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Elisabeth Moss will be bringing her baby to the "Handmaid's Tale" set

Samantha Rollins   

Elisabeth Moss will be bringing her baby to the "Handmaid's Tale" set

If Elisabeth Moss shows up onscreen, you know you're about to go through the emotional wringer.

For fans of "The Handmaid's Tale," "Top of the Lake," or "Shining Girls," a close-up shot of Moss' face — the expression in her eyes typically an affecting mix of fear, pain, and defiance — is synonymous with prestige television. One of Moss' signature loaded glances can communicate years' worth of a character's complex trauma (and secure a steady stream of awards nominations in the process).

The 41-year-old actor has had decades of practice in professionally pretending to be traumatized. One of her first acting gigs in an NBC miniseries required her to scream upon discovering her mother, played by Sandra Bullock, dead and bloodied in a pool — not that a then-seven-year-old Moss was at all spooked by the experience.

"It was fun," a chipper Moss tells Business Insider. "I knew it was a job. I knew it was acting."

That ethos is a key part of how Moss stays sane while taking on an endless array of emotionally taxing roles, from a woman fighting off her abusive ex in "The Invisible Man" to the tortured title character in the fictionalized horror biopic "Shirley."

"I just kind of looked at it the same way that I do now," Moss continues. "I don't get confused as to what's real and not real."

Her latest role on the FX spy thriller "The Veil" has all the hallmarks of a typical Moss project, from the prestige network to the dark and twisty plot. Moss smolders with intensity as Imogen Salter, a skilled MI6 agent who forms a relationship with a suspected ISIS terrorist (Yumna Marwan) that turns into a complicated and deadly game of deception.

While the tense, slow-burn drama offers plenty of the emotional complexity that's squarely in Moss' wheelhouse, it also provides her the chance to do something new — the series' fight scenes mark one of the first times viewers can witness her kicking ass (or doing a British accent, for that matter).

"I found the whole show to be really fun," she says, "even though, of course, there's a backstory and there's deeper issues there, and there's drama and all of that."

She starts again, correcting herself: "It has a bit more of a fun, playful tone than some of the work that I usually do."

It's all relative, after all.

In the latest installment of Business Insider's Role Play series, Moss goes deep on her tortured characters, hating rain machines, and why she's excited to be a new mom while filming the final season of "The Handmaid's Tale."

On being mentored by Winona Ryder and 'intimidated' by Angelina Jolie on 'Girl, Interrupted'

You started acting pretty young, so "Girl, Interrupted" was far from your first role. But the cast was full of megastars — Winona Ryder, Angelina Jolie, Brittany Murphy. What did you learn from watching them work?

I was just so in awe of everybody. I was the youngest by a good amount. Everybody was so much cooler and amazing and more impressive than I was, and I just was so excited to be there.

Everyone had their own personality. Winona was super, super kind to me and really took me under her wing. I didn't know Angie as well. I got to know her later a little bit, many, many years later. And, of course, she's a lovely, beautiful, kind individual, but at the time, I was just very intimidated and overwhelmed by how amazing she was.

Brittany was just the sweetest. And now I've worked with Clea [DuVall], I've directed Clea now on "Handmaid's," which is really fun all these years later.

Everyone was just really good at what they did. There wasn't any ego. It was all women, and everyone was good to each other and worked hard. I wouldn't have expected anything else, but that's my memory of it, which I think is wonderful — especially with so many different kinds of people and different personalities.

How has growing up working as a child actor informed how you view yourself and your career now?

I feel a special kinship with young actresses because that's where I came from. If they want help or advice, I'm happy to give it, but I also just respect them and I understand what it's like, and I expect the most and the best of them because I know that they're capable of it.

Whether it's Maddie Brewer or Mckenna Grace or Sydney Sweeney, I've come across these women in my career. And the older I get, of course, the more they're younger than me, and I love it. I love having that experience with young actresses.

People always ask you about your affinity for playing tortured characters and characters that go through trauma — you were doing that even as far back as "Girl, Interrupted." But what does draw you to these roles? I still don't think I've seen you do a rom-com.

I know, I haven't! I don't know. I really need to think about an answer to this question and really formulate an intelligent, interesting answer because my answer is very much always just like, "I don't really know why." I just suppose I find, as an actor, that to be the most interesting material to play, and not even necessarily as a viewer.

I love comedy and romantic comedy. I'm super late to the game, but I just started watching "Hacks," and that's my wheelhouse. I love that kind of show. If a show gets too serious, sometimes I'm totally not into it. But as an actor, it's what I find interesting, and it's what flexes my muscles, and it's what I like to play.

