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“It was one of the scariest moments I’ve had on a set,” actress-producer Elisabeth Moss said as we sat down at the Savannah College of Art and Design earlier this fall to discuss Alex Ross Perry‘s Her Smell, in which she plays a fictional punk rock star named Becky Something, and I asked her about one long scene in which her troubled character sings a melancholy version of Bryan Adams‘ “Heaven” to her young daughter while playing it on the piano. Moss, who has no background in singing or music playing, emphasized, “I was shaking.” But, in the end, it was arguably the most powerful scene of a very powerful film.
Moss, 37, is best known for her work on TV — on NBC’s The West Wing, AMC’s Mad Men and, most recently, Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, for which she won the best actress in a drama series Emmy in 2018 — but she also has a long history of starring in indie films, dating back to 1999’s Girl, Interrupted and 2003’s Virgin. Her most frequent film collaborator has been Perry, with whom she previously made 2014’s Listen Up Philip and 2015’s Queen of Earth. Now, for the curiously titled $2.5 million indie Her Smell, she has garnered some of the best reviews of her career for work on the big screen, with critics’ awards quite possibly around the corner.
In Her Smell, Moss — playing a character “a little bit” inspired by Courtney Love, but “just as much” by Kurt Cobain and others from the same era — explores the impact that fame and fortune can have on a very young person. Becky became famous at 16, and Moss began working in the public eye at a similar age — but, Moss says forcefully, it was very different: “Nobody really knew who I was until I had time to grow up a little bit and to understand who I was, so that saved me.”
Because there are numerous scenes in Her Smell in which Becky has manic and substance-fueled meltdowns, many assume that Moss did a lot of improvisation, but Moss insists there was “no improv whatsoever” and that Perry expected her to stick to the script entirely. For an actress who has performed the work of Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing), David Mamet (Broadway’s Speed the Plow) and Matthew Weiner (Mad Men), it is quite a statement when she adds that the dialogue of Her Smell was the hardest she ever had to learn.
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