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‘Her Smell’!? Yeah, Elisabeth Moss was turned off by her film’s title at first too

Actress Elisabeth Moss stars in “Her Smell.”
Actress Elisabeth Moss stars in “Her Smell.”
(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

In “Her Smell,” Elisabeth Moss’ third collaboration with director-writer Alex Ross Perry, which hit theaters in April 2019, the actress plays Becky Something, the raw, reckless, strung-out yet brilliant lead singer of an iconic ’90s riot-grrrl trio called Something She, who, when we first meet her, is spinning out of control and in danger of taking down everyone around her. Moss has been nominated for a Gotham Award for the role.

Think Courtney Love, because everybody does, although Moss — probably best known for her TV roles in “Mad Men” and “The Handmaid’s Tale” — says she and Perry, with whom she also co-produced the film, found inspiration in other performers, including Amy Winehouse, Marilyn Monroe, Axl Rose and Kurt Cobain.

Seated on a tweedy armchair, demurely sipping a Moscow Mule beside a crackling fireplace on a crisp October evening in a clubby cocktail lounge on New York’s Upper East Side and looking nothing like a dissolute rocker, Moss muses, “Becky was everyone and no one.”

What drew you to this film?

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Alex had this idea of a female rock star who was addicted to everything and had a baby. I was like, “I love it!” We thought it would be minimal: one motel room, two actors. Then it morphed into this five-act structure with this big ensemble. I was like, “This is even better!”

What’s your collaboration like?

It’s almost become a game of how far can he push me. He’ll write something just to see if I can pull it off. I’m always like, “This is impossible, what you’ve written. But fine, I’ll do it.” I don’t like to be bored. I’ve been doing this a long time — since I was 6, and I’m 37 now. Doing the same thing over and over is not interesting. Why not challenge myself?

You’ve definitely been put through a lot of trauma in your roles.

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Do you know how many children I’ve lost? It’s ridiculous! It’s like a weird theme in my career. I keep losing children somehow and then I have to try to get them back. When I [actually] do have a child, I’m going to hold onto that thing for dear life.

Has producing brought you more power?

One hundred percent. It started to seem silly not to have more creative control. If you’re the face of something and going to take the fall if it doesn’t work, why not be creatively involved?

Why the title “Her Smell”?

Alex has told me what it means and I never remember. It had to do with the punk scene. I didn’t love the title, to be honest, but he had a good reason.

Critics have embraced the movie. Are you frustrated more people haven’t seen it?

No, I’m shocked people have seen it at all. I want to give an award to anyone who has sat through it. It’s not easy to watch. But we meant it to be so intense you wanted to leave or pull your hair out. When people tell me they’ve watched it two or three times, I’m like, “You are an exceptional human.”

What was the biggest challenge for you?

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The dialogue. Alex wanted it to be exactly as written, which I, having worked with Aaron Sorkin, Matt Weiner and David Mamet, respect. I discovered quickly that if you said a line that sounded like nonsense wrong, it didn’t work at all. You had to say the exact gibberish that was written. I’m weirdly good at memorizing lines — almost photographic — but it was hard. And he kept saying, “Faster, faster, faster.”

Is it important to you to like the characters you play?

I don’t care whether I like them or you like them. What I care about is that you understand them. If you understand them, I’ve done my job.

What kind of research did you do?

I’m terrible at research. But I had no idea what it was like to be a drug addict and I’m not a punk music fan, so I read, listened to music and talked to people in recovery. I started learning guitar six months before we started. It was impossible. I was able to play basic chords and look like I was playing, but I have too much respect for musicians to pretend I became a musician.

But you sang. What was that like?

It was hard because the music is not my wheelhouse. I was a fan of country music, jazz, classical. I missed the grunge scene and didn’t have the anger my friend Beck explained was where that music came from. That generation didn’t know where to put their feelings, so they put it into their music. When I started listening with that in mind, I understood it.

Did you draw on your experience as the child of jazz musicians?

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Just the lifestyle: the touring, the gigs. My mother is an accomplished harmonica player. My godfather is the jazz pianist Chick Corea. One of my earliest memories, I had to be 4 or 5, is being at the Blue Note. I remember people coming over to the house and playing music until all hours. So that wasn’t foreign to me.

I feel like every movement of your face tells a story. How aware are you of that?

At times I’m highly aware; I know exactly what the frame is and that if I do something with this eye it will show. The other half the time I’m not thinking about it at all. But sometimes I hit a magic moment when I’ve found something that’s exciting and my heart will pound really, really hard. When the mike picks that up, I know I’ve hit the sweet spot.


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