On AMC’s Mad Men she played Peggy Olson, the first female copywriter at Don Draper’s advertising agency. Her performance as an unapologetically driven wordsmith, someone who openly resented being overlooked professionally because of her gender, who never minced words about her ambition, and who didn’t strive to be likable or cute, earned her six Emmy nominations.
Now, Elisabeth Moss, 34, is tackling the kind of role Peggy would have clamored to write: that of Offred, the reproductive sexual slave in Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. She produced the series, premiering April 26, and got involved in all aspects of production, from dialogue to attire.
For anyone who’s read Atwood’s dystopian novel, which came out in 1985 and is now topping bestseller lists, the indelible attire of a handmaid — a fertile woman whose ovaries are handed over to powerful but barren couples in the hopes of producing a child via a brutal and soulless ceremony that’s basically rape — is the red cloak.
“When we designed the costume, Ane Crabtree and I had a couple of stipulations. It had to be really comfortable. It had be a great fabric that could breathe. And it had to be something I wanted to put on every day. I felt good in it. It was flattering for everybody,” Moss tells Yahoo Style. “When we did the flashbacks and I had to wear modern clothes, I hated it.”
Wearing that cape, coupled with a white bonnet with built-in blinders to stop the handmaids from seeing too much, “didn’t weigh on me. It’s pretend. I do think that I had respect for it. It helped me so much with the character. I had a sentimentality about it. It didn’t hinder me. It made me feel like I was in that world every time I put that on. I’m not a method actor. I’m the last thing from a method actor. It’s pretend, what we do for a living, and we get paid for it,” says Moss.
Clearly, the look is potent with meaning. And the series is one of the year’s most anticipated, with Variety calling it “a worthy, heartbreaking adaptation of the text, anchored by strong performances and profound visual grammar” and Harper’s Bazaar summing it up as “stunning.”
You can add timely to the mix. In March, a group of women donned the cloaks to protest anti-abortion measures being debated in the Texas senate. And even though the book itself came out more than 30 years ago, it’s even more relevant today, as men in power rule how and when women can control their own bodies and the defunding of Planned Parenthood continues to be a hot-button political issue.
“The fact that the book has that relevance is not a new thing. History tends to come back around and it does repeat itself. With things happening in the country now, of course it has this relevance,” says Moss.
Her performance is searing and soulful and at times truly difficult to watch in the best sense. Her haunting, desperate eyes stick with you. Initially, Moss’s June is happily married, and the mother of a young daughter, when slice by slice, her rights are taken away — and protests achieve nothing.
The topics under discussion are heavy, to say the least, but in person, Moss is lightness in human form. She’s outgoing and gregarious, arriving to this interview in a chic Rochas ensemble, but promptly changes into sweats and Uggs the minute her on-camera duties are done.
It’s why she waxes poetic about the many positives of headlining such a thought-provoking series. For starters: minimal time in the makeup chair, since Offred is shorn of anything sexual or pretty or feminine. She’s a fertility machine, whose survival hinges on her ability to reproduce. There’s no need for mascara or lip-gloss.
“That was a huge plus. Huge plus. Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t like getting up in the morning. I will push as late as possible to be on set. The fact that my makeup and hair took 30-45 minutes at the most was amazing,” she says.
And the grueling schedule had its own rewards.
“If you’re not sleeping a lot because you’re working your ass off and you get dark circles and bags under your eyes — the more you have, the better. You’re supposed to look stressed. In fact, one night I got sleep. I came in and my makeup artist was like, ‘Oh dear,’ and was disappointed that I didn’t have the dark circles under my eyes that we needed,” she says.
The script came to her a year ago, while she was shooting the second season of Top of the Lake in Australia. She read the first episode and was smitten. By Episode 2, she was enamored.
“It took a while for me to say yes. I wanted to make sure it would be what I wanted it to be: really, balls to the wall and be brave about it,” she says. “I was thinking about not doing it and I couldn’t sleep. The thought of someone else doing it really bothered me.”
Maybe it’s because Moss is unabashed about her beliefs. If the Clare V. shirt she wore in Washington, baring the phrase JE SUIS UNE SUFFRAGETTE, doesn’t spell it out, Moss will do it for you.
“I cannot imagine a world where I would not be a feminist,” she says.
And she doesn’t have much patience for those in the public eye who parse words, and hesitate to use the ‘F word’ when describing themselves.
“Saying you’re not a feminist is like saying you’re not a human being. Women’s rights are human rights. It’s not about men and women. It’s about humans,” she says. “I can’t imagine not being one. As for equal pay: It’s so important to speak out about that stuff. And not for actors — for teachers, for people making minimum wage.”
At a time when actresses vie for the few truly meaty roles out there — and during a year that thus far has yielded the must-see female-led HBO series Big Little Lies — Moss can truly own that she’s embodied two of the small screen’s most indelible women: Peggy Olson and Offred. Or, as she prefers to call her, June.
“I’m very proud of it. Exceedingly proud of it. These are complicated, interesting women. They’re strong and vulnerable and good and bad. For me, I’m very proud of it. As long as I continue playing human beings, I suppose I’ll continue playing feminists,” she says.
The series ends in a way that it leaves it open for another season, something that Moss hopes will happen. Throughout the episodes, her character never loses her dry sense of humor, her perfectly timed sarcasm, or grasp of the absurd. In real life, says Moss, she’d be the same way: She’d never stop fighting the good fight.
“Oh yeah, absolutely, of course. I think that a lot of people would,” she says. “You don’t know how you’re going to find your heroism until it happens to you. I would never give up and I would intend to survive as she does.”
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