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Elizabeth Moss: 'Mad Men was a job, it wasn't a conscious decision'

Elizabeth Moss is receiving rave reviews for her role in an adaptation of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. She talks to Susan Griffin about the brutal subject matter and whether she believes it to be feminist

The cast of The Handmaid's Tale made headlines at the Tribeca Film Festival in April when they didn't refer to the story as a feminist piece of work. "I will only speak for myself, because it's a tricky area and I don't want to get other people in trouble, but I don't think I quite said the right thing. Clearly," says Elisabeth Moss (34), who plays the lead in the small screen adaptation of Margaret Atwood's 1985 novel.

"If there was anything I said that led anyone to believe I'm not a feminist, or The Handmaid's Tale is not a feminist work, then, obviously, I didn't say the right thing. For me, it's just it's 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, but it's also about other things, which is what I was trying to say."

But, as she points out: "I'm not a politician, I'm not trained to talk about this stuff. I'm a 34-year-old woman who is an actress who has ideas and opinions and I do my best to talk about them. It was an interesting learning experience and wake-up call. I didn't know anyone gave a damn what I said."

The show, which is half-way through its 10-part run on Channel 4, has received rave reviews on both sides of the Atlantic and a second series has already been commissioned.

It's set in Gilead, a totalitarian society in what was formerly the United States of America.

"Due to environmental changes and disasters, fertility has dropped exponentially in women," explains Moss.

"Only one in five babies are surviving, so this new regime has developed a way of procreating in hopes of continuing the race."

All fertile women are captured and sent to the Red Centre, where the handmaids are "trained" before being placed with an infertile couple.

"The husband has sex with the handmaid in the hopes that they can get her pregnant. Then when she does get pregnant, they take the baby and she moves on," explains Moss, who plays June, otherwise known as Offred, a handmaid who's placed with Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski).

"We pick up about three years in and she's not doing too well. Her husband was taken away from her and her daughter's been stolen. She has had a lot of the fight and soul beaten out of her, both physically and emotionally."

The subject matter might be dark, and some of the scenes shocking, but there is hope too and "even humour at times", remarks Moss, who played Peggy Olsen, a secretary-turned-leading copywriter, in the Sixties-set Mad Men.

"Margaret has this amazing, intelligent dark sense of humour that is rampant in the book and capturing that tone and her voice, which becomes Offred's voice, was so important to us," she says.

Moss was in Australia, filming the first series of BBC Two's Top Of The Lake, in which she plays Detective Robin Griffin, when she first spoke to Bruce Miller, the show's creator and writer.

"We got on the phone and we just kind of gabbed for, like, an hour-and-a-half, like girlfriends," recalls the actress who "grew up in an artistic background in LA".

"I knew the first two scripts were good before I signed on, but it was important that I could have a conversation with the person that I would be working with day in and day out."

Her characters in Mad Men, Top Of The Lake and The Handmaid's Tale are all subject to extreme sexism, but while women's rights "have always been close to my heart", Moss stresses it was not something she set out to explore on screen.

"I got the part on Mad Men, it was a job, so it's not like I made a conscious choice, but then through that process and through playing that character, I found my feminism and I found what it means to be a feminist and I got to explore it and it became more and more important to me as I went on.

"So when I came to something like The Handmaid's Tale, it hit so close to home and felt very personal to me. At the same time, I'm also trying to tell human stories and women that are flawed and often that are not heroes and women that can be vulnerable and weak. Just like any of us I want to see myself reflected back from the screen. That is what interests me."

Moss has experienced sexism in her own life."My one big thing is women don't make as much as men. I'm 100% positive I've been a victim of that," she reveals.

"The other thing I have experienced is in pitching something that is female-led and I have been told something is 'too female' by executives."

She won't say who, or what, only that it "it was recent, in the last couple of years".

"It's shocking to hear that," adds Moss, but the comments didn't deter her.

"We are making it, just not with those people who thought it was 'too female'."

But first is the second series of Top Of The Lake, which airs this summer. If possible, this run, which will also star Nicole Kidman, is set to be even bleaker.

"Four years have passed, the exact amount of time that passed between filming the seasons," Moss has said.

"I asked her (Jane Campion, the show's writer) to make it more challenging and make it darker - we needed a real reason to do it again."

  • The Handmaid's Tale, Channel 4, tomorrow, 9pm

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