Elisabeth Moss on "Queen of Earth," Her Over-Privileged Cats, and Her Big Weekend Plans
In the waning years of "Mad Men," which went off the air in May, actress Elisabeth Moss has distanced herself from her longtime alter ego, Peggy Olson, by taking on 21st-century characters battling fierce inner demons or facing emotional trials-by-fire. First there was heroic Detective Robin Griffin, crusading against entrenched evil in small-town New Zealand, in Jane Campion's chilling 2013 Sundance miniseries "Top of the Lake." Then there was Sophie, a two-timed wife trying to forgive her husband's duplicity in Charlie McDowell's very trippy sci-fi indie film "The One I Love." Then she played the long-suffering, brutally scorned ex-girlfriend of Jason Schwartzman’s narcissistic Philip in Alex Ross Perry's "Listen Up Philip."
And this week, she's delivered what some are calling her finest — and most psychologically twisted — performance yet, in Perry's follow-up, "Queen of Earth." The movie's setup contains eerie echoes of "The One I Love": two people at odds head to a secluded, beautiful vacation home for some quality time, only to see things go totally haywire. Here Moss is Catherine, an aspiring artist going through a rough patch: her beloved art-star father, whom she has made a career of assisting, just killed himself, and shortly thereafter, her formerly cloying boyfriend dumped her because their relationship was too “codependent.” In an attempt to gather herself, Catherine takes her best friend, Ginny (Katherine Waterston), up on an invitation to Ginny's family's lake house for a week of recuperative chillaxing.
But as nurturing as that all sounds, it's actually quite the opposite. Just below the surface, Catherine and Ginny's relationship seethes with tension, judgment, and barely concealed resentment. There's some betrayal in the past, some festering wound that keeps Catherine guarded and Ginny aloof, never willing to fully acknowledge her friend’s overwhelming grief. But even with extremely limited information, watching the two women dance around each other for a week in an increasingly claustrophobic house is incredibly captivating, particularly when it's clear that Catherine’s quickly going off the deep end. Perry's meticulous, unhurried plotting, a sense of creeping menace in both the score and camerawork, and the two actresses’ brilliant unwillingness to give each other even the tiniest benefit of the doubt, make "Queen of Earth" almost too creepy to bear — except, of course, that it's really, really good.
Moss, also a producer on the project, has called this the role she's most proud of, but when we chat by phone, she's quick to add a caveat: "That's going to get me in trouble! I should say I haven't seen a lot of stuff that I've done recently yet. But it is. I'm very, very proud of it. I don’t know if that's because of my friendship with the people who made it, or because I was so involved. I think it’s because we set out to do something, and then it turned out to be even better than that. That doesn't happen all the time.”
Here, more from Moss on scaring her friends, Nancy Meyers movies, and her theater wish list for this weekend. (Anyone got a spare ticket to "Hamilton?")
So, are the similarities to "The One I Love" purely coincidental? Were you thinking about that already, or were you surprised that people have picked up on it?
It's been a total surprise. It didn't literally ever occur to me, because they’re so different in tone. I consider "The One I Love" such a quirky, romantic comedy, whereas there’s like nothing romantic about this one at all. Maybe comedic though? It's kind of funny sometimes? There has been a funny joke that I heard, about how nobody's ever going on vacation with me ever, because bad things always happen. I do appreciate that joke.
I found this movie really scary, not funny! I had to turn it off for a while to work up the courage to finish.
I have a couple of best friends who won’t watch it. We're having an ongoing [conversation], like: Is it worse than this? Is it creepier than this movie? If I watch it, do I have to watch it with anyone else? One of my best friends — I basically was, like, just don’t watch it. I know her too well. We’ve been friends for like twelve years. I’m like, nope!
I’m curious: Did you and Katherine Waterston know each other prior to making this?
No, we didn't, which is such a shame. I feel like we’ve missed a good decade of what could have been a lovely friendship. Especially because we’ve both been in New York, and we have a couple of mutual friends. We really just had a lovely time together, and would giggle between takes. She's a very cool, down-to-earth, obviously extremely talented, funny person. So we got along like gangbusters.
This is a pretty unusually hostile friendship that the movie depicts. Did you have any real-life inspiration to draw from?
God, no. I have very good friends and we're really nice to each other. I don’t have time for a complicated friendship. I'm very interested in no drama. But there are friendships that are like that, where you've been friends for a really long time, from grade school or camp, or whatever, maybe your parents are friends, and you grow apart. You probably wouldn't be friends if you met at a party now, in your thirties? But it's too late to extricate. There are a lot of really good times and good memories; you sort of hold on to that. That's very identifiable, but at the same time I think that it's a very stylized film. It's in a specific genre. It's not necessarily supposed to be very realistic.
Your character, Catherine, is an artist, and we see you drawing a portrait of Katherine Waterston. Is that your work?
Oh, my god, there are certain people that would find that question absolutely hilarious because I am the worst drawer in the world. I can barely do a stick figure. I once had to draw something for the Tonys. They were like, Draw what you wish you were doing. And I drew what I thought was someone napping, and my publicist, was like, You drew someone on stripper pole. You look like you just drew a stripper. That's how good an artist I am.
You've got a lot of movies coming up in the next year, but unless I'm misinterpreting, not too much that anyone would call light-hearted. Do you ever long for just an extremely feel-good comedy as a palate cleanser?
The thing is, the films I love are romantic comedies. That’s my genre. I’ve seen every single romantic comedy ever made, whether it’s good or bad. That's actually what I like watching. When it comes to acting, I feel like it's more interesting most of the time for me to play with the complex, darker emotions. But at the same time, I would never say no to like a wonderful love story or a comedy or a romantic comedy. I think I need to do a Nancy Meyers film to just kind of really get the demons out.
Maybe we'll tweet that at Nancy Meyers.
Yes! Please come and save me from all this depressing cinema!
So what's the one cultural thing you want to do this weekend?
I'd like to go see some theater. There's a lot of things I want to catch up on. I'm in and out of New York so much that I have to try to see things before they go away. I want to go see my friend Bryce [Pinkham] in "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder." And then "Hamilton" obviously. If I can get a ticket. I think it's really hard. I hear it's the greatest thing since sliced bread. So hopefully some sleeping, a little bit of theater, and some more sleeping, and then I'll go to L.A. on Sunday and have some meetings out there next week.
You're from L.A. Do you have pangs of nostalgia when you go back?
No, the only thing I really enjoy about L.A. is seeing my best friend, who lives there; my brother, who lives there; going to Sushi Park to eat sushi; and staying at the Sunset Tower Hotel. All of which will be happening. I try to construct the best possible scenario for me in L.A. and stick to that. But no, I miss being in New York. I haven't been here all summer because I've been working. Which is not the worst problem to have. But my cats would appreciate me being home, I'm sure.
Poor cats. Are they just wasting away alone at your apartment?
Oh please! Do not cry for them. They are just fine. They live in a lovely apartment on the Upper West Side, which they have primarily to themselves. I'm basically just paying for a very expensive cat rental apartment right now. Don't feel pity for them; they're just fine. They live quite the life.
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