Elisabeth Moss gives what might be the TV performance of the year in Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale.
The actress is probably best known for her work as Peggy Olson on AMC’s long-running drama Mad Men. In her new role, she plays the character of Offred — a woman forced to live as a “handmaid” and valued only for her fertility — in the alternate reality of the series, which is based on Margaret Atwood’s classic 1985 novel. Much of the adaptation is filmed in extremely intimate close-ups on Moss’s face, leaving her no room for anything false. Every eye twitch, every facial muscle shifting — they all register.
That Moss navigates this challenge with aplomb is evidence of her talent. She’s immensely thoughtful about the technical aspects of playing Offred, like how the character’s elaborate costume informs her performance — but she’s also engaged with the story’s more political elements, like how the world of the show has warped sex into something brutal and terrifying instead of enjoyable. And as a producer on the series, she was deeply involved in helping shape and build the world of the show.
I met up with Moss shortly before the series’ debut to talk about the links between Peggy and Offred, the role of accidental feminists, and what it’s like to have a camera in your face all of the time.
The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Actors often talk about how their costumes inform their performances, and that seems like it might be particularly true here. How did putting on the Handmaid’s outfit affect your work?
So much, honestly. The dress itself took the longest to figure out, because that was a blueprint for the rest of the Handmaids. Whatever we decided I was going to do, they were going to make 100 of them. So we needed it to be almost universal in a way.
There were specifications, like it couldn't be too revealing. At the same time, we didn't want it to be a sack that was unflattering that I had to put on every day. There were two things I wanted, which was it needed to be comfortable, because I knew I was going to have to wear it to death. Then I needed it to be something that I wanted to put on every day. From Ane Crabtree, our costume designer, I got both in spades.
It sounds odd to say you loved something that represents something negative, but at the same time, I did love that dress. I really did. It makes you move in a different way. It makes you stand in a different way. It makes you feel different than you feel wearing jeans.
Then when you add the other elements — the cloak, which is constricting in the sense that you can't really move your arms up that high. Then the bonnet, which we call the wings, is the most restrictive thing. It dulls your hearing. It's like putting both hands over your ears. It also cuts off all peripheral vision, so you have to turn your head to see.
The bonnet enabled some interesting things for us to play with as Handmaids with the camera, because tip it low enough and you can't see my face. You could reveal just one eye. You could do both eyes. It made every movement of the head deliberate and specific. When all movement, all conversation, is either forbidden or has to be very specifically chosen, it made playing with that much easier.
There are a lot of flashbacks where you’re essentially dressed as a ... normal person, so to speak.
A lot of that was my own clothes, so I'm glad you didn't say dressed like a freak.
What did you realize about moving through the world just dressed in your own clothes, as opposed to wearing the much more restrictive Handmaid costume?
The choice, the individuality that we have now, the Handmaids don't have. Two of the things that are stripped away from the Handmaids are the right to privacy and the right to be an individual. The privacy is taken away, because as soon as anyone sees your outfit or your dress, they know which class you belong to and they know you're a fertile woman. As soon as you’re all wearing the same thing, you have no individual expression.
It was interesting playing with the flashback clothes, with the flexibility that we have in the modern world with how we dress, gender-wise. You'll notice that the Handmaid's dress is much more typically "female," and it's female in accordance with this very specific little narrow path of what a woman should look like and what a woman should wear.
So we played in the flashbacks with June [Offred’s given name], maybe looking a little bit more like a tomboy, being able to dress in a pretty little summer spring dress one day and wearing jeans and a T-shirt or jeans and a baseball tee another day. We have that flexibility at the moment in our country. Obviously, it doesn't exist in other countries, but we have that. We can be who we want to be.
Many of the reviews of the show have mentioned its timeliness, but in regard to women’s rights throughout the world, this book has always been timely. When you’re actively playing that character, though, can you think about the politics of the story? Or is it more of an emotional, intuitive thing, and then the more political aspects creep in later when you’re reflecting on it or watching it?
Politics does intrude. You can't help it.
I wish it wasn't so relevant, but you can't be in the world today and awake as a woman and not be aware of your rights being infringed upon. It's something that I have always taken personally. It's something I have always tried to be active and vocal about, but you can't help but take it perhaps a little bit more personally than you would other characters or other projects.
You can't help but feel a sense of responsibility to other women as well, which is something I'm not afraid of and something I feel privileged to be able to do.
Obviously, you played another famous TV character for quite a while. Do you see a line between Peggy and Offred, or is their main similarity that they look like you?
