Elisabeth Moss Talks Dinner with Margaret Atwood and That Peggy Olson Meme
The star of Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” says she likes “the idea of women that are people you can look up to but are still flawed.”
Photo by Ray Tamarra/GC Images
A few minutes into a phone call, Elisabeth Moss corrects me. She's starring in Hulu's adaptation of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, not The Handmaiden as I had called it. "I'm sure Margaret Atwood cares, that's the only reason I'm telling you," Moss claims.
Many people have made the mistake since the book's initial publication in 1985. More than 30 years since its release, Atwood's story has remained in the public conversation—and its relevance has only grown. Numerous signs spouted maxims from Atwood's first-person novel at the Women's March, and The Handmaid's Tale climbed Amazon's bestseller list in February.
In the Hulu version, Moss plays the heroine and narrator Offred. She's a mother in her thirties whose real name, children, and freedom were taken from her by the state as part of a creepy repopulation project. She determines to survive her abusive circumstances and fight back. "I believe in the resistance as I believe there can be no light without shadow; or rather, no shadow unless there is also light," Atwood writes as Offred in her novel.
Moss takes on the role after playing Peggy, the feminist character (and now meme) from the critically acclaimed Mad Men. Gilmore Girls star Alexis Bledel, Joseph Fiennes, and Samira Wiley (Poussey on Orange Is The New Black) join her.
Moss spoke to Broadly on the phone about the novel, getting dinner with Atwood, and how she braced herself to play the famous character. This interview has been edited and condensed.
BROADLY: Did you have any illuminating conversations with Margaret Atwood before shooting?
Elisabeth Moss: I've spoken to her more since filming the show. The only conversation I had with her prior was at a dinner with a bunch of the cast and creatives. I sat across from her because Samira Wiley forced me to, and I spent the whole dinner trying to hear what Margaret was saying in a really loud restaurant. She's not very loud, so I was just trying to hear every word that I could and ask her questions, stuff I'm sure she's heard a million times. The best thing I walked away from that dinner with is she wrote it in the book. I could ask as many historical questions as I wanted to, but if I wanted to know about how a character was feeling, it was in the goddamn book.
Why do you think this story continues to be so successful?
I asked Margaret the dumb interview question of like, "Do you think you predicted the future?" And she told me, as she has said in print, "Everything I put into that book either was happening or had already happened." That's why this has been relevant for so long. The main idea that people can connect to is the idea of somebody who's had everything taken away from them and intends to survive. Life is rough sometimes, and people go through insane shit, and they keep going and surviving. That's Offred's story.
I like the idea of women that are people you can look up to but are still flawed.
How did the virility of the Peggy Olson meme from the last season of Mad Men make you feel?
It's so thrilling and flattering. When I shot that scene, I had no idea that would happen. I was just trying to hold everything and look cool and have the cigarette in my mouth. The fact that it went on to help women explain how they feel about their accomplishments or confidence is awesome. I'm very proud of it.
You are a Los Angeles native. What was growing up in the Valley like?
The first five or six years of my life were in the Valley. Then I was in Laurel Canyon for thirteen years, so right between the Valley and the other side of the hill. It was awesome to grow up in Laurel Canyon because I didn't really feel like I was in LA, or at least in Hollywood. I make fun of my friends for hiking because back then, we hiked up and down the hill everyday. Now everyone drives to go hike/ We didn't live in a fancy house or neighborhood. We had dogs and two small backyards. It wasn't the same as growing up on the westside or something like that. They made a movie Laurel Canyon. I didn't know that growing up. I didn't know it had a music scene or was a hippie place.
How do you approach playing a new character?
The first thing I do is start listening to music. I put together a playlist for my character. Then I just read the script as many times as I can. With [The Handmaid's Tale], I had this book that I was able to refer to and highlight, getting all nerdy and actor-y.
What sort of characters do you think you'll gravitate towards next?
I like the idea of women that are people you can look up to but are still flawed and vulnerable. I'm working on producing a couple of new projects that are also about strong, complicated women.
Is it ever hard to shake your character off at the end of the day?
I'm very cut and dry about it. I don't operate well with being too serious; I find that messes with my process more than anything else. I've always been the person to do a crying scene and then start joking around the second they say cut. It allows me to be more mobile with my feelings and not get stuck in a particular emotion. I need to be able to change my mind. I need to be able to react and go anywhere. Sometimes, I do an emotional scene and something that happens makes me play it in a totally different way. I tend to like heavy material. I get bored as shit with anything else.