s Tale (2017-)

Creator Bruce Miller

The Handmaid’s Tale (2017-)

Some argue that this devastating adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s award-winning dystopian novel is the finest TV series of 2017. It’s certainly thematically and emotionally ahead of its peers. Set in a totalitarian society called Gilead, following a coup in the United States, it depicts a world where fertile women have become subjugated as ‘handmaids’ in homes where they must submit to ritual rape and bear children for members of the patriarchal ruling elite.

Moss plays protagonist Offred (previously named June, now named after her male master), who lives with one of the new society’s leaders and his wife. Secretly, she seeks ways to reclaim her independence.

Bruce Miller’s adaptation tackles big issues such as misogyny, feminism, abortion, childcare, surveillance, FGM and freedom in thoughtful, evocative fashion without recourse to easy answers or platitudes. Families are torn asunder, lives destroyed, culture repressed. The Handmaid’s Tale evokes a cold, sombre world without joy or light. Moss acts with dignity, bravery and nuance as Offred while she and her fellow handmaids are repeatedly subjected to barbaric treatment in a senseless, unforgiving world.

Atwood and Moss co-produce the acclaimed show, which returns for a second series in 2018 and seems destined for as many prizes as it has had plaudits.

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