Why Elisabeth Moss craves a case of the nerves before a shoot

Elisabeth Moss stars in “Shirley,” in which she plays writer Shirley Jackson.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Elisabeth Moss was taking a nap during a break on the set of “The Handmaid’s Tale” when she received an email from her agent asking if she could talk. She admits she was annoyed, because she always takes a nap at lunch, but the message was an important one. Universal Pictures and Blumhouse were going to offer her the lead in Leigh Whannell’s contemporary adaption of “The Invisible Man.”

“I was blown away, because no one really ever asks me to do big movies,” Moss recalls. “I thought that was really cool and flattering, but then I was also like, ‘I don’t understand. Am I the Invisible Man?’ Like, I don’t get it. And obviously, I know the old ‘Invisible Man’ movie, and then obviously there’s the ‘Hollow Man,’ and we all know all these other movies. And I just didn’t understand what it was that they were asking me to do or why they were asking me to do it.”

Ten pages into reading the script, it clicked. Whannell’s take was something unique for this familiar horror story, a thriller from the perspective of the victim — a woman trying to escape a manipulative and abusive relationship.

“I don’t think they would’ve asked me to do this if it wasn’t a different kind of movie,” Moss says. “It just made so much sense to me when I saw that it was actually this emotional character drama, cloaked in a monster movie.”

The February release earned Moss critical acclaim just a few weeks after another one of her films, “Shirley,” premiered to accolades at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. As author Shirley Jackson, Moss plays a rare historical figure. It turned out to be one of the most transformative performances of her career, but she admits she wasn’t the producers’ first choice.


“There was an offer out to another actress. She’s really an actress that I very much admire,” Moss says. “And I fell in love with the script, and I thought it was incredible, and I thought, ‘She’s perfect for it. And she’s going to be amazing.’ And ‘Call me if she says no.’”

As fate would have it, that actress did pass, and Moss got the call. She remarks, “It was just the coolest script. It was so good. And I just followed that map that Sarah Gubbins wrote. It’s all there, and everything she did is there. And then Josephine, of course, came in and made a Josephine Decker film. And that’s another layer to it that is, I think, very additive.”

Set during the years prior to Jackson writing her 1951 novel “Hangsaman,” the story initially centers on Fred and Rose (Logan Lerman, Odessa Young), a newly married couple who move in to the Vermont home of the author and her husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), a professor at Bennington College. While Fred prepares for his new job as a lecturer at the institution under Stanley’s tutelage, Rose finds herself forced into assisting Shirley as a de facto housekeeper. As time passes, the relationship between the women changes, and Rose becomes something of a muse for Shirley as she struggles with both writing her new novel and her complicated relationship with her husband.

Despite Emmy, SAG and Golden Globe wins to her credit, Moss says she still loves it when a role makes her nervous. And “Shirley” was one of those projects.

“That’s a great feeling for me, because that means I care, it means I’m alive, it means this matters, this scene, this moment is important,” Moss says. “I love that, and I crave that feeling. Before big scenes, or stressful scenes, or a scene that maybe I don’t know if I know how to do. But sometimes those are the best moments.”

One of the final scenes in the picture finds Stanley reading the first draft of Shirley’s new novel while she waits anxiously in the dining room. In the finished film, it’s depicted in a remarkable one-shot where Decker keeps the camera on Moss for almost three minutes straight. That’s not how it was originally intended, however. That was just supposed to be her close-up.

“But it was the final thing that we shot in the house, and we were losing that location the next day, and I was getting on a plane at 6 a.m. to go shoot Jordan Peele’s ‘Us,’ in California,” Moss says. “And it was, like, 2 in the morning, and it was one of those moments where you just sit down and you take a deep breath and you go, ‘This is arguably the most important moment of this film, and if it doesn’t work, the movie doesn’t work.’ And you just go for it. I love those moments, and I thrive on them, but they are scary.”