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“It feels different to me,” Elisabeth Moss, the Emmy-nominated star and producer of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, says of that massively acclaimed drama series — the latest in a remarkable string of shows in which she has appeared, including NBC’s The West Wing, AMC’s Mad Men and SundanceTV’s Top of the Lake — as we sit down at the Sunset Tower Hotel to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter‘s ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast. “It felt different playing it. And the responses definitely felt different — the responses have felt so personal.”
Handmaid’s Tale was adapted from Margaret Atwood‘s 1985 dystopian novel of the same name about a totalitarian society, in what used to be America, where infertility has skyrocketed and fertile women are renamed and made to serve as sex slaves — or handmaids — for the ruling elite. (Moss plays Offred, formerly June, who is one of those women.) And in Trump-era America, where women have seen an “incredible reversal of fortune and reversal in rights that’s just shocking,” as the actress puts it, the show feels eerily prescient and urgent, and Moss’ character, shrouded beneath the white bonnet and red cloak uniform of all handmaids, has become an icon of the resistance.
During breaks from The West Wing, Moss relocated to New York, worked off-Broadway and starred in a $65,000 indie, 2003’s Virgin, for which she won a Spirit Award — and figured out one of her greatest strengths as an actress: “It oddly set me on this trajectory of the kinds of characters I would play and the kind of material I was looking for,” she says, “and it showed me, I think, what I was maybe good at, which was really, really dark stuff.”
As The West Wing wound down, Moss continued to audition for other jobs. “I just had never had any luck getting pilots,” she recalls. “Mad Men was the first pilot I ever did.” The second person to read for Matthew Weiner on the first day of auditions — specifically for the part of Peggy Olsen, a young woman who is hired as a secretary at a New York ad agency in the 1960s — she won the part (“I just felt like I knew her”), which meant going back to work almost as soon as she wrapped on West Wing. Over the course of 88 Mad Men episodes between 2007 and 2015, AMC became a respected network, Olsen became a beloved character and Moss became a star. “It just kinda came at the right time,” she reflects. “People were just starting to realize that audiences were really smart.”
During hiatuses from Mad Men, Moss kept busy with theatrical productions (including her 2008 Broadway debut in a revival of David Mamet‘s Speed-the-Plow), films (such as 2015’s micro-budget Meadowland, directed by Reed Morano, who later would helm the first three episodes of Handmaid’s Tale) and, most notably, the limited series Top of the Lake, in which Oscar winner Jane Campion cast Moss as a detective investigating a gang-rape not unlike one that had befallen the detective years earlier — “the biggest departure” of her career, Moss says. “I didn’t know if I could play anything else other than Peggy, at a certain point,” the actress confesses. “I thought I could, but I kind of needed to prove it to myself.” In the end, her performance was recognized with a Golden Globe in 2014. “That was just about the shock of my life,” she says. “I had never won anything before.”
When Mad Men‘s run came to an end, Moss continued full-speed ahead. “I love working,” she says. “It’s, like, my favorite thing.” Following the advice of the star of another recently-ended AMC show, Breaking Bad‘s Bryan Cranston, Moss briefly went back to Broadway, starring in a revival of The Heidi Chronicles, for which she received a Tony nom. She also contemplated focusing more on films than before, but ultimately concluded that, as she puts it, “My heart’s really in television,” and accepted Campion’s offer to return for a second installment of Top of the Lake, subtitled China Girl, this time opposite Nicole Kidman; it currently is rolling out across Europe and will arrive stateside in September.
Moss also was sent the script for the Handmaid’s Tale pilot and, after wavering about another long-term TV commitment, concluded that she couldn’t resist it, signing up both to star and be one of the producers of the show. On Nov. 8, 2016, Moss and her Handmaid’s Tale collaborators were in the midst of shooting the fourth and fifth episodes of the 10-episode series, all of which already had been written. That night, she and several collaborators watched election returns together and, like the much of the rest of America, couldn’t believe their eyes. “I went to work the next day and it was odd,” Moss remembers. “It was a very strange feeling.” It wasn’t until the show rolled out to the public between April and June of this year, however, that she came to fully appreciate just how much the show had captured the zeitgeist.
In July, Moss picked up her eighth acting Emmy nomination. (She also picked up another nom, for producing, when Handmaid’s Tale was nominated for best drama series.) Few ever have had as many noms, let alone by the age of 35, not to mention spread across three different shows. “Eight at 35 is pretty good,” she acknowledges with a chuckle — but there’s a bit of an asterisk: She has yet to win one. “I feel like eight maybe equals winning one,” Moss says, before being pressed and acknowledging that finally winning, especially for “the most challenging” part she ever has played, “would mean so much to me, obviously.” Perhaps the union of a timely show, a meaty part and a brilliant actress will finally get her to the podium on Sept. 17. Either way, she’s savvy enough to know how to approach that date: “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.”
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