Elisabeth Moss: My dream birthday? Three days alone

The unstoppable star of The Handmaid’s Tale turns 40 this summer. But, as ELISABETH MOSS tells Julia Llewellyn Smith, she doesn’t want a big bash. She would, however, like a baby… PHOTOGRAPHS:RAMONA ROSALES

Elisabeth Moss is laughing as she describes how she feels about turning 40 in July. ‘I’m definitely not one of those people who gets upset about big birthdays, probably because I’m in a very good place,’ she says. ‘It’s so weird. I don’t feel like I’m nearly 40, but then I’ve lived such a ton of life I should probably be turning 70.’

She’s right about the ‘ton of life’. Elisabeth (or Lizzie, as everyone calls her) has been acting since she was six. Over the past couple of decades, she’s been dubbed ‘the Queen of Peak TV’ for her starring roles as June, the subversive slave in The Handmaid’s Tale; Peggy Olson, the secretary who makes it all the way to the top of the sexist advertising profession in Mad Men, and Zoey, the maverick daughter of the US president in The West Wing, a part she secured aged just 17.

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They’re all fiery, trailblazing women, determined to overcome the systems in which they’re trapped– from June’s oppressive dystopian government, to Peggy’s sexist workplace, to Zoey’s fishbowl White House existence. ‘I’m really interested in playing everyday heroes: normal people, who aren’t trained fighters, who have no special skills – the mother who lifts up a car to rescue her trapped child,’ she says. ‘That’s not to say I wouldn’t love to wear a cape and play a superhero and fly around – that would be super-fun. But what really excites me is the mum who lives in the suburbs and becomes a superhero.’

Sipping on green juice from a takeaway cup, Elisabeth is sitting in a very unglamorous timbered room outside Toronto where she’s filming season five of The Handmaid’s Tale. She is funny, warm and upbeat– totally different from the slightly intimidating characters she’s made her own. Comedian Melissa McCarthy, of Bridesmaids fame, confessed she was terrified about working with her on the film The Kitchen, thinking she’d be ‘intense and surrounded by flames and Chaucer books’.

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Elisabeth in The Handmaid’s Tale

‘I thought that was so funny!’ Elisabeth hoots. ‘But I can see why she said that. You watch my work and it looks like I’m really dark, walking around under a cloud all the time. But that’s just not the case. If I went around like June, I don’t know that I’d survive. I wouldn’t want to be around me!’ Her latest show won’t change those preconceptions. Shining Girls on Apple TV+ is the story of Kirby, who survives an attack by a serial killer and then years later – still struggling with the traumatic aftereffects – is determined to track him down. ‘What Kirby’s gone through with the assault was just an incredible analogy for trauma and loss, and I think we’ve all been through that with the pandemic,’ Elisabeth says.

I was gripped by the four episodes I saw and can’t wait for more. ‘That’s awesome!’ Elisabeth beams. Of course, we all love a compliment but for her it’s a bigger deal than usual, since not only does she star in the show, she also executive produced it and directed two episodes, as the first venture of her new production company Love and Squalor.

It’s an incredibly impressive feat. It also sounds like a huge amount of work. ‘That’s what I prefer,’ Elisabeth says perkily. ‘I’m definitely a person who likes to be busy and juggling a lot of balls at the same time, and to be as involved as possible with any project I’m on. That’s when I feel fully alive.’

Elisabeth’s been working on sets for as long as she can remember, appearing throughout her childhood in commercials and made-for-television films. ‘I never just showed up and was only interested in my part –I was always intensely intrigued by the whole process: what the cameras were doing, what the other actors were up to,’ she says.

Born and brought up in Los Angeles, she grew up in a bohemian household. Her mother Linda played the harmonica alongside such blues greats as BB King, while her British dad Ron managed jazz musicians and her younger brother Derek, to whom she’s very close, is now a filmmaker.

elisabeth moss

Much has been made of the fact that both Elisabeth’s parents were part of the controversial Church of Scientology and raised their children in it. Elisabeth refuses to discuss the religion, but you get the impression that – as someone brought up in ‘the Church’, rather than converting like Tom Cruise and John Travolta– she might not subscribe to all its tenets. Her stances on feminism and gay rights, for example, are very far removed from those preached by Scientology founder L Ron Hubbard.

When a fan on Instagram compared the Republic of Gilead’s oppressive regime in The Handmaid’s Tale to Hubbard’s, Elisabeth responded: ‘Religious freedom and tolerance and understanding the truth and equal rights for every race, religion and creed are extremely important to me. The most important things to me probably. And so Gilead and The Handmaid’s Tale hit me on a very personal level.’

If anything was strange about Elisabeth’s childhood she doesn’t mention it, recalling happy, carefree times. ‘We grew up with musicians coming over, jamming. We had tons of instruments. So holidays were always 50 people [at the house] and everyone playing jazz.’

I’d read that she was home-schooled, implying she’d been sequestered from the rest of the world, but she says this was only to keep up with academic work. From the age of five she studied ballet and attended a specialist ballet school in her teens.

