Elisabeth Moss: ‘Something is actually wrong here and I’m not going crazy’

Elisabeth Moss: "The idea of using The Invisible Man as an analogy for gaslighting is so interesting." Photograph: Amanda Edwards/Getty Images
Unlike so many stars who failed to escape a career-making performance, Elisabeth Moss has hardly put a foot wrong since Mad Men – and her latest role is in the first-class Invisible Man

I’m not sure I could bear it if Elisabeth Moss turned out to be horrid. What if she pokes me in the eye with a pencil or tries to steal my phone? 

First registering as President Gasbag’s daughter in The West Wing, she has been a vital presence in the culture since the millennial years. In 2007, as that last show was being packed away, she began her role as the beating heart (and on-off conscience) of the era-defining Mad Men. Unlike so many TV stars who failed to escape a career-making performance, she has hardly put a foot wrong since. The Handmaid’s Tale speaks to our concerns about continuing misogyny. She was incandescent in films such as Us, Queen of Earth and (see it now) last year’s Her Smell.

The roll continues. Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man (no relation to the proposed and now dumped Johnny Depp project) could have been another drab remake, but, thanks to a fascinating elision with an unacknowledged source and, yes, another barnstormer from Mossy, it has ended up as a first-class nail-biter.

It would ruin everything if she were…

Oh, she’s in the anteroom. Wearing a tweed jacket and blue jeans, she’s come in to hullo the waiting hordes and check on friends. She certainly seems nice.

When I get into the interview, I am happy to tell her that The Invisible Man is awesome. She plays a young woman encouraged to question her sanity by an abusive partner who, presumed dead, has developed the powers detailed in the title. There is as much of George Cukor’s Gaslight – in which Charles Boyer terrorised Ingrid Bergman – here as there is of HG Wells’s The Invisible Man.

“Yes. The idea of using The Invisible Man as an analogy for gaslighting is so interesting,” she says. “It’s almost more of a remake of Gaslight than it is of The Invisible Man. Isn’t it funny? I watched that before we remade it. That felt more relevant than watching another Invisible Man film. The film could stand on its own even if it weren’t called The Invisible Man.”

She goes on to say that many women she talked to have recognised the heroine’s plight. Has she?

“Absolutely. We all have. That gut feeling: something is actually wrong here and I’m not going crazy.”

It’s good to see a reference to “gaslighting” that uses the verb correctly. Patrick Hamilton’s play, inspiration for Cukor’s film, gave us a useful term for abusers who subtly undermine the abused by persuading them to doubt the evidence of their senses. In recent years, the meaning has slipped. It’s been slung at Donald Trump more often than makes sense. He’s not gaslighting. He’s just lying.

I never trained in acting. I am basically very instinctive. When I am done, I am done. I want to have my cocktail and watch TV

“Yeah, yeah, yeah! He’s being quite obvious about it,” she agrees. “The true definition is a slow, painful manipulation. What Donald Trump’s doing is just hitting us over the head every day. He’s turning the lights off, saying he’s turning the lights off and saying it’s a good idea that they’re off. We’re still saying that we don’t want the lights off. We know we’re the sane ones.”

My great friend Elisabeth Moss and I are getting on like blazing properties. Look at us. If this goes on, I won’t feel able to ask her about being a Scientologist. 

‘There’s no process’

The near-universal affection for Moss is interesting. She hasn’t always played nice people. She rarely plays wet blankets (the swaggering Mad Men initially think that of Peggy, but they are wrong). But there is a warmth to her that invites emotional connection from most open-minded viewers. She could be us — even if “we” are several decades older and a man. That invitation to empathy makes the abuse her characters suffer in The Handmaid’s Tale and The Invisible Man harder to watch. Does she carry those imagined traumas around with her? Can she shake it off at the end of the day?

“Definitely!”

It’s not a method thing?

“No, it really isn’t. There’s no process. I never trained in acting. I hear people say things about that process and I understand what they mean: the beats of the scene, motivation, objective. There are times when I am having trouble and I go back to: what is the objective? But I am basically very instinctive. When I am done, I am done. I want to have my cocktail and watch TV.”

ELizabeth Moss as Peggy Olson: “She was smart, but she did stupid things sometimes.”
ELisabeth Moss as Peggy Olson: “She was smart, but she did stupid things sometimes.”

