Top of the Lake’s Elisabeth Moss and Jane Campion on the gender war that brought them together

The actor and screenwriter talk motherhood and taking revenge on creepy men with their new series

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In the depths of the Pacific Ocean, a skein of long black hair spools out of a suitcase. This is the central image of China Girl, the long-awaited second series of Jane Campion’s award-winning TV drama, Top of the Lake. Starring Elisabeth Moss as Detective Robin Griffin, the six-parter shifts the action from the vast and silent landscape of New Zealand’s South Island to inner-city Sydney.

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When the suitcase and its sinister load washes up on Bondi Beach, it’s up to Griffin to piece together the story of Cinnamon, a murdered Thai sex worker. “This time, for Robin, it’s all about ‘the wilderness within’,” says Moss, 35. 

Her sunstreaked, valley girl bounciness is at odds with her watchful screen persona. She’s with Campion at the British Film Institute in London to promote the new series; the pair – clearly great friends – finish each other’s sentences, smooth each other’s hair.

“In series one the lake was such a great metaphor, because you have the still waters on the surface, and all that darkness underneath,” says Moss. “In series two, the ocean is the metaphor for what’s going on with Robin; sometimes it’s very still and grey, sometimes it’s beautiful, often it’s terrifying…”

“…and very feminine,” adds Campion. “You know? That tidal thing.”

Campion, too, is much larkier than her streaming grey locks and austere, wise woman image might suggest. At 63, she is the acclaimed doyenne of art house cinema, director of films such as An Angel at My Table and Bright Star and the only female director to date to receive the Palme d’Or at Cannes (for her 1993 film The Piano). The fact that Top of the Lake: China Girl premiered at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival was not only a mark of respect for Campion’s oeuvre but an acknowledgement of how far television drama has come.

“It’s all just storytelling,” she says. “A six-hour drama is short-form television, really, but you could also see it as three or four feature films run together. You have time to build up a universe; it’s a thrill and a luxury to be involved in a complex story.”

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Moss as Detective Robin Griffin in Top of the Lake: China Girl

Series one of Top of the Lake was remarkable for the ghastliness of male characters (“Crazy, right?” says Moss. “It’s not like I’ve ever met a sleazy, creepy man in real life…”) and the second season, focusing on the exploitation of women in the sex industry, is again preoccupied with female experience in a patriarchal society.

“I guess I’m taking revenge on all the guys I’ve had to deal with in my life,” says Campion.

 “They deserve it,” says Moss, “and just for a few hours they can deal with it! Actually, one of the great things about Jane’s and [co-writer] Gerard Lee’s writing is that even the ‘villains’ are complicated – every preconception is turned on its head. So it’s not like we’re choosing sides in the ‘gender war’, we’re just showing you humanity, with all of its terrible flaws, in all of its glory.”

The emotional nexus of series two is Robin Griffin’s tentative relationship with Mary, the daughter she gave up for adoption (played by Campion’s own daughter, Alice Englert) There’s also a searing performance from Nicole Kidman as Mary’s adoptive mother, while parenthood and exploitation is further explored in a subplot about illegal surrogacy.

“I think motherhood is the equivalent of what happens to men when they go to war,” says Campion. “There’s just so much going on; you become hyper-aware of this other person. I can feel it in my body if my daughter’s not OK, and I don’t think I understood how many detonations I’d laid for myself in this script – there are scenes where my daughter’s character is abused and I very quickly decided, ‘Well, I’m not going to direct that.’

“But it’s not just the children you bear; you have miscarriages that are so disturbing you can’t even talk about them – I personally had three miscarriages and a baby who died – and all of that really isn’t in our cultural discussion because most of that discussion is run by guys. So it was great to tell a story that has maternity at the centre of it.”

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Detective Robin Griffin (Moss), alongside Miranda Hilmarson (Gwendoline Christie)

 As the star and executive producer of Channel 4’s impeccable adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Moss too is steeped in the politics of maternity. “I’m not a mother myself, but I was able to really feel and see, and, for want of a less cheesy word, identify with this feeling Robin has, which is ‘I gave birth to this child, but I don’t feel the things that you’re supposed to feel towards your child’.

“So she has to figure out what her version of being a mother is, and I found that really touching and unusual, because everyone has this perception of motherhood: that you have a child, and flowers sprout out of your vagina, and it’s all perfect from day one. But I’ve talked with enough mothers to know that isn’t always true.”

Moss is the least showy of actors, but arguably unmatched in her ability to portray a character’s interior life. She knows she’s hit the truth, she says, when her heart starts pounding and she feels it in her ears. “What’s written on the page is just one layer of a character. It’s everything that’s underneath that’s interesting, and the great thing about working with Jane is that she allows you to not know where you’re going.”

Campion appears equally delighted by departures from the script. “The qualities Lizzie has are so mysterious and, as with all good mysteries, you just accept them as gifts. For me one of the big encouragements [to film a second series] was just to come in every day and see what the hell she could do with this thing.”

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Campion on the Top of the Lake set

Moss is Hollywood born and bred (her parents were musicians in Los Angeles), but Campion, from Wellington, New Zealand, considers her friend an honorary Antipodean.

“American girls tend not to be outspoken; they talk like they have to be careful to please the guys. But this,” she says, pulling Moss close, “is one very coolheaded risk taker. She’s a really enduring avatar for me, both as Lizzie and as Robin Griffin.”

So does Campion see in Robin an alter ego, or rather a chance to revisit and reshape her own experience? “I don’t think it’s my way of reimagining myself,” she says. “I wouldn’t want to be Robin, but I feel for her, when I see her trying to be brave, or hiding stuff, or making mistakes, or not being chosen… Robin gets her courage from supporting others, and I think I do, too.”

Campion looks round, apparently astonished, at a fleet of waiting publicists and journalists, the whole circus her talent has conjured. “I got into this because of how much joy I had from films when I was younger, films I felt brought me into the adult world with conscience and with questions. It makes you want to give back to that tradition.”

And Campion hasn’t finished. Happy endings are not her thing: “I got into this because I was a lost soul. I didn’t know how to live. I needed to find myself through work. If you were a happy person you wouldn’t do that. People ask me, ‘Why aren’t there more women in film?’ Sometimes I think, ‘Well, maybe they’re just too smart. Maybe they want more life.”  

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Top of the Lake: China Girl is on Thursday 9:00pm BBC2