If Elisabeth Moss didn’t already have Peggy Olsen, Zoey Bartlet, and a host of other memorable roles in acclaimed indie movies on her IMDb, she’d be having a certifiable moment right now. Last month, she stole scenes as a rosé-guzzling, charmingly do-nothing wife in Jordan Peele’s event-movie-of-the-year, Us. Today, when she calls, she’s currently in the midst of shooting Season 3 of The Handmaid’s Tale. Later this year, moviegoers will see her as Shirley Jackson in a biopic from the electric young director Josephine Decker (Madeline’s Madeline). And her turn as an aging, on-the-edge rock star called Becky Something in Alex Ross Perry’s Her Smell (which is getting a wide release this weekend) is an elemental performance—“a hurricane,” “a tornado”—that lets her flex more than anything she’s done in the past.
Moss isn’t a method actor, but she thoroughly disappears into the role of Becky Something, a room-swallowing rock diva who’s already been compared more than once to Courtney Love. It’s not a natural part for her to play; Moss will tell you she was happy growing up, that she didn’t ever seek out the grunge and Riot Grrrl music that her character makes. But in showing a more unbridled side of the actress, the film makes you think about her in the context of rock stars. Forget awards and accolades. Is it time we started talking about Moss the way we talk about Christian Bale or Joaquin Phoenix, as a comet whose every move on the screen isn’t to be missed? Would we already be talking about her that way if in conversation she weren’t so utterly… normal?
GQ: I know you prepared for Her Smell by studying behind-the-scenes docs of Marilyn Monroe. I'm curious if that affected how you thought about Marilyn Monroe.
Elisabeth Moss: Some of the stuff that I saw was just her vulnerability and how messed up she was on drugs and how fragile she was. And people were just pretending like it was normal and not acknowledging it. I remember this one interview I watched where she was clearly in a really bad place, and clearly on some sort of pills, and she was so fragile and vulnerable. It sort of broke your heart to see somebody like that who's such a genius artist but is just struggling so much and nobody's helping her. She seems so alone.
Your character, Becky Something, similarly, is drugged throughout Her Smell. How did you figure out how to act properly intoxicated throughout the different states that your character was in?
A lot of it was in the script. So if it said she should go fast, I made certain decisions. If she was supposed to go slower, I made certain choices. I didn't feel like I was being super inventive on my own. And then I talked to some people and I watched a lot of videos of real people on drugs instead of just watching movies with performances of people on drugs. I just tried to make it as realistic as possible.
A lot of times when actors play intoxicated it comes off too far in one direction—either overdoing it or understating the effect. Were you worried about portraying those states accurately?
Yes and no. I wasn't worried about it. With Becky, because she's so mentally unstable regardless, and [because] sometimes she's just trying to get a rise out of somebody or cause a scene, there are times when you don't even know if she's on something or just being Becky. That's why we didn't really want to show her doing drugs. We didn't want to get too specific about that. You could make a case that, sure, she could be [on drugs] or she's just fucking with you.
Do you have ideas about why we worship these kinds of destructive figures?
I think because they're fascinating to try to understand. They're so foreign and larger-than-life and such enigmas. I think there's a part of us that's just trying to understand how you can be that person, whether you're this larger-than-life person like Freddie Mercury or this hurricane like Becky Something. It's just this fascination with this person who doesn't seem to exist on the same plane as the rest of us.
I'm curious if playing the role of a musician gave you any insights into how musicians might be wired differently than actors.
Acting is framed as: you're doing things publicly, but you're really not. It's a very private thing. You're usually just amongst a few people that you know and a few people you've worked with for a long time. You're in an enclosed state, and it's usually a very safe environment. I think people get confused about actors in being like, "Obviously you like attention." It's like, "No, actually, what I do is work on a soundstage with a few people I know, and it's very safe and private." I would imagine being a musician or a rock star is very different. You're very much on stage and performing all the time. I get really scared going on stage. So I feel like there's a slightly different bone there. A slightly different capability in the way that you perform.
