She’s been seen most recently as Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale. But despite the horrors of the story set in a dystopian world where women are treated as property of the state, Elisabeth Moss says it’s her role in Top of the Lake that is the bigger challenge.
Moss stars as Detective Robin Griffin in Top of the Lake: China Girl, the second series of the crime drama written by Jane Campion and Gerard Lee.
While we last saw her four years ago in Queenstown, New Zealand, the action has now moved to Sydney, where a body has washed up in a suitcase on Bondi Beach.
Robin is not only trying to solve the case but battling with her own demons and trying to reconnect with Mary, the daughter she gave up for adoption – played by Alice Englert, Campion’s own daughter (more of that later).
“I loved playing Robin so much,” says Moss. “In a lot of ways she’s the biggest departure for me as a character, with the accent and with her job, with everything – she’s very different from me.
“So it was really challenging. But I felt like by the end of the first season I got the hang of it, and then we were done.
“So I was a little frustrated because I felt like I’d just figured it out and then we wrapped.
“As an actor, you’re always thinking ‘I could try to do a little bit better this time and I could fix that bit.’ You don’t get to do that, hardly ever. So to get to do that is amazing.”
Moss is joined by a stellar cast – including Nicole Kidman, as Mary’s adoptive mother Julia, and Gwendoline Christie as Miranda Hilmarson – an overeager puppy of a colleague for Robin far removed from Christie’s Game of Thrones character, the warrior Brienne of Tarth.
Christie, who had the role written for her, said: “It was a huge honour for me and it’s something that I really campaigned for, because I desperately wanted to work with Jane. I watched Top of the Lake four times all the way through and I was so captivated by Lizzie’s performance.
“I’ve been hugely lucky to play women who are very strong, who seemingly have a strength to them. And that’s so valuable in our world of entertainment, to see women represented in that way.
“But to have the opportunity to play a woman who’s struggling and failing – at almost everything – was so fascinating to me. It was the opposite of what I’ve explored for many years now on Game of Thrones.”
Christie says she was lucky to have the part written for her. But she and Moss (who sweetly hold hands throughout the interview) break into a peal of giggles when she adds that though this was “wonderful” it “throws up quite a lot of questions”, given Miranda’s character.
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The pair seem to have bonded – to the extent they chat about setting up a shoe range together as they prepare for the interview.
“I was so lucky to be working with Lizzie,” says Christie. “I can’t express how much I love and respect this woman and what a brilliant artist she is.
“Having the opportunity to work with someone who’s so serious and so professional – that allowed and facilitates you to do your best.”
And she’s not the only one who is a ‘Lizzie’ fan. Campion admits she also loves the Mad Men and West Wing star.
“Even now when I see her, I just go: ‘I love you,'” she smiles. “I’ve got such a crush on her.”
They all agree China Girl can’t be defined as TV or film – which perhaps helps explain why it was shown at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year.
Christie adds: “The world of entertainment is changing and shifting in our rapidly changing and shifting world. All forms are questioned and evolving and television is having a golden age, where such interesting material is being generated.”
While Moss says Queenstown is the most beautiful place she has been in her life, she enjoyed exploring both the “glossy beach life exterior” and the “dark underbelly” of Sydney, with a storyline looking at sex slavery.
“Jane says it better than I can – she says the first season is about the wilderness around you and then China Girl is about the wilderness within.
“That, to me, is so interesting – to go from all of that vast landscape and then the vast landscape within.”
Gerard Lee says he and Campion were stunned by the reaction to the first series.
“People loved it so much, we were desperate to see if we could do it again,” he says.
Campion continues: “I was excited when I came up with the idea for the crime. The crime story and how Robin’s story evolves, and the search for her own daughter – it felt excitingly tight.
“You could really look at motherhood – the ties that are so brutally important to us, that can undo us and make us.”
As well as the different bonds that Julia and Robin have to teenager Mary, motherhood is also explored in a different way for Jane, with her real-life daughter starring in such pivotal scenes.
Lee explains how the themes came up as part of their writing process.
“We like to talk about things that concern us the most and a story formed. What was on our minds mostly doing the writing of that was our kids.
“The kids we know had got to the stage they had become adults and were out of our control, legally. So we have these worries about how they’re going to go out in the world.”
Campion jokes: “I had to write a character for my daughter so I could keep her under my wing.”
She says the story is so connected with issues that are pertinent to women that it “became more and more hormonal – we’ve been calling it Fallopian.”
Lee adds that while he and Campion write strong female characters, they’re also vulnerable and have “complex layers”.
“It’s just so important to have women story-tellers,” muses Campion. “If you think what it would be like without Jane Austen, without the Bronte sisters, Emily Dickinson, George Eliot – there wouldn’t be any understanding from that female point of view.”
Asked if there would be a third series, Moss says maybe – but not just yet.
“There’s four years between the first and the second – so maybe it will be 10 years, you know?” she ponders. “That would be interesting to me.”
Fans have the chance to watch the whole series from Thursday night – and will be hoping they don’t have to wait a decade for more.
The first episode of Top of the Lake: China Girl will be broadcast on BBC Two on 27 July at 21:00 BST. The full series will be available on BBC iPlayer from 22:00.