I wasn't really sure what to expect when meeting Elisabeth Moss for the first time in Cannes. We were about to spend the next three days together doing interviews, events, and dinners. Of course, I'd known of her since she starred as First Daughter Zoey Bartlet on The West Wing in the late '90s and early 2000s and wowed us all in Girl, Interrupted, holding her own with Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie. And I had just binge-watched The Handmaid's Tale and started Top of the Lake. Neither of her characters on those two TV shows were people I thought I would want to hang with, but luckily for me, IRL Lizzie is much more carefree, relaxed, and hilarious. In fact, she was a pleasure from the first minute we met. Literally — within one minute of meeting, she and my awesome, fun husband, Brian, bonded over baseball stats, comparing their teams (her Chicago Cubs and our SF Giants.)
In one of our many meetups, we had a late breakfast at the lobby bar of the Hotel Martinez. Makeup-free and in a cute sundress, Elisabeth appeared well-rested and ready to talk about her many dramatic roles. "It's been coming up a lot of the fact that I do really like dark, intense material," she said. "But I'm not like that in real life at all. It's not like I enjoy being dark. I enjoy acting. That's my happy place."
"I also find complicated, flawed characters interesting. What's the opposite? To play one-dimensional, boring failures?"
For someone so talented, she was humble, a pro, and someone you want to be BFFs with. And we also bonded over our love of family. "My mom is one of the kindest, nicest people ever. She's one of those people that will talk to people on the street, and she'll make friends with the Time Warner Cable lady on the phone and know how many children they have," Elisabeth said. "She's also extremely tough and badass."
It's clear Elisabeth sees her mother as a role model and maybe as a bit of inspiration for her latest character, Offred. "As women, you're being put into these different categories and [told that] in order to be considered strong, sometimes you have to be considered a b*tch. I don't think that they have to be mutually exclusive," she said. "When you're nice, it's more helpful to situations. But that doesn't mean you can't turn around and be like, 'Don't f*ck with me.'"
Since The Handmaid's Tale was top of mind, I asked about spoilers for season two in one of our very first conversations. Elisabeth divulged that we will learn more about Little America and the colonies. We will get more background on how Gilead came to power, more flashbacks from June's former life, and more about her daughter. Elisabeth and I also discussed lighter topics, like her annual trips to Disneyland, daily naps, playlists, and her favorite things — like cats and curse words — just a few short weeks before she earned an Emmy nomination for her role on The Handmaid's Tale.
Lisa Sugar: How would your friends describe you?
Elisabeth Moss: Probably as some sort of goofball who does not like getting up early in the morning and does not like to go to parties. And I feel like my friends' perception is probably of me as a little bit more of a loner, curmudgeon. It's not like I sit around and I'm happy and f*cking joyful all the time. Sometimes I'm kind of antisocial. I'm probably much more normal than people think. If I did interviews early in the morning, it would probably be a different story.
LS: I hear that.
EM: I'm a champion napper. For the past decade, I've taken a nap at lunch on set. I have a noise machine app on my phone, headphones — and that's key. That's probably the most important thing. If I can get an eye mask on, that's great. And that's it. After a half an hour, I'm like a new person. It's just in that first half an hour, don't talk to me.
LS: So if you're not like your characters, what attracts you to this type of role?
EM: I think just it's like a musician liking to play certain pieces of music rather than others. I just have more satisfaction when playing complicated things rather than some of your more straightforward, simple moments. . . . I like to be challenged.
LS: Inner strength is a hallmark of the characters you've chosen to play.
EM: It's only been recently with Handmaid's that I think this commonality has sort of emerged: characters who rise and find their strength. Anytime you have a female protagonist, it's going to turn into some feminist angle, and it's not a conscious thing on my part. It's only recently that that's been pointed out by the media . . . or pointed out by fans. I also find complicated, flawed characters interesting. What's the opposite? To play one-dimensional, boring failures?
LS: Are lighter-hearted roles or romantic comedies of interest at all?
EM: Yeah. That's what I love to watch. That's my bag. When Harry Met Sally is my favorite movie. I'm a huge romantic. One of my dreams is to be in a seminal romantic comedy — Love Actually or something. I'd love to work with Richard Curtis.
LS: What attracted you to the role of Zoey Bartlet on The West Wing?
EM: I got the job! I mean, I was 17. There was not any choosing roles. I'd auditioned for pilots and never gotten them. I've never been your typical choice. I've never fit into what your male studio execs, especially at that time, thought that you should see.
But it definitely ended up being the right fit. I look at it as my real beginning and real entry into what my career ended up being. And it taught me about good writing. I mean, what an amazing start, getting to do Aaron Sorkin. Getting to speak his words. It's incredible. And then working with all those actors. They were all great theater actors, really talented, and it taught me so much about what the set's supposed to be like. Everyone took their work really seriously and was super professional, but didn't take themselves seriously.
