Vulture Festival Event Recap: Elisabeth Moss Breaks Down Her Performance In HER SMELL
Like a dizzying tornado hurling her way through the halls, Elisabeth Moss roars onto the screen in the 2019 drama Her Smell. An arguably unlikable character, Becky Something is an amalgamation of all of your favorite rock stars, the ones who captivated audiences onstage and battled personal demons behind the scenes. Courtney Love would be an easy comparison, but Moss argues that’s low hanging fruit. If her rash and hypnotic little punk princess is truly modeled after anyone, it’s Axl Rose.
Moss revealed many fascinating tidbits during her Anatomy of a Performance event last weekend, where she sat down with Vulture’s very own Rachel Handler to discuss her brave and chaotic descent in Alex Ross Perry’s latest and greatest. By the end of the evening, we learned how the starlet channels her Norma Desmond impression into her work, why she finds villains so appealing to play right now, whether or not she’d be down for a Mad Men movie, and how she’s really stoked to be in Leigh Whannell’s upcoming Invisible Man, but she’s secretly dying to take on the role of a quaint little shop keeper at Christmas time for the Hallmark Channel.
Her Smell is an apt title in that it’s an assault on the senses, the cinematic equivalent of a caged animal run rampant, the rabid creature leaving destruction in her wake wherever she goes. Moss’ Becky Something is an extremely raw and vulnerable look at drug addiction in the industry, and how fame can sometimes fuel an artist’s self afflicting fire. To achieve this high energy performance, Moss worked with director Perry on an appropriate speed for the character, an exercise which Moss likened to being “Shot out of a cannon”.
“The first act was probably the most challenging because it was the first thing that we did. I was really trying to find my way, and I was really trying to see how far I had to go, and Alex, the first few takes, kind of kept pushing me, saying, ‘Faster, faster, faster’ until we found the level that seemed appropriate for that act. Once I had gotten through that, I kind of knew where I had to go, so it was not easier, but I just knew what I had to do” explains Moss. “You also feel kind of stupid, or like, I hope this isn’t too much, or terrible, so you’re trying to weave your way through that and get your confidence up a little bit to be that crazy”.
A collaborative process from the beginning, Moss added a crucial moment to the already powerful script by suggesting a slow dolly zoom in on her Jack Nicholson-esque face while she watches a younger band, played by Ashley Benson, Amber Heard and Cara Delevingne, rehearse their new song.
“There’s a shot that dollies in really, really slow on Becky’s reaction to watching this band, and I just felt like what Alex had written was so perfect in that moment of this person who is seeing her worst nightmare, and I wanted the opportunity to show that in one long beat. She’s looking at these kids and she knows that they’re the death of her. She’s older and she’s on her way out and this is the new generation, and she’s so admiring of them, and also jealous, and it literally breaks her heart. So I just wanted to be able to show that in one long beat that was unbroken and Alex and Sean [Price Williams], our DP, who I’ve worked with three times now, he’s brilliant, and cool with being collaborative and trying that. So, it’s one of my favorite little moments in the movie.”
In a world where male stars and filmmakers regularly terrify their co-stars with rigorous method acting, it’s somewhat refreshing to hear that Moss didn’t need to dive into an inescapable black hole in order to achieve her mad dance with the devil in Her Smell. No real drugs were ingested, no temper tantrums tousled the crew members on set. Moss is the rare gifted talent who can simply jump in and out of challenging roles.
“I’m just not a method actor” Moss admits shyly to the crowd. “I feel like I admire those people very much, and I think it’s really cool, and I think there’s a level of dedication that’s really, really impressive, and I am envious of it and I kind of wish I could do it, kind of wish I had more of that. But I just end up getting really bored immediately or forgetting to be in character, and I just can’t do it. It’s just not in my DNA. So, for me, I think it’s just better to pop in and out of things, I think it makes me a little bit more flexible, it just works better for me. If I get stuck in something I actually find I’m a little less docile and a little less able to make different choices, but maybe one day!”
Although she didn’t actually get hooked on any real drugs for her portrayal of Becky, it was important to Moss and her crew that the addiction that consumed her character felt as real and authentic as any other aspect of the movie. Ultimately, Moss and her co-star Agyness Deyn figured out that during the course of the film, Becky drinks alcohol, takes meth and pills, but more importantly, the pair decided, “It doesn’t matter what she’s doing, it’s not important to the story. What’s important is the way that it’s manifesting itself”.
