Elisabeth Moss on the Impact of 'The Handmaid's Tale'

By David Hochman | August 27, 2018 | People Feature

Amid Emmy season madness, Elisabeth Moss surveys her glittering domain as the Queen of Peak TV.

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This time of year is always pleasantly surreal for Elisabeth Moss. Hardly a September passes without her navigating the red-carpeted run-up to the Emmy Awards (she finally won in 2017 after nearly a decade of nominations); and then, in October, come the Halloween costumes.

“For a while, it was all about Peggy in a tight ’60s dress carrying a martini glass,” Moss says with a smile. Peggy Olson was the determined copywriter she played on Mad Men for seven seasons. This was after she spent seven seasons as Martin Sheen’s daughter on The West Wing. Now the trick-or-treat pick is Offred, the dystopian protagonist Moss portrays on the Hulu drama The Handmaid’s Tale, which earned her dual Emmys last year for acting and producing. “Honestly, I didn’t see it coming, this fascination with the long red robe and the white bonnet,” she says.

It is not lost on Moss that these tributes—high, low and fashionable—add up to validation both about her exemplary decision-making and her ability to totally rock a period frock. “When people all over are dressing up like you, it’s definitely flattering and also kinda bizarre,” she says. “You realize how much of this work is beyond your control.”

That’s certainly the case lately for Moss. With television hit after hit after hit after hit (the 2013 miniseries Top of the Lake landed her a Golden Globe, a Critics’ Choice Award and an Emmy nod), she’s been dubbed “The Queen of Peak TV.” But now with two seasons of The Handmaid’s Tale streaming to universal acclaim, and a third on its way in 2019, Moss, 36, is an unwitting icon in a culture waking up to #MeToo, the treatment of immigrants and the battle over women’s bodies. The drama, based on Margaret Atwood’s dark classic, is set in an authoritarian alternate present that many say mirrors the far-right extremism of current-day politics. Radical Muslims are blamed for government problems, and women are stripped of basic rights and sexually violated. Much of what draws people to the series is Moss’ unflinching portrayal of Offred, a woman who submits to ritualized rape on a regular basis as part of her duty to male masters. It makes sense that the character’s gown-and-hood look is a staple alongside pink hats at women’s rights rallies.

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“We never intended to copy what’s happening in the world, but like most other people, I feel that things on the show are way too close to home,” Moss says. “It’s this sense of, ‘Hey, if we don’t pay attention, if we stop listening, if we fail to take action against injustice, we’re getting pretty close to the dystopia we see on-screen.’”

Lizzie Moss didn’t set out to become a feminist meme. Growing up in Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles, the older of two kids to musicians Ron and Linda Moss, she was on track for a career in dance, having studied ballet as a teen at The School of American Ballet in New York City and The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., while pursuing an acting career. But when her side passion of acting began paying off, Moss made the decision at 15 to commit to show business full time. “I could imagine not dancing, but I couldn’t imagine not acting for the rest of my life,” she says. At 17, she won the recurring part of first daughter Zoey Bartlet on The West Wing and has worked steadily and to great acclaim ever since. “I’ve been doing this long enough to see how fortunate I’ve been, and I never take it for granted,” she says. “It’s unusual as an actor to feel that sense of security, so I sometimes just kinda pinch myself.”

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Moss, who can be slightly imposing despite being only 5 feet, 3 inches tall, lives in Manhattan now and stays mostly quiet about her personal life. A few details are well-known: She and actor Fred Armisen were married in 2009 and separated the following year. Also, she was born and raised a Scientologist. Moss has said the church helps “[make you] a better you, not necessarily changing who you are,” and with “empowerment and respecting yourself as an individual.” On this particular day, with meetings and fittings, cats to be fed and laundry to be done, along with filming Her Smell, out next year, Moss laughs and says, “My spiritual life consists mostly of trying to watch a little TV and get enough sleep.” Pressed further about her religion and the increasing focus on it, she says, “It’s an odd feeling. I put myself emotionally into my work. Beyond that, I have to keep something for myself.”

It’s hard to find an actor more emotionally all-in. The second season of The Handmaid’s Tale opens with Moss stripped bare in an intense sex romp with costar Max Minghella. Another scene has her lopping off her hair along with a chunk of her GPS-tagged left ear to avoid being tracked by the menaces from Red Center. The brutality has been a sticking point for some viewers. Does showing women being mistreated on-screen ever cross a line for Moss?

“The guiding principle is honesty,” she says. “Whatever you see in terms of violence or sex is an accurate representation of the world we’re in, which is why it never feels false or gratuitous. I think that’s a common thread in all my work. The question is always: ‘Does this feel real? Are we being true? Because it’s only by being accurate to reality that audiences can escape from it for a little while.”

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Moss escapes whenever she can. She’s an avid traveler and especially loves Italy and New Zealand. In the infinitesimal spaces between jobs, she’s learning to play piano and guitar for her upcoming role as lead singer of a punk rock band in Her Smell and spends quality time with her cats, Lucy and Ethel, who were found on the street in Brooklyn when she was making Listen Up Philip. “They’re quite famous,” Moss says, arching an eyebrow. “Lucy’s kind of private but Ethel is kind of a big deal, at least on social media.” (A recent Instagram post on @elisabethmossofficial that showed the feline lounging luxuriously in Moss’ Upper West Side apartment—it was slugged “Current mood. #ethel”—got more than 15,000 likes.)

Chalk it up as one more fascinating side effect of being Elisabeth Moss. In a way, having a celebrity pet is no more unreal than Oprah walking over to say she loves The Handmaid’s Tale (“Totally crazy!” Moss says) or Hillary Clinton praising the “amazing” series in front of 10,000 middle and high school girls, as she did at Los Angeles Convention Center last year (“I was like, ‘Holy shit!’”). And who knows what will happen this year on Halloween? “I was shooting last year, so I missed it,” she says, “but if I need a costume, I know where I can get one.”

Categories: People Feature

Shot on Location at Jack Studios, New York City; Photography by Tony Kim; Styling by Jacqueline Zenere; Hair by celebrity consulting hairstylist Tommy Buckett using Garnier; Makeup by Daniel Martin using Dior; Manicure by Kristina Konarski; Photo assistant: Briscoe Savoy; Digital Tech: Joseph Overbey

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