Elisabeth Moss takes on a new role in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’
After more than 30 busy years in front of the cameras, Elisabeth Moss — the two-time Emmy-winning star and executive producer of “The Handmaid’s Tale” — has turned her talents to directing three episodes of the series she knows so well. And it’s earned her some fans.
“Lizzie’s been in the business for a very long time,” says series creator and showrunner Bruce Miller. “She has a lot of experience beyond just being an actor. She was able to bring all that experience to bear.”
“I’ll tell you honestly,” adds Ann Dowd, who plays Aunt Lydia on the show, “Episodes 3, 8, 9 … Lizzie was always prepared, always ready, always thinking, always feeling. Respectful. Kind. That’s exceptional.”
The Envelope spoke to Moss via Zoom about her experiences helming “The Crossing,” as well as the June releases “Testimony” and “Progress.”
Why choose the ambitious Episode 3, “The Crossing,” as your directorial debut?
I tend to go for the hardest challenge. I wanted to have a lot of [my character] June in the episode. I know June better than anyone. So as a director, why wouldn’t I want the actor who knows the most about their character? I was also very excited about the June-Lydia scenes. I love working with Ann so much. And I was really excited about these new set pieces — the Eyes compound and all of that. It seemed like a way to take everything I’ve learned and know about “The Handmaid’s Tale” and amplify it.
How did your deep knowledge of the series help?
My knowledge of June obviously helped me, but my knowledge of the other characters being useful was something I uncovered that I hadn’t anticipated. For example, with Ann, we’ve had so many scenes together. I’ve experienced what you guys see in the final product, but I’ve also experienced all the other takes, all the other things she’s tried. I’ve experienced the journey to get to that moment you end up seeing in the episode. I know these actors really well. They all have different processes. Joe [Fiennes] is very different from Ann, who’s very different from Yvonne [Strahovski], who’s very different from Max [Minghella]. I know what they need from a director. I know how they like to be spoken to.
What had you learned from the myriad directors you’ve worked with?
Oh, so much! From Jane Campion, I learned how to create an atmosphere where everyone feels protected and loved and cared for on set. A director who comes on and starts yelling can cripple a crew and a performance. Jane also only shoots what she needs. If it’s a wide shot and she just wants the top and tail of a scene, she does it, and as soon as she’s got it, she moves on.
I also checked in with actor-director Ben Stiller. I probably used his advice the most. He told me not to forget about myself. I didn’t know what he was talking about until I wound up in the situation over and over again. As an actor, when you direct, there’s a tendency to focus on everybody else, to shoot yourself last. Then, when you get to your close-up, you feel bad. You don’t want to take too long. It’s very awkward to be sitting at the monitor, watching and judging your own performance. Ben impressed upon me: Don’t worry. If you need another take, do another take.
How did you compartmentalize between Lizzie the actor and Lizzie the director?
I actually think of it as all being very much of one piece. I’m the same way when I’m acting and not directing. I think about where the camera is. I really want to know what the plan is for the scene. I want to know how we’re shooting it. I want to know about the visual style. So, for me, it doesn’t feel like that much of a leap. As an actor, I’ve always very much thought as a director, which I didn’t realize until I started directing.
With No. 3 under your belt, you went back for Episodes 8 and 9.
I was so sad when I finished directing Episode 3. I didn’t want to be done yet. I felt like I’d just figured out how to do it. I’d just gotten comfortable with it. I wanted the opportunity to do more, to try again.
Eight and 9 were actually harder to do. I storyboarded almost all of Episode 3 because it’s a much more constructed episode. There are specific set pieces. There are visual effects. Eight and 9 were these intimate, emotional character dramas. I’d done Episode 3 and was so proud of it and so excited that everyone thought it was great. I wanted to see if I could do something else. Without all the bells and whistles, without the effects, without the rain towers — could I still do this?
Eight and 9 were shot concurrently, as many of the show’s episodes are. Is that easier or harder?
The challenge is finding the links between them so that they’re kind of a set, but also making sure they’re their own unique episodes. They’re two massively different episodes, from two different writers. Eight, for me, is so much about the women of “The Handmaid’s Tale.” It’s so much about their stories and where they’re at and their different journeys. Nine is about love. Old love and new love.
Will you direct in Season 5?
I would love to. It’s not set in stone or in writing, and I don’t want to be presumptuous, but I’ve put myself forward to my fellow executive producers. I think I’ve got a good shot. [Laughs] Fingers crossed!
Have you ruined yourself for other directors?
[Laughs] That’s a funny question. No, I miss working with other directors. When I did No. 3, one of the first realizations I had — which is going to sound kind of stupid — was that I didn’t have a director. I thrive on that relationship, on the conversations, on the back and forth. I like getting notes. All that is so valuable to me. I’ll always prefer it, in a way.
This year, you could be nominated in three drama categories at the Emmys — lead actress, director and series. Which would mean the most to you?
Oh, my God. That’s an impossible question. I work so hard at each of them and they’re so different from each other. You know, I really don’t think I can actually even answer. I would be so honored to have any of them happen.
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