How Gershwin Superfan Elisabeth Moss Became a Punk Singer in ‘Her Smell’

TheWrap Oscar magazine: “I have great pictures of me in my ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ costume playing a guitar,” says Moss of her preparation for the Alex Ross Perry drama

Elisabeth Moss
Elisabeth Caren for TheWrap

A version of this story about Elisabeth Moss first appeared in the “Dark Horses We Love” section of the Actors/Directors/Screenwriters issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.

It started with an image — a female rock star, at the top of her game but addicted to drugs, holding a baby — along with the idea to start not with the rise to fame, but with the descent.

Those were the keys when writer-director Alex Ross Perry and actress Elisabeth Moss first started talking about “Her Smell,” a harrowing rock ‘n’ roll fever dream that stars Moss as Becky Something, a self-destructive ’90s riot grrrl/punk singer whose world falls apart over three chaotic, assaultive and extended scenes, and who tries to figure out if she deserves redemption over the film’s final two acts.

“It was one of those things where I read the script and could see the character,” Moss said. “Every great part makes me think two things: ‘I can’t believe they wrote this, it’s so good,’ and ‘I can’t believe they think I can do this.’”

She laughed, then added: “‘Her Smell’ was Alex saying, ‘I’m going to write you the hardest character you’ve ever had to play, and I think you can do it.’”

The Emmy-winning veteran of Aaron Sorkin’s “The West Wing” and Matthew Weiner’s “Mad Men” had a lot of learning to do, because she was not an aficionado of the kind of music her character performs. “I was into jazz and blues, and I was a ballet dancer,” she said. “I could name any Gershwin tune, but I could not tell you a Nirvana song. I was just not quite cool enough.”

She had grand dreams of spending a month in rehearsals and band practices, but those dreams died when shooting on Season 2 of “The Handmaid’s Tale” ran overtime and didn’t end until two weeks before shooting began on “Her Smell,” But Moss had been practicing guitar and prepping for months on the “Handmaid” set: “For about four or five months, I was taking my guitar back and forth from the set in my car,” she said. “I have great pictures of me in my ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ costume playing a guitar.”

The practice helped her find the character, but it didn’t quite prepare her for long takes of Becky spouting what sounds like drug-addled and ego-driven gibberish.

“I am a good memorizer, but I think I got a little cocky,” she said. “I didn’t realize how hard Becky’s dialogue was. Alex wanted it exactly as written, and I discovered very quickly that even though it sounds like it doesn’t make sense, if you don’t say it that way it really doesn’t make sense. You’re lost. You have to say it in her nonsensical way. That dialogue is really hard, and I’ve done Mamet, Sorkin, Matthew Weiner…”

The other problem, she added, was simply the energy required by lengthy takes that kept her character on the edge of hysteria. “Those scenes would run for a long time,” she said. “Say an act was 30 pages long — you’d do 15 pages one day and 15 pages the next. But it’s not like you would do those 15 pages once. You’d do them over and over and over again. That was the exhausting thing, having to keep that energy up every single time. It’s the closest I got to theater, doing that film.”

Perry, who has now worked with Moss on three films, recently said of his regular leading lady, “Some people are born to suffer, and some people are born to pretend to suffer.” When Moss heard the quote, she immediately said, “He was talking about me? That’s great. I guess I am, yeah.”

A pause. “I definitely am.”

To read more from the Actors/Directors/Screenwriters issue, click here.

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