Elisabeth Moss’s face, which is pale, line-free and animated, reveals everything she wants you to know and little else. Even in the ridiculously dim early evening light of the bar at the Sunset Tower hotel in Los Angeles, her blue eyes are bright with attention. “I find that I’m very, very good at, like, I guess some people would call it compartmentalising,” says Moss, 37, with a laugh and a lilt in her voice that makes that admission sound like an apology. Moss, who introduces herself as Lizzie, has arrived fresh from a meeting with the writers of The Handmaid’s Tale, the dystopian Hulu drama that she both produces and stars in. Her shoulder-length, bleached-blonde hair is in a pretty tangle, and she’s wearing a black leather moto jacket, a white t-shirt, and trackpants. “I’m really good at turning it off, going home and texting my friends, having a glass of wine and putting it aside,” she tells me after ordering a Moscow mule and sinking into the cushions around a corner table. “It’s not unconscious. I need to be able to do that to treat my work with joy and enthusiasm.” Anyone who has seen Moss as Peggy Olson, the advertising copywriter who repeatedly crashed into a succession of low glass ceilings on Mad Men, or June, the enslaved procreator–slash–agent of chaos on Handmaid’s, knows her face and all the quicksilver emotions it conveys. She can communicate more with a raised eyebrow than most people can with a paragraph of dialogue. In Moss’s latest film, The Invisible Man, a modern retelling of the H.G. Wells sci-finovel of the same name, that canvas of a face is on full display, panicked and paranoid as she plays a woman terrorised by an abusive ex-boyfriend who no one else can see. It’s worth noting that many of the characters in the Moss oeuvre seem to be fighting against a pervasive destructive masculine presence, but in The Invisible Man, this theme is anything but nuanced. “It’s that universal feeling of not being seen, of not having a voice, the fear of being invisible,” she explains. “We live in a patriarchy. If you’re telling a story about a woman, part of it will be about living in that patriarchy.” Moss also has zero fear around playing the anti-hero. “I’ve had to remind people who love June about all who have died either directly because of her or because she has let them die,” she says. “June can be shitty. She can be selfish. She makes the wrong decision all the time. She cheats on her husband. She’s not the best heroine a lot of the time. Then again, she is so human, and so us, and tough and strong, and she does have this love for her daughter. People have many different facets. All the good stories are very murky. Big grey areas are more interesting.”
Moss, who was born in LA to musician parents and raised in Laurel Canyon along with her younger brother, started acting at the age of six. “I don’t remember not wanting to do it,” she says. “I was a dancer at the same time; I always loved performing. I loved ballet. But I kind of ended up choosing acting because it seemed like a better choice long-term. My mum just kept asking me, ‘Do you still want to do it? Do you want to audition?’ And I kept saying, ‘Yes.’ It was really that simple.”
Moss’s taste for complex characters was evident early on, dating back to 1998 when she was cast, at 16, in Girl, Interrupted as Polly “Torch” Clark, a teenager disfigured by self-inflicted burn wounds. The film, about a group of girls in a psychiatric hospital, starred Winona Ryder and then-newcomer Angelina Jolie, who won an Oscar for her performance. “I remember it all very vividly,” Moss says. “There I was with Winona, who was already a legend in her 20s. She was so nice to me. Angelina wasn’t necessarily the Angelina Jolie we know now, but everyone knew who she was. She was still this force. I didn’t talk to her really, but it was more of a character thing. We’re friendly now. Clea DuVall was in it, and now she’s in Handmaid’s. We were shooting in this mental hospital in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and it was so cold. It was this really fun, amazing experience.”
On screen, Moss can appear raw and exposed, but off-screen, she’s guarded. “You have to be careful,” she says. “Once the information is out there, you can’t take it back.” She offers Holly Hunter, her co-star in the 2013 miniseries Top of the Lake, as an example of someone who has managed to retain an air of mystery. “Broadcast News is one of my favourite movies, and she’s one of the coolest people, but I don’t know anything about her. I think she lives in New York?” Moss says. “Meryl Streep does it well. I was listening to an Oprah podcast where she was interviewing Julia Roberts, and here you have arguably the biggest female star in the world, and she has managed to maintain a good amount of privacy. I don’t think it has to do with your level of stardom but in how you conduct your life.”
Moss, though, appreciates the impulse to delve into the lives of actors. “I totally understand why people want to know that stuff,” she says. “I see a story about Olivia Colman, whom I love, and I want to devour it. I dissect it, like, ‘Where does she live? What does her kitchen look like?’ I want to see Olivia’s kitchen. But I never want to get to the point where someone’s watching something I’m doing and thinking about what my kitchen looks like.”
From a neighbouring table at The Tower Bar, Jameela Jamil and Tracee Ellis Ross wave hello, and Jamil scrambles over to introduce herself before showering Moss with compliments. A producer comes by to thank her for a Q&A session she’s attending that evening. Moss greets everyone with the same wide grin. “This place really is the belly of the beast,” she says with a shrug. “You don’t come here if you don’t want to be seen.”
Jumpsuit; belt; shoes, Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello. Earrings, Ti any & Co. Bracelet, Cartier OPPOSITE: Tights, Falke. Pumps, Gucci. Earring; bracelet, Tiffany & Co.
"People have many different facets. Big grey areas are more interesting."
Dress; belt, Versace. Tights, Falke. Rings, Tiffany & Co. Pumps, Jimmy Choo
Makeup: Rachel Goodwin using Koh Gen Do Hair: Maranda using Oribe Manicure: Emi Kudo using Chanel Le Vernis Production: Paul Preiss/ Preiss Creative Prop styling: Julien Borno/Owl and the Elephant
Photographed by Yulia Gorbachenko.
Styled by Miguel Enamorado