For Elisabeth Moss, there’s been no strategy or science to the roles she’s gravitated toward in her career. From Peggy on Mad Men to Offred on The Handmaid’s Tale, robust female characters with imperfections and flaws have become synonymous with her name.
“I just find them much more interesting to play, honestly. It’s very simple. I wish it was more complicated; I wish it involved some psycho-babble, but it doesn’t,” Moss admits to ET over a chat in Beverly Hills, California. “It’s more fun for me to play that and I don’t know why. I wish I did, but I like it. It’s more fun for me. It’s more interesting to watch.”
In the second installment of the Sundance TV series, Top of the Lake: China Girl, Moss revisits her Golden Globe-winning role as Detective Robin Dunn, whose search for a normal routine is buoyed by her traumatic experience investigating the disappearance of a New Zealand girl. When she’s called in to seek the killer of an Asian woman, whose body -- stuffed in a suitcase -- washes ashore on a Sydney beach, Robin clamors to fill the void left by the daughter she gave up at birth, Mary (Alice Englert), whom she decides to contact and find.
The 35-year-old actress, currently a frontrunner to take home the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series for Handmaid’s Tale, recently sat down with ET to discuss returning to her award-winning role.
ET: Your career has been chock full of bold female characters who are not easily definable. Why is that important for you to continue pursuing?
Elisabeth Moss: I’m just trying to reflect us back at ourselves, you know what I mean? I’m just trying to show real humans and real women that are very complicated and have very different feelings and emotions about things. I’m trying to show the audience themselves with every character. I’m not trying to do anything deeper than that, necessarily. I want people to see themselves in the character.
In revisiting Robin four years after the first season of Top of the Lake, how much of the life experiences that you had in between did you infuse into your understanding of where this woman is now?
I always rely on my own experiences. I’m not somebody who necessarily believes in separating everything and having to be completely different from my character -- I’m not just acting. I think acting is just reflecting back on the human experience, so I always use my own emotional experiences but not in a very "I’m going to go think about my dead dog" kind of thing, just in a way of what I’ve seen and what I’ve felt. I do think that Robin is very different from me. I’m much more emotional and much more sensitive. Well, she actually is very emotional and sensitive, but she’ll cover it up.
In many ways, Robin is a very stoic character. Did you find her walls crumbling a bit more this season?
It’s not like they’re crumbling, she’s climbing over the walls. She’s more closed off than ever in the beginning and the only thing that’s going to save her from this prison that she’s built for herself is love and it’s her love for her daughter [Mary]. And you’ll see in the coming episodes, it’s that search for that relationship that directly parallels the case that she’s involved in: the search for the killer of [the prostitute found on Bondi Beach]. It’s ultimately love that gets her through that and also solves the case. It’s almost like she’s going over the wall, rather than it crumbling before her.
Robin finds herself working with a partner for the first time in Miranda Hilmarson, played by Gwendoline Christie. How does Robin navigate having someone like Miranda, who is symbolic of who she isn’t, in her ear on a consistent basis?
She’s faced with all of the things that she’s trying to avoid and Miranda represents so many of the things she thinks she doesn’t want to have. She’s open. She’s communicative. She’s emotional. She’s enthusiastic. She’s all these things. She’s too loud. She’s all these things that Robin doesn’t want to have right now and Robin doesn’t think she needs. Gwen’s whole character represents the opposite of what Robin’s going for right now, but exactly what she needs. It’s my favorite relationship on the show and my favorite storyline of China Girl, because it’s exactly representative of the problem that Robin’s having.
Are they yin and yang?
They’re so yin and yang. They’re so opposite -- or so they think. Without spoiling anything, they might be wrong.
What did you want to explore with the relationship between Robin and her daughter, Mary? Because it isn’t the typical mother-daughter dynamic by any means.
What I loved was the fact that when Robin first meets Mary, she doesn’t feel like a mother. She doesn’t know what she’s supposed to feel. I think that’s really honest. I think that’s a really accurate portrayal of what that would be, and I love that. I love that she doesn’t [know how to react to the moment], like, "Am I supposed to feel something?" And then she has to figure out how she can be a mother to this girl. How does this work? How can she be of help to her? What does it mean to her to be a mother? How is it different from Julia [Mary’s estranged adoptive mother, played by Nicole Kidman,] being a mother? That’s probably the giant big lesson of this installment for her and I think that she finds it in this way of embracing the qualities that she already has. All of Robin’s best qualities are her search for honesty. She has a bullsh*t detector. She uses her mind to solve these cases and she’s also a caretaker and loves children and is very good talking to children and treats them like adults. All of her best qualities come out with Mary.
How would you mark where Robin ends up at the end of this season versus where she started off?
I do think that the ending of China Girl is very different for Robin than the ending the first time around, because that was kind of devastating. (Laughs.) It’s different, and that’s a good thing.
Top of the Lake premieres with a two-hour debut Sunday, Sept. 10, before airing back-to-back episodes on Monday, Sept. 11 and Tuesday, Sept. 12, all at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Sundance TV.