Towards the end of the movie, Becky reunites with the bandmates she’s wronged, post recovery, to rock out one last time. Before she walks out on stage, Moss finds herself alone in the dressing room, catches her reflection in the mirror, and tries, for a moment, to re-capture the magic that spilled out of her so easily in act one.
“Honestly I don’t talk about this kind of stuff a lot. Alex writes it and he writes so beautifully and it’s always there on the page and he expects me to understand it and interpret it the way I want to, and for me that was about, she doesn’t know who she is. And that came from some research that I did of people being in recovery, that she doesn’t know who she is especially as Becky Something, and that kind of leaning over, mimicking what she does in act one, looking in the mirror and trying to have that face that she had, and she kind of can’t do it anymore. She doesn’t believe it. She’s really worried that she can’t be that person anymore without drugs. I mean I understand that, if that’s so much of your persona and how you got there, it would be really hard”.
Moss does believe that Becky relapses just moments before playing onstage, but it’s something that feels very natural to her. Through research and conversation, Moss has learned that relapse and recovery are two pillars of strength that anyone who has felt the sharp prick of addiction simply has to wrestle with for the rest of their days. It’s not important that she relapsed, the important thing is that she knows why she has to get clean and stay clean: her daughter.
“I don’t really care whether or not you like her,” says Moss about her character Becky Something. “I don’t really care whether to not you like anything that I play, like any character that I play. The only thing that matters to me is that you understand them. I think that’s why I’m attracted to playing a villain at some point because for me, if I can get you to understand somebody who’s truly villainous, you don’t have to like them and you probably shouldn’t, you shouldn’t like Becky, really, but if you can understand her, then I’ve done my job”.
As far as her other projects go, Moss is up for the idea of coming back to play Peggy Olson in a possible Mad Men movie, although she confesses sadly that there isn’t much word being passed around about the show following in the footsteps of Breaking Bad or Deadwood, not even in the cast’s infamous group text. “Like obviously, if I was asked to do it, I would totally do it, if everyone else was doing it. I definitely think Matt Weiner has moved on to other projects and so has everybody else, so I don’t know”.
Something she’s a little more certain of is the future of The Handmaid’s Tale. The already tense situation will only grow direr in season four, when it becomes even more clear that June needs to get out of Gilead pronto.
“She’s in trouble, she’s got to get out of there. Bruce and I had a meeting yesterday, Bruce [Miller] is the showrunner and we talked about season four, so I know a lot of stuff now, which I can’t tell you, and I’m also in that place where I have no idea how to talk around it. I will say I think one of the things that we’re definitely going to be dealing with, and that I think is really interesting, is what it really means to be a leader, and what it really means to lead a resistance, and I think that it’s a lot more complicated than anyone ever thinks it’s going to be, and wielding that power I think is something that is tricky. So, that’s just my initial, I’ve barely even thought about it answer.”
As far as an organic endpoint for the series as a whole, Moss had this to say:
“I do know that we have style and our style is that of the book, our style is that of the Handmaid’s Tale book, which ends quite abruptly. One of the things Bruce and I always talked about is it’s not the story of Gilead, it’s called The Handmaid’s Tale, so it’s her story. And now we know we have the testaments, so we do have kind of an extended story that someone will be telling, which is great, but I think that we feel like we want to continue to tell June’s story. Whatever happens, which, I don’t know what it will be, but whatever happens, I know that it will be centered around her journey”.
A girl with a yen for dark fairytales and folklore, Moss again finds herself in a richly sinister film titled The Invisible Man, which is due to hit theaters early next year.
“I think they did a really interesting thing with it. Leigh Whannell wrote and directed it, and it’s Universal and Blumhouse and Universal has these monsters and one of them is the Invisible Man. What they did that was really cool, because at first, I was like, ‘Why are they asking me to do The Invisible Man?’ and then I read it and I was like, ‘Oh I get it’. They made this sort of analogy for gaslighting and an abusive relationship. I was like, that’s really cool, that’s a really interesting way of doing it. So it’s this sort of scary, and it is really scary, we wanted it to be really scary, it’s a really scary and very dark movie that cloaks this feminist message. So, that made sense to me then, why they wanted me to do it”.
Moss admits she loves horror movies, especially Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, but she also houses a secret affinity for Hallmark Channel Christmas movies. She even downloaded the network’s app on her phone, claiming “I needed a way to access all my Christmas movies because I love Hallmark Christmas movies and I watch as many of them as possible”. Moss even announced that she would definitely star in one, and is hereby encouraging anyone to write her the perfect little cozy role. After all of her recent strenuous iterations, the astonishing actress has more than earned some Holiday cheer.