Elisabeth Moss Finds “Super Rare” Female Antihero In ‘Shirley’ & “Incredible” First Go-Round Directing ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’

Matt Grobar
·14 min read

A busy 2020 for Elisabeth Moss kicked off at Sundance with Josephine Decker’s Shirley, in which she stars as seminal horror writer Shirley Jackson. Next, the actress saw blockbuster success with The Invisible Man, a modern adaptation of the H.G. Wells classic. Launching her own production company in July, she then returned to the set of her Hulu smash The Handmaid’s Tale, where she directed for the first time. For the Emmy winner, each of these moves reflects a singular desire—to take charge of her own voice and career, while bringing searingly authentic work to the screen.

DEADLINE: Why was Shirley Jackson a character you had to take on?

More from Deadline

ELISABETH MOSS: I think it was just a super rare, female character. We all have antiheroes in mind, or characters who are these mad geniuses, who maybe sometimes aren’t very nice to people, or speak their mind in a way that is considered abrupt, or offensive. But they’re rarely written for women, even though these women do exist. So, it was just really cool, and unusual, and exciting to see that kind of character, that I actually love watching so much, be done by a woman.

DEADLINE: You’ve said you identify with Shirley, in some respects. Which parts of her do you see in yourself?

MOSS: Over the past few years, as I have fully ascended into adulthood, and also been producing a lot more, and taking more of an ownership and a leadership role in my work, and reached a place where I have more of a voice, I suppose, that is listened to, I definitely felt like there were parts of her personality that I loved. I loved how honest she was sometimes, and I loved how she didn’t take anybody’s s–t. She expected the people around her to be smart, and expected people around her to be able to keep up with her.

I think that in my life, I’m probably a little kinder and less abrasive [Laughs]. I don’t think anyone would want to work with me if I was too much like that. But I do think there are honorable qualities about who she is, and I think those are in her honesty, and her intelligence.

DEADLINE: In the film, Jackson has a complicated relationship to a young muse. Looking back, would you give your younger self any advice?

MOSS: Honestly, I feel like no, because I feel like I wouldn’t have listened. Like, if I was capable of listening, then I probably wouldn’t have done it in the first place. I’m definitely somebody who doesn’t tend to look back. I don’t live life with any major regrets. The only thing that I’ve heard so many people say, that I think is very true of a lot of us, is we’d tell our younger selves not to worry as much. You know? Like, “It’s all okay. It’s all going to work out. Those things that you think are a really big deal, trust me, one day, are not going to be a big deal.”

DEADLINE: What did your preparation for Shirley look like? How did you work with Josephine Decker and your castmates to find your way through the story?

MOSS: It was a little slapdash, in the sense that none of us had met. I had met Michael [Stuhlbarg] before, just at an award show or whatever, but we never really had spent any time together. None of us had worked together, and some of us hadn’t even met until a week before we started. So, at that time, you really rely on people being professional, and being good at their job—being able to walk in and follow the material, and deliver.

Jo and I had talked for quite a bit before, because I was a producer on the project, as well. So, her and I talked a lot more about producer stuff. We talked about other casting, locations, and all that kind of stuff, and didn’t really talk about the character as much. And then, you also had four really different actors, who had completely different processes. I would say that Odessa [Young] and I are pretty similar in our processes, but Michael and I are really different, and it was great because I got to learn so much from him, and watch him. I consider him one of the greatest actors alive, and I got to see what makes him become that great, and learn from that. But it really was a pretty crazy [experience].

DEADLINE: While Jackson was a real person, your portrayal of her was rooted in fiction. Do you think it’s the responsibility of the filmmaker to present historical fiction as such, with a kind of disclaimer?