LS: I obviously loved Handmaid's. I powered through it and finished it on the plane here. How do you prepare for a role like Offred?
EM: For me, it starts with something very instinctive, which is really hard to put into words. I think the other reason why I kind of don't take it that seriously is because I think it sounds really lame to talk about acting. So I think you sound like an assh*le most of the time. I like to talk about acting, but I just feel like you sound like a d*ck.
LS: But you're going to do it.
EM: Totally. I'm going to talk about acting. I'm going to get over it. I find that there's something that happens that's really instinctive, that is like a heart connection. I don't know what that is. It's just, like, right away. With Peggy [on Mad Men], with Top of the Lake, with [Handmaid's] — I felt that there's something about her I understand. And then I relied heavily, heavily, heavily on the book for this. 📖 I read the book a million times.
LS: Do you underline or tab pages?
EM: Oh, yeah. It's completely highlighted and dog-eared. I also take bits out and write them down in a book so I remember. So it was incredibly helpful because I'd be able to go and be, "Oh, we're doing this scene. Great." There are also so many beautiful parts of the book that I really latched onto. My favorite lines in literature ever are in that book. I feel like the word shatter, which we used in the voiceover, that that's everything, that line. And then music for me. Which I think we mentioned. I have two playlists. One for Offred, one for June.
LS: What made you go from ballet to acting?
EM: At 15, you have to decide if you're going to go into professional dancing and really pursue it. I just a) knew that I couldn't stop acting, and b) I had that sort of foresight to understand that when I was 35 — if I was lucky and if I hadn't gotten injured — my career would be on its way to ending. Now, at 34, I really understand that. But at 15, I understood that as well. I was like, "I can't. That's just too risky."
LS: What music makes you happy? What are some of your current favorites?
EM: I am obsessed with Bleachers and their new album. 🎶 I saw them a few weeks ago. I loved them before, but after seeing them live, I was so addicted. I'm really liking the Lorde album. I always go back to Beyoncé's Lemonade. Always. If I ever need to get going, if I ever need to get up the will to go do sh*t, not stay in bed, it's Beyoncé. And I'm super obsessed with this band called Kaleo.
LS: What do you like to do just to have fun? A Cubs game?
EM: Yes, definitely baseball. ⚾️ I love baseball games. I got to go to World Series last year. I watch almost every Cubs game. If I can't watch, I get the updates on my phone. I don't like to go to parties that much. I don't like a lot of people around me, but not in like a weird anxiety way. I just don't like to have to talk to a lot of people.
LS: Like intimate dinners instead?
EM: Yes. I love a one-on-one dinner. Pretty much all I do in my time off is go to dinner. I go to dinner with my mom, I go to dinner with my friends. I like to watch TV. I like to hang out with my cats. 🐱 I very much enjoy sleeping. I’m really a grandma. I do like to read. I never feel like I read enough. I love walking in the park.
"Belle — wasn't she sort of the first feminist kind of princess? As opposed to Aurora, who just goes to sleep and f*cking waits around for some guy to kiss her to wake her up."
LS: I know you grew up going to Disneyland. What's your routine? Your favorite rides?
EM: I usually go once a year. It has to be planned, unfortunately, as everything in my life [laughs]. I get there whenever, usually in the afternoon. Thunder Mountain's my favorite ride. Space Mountain's my second favorite ride. We usually try to get a big-ticket item early. Get a FastPass since you only have one FastPass a day. Everyone who goes to Disneyland should have the app so you can check the wait times for the lines. There's also a two-churro minimum. That's required. I find a churro-pickle combination is really stellar.
LS: Like at the same time?
EM: No, no, no. I'm not a monster. A churro and then a pickle.
LS: Favorite Disney character?
EM: Belle — wasn't she sort of the first feminist kind of princess? 👑 As opposed to Aurora, who just goes to sleep and f*cking waits around for some guy to kiss her to wake her up. It's like the worst metaphor ever. And then you've got of course Snow White, who is literally knocked out by some older, craggly, ugly witch, then has to wait for a prince to wake her up.
LS: Do you feel like social media is part of the job, or do you like letting people into your life?
EM: Twitter scares me. I think it's so amazing, like the internet in general, because of the connection that it gives people. But the concept that one 140-word post can change someone's life . . . that scares me. You can literally ruin someone's life with one tweet. So I only do Instagram. I love photography . . . and interacting with the fans. I do love hearing from them. I try to answer questions if I can.
LS: You do?
EM: Uh-huh. Sometimes, it's a lot. But I read all the comments, because I feel like people have taken the time to say something, and that's nice. I've actually learned stuff, especially when I looked on a Planned Parenthood post. I have a zero-tolerance policy for hate — you're blocked and deleted immediately. And you're called out if it's really bad, which is sometimes fun to do [laughter]. But I don't mind conversations.