Elisabeth Moss’s silent but strong performance as June in Hulu’s original series The Handmaid’s Tale shook the public with its timely and dark relevance. For earlier fans, we know her as Peggy Olson, unexpected talent with an ambitious outlook from AMC’s series Mad Men. She doesn’t stop there – after winning a Golden Globe for best performing actress in Top of the Lake, she returns for a second season of the BBC series Top of the Lake: China Girl as Robin Griffin. For the second season of the critically acclaimed crime drama, we see a female-heavy cast and directorial team – Jane Campion, Gwendoline Christie, and Nicole Kidman. Following its highly successful first season, Top of the Lake: China Girl has already made waves at Cannes Film Festival.
In this exclusive interview, Marie Claire speaks to Elisabeth Moss about the return of her character, working with director Jane Campion, and the dark twisted side of Top of the Lake.
What are the qualities in Robin that made you want to play her again?
What I love most about Robin is, from an actor’s perspective of playing her, not necessarily her best quality. It’s her flaws, her vulnerability. And her ability to be strong when she needs to be and to fight for justice and fight for the truth in her work. So the juxtaposition of that with the complete chaos in her personal life and her inability to get that under control; this season she’s so much more messed up than she ever has been before. It’s been a challenge to play, but it’s also been really fun.
How did Jane Campion approach you about doing Top of the Lake: China Girl?
It came up in conversation over sushi in Queenstown – “What if there was a season two?” There never was supposed to be a season two. And we all were like “Oh, that’s kind of exciting”. Then over a year later, I was actually at the Emmys in LA. Jane and I met for lunch and she said to me, “So, if we did a season two, would you do it? I can’t really do it without Robin”. I said yes, I would love to, but it needs to be more challenging than season one. Otherwise there’s really no point, because we did a really good job with the first season, I felt, and we were all very proud of it, and people really liked it, and why do it again if we weren’t going to challenge ourselves and to make it even more interesting for ourselves and for the audience? And so I said “I just want her to be challenged.” I remember so clearly saying that, and I remember on the way to the Emmys thinking about that and about how she could be challenged, what she might be going through. I just left that with Jane, and three years later she did it. She wrote this challenge that was much better than I could have ever thought of. It was a very complex, much more interesting challenge than I think you normally present a character in, in a second season.
Were you surprised by how well received Top of the Lake was?
Yeah. I don’t want to say I was surprised because that sounds like we weren’t expecting it. It’s just you think it’s good, but you just never know if an audience is going to agree with you. And it was so dark and so weird and the tone of Jane Campion is so strange. So you really throw your hands up and go, “I don’t know if anyone’s going to get this.”
So the fact that it went over so well, it’s a testament to audiences’ intelligence, which I have experienced before in previous work on television. But it was a true honour because we all worked really hard on it and really long hours and really tough conditions. It was not a glamorous situation; it was really for the love of it and for the love of Jane, for the passion of the project. So it’s always amazing when you put your heart into something and you get all these cherries on top of people really liking it and wanting to give you honours. It’s a wonderfully gratifying thing.
What was it like working with Jane Campion the second time?
Where do I begin? There’s nobody like Jane. I’ve worked with many different directors and many wonderful directors. I’ve had the privilege of working with some very talented amazing people, well known, and not well known, and there’s something about the way that she speaks to you and about the way that she guides you on set that isn’t like anyone else. She has this very in-tune way of guiding you through a scene. She’ll say something that you just go “Oh, I didn’t think about it that way”. Or she’ll come up to you and say, “This is your playground sweetie. Just have fun.”
There’s been a lot more of that in season two because we know each other quite well now; we’ve known each other for over four years, which I guess doesn’t sound like that long, but it’s been a really deep relationship and an intense relationship. There’s a lot of trust that’s been built from season one. So there’s a shorthand now that makes things really easy. When you feel like a director trusts you that just gives you so much freedom and so much confidence. That’s the other thing too, she knows me so well as an actor that she knows if I can give something else. She knows if I’ve already given it. And I know her very well as a director, so I know when she’s looking for something that she hasn’t gotten yet and I know when she feels like she’s gotten it but she’s just going to keep doing it for fun and see if she can get something else. We’re very honest with each other.
Behind the scenes: Jane Campion
How did you feel about a new second director, Ariel Kleiman, being on board?
Jane does have an incredible gift for finding new talent and I trust her one thousand percent in that regard. She did it with Garth and I believe that she’s done it again with Ari. He’s kind of this magical creature. He has a very enthusiastic youthful quality. And it’s interesting with this material, which is so dark and so complex and really just terrible, we’re in terrible situations. We’re at a brothel, we’re at a morgue, we’re at a beach, there’s a dead body. It’s very dark. And he’s just laughing and he’s so excited. This enthusiasm that he has is so infectious and it makes it so fun to go to work with him.
When you go into working with a director for the first time there’s always a little sense of “Do I trust you? Do you know how to direct me? Do I like your notes?” In the beginning I found myself challenging him. I’m coming into a character that I’ve played before so I was, “I know how to do this and I don’t need, you know, you’re wrong”. I was challenging him quite a bit. And two things: One, he loves it; he loves to be challenged just like Jane does frankly. Loves the questions, loves to be in there in the trenches with you. Secondly, after a couple of weeks he would give me a note and I would say “I’m sorry, okay”. And I would try it and I would love it. It would be a great idea. So after a couple of weeks I started just doing what he said because I was like, “You’re right.” There’s never a right and wrong really, I just found that his notes were really pushing me and Jane told me that she told him, “You can push her, you can challenge her.”
Going to work with him is an absolute joy. I know I’m going to be begging him to put me in whatever he does next. I know we’re never going to be able to get him back for another season; he’s just going be on a career path that is going to be really unstoppable.
