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Elisabeth Moss Runs on Pain, Real and Imaginary, in ‘The Invisible Man’ and ‘Shirley’

Ryan Lattanzio
·5 min read

Whether she’s being dragged screaming across the floor of a mental hospital in “Invisible Man” or lumbering drunkenly with a cigarette and a sneer at a decorous dinner party in “Shirley,” Elisabeth Moss doesn’t take her roles home with her at the end of the day. “I don’t even take it to the car,” she said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “Or back to my trailer.”

That’s surprising, given that Moss needs no introduction as the onscreen harbinger of mad, messy women, and she played two of them exceptionally (again) in 2020. First, in Leigh Whannell’s Universal monster movie homage “The Invisible Man,” updated as a post-#MeToo gaslighting thriller, and then, in Josephine Decker’s jagged portrait of gothic fiction writer Shirley Jackson, “Shirley.” Both performances required harrowing physical and mental feats, but anyone who knows Moss, or has spoken to her over the course of a 30-minute interview more than once, knows that in such roles she’s having the time of her life.

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What draws her to such dark and damaged roles again and again? “It’s a combo of, as any actor probably knows, you gravitate toward certain roles, and then people see that, they like it, and they keep offering you more of that,” she said.

Looking at the stable of deranged characters she’s played in films like “Queen of Earth,” “Her Smell,” and “Us,” and on her dystopian Hulu series “The Handmaid’s Tale,” you wouldn’t be a fool to think otherwise. But Moss insists there’s no grand plan here.

“It’s not like I’m out there going, ‘This is the only thing I want to do,'” she said. “In fact, it’s made me actively pursue the other side of it. I’m very interested in playing the aggressor, the villain, the other side.” That’s for sure, as her next project “Candy,” with “The Act” co-creator Nick Antosca and writer Robin Veith, stars Moss as Candy Montgomery, a ripped-from-the-headlines woman who burned her life to the ground and killed her best friend with an ax.

While her Love & Squalor Pictures production company has lots, including “Candy,” in store for this and next year, Moss’ 2020 was an astounding one, with “The Invisible Man” closing out as one of the year’s top 10 box-office successes, and “Shirley” a critics’ favorite. While Moss has two Emmy wins to her name for starring in and producing “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and plenty of nominations for her immortal turn as Peggy Olsen in “Mad Men,” she’s yet to be nominated for an Oscar. She’s far overdue, and as for which of her 2020 roles is most deserving? Take your pick.

Moss’ performance as Shirley Jackson was so convincing — despite the movie’s obvious fictionalized flourishes — that even the author’s son, Laurence Hyman, became bewitched. “He came up to me at Sundance at this party, and tapped me on the shoulder, and said, ‘Hey, Mom.’ And I was like, ‘Excuse me? I’m so sorry. I don’t understand.’ And he said, ‘I’m Laurence, one of Shirley Jackson’s children.’ We developed a nice email exchange, and we would love to develop more of Shirley’s work,” she said. “He was incredibly generous about the fact that we cut him and his siblings out of the movie.”

While Moss’ all-in approach to performing could be mistaken as the work of a method actor, she said that’s not at all the case. But, as the powerhouse explained, an injury sustained prior to shooting “Shirley” (in 2018) and “Invisible Man” (in 2019) ended up enhancing her work. Call it method-adjacent.

“The year before ‘Invisible Man,’ I was in the pool with my nieces. I was throwing them around… and I hurt my neck. A year later, I’m doing a shot for ‘Invisible Man,’ and I’m running, and I whip my head around to the right to look in back of me — and there it went. I hurt my neck again, and spent the next six weeks working with a physical therapist,” Moss said.

When asked if she channeled the pain into her character, she said, “I wasn’t actually using that for Cecilia, but right after I was injured the first time was when I did ‘Shirley.'” It turns out that character’s dilapidating physical carriage was partly real, even if Jackson’s mental anguish is all Moss’ astonishing fabrication.

“It was about two weeks before I started, so I was actually in extreme pain for most of that movie, which begs the question, perhaps I should just throw my neck out before starting any highly dramatic role. For ‘Shirley,’ it weirdly helped because she is in pain a lot of the time, physical pain, which is why she’s popping pills and drinking.”

Now that she’s nursed the wounds, real and imaginary, of her 2020 roles, she’s turned her attention back to “The Handmaid’s Tale” for the Margaret Atwood adaptation’s fourth season, currently underway. And this time, she’s also getting behind the camera as a director, for episodes three, eight, and nine.

Though Moss said it’s easy to slip out of the skin of character’s like Cecilia in “Invisible Man,” a victim of physical and psychological abuse, that doesn’t mean she’s not inclined to revisit them.

As she told IndieWire, don’t rule out that there may be more in store for “The Invisible Man,” as Moss said she and production company Blumhouse have bandied about ideas for a sequel that “we would be stupid not” to pursue. “We want to make sure there’s a story to tell that takes it further. There’s so much unexplored story there.”

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