‘When people talk about home-schooling, the number-one thing that [they say] is missed is the social interactions, but I didn’t miss that because my girlfriends were at ballet school, there were boys, there were cliques, there was drama. I had all that.’

While she attended the school, Elisabeth’s focus was on becoming a dancer – acting was just something she did for fun. But then at 15, she was suddenly struck with the fear that any dancer’s career could be cut horribly short by injury, so she made the very mature decision to switch to acting. She won her West Wing role two years later.

Yet for someone whose entire life has been spent in showbiz, Elisabeth comes across as almost jarringly normal, or – as Melissa McCarthy summed up – ‘Not weird.’ We discuss the recent Will Smith Oscars drama, in which Elisabeth’s clearly as engrossed as the rest of the world.

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Elisabeth in The Kitchen with Tiffany Haddish

‘I was in a meeting and had actually forgotten the Oscars were happening when I got this text: “Will Smith slapped Chris Rock!” I texted back, “Pardon?”’ And what did she make of it all? ‘There’s no way I’m wading into that!’ she shrieks. ‘But I’m as fascinated and shocked as everyone else. I totally get that. I’m very interested to hear Chris Rock’s next comedy special.’

How is she so down to earth? ‘I was saved because I didn’t become “famous”– or start being recognised in public – until Mad Men, so I didn’t have to deal with any of that stuff until I was older. Before that I was just a professional working actor, unemployed a lot of the time, and that kept me very honest.’

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In Mad Men alongside Jon Hamm

Her first taste of the darker side of fame came in 2010 when her marriage to Saturday Night Live actor and comedian Fred Armisen ended after less than a year. Elisabeth was completely unnerved by reports purporting to know why they’d split. ‘That was a really eye-opening experience. [Before then] I’d read gossip and taken it to be truer than I probably should have. Then, when it happened to me, I realised, “Oh my God, they just completely make it up!” It is a shocking, terrible racket and I’ve only had a tiny bit of it – I’m not Jennifer Aniston, who has an incredible amount of press. I don’t have paparazzi following me: I can’t imagine what it’s like for her.’

Since then, she’s largely succeeded in keeping her private life to herself. She dated Australian cinematographer Adam Arkapaw for around three years among other relationships, but politely declines to reveal her romantic status. ‘It’s a private area that I’ll keep private,’ she says.

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With her ex-husband Fred Armisen in 2009

Yet she’s frank that she’s getting broody. ‘I definitely want to have kids because I’ve been very inspired by the kind of mother my mum is. She did a beautiful thing with me.’ She adds, ‘And then I’ll give the child to my mum and she can raise it because she’d do it very well!’

Sounds like an excellent plan to me. ‘Some of my friends with small kids say so!’

She’s always been close to her mother (her parents split when she was in her teens), but their bond grew even stronger during the pandemic, when – living virtually across the street from one another in New York’s Upper West Side – they saw each other daily. ‘It was really special for us, spending concentrated time together, a silver lining to a very dark, strange time.’

Despite their bond, Elisabeth can’t understand women who say their mother is their best friend. ‘I have very good best friends, but I only have one mother and I want her to be that. I want her to listen to me and give me good advice and take care of me like only a mother can.’

Much of that advice seems to centre on urging Elisabeth to take a break from her vast workload. ‘My mother knows me really well and is a big advocate of making sure I have the time to be healthy, happy and sane so I can continue doing what I love. If I work six days a week, she’ll make sure I have that Sunday to take a walk, exercise and watch bad television.’

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Does Elisabeth ever get more than a Sunday off? She grins ruefully. ‘I take breaks, but it’s bull**** – it basically means I’m not going on set every day.’ She did make it to Paris for Christmas and New Year. ‘It was absolutely lovely and the most time off I’ve really taken in a while. But I was still working.’

Paris was one of her rare trips when she wasn’t accompanied by her two cats Ethel and Lucy (‘Much to their chagrin!’). Normally, they follow her everywhere. ‘I’m away for seven or eight months of the year; having them with me makes a place feel more like home.’

She’s not sure what’s coming next: her production company is handling dozens of projects, all of which she’s passionate about. She says – laughing – that her method for selecting roles is based on envy. ‘I’m often in a circle of actors – Rose Byrne, Kirsten Dunst or Claire Foy – who tend to be offered the same material. They’re very good and I respect them. So if I hate the idea of Rose Byrne doing it, if the idea fills me with rage and jealousy, then that’s a sign I need to accept that part.’

As our time together comes to an end, our talk returns to Elisabeth’s upcoming 40th. Friends are pressuring her to have a party. ‘Everyone’s saying, “You’re supposed to have a big thing!” and I cannot imagine anything worse. I’m not a big party person because my entire life is spent around people. I see 150 people every day, there are always meetings, phone calls. For me, the idea of a celebration is to just be alone for three days. That would be the best birthday ever.’

Shining Girls will be on Apple TV+ from 29 April


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