Were you kept informed as the story came together for Top of the Lake: China Girl?
I knew quite a bit about season two as it was coming together because Jane would write me and ask me questions or tell me little things here and there. It was a constant dialogue for three years about it. So there were big plot points that I knew were coming. But it was all the nuance, all the detail and the strange Campionesque things that go into something like this that really surprised me and I loved so much. Without spoiling anything, the thing that we reveal in the flashback and some things that have happened over the last four years to Robin have put her in this really, really dark place. She’s not had an easy life, this girl. So she starts out in Season 2 in this much darker place, and really messed up, so when I was reading it for the first time I was like “yes, yes, yes, yes!”
What are the key themes that Season 2 deals with that are different to Season 1?
The themes of season one very much are about children. Robin coming back to her childhood home – revisiting her childhood, her childhood with her mother, her childhood with her father. This horrific experience that happens when she’s sixteen. She’s obviously still a child. Tui representing a child, and then the barista ring, the children there. So it was about children in season one.
I feel like season two is about parenthood, and specifically motherhood. The different kinds of motherhood, the different ways that people become a mother, how motherhood doesn’t always have to do with being a biological mother. Robin having had a child and giving birth to a child but then not raising it. Nicole’s character having not given birth to the child, but raised her. And then these surrogates, these women who are objectified and put into a position that is not only illegal but incredibly heartbreaking.
And then the parents who want these children that the surrogates are carrying and these parents who have tried IVF twelve times and who having a baby and becoming a mother has become all confusing. Which is a very prevalent thing in our society, and it’s something that is really not discussed because it’s so painful. I really feel like this season is so much about being a mother and being a parent and it’s really interesting going from that very strong theme of season one to an even stronger theme in season two, with all of these plot lines being connected around this central idea. But done in a subtle a brilliant subtle way, and it’s so believable. All of these storylines converging and becoming important for an emotional reason and not for a plot line reason. But also being super interesting and mysterious and awesome and page turning.
What were the biggest developments for you and Robin in Season 2?
Because Robin is back in Sydney, she’s back on the police force, officially. She was unofficially on the police force in New Zealand, but here she’s actually there, she’s at the police station, she’s carrying a weapon, she has a badge. We shot tons of stuff at the police station. I was sort of a rogue police officer in season one. So this one I really actually had to act like I knew what I was doing. We had a wonderful consultant, Chrissie, with the Newtown Police. And she is the best version of Robin Griffin. She’s Robin without all of the hang-ups and without all of the flaws. She is an incredibly strong amazing woman, so inspiring to me honestly, and we became quite close over the past five months.
Then obviously the other one would be my relationship with Mary, my daughter. I loved that part. To play with that was so interesting. One thing Jane and I discussed really early on was, what is that relationship? You’ve given birth to this person, but you haven’t spent any time with her. So, is she your daughter? Just because you gave birth to her doesn’t necessarily mean that you feel like you’re her mother. Because motherhood isn’t just that, as anyone who is not a biological mother would understand. We really wanted to explore the idea that when she meets Mary she has no idea what she’s doing, and she doesn’t feel like a mum. It was really fun exploring that idea and Robins feeling of inadequacy about not feeling like a mother and not feeling anything, and then this incredible arc that was built of her getting to know her daughter and getting to know herself as a mother. What a journey to go on for her to be able to come to terms with that and for her to be able to become a mother in her own way.
And then she has this friendship with Pyke, played by Ewen Leslie and they start to co-parent accidentally, almost out of necessity. Through that co-parenting and through that love for their daughter, they fall in love themselves, in this very beautiful surprising way. I think that it’s exactly what Robin needs. There might be a shade of like a happy ending for Robin, you might just get a hint of “this might actually turn out okay.”
And there is another kind of love story for Robin in Season 2, isn’t there?
Yeah, I think it is going to be very surprising for the audience, this yin and yang team of Robin and Miranda. These two people who obviously not only look so different, but act so different. It starts out in this quite humorous place of Miranda being this fan girl of Robin. And then mutates into this terrible argumentative, judgmental, hurtful relationship. And then they have this amazing scene where they have it out and reveal things to each other.
Did you and Gwendoline Christie get close through working so closely together?
I don’t even know where to begin. She’s the love of my life! I thought I would like her, you know, and I’m a fan of hers as an actor, but it’s been this really wonderful deep friendship that has happened. Sometimes you meet people and you know that you’re going to be friends with them for the rest of your life. Season one I didn’t really have that buddy, Robin didn’t have that friend. It’s been really amazing in season two to have this female relationship. This actress, another woman, to act opposite, it’s been a really interesting and special surprise out of this season for me as an actor and, and it ends up being the same for Robin as well.
How important is Sydney as the location for Season 2?
Well, New Zealand was so much about the wilderness outside, and this season, season two, is about the wilderness within, and that is very much represented by the story but also very much represented by Sydney. Obviously it’s a much more urban landscape. It is much more modern in a lot of ways. But at the same time we have this coastline that we’re dealing with and shooting at a lot. And so we’ve gone from this very still, freezing cold still lake, to this ocean and this coastline and these beaches that are temperamental and change all the time and look different. To me the ocean is the other character as much as Sydney.
We did get a chance to show New Zealand to a large part of the world that hasn’t been there, and I’m actually really excited to be able to show Sydney to a large part of the world that hasn’t had the opportunity to come. I know the city really well now, and it’s become a very strange second home for me, which is so weird, because I have no reason for Australia to be my home.
Top of the Lake: China Girl premieres worldwide this Friday 28/7. Catch up with Season 1 and watch Season 2 exclusively on the BBC Player.