MOSS: I mean, yes and no, I guess. Our story is based on a fictional book. We never said we were making a biopic about Shirley Jackson, and any assumption about that was completely on the part of the person who made the assumption. You know, we’ve always called it “the anti-biopic,” and knew that it was highly fictionalized because it was based on a previous work. I’m also very much on the side of, “I don’t know, it’s a movie. Everybody relax a bit.” I think art is art, and I think it’s dangerous to put any kind of rules or limitations on an art form.

DEADLINE: Interestingly, Shirley is the first historical figure you’ve ever played, and I know you got to meet her son, Laurence, at Sundance. That must have been surreal.

MOSS: Yeah, absolutely. It was really cool. He came up to me and tapped me on the shoulder, and he goes, “Hey, mom.” And I was like, “Excuse me?” I was at this really loud party. You know f—ing Sundance parties, they make you want to kill yourself. Or any party makes me want to kill myself. It was really crowded and hot, and I turned around and was like, “Hello?” There’s this older gentleman calling me mom. But then, he introduced himself, and I got to talk to him for 45 minutes, which was awesome. I grabbed Michael and brought him over, and we both talked, and since then, we’ve had an email communication, here and there.

He’s been extremely generous about the fact that we completely changed his mother’s life, and cut him and his brothers and sisters out of the story completely. He was very generous about that, and very kind about it.

DEADLINE: You’ve said recently that you’ve seen films getting smarter, to keep up with the era of prestige TV. Tell us about what you’ve observed.

MOSS: I think anytime something is elevated, whether it’s film or television, everyone else has to catch up. Right? For me, there’s nothing like the experience of going and seeing a movie in a theater. That’s something that’s completely different, and I’m not even saying big movies. I’m not talking about Wonder Woman or Christopher Nolan films; I’m talking about independent films. I think there’s something to seeing Shirley in the theater. It’s visually really beautiful, and there’s sound design that’s beautiful, and all of that. So, I think there’s nothing like it, seeing a movie in a theater. But at the same time, people can see stuff at home, and they don’t have to go out now. I think anytime good work is put out there, it does make you try harder in whatever field, whatever medium it is.

DEADLINE: Over the summer, you launched your production company, Love & Squalor, and you already have a ton of projects in development. How would you describe the mission behind the projects you’re developing?

MOSS: I think ultimately, my producer partner, Lindsay [McManus] and I just want to continue to be able to tell good stories that we’d love to watch, whether it’s a film or a television show. We also like to do different things. We don’t have a set agenda of, “We are going to tell these kinds of stories.” We want to tell all kinds of stories, involving all kinds of people, from all walks of life, and all genders and races. That’s really important to us, and one of the things that we want to do is have things that aren’t just about me being in it. There are several things, of course, that I’m in, but we’re also developing things that I’m not in, and shouldn’t be in, or have no place in.

We’re pretty much 50-50, film and television right now. We’re very non-discriminatory in that way, and every single one of our projects is different. I think that’s the only thing that we try to do, is make sure we’re not making two of the same thing.

DEADLINE: Is there one particular project you’re really excited about at the moment?

MOSS: It’s really hard for me to pick favorites, because we really try not to take anything on, where we don’t believe we can carry that ball all the way. We’re very hands-on producers, so we have to love everything we do. We have to feel like, “No one else can make this, we have to make it, and we’ll die trying.” We really feel like we have to be that passionate about it because it’s tough to get things made, especially when you’ve got 500 shows on television and streaming right now.

But I would say Shining Girls is something for Apple that we’re getting into next, and that, I’m really excited about. We’re getting into the casting and crewing up of that. That’s going to be really cool. We’re doing something called Mrs. March—which we’ve partnered with Blumhouse on—that I really, really love, and it’s completely different from Shining Girls, which is cool. It’s a feature, and very dark and twisty, and hopefully scary. So, those two I’m really excited about.