It's your wheelhouse. It's the thing you're probably most familiar with.

Yeah. I don't know. Why do certain people like playing certain kinds of music? They just like it.

My counterpoint would be that playing a rom-com lead is deceptively difficult, but these are all different skill sets. Have you ever wanted to do that, or do you prefer to watch those things and not be in them?

No, I'd love to. I think they're very difficult. I think finding a good script is very difficult as well. Obviously, totally doable still, but I don't think it's necessarily a walk in the park by any means, and I don't think everyone can do it.

On the hardest scene she's ever filmed and the end of 'The Handmaid's Tale'

In your long career of filming many hard scenes, what was the hardest scene for you to shoot, physically or emotionally?

The hardest one I ever did — there have been some really, really close runners-up — but it was a scene on "Handmaid's." I don't know what fucking season, but there was a scene where June is outside, and I don't even know why she wanted to step outside, and she's in her underwear, basically, and she's bleeding out, and Nick comes and finds her, and it's raining, and she's laying in the mud.

And the plain, cold truth of it is, it just was absolutely fucking freezing. And I was laying in the mud, barely wearing anything in a rain machine, and that was definitely physically a tough one.

I always seem to wind up in the rain somehow. There's a lot of rain.

You're going back to film the final season soon, right?

Yeah. This summer.

Do you think it will be weird to return to a show like that as a new mom? It sounds like you're good at separating acting and your real life, though.

Oh, I think it'll be lovely. I think it'll be a whole new added perspective to life. I'm sure I'll be bringing that to June and to the show.

I guess time will tell, but of course, I'm sure it's going to affect all parts of my life. But we're used to having lots of babies and lots of moms and dads on set, and we're a very baby and kid-friendly set. So I don't think it's going to be a huge adjustment for us.

Is it safe to say you know how the series ends?


How do you feel about the ending?

I don't even know how to not say anything about it. I've known for a while how it was going to end, so I don't think I can say anything. I'm too scared to say the wrong thing accidentally.

I'm too nervous. I don't have my patter down. I'm not ready yet.

You don't have your one tease line ready.

Exactly. This show's like my other baby.

I can say this: I think this whole season is absolutely for the fans. It's definitely for our audience. It's definitely for the people that have stuck with us for five seasons, and we're kind of making this one for them.

On being tired of midcentury modern decor after 'Mad Men' and saying goodbye to her characters

Speaking of finales, it's been almost 10 years since the end of "Mad Men." Is there anything that, with time, you view differently about the show, your character, or your experience working on it?

That's a good question. I think with any sort of objectivity or any perspective, you just cherish the experience more and more, hopefully. And I think when we finished, it was time to finish, and we felt good about that.

I think it's pretty great that after 10 years, you look back, and your memories haven't soured — you don't go, "Oh, you know what? Actually, that kind of sucked." It's actually pretty amazing to be able to look back after a decade and go, "Yeah, that was pretty special."

I feel more grateful as time goes on, I think, for that experience. Granted, it feels like 30 years ago.

Is there anything that transports you right back to set? Are you like, "I don't want to put any midcentury modern furniture in my home. I saw enough of it for years."

Definitely! Not like I don't like midcentury modern, it's just that I can't not think of the show.

There's nothing in my apartment that's midcentury. I love it when I go to somebody else's home or somebody else's apartment, I admire it and I'm like, "Look how beautiful that is." But I personally can't have it in my home because I can't not think about sets and "Mad Men."

Are there any roles you've regretted turning down?

I don't think I've ever turned anything down that I was really regretful of.

I almost didn't do "Handmaid's," but thank God I did end up saying yes. I just came off nine years on "Mad Men," and I was shooting the second season of "Top of the Lake." I was like, "God, I really wasn't planning on doing another TV show so quickly."

But then the idea that anybody else was going to do the show — that killed me. And I was like, "Nope, I'm going to do it." I could not stand the idea of anyone else playing that role.

You have so many iconic characters. Are there any that you would never return to?

I just don't think you can ever say never. Most of them, I would probably love the chance to play again. That's really the saddest part of anything ending is you don't get to play the character again.

It always just feels like there's more to do. I want to do more of "The Veil." I would love to do more "Top of the Lake." I never feel like it's done. It's hard for me to leave it behind.

I'm sure people would have you back as Peggy Olson in a heartbeat.

I love that when that happens. I love when people return to characters; it's always so exciting. When "Breaking Bad" ended I was like, "What's wrong with you people? Why? Why are you doing this to me?!"

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

"The Veil" is streaming in full on FX on Hulu.

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