A version of this story about Elisabeth Moss first appeared in the Race Begins issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
For seven seasons on “Mad Men” and three on “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Elisabeth Moss has been the face of women pushing back against oppression by the patriarchy. But while her main showcase has been television, Moss has also had an intriguing film career, which in recent years has included films like “The Square,” “Her Smell” and “Us” – and which in 2020 found her portraying a pair of fierce women who insist on seizing power from the men who want to restrict them.
The roles came in two dramatically different films, the Blumhouse horror-movie riff “The Invisible Man” and the spiky indie drama “Shirley,” about writer Shirley Jackson. The latter film, written by Sarah Gubbins and directed to Josephine Decker, was a landmark of sorts for her, the first time she’d ever portrayed a real-life person.
“I did more research than I usually do — which is, I usually don’t do any research at all,” Moss said with a laugh of her role as a fictionalized version of “The Lottery” writer Jackson. “It was a perfect introduction in the sense that it is highly fictionalized — it’s almost more of a Shirley Jackson novel than it is a Shirley Jackson biopic.
“So I got to take advantage of the backstory and this person in the biographies and the works that she’s written and the stuff I could find about her. But at the same time, I wasn’t beholden to having to do an exact representation of this woman who I respect and admire so much. It was the best of both worlds, in a way.”
The film uses real-life moments to tell a story that plays like Jackson’s own work, with Moss commanding the screen as a fierce, brilliant and abrasive writer unconcerned with social niceties. “That was the most fun part,” she said. “You don’t see that a lot in female roles. To play somebody who just speaks her mind, and also speaks it intelligently and with humor at times, that was so much fun and very inspiring. I think she made me a little bit more creative.”
While “Shirley” had similarities to many of Moss’ film roles in that it was a low-budget indie production, “The Invisible Man” was something else entirely – not only a Universal film, but a film that on the basis of its title seemed likely to be a horror movie with a man at its center.
“I got this email from my agent when I was working on Season 2 of ‘Handmaid’s Tale,'” she said. “I was about to take my nap, which I used to take at lunch every day. But they emailed me and said, ‘There’s this movie we want to talk to you about.’ So we got on the phone and it was at ‘The Invisible Man,’ Universal and Blumhouse. I was flattered that anybody wanted me to be in a studio film, because I don’t usually do them. But I was also thinking, ‘I don’t know what my place is in this.”
But writer-director Leigh Whannell’s film was an overhaul of the usual “Invisible Man” scenario, and one in which the horror elements were a Trojan Horse for a story about a woman fighting back against abuse and gaslighting. “I read the opening of the script, where she’s escaping from her husband, and I went, ‘OK, I get why they thought of me.'”
Moss was quick to add that she has nothing against scary movies in general. “I love all kinds of horror films, from ‘Paranormal Activity’ to ‘Hereditary,'” she said. “I always have, since I was a preteen, so the fact that this was part of the Universal monster universe canon was really cool. But when I found out that they were re-envisioning it as a story about a woman, I thought, ‘This is really, really interesting and a cool way to reboot this franchise.'”
And it also fit in a career that since the 2007 premiere of “Mad Men” has found her embodying a string of feminist icons. “It’s been an interesting combination of timing and also being thoughtful about it,” she said. “As there have been different movements and different conversations happening, art has started to reflect that. And yes, I am interested in playing strong female characters that are complicated and flawed — everything from superhero women to antiheroes.”