Raised in California, the daughter of musicians (both scientologists, something I may or may not get around to), she first thought of becoming a dancer and then drifted into juvenile acting roles. She tells me about learning “one approach” when, not yet a teenager, she followed Harvey Keitel about the set of Imaginary Crimes.

What about the darker side? We always knew bad things happened to young women on film sets. We know a lot more about that now.

“I was lucky. My experiences were comfortable,” she says. “My mother always protected me. But I have talked to a lot of girlfriends since Me Too and they have said things. ‘You remember that time? That guy? Yadda, yadda. Yeah, that really wasn’t right.’ That whole ‘boys will be boys’ thing. We found that we had made excuses in our own lives. In the last few years, I’ve thought about some things in the past and said to myself: ‘Oh yeah, we don’t do that anymore. Do we?’”

When you do something like The Handmaid’s Tale  you wonder if anybody is going to be able to watch it

This is interesting. So, the aftermath of Weinstein has made her retrospectively aware?

“We now work with an ‘intimacy co-ordinator’,” she says. “For any nudity, any sex scenes, any moments of uncomfortable physical contact, they can look at the script and flag up certain things. I remember saying to her: ‘You are doing the job I used to have to do for myself.’ I used to have to make sure that monitors are covered, that certain people aren’t around, that I am covered up.”

She reminisces more merrily about working with the “New York theatre actors on The West Wing”. That experience got her into millions of homes, but Peggy made her into a phenomenon. Though Mad Men’s figures were never enormous, its influence rampaged through post-millennial culture. Peggy’s arc – from secretary to ace copywriter – is at least as important as Don Draper’s. She was named “Olson” for, we assume, Shirley MacLaine’s character in The Apartment, but Elisabeth points more vigorously towards Ernest Borgnine in a slightly earlier film.

Elisabeth Moss plays a woman with an abusive partner in The Invisible Man
Elisabeth Moss plays a woman with an abusive partner in The Invisible Man

“I always saw her as the Everyman,” she says. “You know that movie Marty? That was my inspiration. Well, maybe the Jack Lemmon part in The Apartment. I always thought she was this identifiable character. She was smart, but she did stupid things sometimes. She believed in herself, but was also insecure. She was serious about her work, but she could also be really funny. She wanted to do what she loved, have her ideas heard and go home and live with her cat. People identified with that.”

‘I loved it’

The smoothness of Moss’s transitions is worth noting. The West Wing ended in 2006. Mad Men began in 2007 and finished in 2015. Two years later, she appeared as the misused protagonist of The Handmaid’s Tale. The timing of that last show is eerie. Seven months after the first episode aired, the Weinstein scandal broke. Nobody could argue that the series, adapted from Margaret Atwood’s durable novel, was anything other than relevant, but the subject matter – a fascistic, patriarchal society that treats women as less than laying hens – offered viewers a tough watch. Was she surprised that it became such a phenomenon?

“Definitely. I loved it. I was inspired by it,” she says. “But it was very dark and those first few episodes were very challenging. When you do something like that you wonder if anybody is going to be able to watch it. We went to the Television Critics Association awards that year and I knew it was going to work when I talked to journalists and they were actually asking real questions. I thought: I think they like it.’

Elisabeth Moss in the Handmaid’s Tale
Elisabeth Moss in the Handmaid’s Tale

Moss’s incredible run continues. Later this year, like Saoirse Ronan and many others, she makes a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance in Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch. “One of the 75 people,” she says with a chortle. We will probably have to wait until the end of the year – awards season – to see her as Shirley Jackson, one the US’s great feminist authors, in Josephine Decker’s Sundance hit Shirley. Neon, the film’s distributors, who did such good work with Parasite, will be talking up Moss’s hopes of an Oscar nomination. Then there is a fourth season of The Handmaid’s Tale.

How does she find so much good work?

“It’s half reading a great script and half pure instinct,” she says. “I feel that if I am reading something and I start playing the character in my head then that’s good. But I don’t care what it is as long as it’s good material.”

At which, it’s time to wave my way out the door. She waves back and claims to have enjoyed our conversation. 

I didn’t ask her about being a Scientologist. You can ask her yourself if you’re so interested. 

The Invisible Man is released on February 28th