Elisabeth Moss Might Just Be Her Own Character
The actor headlines SXSW in opening night film Us, and probes the cost of fame in Her Smell
Elisabeth Moss isn’t exactly a stranger to portraying subversive characters: As Mad Men’s ambitious copywriter/boss babe Peggy Olson or the character of Offred, aka June, in The Handmaid’s Tale – a role which allowed her to perfect the cold inscrutable stare – she shines in environments designed to keep her characters down. There’s a modus operandi at play that uses her power of manipulation for personal advancement, and we feel like that’s okay.
In Her Smell, the system is jiggered – well, actually, there is no system; this is the land of rock & roll: Anything goes as long as you put on a show. As fictional ex-superstar Becky Something of the female trio Something She, Moss personifies chaos, and the only end goal apparent is self-destruction. She’s gone down the rabbit hole of pursuing a passion (the beginnings of which are portrayed in more up-tempo rock & roll films such as Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains and We Are the Best!), but it’s left her worse for the wear: Suffering from addiction and undiagnosed mental illness, Becky harshes everyone’s vibe. She’s that categorically toxic person all those memes tell you to write off immediately. It’s an absolute train wreck to watch. My favorite scene is when she runs onto the stage to perform, bleeding and handcuffed – not so much because it encompasses a gruff, punk-rock “fuck you” to everyone in the room, but because it’s also so outrageously heartbreaking.
Moss said the idea for the project – her third with writer/director Alex Ross Perry – developed over three years: “Originally, we were thinking it was going to be one location [and] a couple of actors, and then it turned into this five-act structure. … We were inspired by the idea of a person, a woman, who is the mother of a small baby and who is also an addict, and what does that look like?”
Aside from screening Her Smell and her role in the eagerly awaited opening night film, Jordan Peele’s Us, Moss’ SXSW schedule includes a conversation between herself and longtime friend and recent collaborator Brandi Carlile – like Becky, a mother and a musician, but that’s where the similarities end. Moss said, “In her song ‘The Mother,’ she alludes to how having a child is more important to her than some of the other things that can come with fame and fortune. There are some parallels there that are interesting with Becky. Brandi obviously chose to go a different way.”
Her Smell features original songs from Keegan DeWitt (Hearts Beat Loud, The Long Dumb Road), but it opens with Moss performing a cover song: the Only Ones’ “Another Girl, Another Planet” (which also does the job of bringing to mind a different era). While the story is fictional, it seems like an odd choice. Moss explained: “We didn't want to make a music film. We wanted to make something that captured the era [and] was about Becky and her band and her friends and her family. But we didn’t want to make a documentary about that time period, about grunge or riot grrrls or that kind of thing. There was a lot of stuff that was drawn on for inspiration, but the music was a layer to the story, just like music always is in the process. But we didn't want to make it the focal point.”
And with the time period and the costuming (sequins and babydoll dresses) and the makeup (mascara dark and usually running) and the red lipstick and bleached blond coif, it’s easy to make a Courtney Love connection, but Moss said the inspiration for Becky is a bit more wide-ranging. “She’s an amalgamation of that kind of person. It doesn’t even necessarily have to be in music. I watched a lot of people who were extremely famous and addicts. I watched a lot of Marilyn Monroe movies, even though she didn’t have that toxic personality, but there’s the idea of fame and addiction and the kind of person it can make you. Alex always says Axl Rose was one of his biggest inspirations for Becky. … I think when you see a character like that, you want to try to grab onto something real, like, ‘Oh, she’s like that. She’s like that.’ But she might just be her own character.”
Where we’re used to men acting terribly in these situations and no one batting an eye, it’s a bit uncomfortable watching a woman going all “Jim Morrison” while holding her infant child. “We didn’t have any intention on holding back on that. We wanted her to be someone who repels the people around her. … When it’s a woman, we tend to be far more judgmental. When it’s a man, it’s kind of glamorous and exciting.”
Going against the (gender-lined) grain in such a way seems like it would be a difficult project to make. “Any time you have a movie led by a female protagonist, it’s always a little bit tougher to make. That’s just the facts, unfortunately. It’s not tougher for it to be successful, because they make money. And ratings are high on female-led television shows, and female-led movies make money. But it’s a little tougher to get them made initially because you are dealing with a world that is largely dominated at the top by men and corporations, so it is a little tougher. And then she’s not a heroine, or even someone that you should even like.”