The Katie Hill project [She Will Rise], we’re really excited about, and we’re taking it out right now. That’s quite the story, and she is quite the woman. I was actually just texting Jason Blum about that this morning, because we’re partnering with Blumhouse again on that—and Candy is going to be f—ing awesome. I don’t know if you know anything about Candy Montgomery, but that is also a fascinating woman. [Laughs] She’s still alive, she’s out there, and that, I find absolutely fascinating. We’re so excited to be working with Robin Veith on that, who I worked with on Mad Men, and Mike Uppendahl—and of course, playing to the home team, with Hulu.

DEADLINE: Recently, you were able to direct for the first time, on Season 4 of The Handmaid’s Tale. Will you do more of it?

MOSS: Absolutely. Directing this season has truly been this gift that I never anticipated would be so fulfilling. It was something that we toyed with on Season 3—something we’d been trying to make work—but it’s always very difficult for the lead actor to direct. We finally figured it out this year, and I’m so glad that we did, and honored, and all of that, and then it just ended up being so much more fun, and so much more fulfilling and interesting, than I ever thought it would be.

And obviously, it’s a lot of work. I have always had the utmost respect for directors. They’ve always been the person that is probably most important to me, personally, as an actor on set, but my respect has gone through the f—ing roof. Just the amount of things that you have to think about, and the amount of things that are under your care, is mind-boggling. So, to somebody who can actually do it really, really well, I just bow down. But it’s been incredible, and I actually haven’t talked about this: I directed Episode 3, and I got rehired to direct Episodes 8 and 9, as well. I guess it meant that I did a good job, which was exciting.

DEADLINE: You’ve also had the chance of late to work with Wes Anderson and Taika Waititi, two of the industry’s most respected auteurs, on their upcoming films The French Dispatch and Next Goal Wins. What were those experiences like?

MOSS: Man, are they completely different. It’s actually a very interesting lesson in how there’s really no right way to do it, because they have completely different styles, cinematically, but also behind the camera, as directors. I asked them both for directing advice, and I’m not going to remember exactly what it was now, but they both gave completely different pieces of advice.

[With] Wes, obviously, there’s a lot of pre-planning, because the production design and the visuals are really, really important. So, you step into his world, and it’s this entire world, from top to bottom, that’s been created by him and his team. And it’s truly the most incredible experience. Working on his films is like walking into a Wes Anderson film. That’s the only way I can describe it, you know? He’s obviously also so kind, and a lovely, lovely person, who really seems to enjoy what he does.

And then Taika is just so much fun. He’s so liberating, there’s a ton of improv on our film. There’s so much spontaneity and last-minute ideas, and you’re just trying to make Taika happy. You’re just trying to make him laugh the whole time. It’s really fun, and really, really creative, and he’s also a lovely person. But they’re completely different energies.

DEADLINE: Is there anything more you can share about what’s to come next season on The Handmaid’s Tale?

MOSS: I’m leaving for set in 20 minutes. We’re halfway through the season. I will say that the first half of this season is definitely bigger than we’ve ever done. It has been incredibly challenging. It has been, on a production level, really, really outside of our box, and it’s just bigger in every way. It’s one of those things where you’re going to think that something’s going a certain way in Episode 1, and then you’re going to have that change in Episode 2. Then, you’re going to have it change again in Episode 3, and you’re never going to quite be able to figure out where it’s going.

DEADLINE: Obviously, 2020 was an interesting, but incredibly difficult year for many people. Do you think the year changed you? Are there things it made you think about in a different way?

MOSS: I think it’s only reinforced and made stronger ideas and instincts that I kind of had before. One of the things I was able to do during the shutdown was open this company with Lindsay, and it was really interesting to be doing that, at that time, talking about the kind of stories we wanted to tell, with everything that was going on around us, and talking about inclusivity, and talking about different kinds of people in this world, and how we wanted to be inclusive of them. And I think that just reinforced our idea behind the company, which was just, we’re very, very lucky to be able to do what we do. I’m very, very fortunate to be in the position that I’m in, and I would love to be able to use that platform, with her as my partner, to lift up other people and support their stories.

Best of Deadline

Sign up for Deadline's Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.