Elisabeth Moss: “People need to educate themselves as to what feminism means”

The Handmaid’s Tale star talks sexism, humour as a coping mechanism, and how she defines the F word

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Elisabeth Moss knows how to make an entrance. When we meet in a hotel in Fitzrovia, she swoops into the room with one arm raised in the air like a superhero.

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Her style of arrival is fitting, given that she’s in town to promote the UK launch of The Handmaid’s Tale in which she plays a defiant and courageous yet fragile heroine.

The dystopian drama, which landed on Channel 4 last week, is an exceptional adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s groundbreaking 1985 novel. It centres around Gilead: a Christian, patriarchal theocracy where fertile women are subjected to ceremonial rape in a society where birth rates have dropped catastrophically. Moss, who is one of the show’s producers, also leads the cast as June – or Offred to use her Handmaid name – and is joined by Orange is the New Black’s Samira Wiley and Alexis Bledel of Gilmore Girls fame.

Thanks in part to the current political climate, the series had an earth-shattering reception when it came out in the States a couple of months ago, propelling the book to the top of best-seller lists. Here in the UK the trend was repeated within hours of the series’ debut and Atwood’s novel is currently sitting at number one on Amazon. Pair that with a recent speech by Hillary Clinton on reproductive rights that references the story, and women turning up to feminist marches dressed as Handmaids, and you know that something has struck a nerve. 

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Samira Wiley as Moira

Moss notes that the series was green-lit well before Donald Trump entered the White House, and that the “fervour” surrounding it has been “incredibly surprising and gratifying, and something we could never have anticipated”.

Visually, the drama is striking. The Handmaids wear red to symbolise the fact that they are seen merely as walking wombs, and white winged bonnets that enforce their solitary existence. Today, Moss is in a leather jacket and distressed jeans, apologising profusely for her cluster of paraphernalia on the table: coffee, orange juice, a half-eaten yoghurt pot. Energy fizzes off her, her enthusiasm is infectious, and while small she is visibly strong and wild-eyed. It’s those eyes that enable her to convey June’s fierce emotion in a show with very little dialogue.

Many of Moss’s most notable characters have been subjected to extraordinary sexism: Peggy in Mad Men, Robin in Top of the Lake, June in The Handmaid’s Tale. And sexism, although one would hope to a lesser degree, is something that Moss has faced herself within the TV industry. “Women don’t make as much as men,” says Moss, matter-of-factly. “I’m sure. I know. I’m 100 per cent positive that I’ve been a victim of that.”

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Moss as Peggy in Mad Men

On whether she was paid less for Mad Men, in which she played an advertising executive constantly battling for sexual equality with men in the 1960s, she sighs and simply says, “Tricky area.” When pressed, she refuses to go further. “I can’t really speak specifically about who made what. I feel like it would be disrespectful to the other actors on the show… tricky area, sorry.”

What Moss will say is that she has experienced “shocking” sexism when pitching a female-led series. “I have been told that it was too female by executives,” she says. “I was shocked by it. It was recently. In the last couple of years. Shocking. It’s shocking when you hear that! That’s almost illegal.

“I would dare a male executive to say that to my face now.”

On whether she’ll pitch this mystery series around elsewhere, she laughs gleefully and reveals that it is now being made. Don’t let the bastards grind you down, right? “Exactly!” she smiles.

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Alexis Bledel as Ofglen

The fact that all of Moss’s aforementioned roles have dealt with sexism means that, inevitably, they have been feminist in nature. Moss reveals that it was the Mad Men part that set her on this path, but she had accepted it because it was “a job”, not because of “a conscious choice” based around the fact that Peggy encompassed feminist issues in the sixties. “Through playing that character I found my feminism and what it meant to be a feminist,” says Moss.

She believes that because of her “privileged, artistic, and liberal” upbringing – born and raised in Los Angeles to two musicians – her journey with feminism has been a slow burner. “I’ve lived a relatively fortunate existence as a white woman in America,” she says. “I think that a lot of women like me have had to recently take ownership of their feminism and become vocal and active in a way that maybe we didn’t feel like we needed to before. We live in a different time.”

