The star of The Handmaid’s Tale discusses her new film The Invisible Man, spending hours on the phone with Beck, and her love of scary movies
Elisabeth Moss possesses a face for every occasion. As Peggy Olson in Mad Men, she navigates office politics with raised eyebrows and sly, seething smiles. The curve of her mouth in Us indicates whether or not she’s a homicidal doppelganger. In Queen of Earth, Listen Up Philip and Her Smell, Alex Ross Perry shoots her with extreme, wordless close-ups. In The Handmaid’s Tale, Moss’s face is distinctive enough to stand out amongst the uniformed masses. The funniest moment of The Square is her split-second double-take when a one-night-stand might have forgotten her name – Moss’s open-mouthed gasp, timed with comic precision, featured in every single trailer.
In The Invisible Man, Moss is often alone, at home, conveying simultaneous nuances with her face: persistent paranoia, untreated trauma, and, to top it off, unhealthy doses of self-doubt. Whereas another actor might rely too heavily on a simplistic Home Alone scream, Moss remains grounded, multifaceted, and worryingly realistic throughout the sci-fi proceedings. In fact, Moss’s dual characters in Us – she slices up her own double – convinced Blumhouse and Universal that she could lead a reboot of The Invisible Man. Upon hearing that title, though, the actor was sceptical. “And then they told me it’s an analogy for gaslighting,” Moss recalls to Dazed. “And I was like, ‘Oh, that’s fucking cool.’”
Prior onscreen adaptations of HG Wells’ 1897 novel have sympathised with tortured male scientists. However, writer-director Leigh Whannell switches the POV to a woman who, in this scenario, doesn’t appreciate feeling seen. In the middle of the night, Cecilia (Moss) flees her violent partner, Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen, a scarily tall Brit who disappears into the role). Shortly afterwards, Adrian, an expert in optics technology, dies by suicide. But Cecilia suspects otherwise: something – or someone – seems to be framing her for increasingly alarming actions. And, worst of all, none of her friends or loved ones believe she’s telling the truth.
“It’s so clear for me,” Moss says, in between sips of coffee, in a spacious, echoing room in Soho Hotel. “You have an invisible presence – an ex-boyfriend – terrorising this woman who’s come out of an abusive relationship. How can that not be an analogy for gaslighting?” She speaks with the enthusiasm and directness of a Peggy Olson pitch in late-era Mad Men. “If you’re going to do The Invisible Man, that’s how you do it.”
As a TV star, Moss avoided any typecasting after Mad Men by landing recurring roles in varied series like Top of the Lake and The Handmaid’s Tale. Movie-wise, she’s gravitated towards acclaimed auteurs like Ruben Östlund, Jordan Peele, Josephine Decker, Wes Anderson, and David Lowery. She hasn’t, for instance, auditioned for Star Wars (I check before making an insulting comment about the franchise). So when you hear that Moss is leading The Invisible Man, you trust that there’s a purpose behind it – even if you’re sick of reboots. “Right,” she laughs. “You’re like, ‘How’s Elisabeth Moss going to fix this?’”
When the premise was shrouded in mystery, a “topical” version of The Invisible Man could have meant a number of things – for instance, a parable about male celebrities who are cancelled and then swiftly disappear overnight. “That would have been so inappropriate!” she gasps. “That would not have gone down very well, and rightly so. It’s such a sign of the times we’re in that you make a big studio film with a classic monster – like the Invisible Man, Dracula, whatever – and put a woman at the centre of it. I don’t know if that would have been done ten years ago.”
Bizarrely, The Invisible Man was first announced in 2016 with Johnny Depp of all people as the lead. If Tom Cruise’s The Mummy had fared better in 2017, that Depp-led iteration would have presumably entered production. “It’s a very short amount of time (that everything’s changed). I wonder what that movie was going to be. I guess we’ll never know.”
