Toronto: Elisabeth Moss Says 'Her Smell' Role "Hardest Thing I've Ever Done"

Courtesy of TIFF

'The Handmaid's Tale' star talks to The Hollywood Reporter about playing a maniacally destructive punk rocker hitting rock bottom in her third movie with Alex Ross Perry.

Elisabeth Moss is back in Toronto, where she stars in the locally shot Hulu drama The Handmaid's Tale, for which she won both an Emmy and a Golden Globe for best actress in a drama.

But Moss is this week at the Toronto Film Festival to debut her latest movie, Alex Ross Perry's Her Smell, where she plays a maniacally destructive punk rock star battling substance abuse and personal demons in a failed bid to stay famous and creative.

"This was the hardest thing I've ever done," Moss said of her third collaboration with Perry and her role as Becky Something, the brilliant and brash frontwoman of a '90s rock band who finds herself giving up everything and everyone as her emotional freight train speeds toward a cliff's edge.

Before the world premiere for Her Smell on Sunday night at Toronto's Winter Garden Theater, Moss talked to The Hollywood Reporter's Etan Vlessing about preparing to play a self-destructing punk rocker with emotion and sweat, developing skin calluses to play the guitar without pain, and possible award season buzz for her latest movie star turn.

You spend so much time in Toronto shooting The Handmaid's Tale. How does it feel bringing Her Smell to TIFF?

Toronto has become a second home. I've spent so much time there, around six or seven months of the year. I spend more time in Toronto than I do in New York City, where I live. For me, it's great. I'm staying at the house that I'm going to live in for season three [of Handmaid's] for the festival. I know the neighborhood. I can tell the driver where to go, as opposed to a few years ago at the festival when I didn't know where I was. I know Toronto really well. So it's incredibly convenient.

In Her Smell, you play Becky Something, a character who battles everyone and everything to stay sober and not self-destruct. How did you balance your character having an emotional breakdown while carrying the movie's audience on a wild ride?

One of the interesting things is we pick up at the start of her demise, at the start of her descent, rather than her rise to fame. That's one of the conceits of the script that Alex wanted to do, to watch somebody fall, rather than launch them and see them rise up. We've kind of seen that story and know it is a great one. But with this character, you want to see what happens at the beginning of their demise and descent from popularity and fame.

Tell us about who Becky Something is.

She's an incredible artist and she's an incredible singer and songwriter and has a vitality to her that's difficult to keep in a box. She's an addict, which has a huge effect on her personality and her life. And when we start the movie, she's at the height of her addiction and struggling to chase the high of the fame and adulation as well. It's not just the drugs, as she struggles to be as famous and relevant as she once was.

How do you prepare for a role where, emotionally and physically, you hit rock bottom?

I did a lot of research into addiction and spoke to a few people who were very generous and very open and willing to share their stories. It's amazing how personal the people I spoke to were able to be, as they gave me an insight into issues that are difficult to talk about — not just the mechanics of addiction, but the personal stories.

Becky is an incredible musician. I'm assuming you are not. How did you prepare for that side of the role?

It was about six months of preparation in learning to play the guitar and the piano and learning the songs. I know how to sing, so I listened to a lot of punk and grunge music. I'm not really into either punk or grunge, as I was raised on jazz and blues music and classical, because I was a ballet dancer. So it was a deep dive into that punk and grunge world.

Which was harder, learning the guitar or the piano?

Definitely the guitar. I didn't have to learn the piano as a concert pianist, only in a basic way as I had to learn one song. The guitar is very difficult. I have a respect for guitar players that I never had before, even though I grew up in a family of musicians. Even simple things like developing calluses on your fingers so you can play without being in extreme pain, and the muscles you need to develop in your hands. They need to stretch in ways they've never had to. I certainly did not become a very good guitar player. I'm by no means a musician now.

You worked with Alex Ross Perry on Queen of Earth and Listen up Philip. Do you and Alex have a verbal shorthand on set?

Yes, for sure, after three films together. We have a verbal shorthand. We're very different in a lot of ways, but for some reason, it works in a yin and yang way. He's good at things I'm not good at, I'm good at things he's not good at. We complement each other in ways. I'm able to pick up things that aren't his strong suits, and vice versa. So there's not a lot of getting to know each other on set. We know how one another's works and each other's needs. I totally understand why people continue to work with one director. It does make things faster and easier and you're able to just focus on the work.

In Her Smell, Perry and director of photography Sean Price Williams use long tracking shots to capture your emotional hurricane as Becky. That must have been unnerving?

It was really difficult, honestly. The way that he had written the script, I didn't even realize how difficult it was until we started with act one. When you read the script, it's different. The way Becky is in act one, two, and three, she's progressively more messed up on drugs and addicted to different drugs that make her even crazier. There were giant speeches that had to be said very fast and, frankly, didn't make a lot of sense a lot of the time. It only makes sense to Becky. That made it really difficult to remember [my lines], honestly, as they had all these thoughts with no connection, and were said in one sentence. It required such energy, especially in acts one and three, always going, going, going, talking, talking, talking.

Did you feel pushed to a place on Her Smell that you've never been to as an actor?

I've done some really difficult things, challenging roles and challenging scenes. But this was the hardest thing I've ever done. It was not fun a lot of the time. It was hard to be in that head space, and hard to be in that person, with all that chaos and craziness. Some things are more fun to play than others. And this was difficult. At the end, I was incredibly fulfilled and happy that I'd done the role. But when we were shooting it, it was not easy. I've done four films this summer, and that was definitely the hardest one.

Was there anything about the role, or the film for that matter, that entirely scared you?

Everything. I had never played a role like that. It was scary and it was a lot of pressure. I also knew it was an incredible role and an incredible opportunity. So doing it justice and trying to live up to it was scary. And playing addiction with accuracy, honoring that journey and what it is like for somebody and being as realistic as possible, was scary. And the music side was vaguely terrifying. Doing the concert scenes was scary. I've never done that before, so having to go up there and pretend I knew how to play the guitar and sing and be a rock star was scary. But it was also really fun. I think all us, Gayle [Rankin] and Aggy [Agyness Deyn], after doing our first concert in the first scene of the movie, after the first take, we all said we want to be rock stars! Screw acting. Rock stars are who we are!

Was it hard, or helpful, to perform the role of a self-destructive character alongside fellow castmembers?

Yes, absolutely, I would have been lost without Aggy and Gayle. The casting process was so extensive, and the longest element of the preproduction, just getting the right people for all of these roles. We needed people who were not only great actors, but who were gung ho and able to jump in and really embrace this movie and its style of filmmaking. We really bonded on how nervous we were, especially around the music. None of us were musicians. Gayle in particular had to learn to play the drums, which is impossible. So we all bonded about how nervous and scared we were and how unprepared we felt. But we knew we had each other and would get through it together. We were an incredible support system, honestly. It felt at a certain point like we were a band. We had our own thing, separate from Alex and the rest of the cast. We had our own experiences. And the cast, this incredible hodgepodge of people, I could not have done it without them.

How is this a career-changing role that could become the stuff of an award season campaign?

That's a conversation I stay away from. Who knows when you make a movie or a TV show? I know from experience that you don't set out with that in mind. You set out to make something great, and tell the story you want to tell. Having that [award season] in your head is not helpful to anybody, mostly yourself.

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Sept. 7 daily issue at the Toronto Film Festival.