Despite her liberal upbringing, some have pointed out the irony that Moss, the star of a show that portrays a cult-like regime requiring endless devotion and control, is in fact a Scientologist. Moss has been quite private about her beliefs in the media, saying the religion was “grossly misunderstood” before telling New York Magazine she is “not going to talk about it anymore”.

Scientology aside, “feminism” is a word that has recently got the actress into a spot of trouble. At a Tribeca Film Festival event in April, the cast sat down for a panel discussion and were asked whether they consider The Handmaid’s Tale a “feminist” work. Moss answered, saying, “For me, [The Handmaid’s Tale is] not a feminist story. It’s a human story because women’s rights are human rights… I never approach anything with any sort of political agenda. I approach it from a very human place, I hope.” Cue total uproar from fans and media outlets stating how ridiculous it was to claim that the series is not a feminist work. It seems that while a few years ago women were attacked for calling themselves feminists, these days they get grief if they’re not shouting it from the rooftops. 

Today, Moss wants to set the record straight. “I don’t think I quite said the right thing, clearly,” she admits. “Because if anything I said led anyone to believe that I’m not a feminist or The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t a feminist work then obviously I didn’t say the right thing.”

What she meant to say was that The Handmaid’s Tale is “not only a feminist work”. 

“There are many groups that are punished and much maligned in the show. Is it first and foremost feminist? Absolutely. It’s called The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s not called the abortion doctor’s tale. It’s not called the gay man’s tale… I’m not a politician. I’m not trained to talk about this s***. I’m a woman, I’m a person, a 34-year-old actress who has ideas and opinions and I do my best to talk about them. [The controversy] was an interesting learning experience, it was a wake up call. I didn’t know anyone would give a s***.” 

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A good trick that she learned from Margaret Atwood, for when fans or press ask a question with the F word in, is to first establish how they define feminism. “People need to educate themselves as to what feminism means,” says Moss. “To me, feminism is about equal rights for men and women,” she shrugs. “That’s it.” 

Atwood has a small – but violent – cameo in the first episode: her appearance is quite literally a slap in the face. The author plays one of the Aunts, the class of women assigned to indoctrinate the Handmaids with the beliefs of the new society. She is the one who smacks Offred into action when she is reluctant to join in with a group-shaming circle of a woman who has been gang-raped. Moss recalls this scene fondly. “I kept having to have her do it over and over because she wasn’t doing it hard enough, until the end and she finally did it and my cap got knocked off a little bit. That’s what’s in the show and after that I went, ‘Oh yep, we’re good! We got it! Moving on!’” 

Moss describes Atwood as “hilarious”, a word that doesn’t immediately come to mind when watching such a sombre, horrifying, and at times harrowing series. But she explains that for all its darkness, The Handmaid’s Tale carries such hope. This is most evident through Offred’s little victories against the regime, and her knowing, wry asides to the viewer where, as Moss puts it, “That’s my way of being like, ‘I think this is totally f***ed up too, I agree this is nuts.’” 

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Atwood has an “amazing, intelligent, dark sense of humour that’s rampant in the book”, says Moss. “You can’t have dark for dark’s sake… it was important that we could show the two sides of the coin, the dark and the light. And that as far down as you take these characters you can bring them back up and you can give them hope.” 

There’s one scene in the series, a flashback to before the regime, where June, her husband and Moira are cracking jokes over a bottle of wine. They have just discovered that their bank accounts have been emptied and all the women’s funds have been transferred to the men. It’s the beginning of the end. I tell Moss that on seeing this, I was reminded of how after Brexit many of us used humour as a coping mechanism, to get through the worst of times. “Yes!” she grins. “Like laughing at a funeral!” 

The Handmaid’s Tale continues tonight at 9pm on Channel 4

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Moss also stars in Top of the Lake: China Girl which will be on BBC2 in the summer