As it is, Whannell’s The Invisible Man is hugely entertaining, dripping with dread, and, yes, scary. Whannell, of course, wrote the initial Saw films and directed an Insidious sequel. However, a more apt comparison would be his enjoyably silly cyberpunk-thriller Upgrade. In fact, Stefan Duscio, the cinematographer, named Personal Shopper as the kind of movie he and Whannell studied in preparation. “I’m a huge cinematography nerd,” Moss enthuses. “I love – love! – the visuals. I can’t emphasise enough that there wasn’t a lot of money. But Stefan makes it look like a David Fincher movie.”
Due to the 24/7 threat, Cecilia suffers from physical and mental exhaustion. As acting involves creating memories, or perhaps drawing from real experiences, did Moss find it as draining as, say, shooting The Handmaid’s Tale? “No, it was so fun! I love scary movies. To be able to do the scene where you walk down the hallway, peering around the corner, and turning on the light, and there’s nothing there – I was in heaven.” She gleefully covers her mouth with both hands and takes a sharp intake of breath. “I was jumping up and down after that shot. The idea of imagining there’s a person over my shoulder, and feeling that warmth, and having a look – I love doing that shit.
“Using my imagination is a big part of my job. It’s all I’ve done since I was a little girl. I love creating scenarios that aren’t happening, and things that aren’t there – at work, obviously. I’m not a crazy person.”
In last year’s incredibly divisive Her Smell, Moss depicted a riot grrrl singer, Becky Something, who gradually loses her mind in a series of cacophonous, rock-related environments. The tension builds and builds until it explodes in a cathartic onstage singalong. The Invisible Man, though, has no guitar outbursts, and the soundscape relies on silences – or, rather, detecting any tiny noises that break that silence. “It was more about keeping that fear balled up this time,” Moss explains. “It’s about creating that constant tension, and that constant escalation of fear.”
“I love creating scenarios that aren’t happening, and things that aren’t there – at work, obviously. I’m not a crazy person” – Elisabeth Moss
In order to play Becky, Moss researched by watching YouTube videos of groups like L7, Huggy Bear and Elastica. She also phoned up Beck. “Beck helped me out with a lot of personal stories about people he knew and interacted with. He came in at the tail end of grunge. He said something so interesting about how they were this generation that weren’t listened to. Adults talked down to them. They didn’t have an outlet for their feelings. We’re all so woke now and talk about our feelings – kids these days are so smart about that – but they didn’t have that. They were angry and abandoned. So they put their frustrations into their music.” The call lasted three hours as she trudged through snow in New York. “But I didn’t speak to Beck for The Invisible Man!”
Moss’s upcoming films include Taika Waititi’s Next Goal Wins, Josephine Decker’s Shirley, and Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch. Is there an Anderson movie she’d compare it to? “Maybe The Grand Budapest Hotel. But it’s so different. If you’ve seen the trailer, it has these bookends and these stories in the middle, and they’re each so different. It’s like reading an issue of The French Dispatch – or The New Yorker. I don’t know if he’s done anything like this before, honestly.”
As it’s Moss’s job to be visible, is there a fear of being invisible? Equally, is it a hassle when Mad Men fans quiz her at the supermarket about Pete Campbell’s rifle? “I’ve been doing this for 31 years. It’s not like: ‘Oh, I’ve suddenly become famous overnight!’ Every once in a while, I’ll get recognised at the chemist when I’m buying something embarrassing, or when I’m getting coffee in my pyjamas without makeup – and that’s only embarrassing because you wish you look your best. So I have a pretty good relationship with visibility.”
With her slow, steady rise to fame, Moss’s past roles can be viewed as a slow, steady build-up to The Invisible Man. So much so, the big, multiplex-friendly horror feels like some of her Alex Ross Perry movies – especially Queen of Earth, which didn’t receive a UK release – on a more marketable scale. “That’s what’s so unusual about it,” Moss says. “It’s my first lead role in a studio film. If I’m going to do that, then it has to be like this – almost like a weird independent film.
“To me, it’s a lot of money, when you compare it to Her Smell. But it’s not a gigantic budget. It’s the Blumhouse model, so it’s not a $100 million movie by any stretch of the imagination. It might be a studio film, but it’s my version of a studio film.”
The Invisible Man opens in cinemas on February 28