She’s been called “the queen of peak TV.”
With starring roles in Emmy-winning dramas “Mad Men,” “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Top of the Lake,” Elisabeth Moss has brought intensity and grit to some of the past decade’s most compelling small-screen characters.
Her latest turn in “Shining Girls” is no exception. In the Apple TV+ thriller (first three episodes streaming Friday; new episodes weekly), Moss plays Kirby, a Chicago Tribune archivist who narrowly survived a brutal sexual assault. In the six years since the attack, Kirby’s reality has continually and inexplicably shifted around her: One day, she lives with her mom and a cat; the next, she comes home to a husband and a dog.
Kirby soon learns about the recent murder of a woman whose assailant mirrors her own. She teams up with a seasoned reporter (Wagner Moura) to search for answers about her ever-changing present and hunt for a time-traveling serial killer (Jamie Bell) with potential links to cold cases spanning decades.
“Shining Girls” is adapted from Lauren Beukes’ 2013 novel, which Moss was unfamiliar with when she initially read the scripts. “I was going in blind,” she recalls. “So when I got to the ending of that first episode, I was like, ‘Oh my God, what happens next?’ It wasn’t like anything I had ever seen.”
Moss, 39, talks to USA TODAY about the show and the legacy of her secretary-turned-copywriter Peggy Olson on “Mad Men.”
Question: What do you find unique about the way “Shining Girls” depicts trauma?
Elisabeth Moss: I think how this analogy for trauma is built into this entertaining, genre-bending show. There’s a sense after a traumatic experience that you never know what your life is going to be in the next second, because obviously your life changed in a second. Kirby’s life, when that attack happened, changes forever – and that then keeps happening to her. The only other thing I’ve seen that (was structured) this way was “The Father” with Anthony Hopkins. Completely different subject matter, but a similar idea of putting yourself in the point of view of the person whose life is always changing around them.
Q: As a Cubs fan shooting in Chicago, did you ever sneak off set to go to games?
Moss: Oh, yeah, I went to quite a few. There was the option of shooting in New York or Toronto, and I’m not going to lie, one of the reasons why I pushed for Chicago was because I knew I would be there over the summer and I’d be able to go to Cubs games. Unfortunately it wasn’t our best year (for the team), but Wrigley Field is still my favorite place to be.
Q: Would you also nerd about “Hamilton” to your co-star Phillipa Soo (who originated the role of Eliza in the Broadway musical)?
Moss: I tried not to be annoying. She knows I’ve seen the show a few times, but I don’t think she actually knows how much of a fan I am. I’ve listened to that soundtrack like 9 million times – I know every word. I did the same thing with Alexis Bledel: I worked with her for years (on “Mad Men” and “The Handmaid’s Tale”) and never told her what a huge fan I am of “Gilmore Girls.” They’re my secrets.
Q: What can you tease about the upcoming fifth season of “The Handmaid’s Tale?”
Moss: Well, obviously there was a very big event at the end of last year, which was the – spoiler alert! – killing of Fred (Joseph Fiennes). Not a small thing, so I can definitely say there’s a fallout from that. There are emotional repercussions, and the recovery isn’t easy. But you can’t just take out one person and expect a regime to fall, so the fight is very, very much not over for June.
Q: This July marks 15 years since “Mad Men” premiered. Is there something people always ask you about the show?
Moss: What I’ve been hearing lately is people saying it’s holding up. The further we get away from it, people are still recognizing it as a really important moment in television, and that feels good. I definitely hear a lot about the Peggy moment when she leaves the company with the box and she arrives at her new company. That was a moment that was inspiring for a lot of people in many different walks of life.
Q: That GIF is always on Twitter, as is Peggy smoking weed for the first time.
Moss: I know, and it’s so funny because when we shoot these (moments), we do not think that’s going to happen. We’re not like, “Here we go, creating the world’s next great GIF.” It’s just a scene, and I had no idea that scene with the box was going to become what it was. No idea.
Q: You’ve directed episodes of both “Handmaid’s Tale” and “Shining Girls.” Do you have any desire to direct a feature film at some point?
Moss: For sure. I was really surprised after I directed on “Handmaid’s Tale,” because I’m so used to getting scripts for acting and I totally didn’t think it would happen for directing. All of a sudden, I started getting these directing offers, and it was really flattering and exciting. So yes, I am looking at a couple of things. But it’s even more true of directing than acting: You’re with the project for so long, so it really has to be something that you feel only you can tell that story. So if and when I do (direct a feature), it has to be that for me.
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