I know that at the time you weren't really into Riot Grrrl and grunge. Did making this movie give you a new appreciation for that?
It gave me a better understanding of the music and where it came from—just the idea of this dissatisfaction and anger. And from the women, it was protest and resistance and feeling like they had something to say too. And they wanted to be heard. It wasn't just about the noise and the yelling and the screeching of the guitars. There was a message.
Was there one person within the scene whose approval you wanted about how you portrayed the character?
No, not really. But I have done interviews with people who used to work at SPIN or covered the music scene at that time, and they've been very reassuring and complimentary of the authenticity of what we did. It was very important to us to just make sure that the period and the way we captured that time in music was authentic and real. If there's anyone who's going to call you out for not being authentic, it's people from that scene. [Laughs.]
With Her Smell coming out around the same time as Us, I was curious about the differences between Jordan Peele and Alex Ross Perry as filmmakers.
They're similar. They're both very trusting of the people that they hire. Part of a director's job is putting together a team. And one of the best and most important things you can do as a director or producer is hire people who are going to do things that you can't do, that are going to know more than you're going to know, that are going to be able to do their jobs. And it seems like both Alex and Jordan are good at that. They're both very trusting of an actor. There's a lot of, Show me what you want to do. Try things.
Kitty in Us drinks rosé on the beach and she's very much a type. Did you base her on anyone you know?
Nobody specific. And god, if I was I certainly wouldn't tell you. She's basically based on every girl you know who is like that. That rosé all day, just a little bit on the older side. Jordan and I talked a lot about that person who kind of hates being a mom, kind of hates their husband, is really unhappy with the choices they've made in life, and feels like they've been robbed of a better life, and is really bitter. I think we've all seen those relationships where the people just don't seem to be very nice to each other. They just don't seem to like each other that much. And they kind of pass it off as being funny or that there's some normality to that. And Jordan and I both felt like that was really terrible and really funny.
Your role isn’t a very introspective one, but the movie is really all about looking within. I’m curious if Us prompted any introspection from you.
I think I definitely thought about at some point, like I'm sure everyone who's seen the movie, what the other version of you would be. It's impossible to be involved with that movie and not be like, What would the bad version of me be? Obviously also, in order for it to be honest about that, it's something no one would ever want to talk about. The actual honest version of who that person is is not something anybody would ever want to share.
Can you share it?
No! I wouldn't be being honest with you if I did. Also, frankly, it's not something I thought about too much, because I know it's a dangerous path to go down. [Laughs.]
There have obviously been a lot of theories around Us, and it's a movie that invites that. Are you someone who's prone to doing that sort of thing?
Yeah, I actually have seen the movie a couple times since we made it, and unfortunately I have all these questions about the movie that I feel like I had the opportunity to ask but I didn't. And now I'm mad at myself because I have all these fan questions. And it's too late to text Jordan and ask him questions.
What are your burning questions?
I would want to know more about the lab and how that started. And what happens next? Do all the untethered go and continue this reign of chaos? I feel like there's something more with the little boy, Jason. I wonder how long he's suspected or known there's something wrong with his mom.
I don't know if you saw this, but recently there was a “Celebration of Elisabeth Moss's Runny Mascara” on Vulture.
I read every word. I fucking loved it. It's probably my favorite article that's been written about me.
Were you conscious that your mascara runs a lot in movies?
I'm definitely conscious that there's a lot of crying. But the breakdown of specifically mascara was pretty amazing, and also so insightful and accurate and detailed. Most of those were not planned, but the one I was most proud about was the one that opens Queen of Earth, because that was planned. That was specifically applied to look like she just got out of the shower and hadn't taken her mascara off. So there was a lot of mascara under her eyes. And the fight started while she was in the shower, and then it just continued. So that was a specific idea and a specific plan and it was engineered to look like that.
Does it make you more self-aware of how you cry in future roles?
No, but it will make me more self-aware of the mascara runnage for sure. And now I feel like I'm going to be doing it specifically for that woman.
A little wink while you're crying.
Exactly, get more on the lids.