I see so many similarities. The main thing that I see is this sense of, they're normal people. They're normal women.
Peggy, I always say, was sort of an accidental feminist. She didn't know about the phrase “the glass ceiling.” She reads in the paper that women are not getting paid as much as men, and she's confused and then goes and asks for a raise because she doesn't understand. That doesn't seem fair.
It's that fantastic stubbornness, that fantastic naiveté almost, that is exemplary of so many women of that time. Those are the sorts of women that made those strides in the '60s.
In Offred, I see the same thing. She's a woman. She's a wife. She's a mother. She has her own set of problems. She has a job. She is not meant to be a heroine. I think the great lesson she learns is there's a heroine in all of us, that we all actually do have the power to change things. That's something she has to learn.
That’s perhaps one of the many parallels. They're not perfect people, which I think is great because nobody's perfect. They're flawed, both, hugely, but there's a strength to them as well.
You called Peggy as an accidental feminist, and one thing that’s fascinating about Offred in the book is that she probably wouldn’t have defined herself as a feminist either, but she ends up in this situation that makes her realize what she took for granted. Do you think that character’s been radicalized in a way maybe Peggy wasn’t?
I do. I think that is true of many women. I know it's true of a lot of women in my generation and younger than I am. We've grown up thinking that we were going to have these inalienable rights, that you couldn't overturn Roe v. Wade, for instance. Why wouldn't we have the right to choose? Somebody was going to say something. Somebody was going to fight for you. We weren’t taking it for granted but expecting that we would always have certain things, I think.
I do think in the last few years, there's been this sense of waking up amongst my generation and the younger generation and teenagers as well, of going, "Oh, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, you can't take that away."
We've perhaps made June more of a feminist in the flashbacks than she is in the book, but I do think there is definitely a sense of when she is put into these circumstances where all of her rights are taken away, of course that's going to radicalize you. Of course that's going to make you have to fight back in a way that maybe you didn't think you had to. What I think is important though for us, as women now in 2017, is to fight now and not wait for that to happen.
The Handmaid’s Tale is a story where sex is inherently political, where Offred is raped, and it’s sanctioned by the state, and her flirtation with another man is also a kind of political rebellion. But I always hear that actually filming a sex scene is really boring and technical for actors. Did that technical stuff drown out the larger political messages around sex in the story?
It was very important to us that the ceremony is very clearly a sexual assault and to not shy away from that idea. It is the center of the story in so many ways. Fertility and making a baby are what everyone is after. Whoever you are, whatever class you're a part of, that's what everyone wants.
It was very important for us to make sure that was something that was accurately portrayed with brutality, but also have it be clinical, have it be rote, and then also bring the three different people and the three different ways they would feel about that into it as well. As opposed to most sex scenes where you're like, "Ugh, this is awkward and terrible," or it's boring, or whatever it is. This was a scene. It was acting. It was not just taking your clothes off. It was something that was a true performance scene because of the circumstances of it.
The other thing that's interesting as well is the desexualization of sex that happens in Gilead [the name of the dystopian society in the series]. Men and women aren't allowed to enjoy sex. You're not supposed to enjoy having an orgasm, and we see in coming episodes that come into play for June. The right to be a human who enjoys sex is taken away, and how would that make one feel? Taking back that ownership of enjoying sex is something that is important and just another right that's been taken away.
The camera is right in your face for much of this show, so much so that it catches if your eyebrow moves even a millimeter. It really doesn’t leave you any space to have a false moment. Is that exciting for you?
It's awesome. It makes my job so much better and so much easier. If you're playing a character who can't speak [freely], I can think things and the camera sees them. If I swallow, you see it.
I've seen all the episodes, and I've seen them many, many times. When I first watch scenes, it's always really interesting for me because things happen in my face or something will twitch in my neck, and I wasn't doing that on purpose. That's just me internalizing emotion, and that's just me feeling things but not being able to say them or trying not to show them.
For me, that sort of relationship happens between you and the camera regardless of what scene you're doing, even if the camera's all the way at the other end of the street. To have that relationship be [so close], it's like you're one body, the [director of photography] or [director Reed Morano] or whoever was operating the camera.
The way that the matte box [around the lens] is, it sort of shuts everything else out so you can't even see anything. Then they're moving with you as well. You end up feeling like you're one entity. I love it. We'd do other [wider] shots, but then we'd always redo it with what we called our Offred lens. Any time it came in, I would always be like, "Oh, good, good, good, perfect. Now I can actually show what I'm feeling."
The Handmaid’s Tale is now streaming on Hulu.