elisabeth moss on her dark new film + the nature of female friendship

chatting with the 'queen of earth' star and her director

Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

Opening mid-breakup on a close shot of Elisabeth Moss’ tear-and-mascara-stained face is how the first scene of Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth begins to unfold. And you might find yourself on the verge of tears, as well. Totally raw and unabashedly vulnerable, Moss delivers the scene with such pathos and command that it’s impossible not to become totally transfixed. But that’s only the beginning, as the rest of Perry’s ode to female-driven psychodramas of the '70s acts as a stage for Moss, fresh off the end of Mad Men, to once again prove just how good she is.

The film centers around longtime friends Catherine (Moss) and Virginia (Katherine Waterston) whose complex and strained relationship rears its ugly head when isolated together at Virginia’s family’s lake house. Acting as a psychologically stable foil, Virginia has invited her friend out to the country to recooperate and relax after Catherine’s father has died and her boyfriend has dumped her. Yet from the moment she arrives, it’s evident that Catherine is one step away from unraveling completely, and as memories of summers passed begin to haunt her, she falls even further into a tailspin, losing all sight of reality. 

Although written with Perry’s brilliantly biting dialogue and knack for thorny relationships, he changes gears from his previous films to bring the characters’ inner turmoil to the surface, crafting an anxious and unnerving portrait of a friendship torn apart by madness. Following their work together on the misanthropic Listen Up Philip, with Queen of Earth it’s evident that Perry has found a muse in Moss, and it’s the intimate and collaborative nature of his films that keeps her coming back for more.

We sat down with Moss and Perry to talk about their ongoing collaboration, life after Mad Men, and dark female relationships.

Alex, how did you begin writing the script with Elisabeth in mind?
Alex Ross Perry: The beginning of the script, like any script, is nothing but abstractions. My fun challenge for myself was then, how do I make this different in every way to anything I’ve ever done? From talking with Elisabeth and being friendly with her, she’d always said that what attracts her to roles is a similar sense of having never done something before. So between the beginning and the end of writing the first draft, I knew it was something she’d never done before, so maybe that would let me hook her into doing it.
Elisabeth Moss: All he had to say was, “I’ve never seen you do this,” and I’m like, “Well, I can do it!”

Elisabeth, although your character is going through an emotionally heightened and psychotic experience, did you still find a way to relate to her?
EM: Absolutely. The first scene, the breakup scene, I don’t know if I’ve ever been in quite such an extreme situation. But we’ve all had breakups, and it certainly feels like that even if you’re not verbalizing it in that way. So for me, starting off the film with a scene that I felt was extremely identifiable—when you’re just at your absolute lowest, just totally vulnerable, you’re really not saving face at all in this breakup you’re just digging yourself deeper in this hole—that was a really cool way to start a movie. As far as the insanity part and her going crazy, I wanted to elaborate upon moments that we’ve all felt, whether it’s feeling depressed for an evening or waking up and not wanting to talk to anybody and just wanting to be alone and you feeling like you’ve got to get away. Those little moments that we all push aside or somehow get over, I wanted to see what happens if you don’t get over it and you just fully dive into that madness and let yourself go for it.

The dynamic between Catherine and Virginia is really fascinating. They’re so terrible and rough with each other but still share this unbreakable bond. We don’t often see these kinds of female relationships onscreen outside the family, nor do we see women allowed to be so purely mean or acting on raw emotion. Were you attracted to that element of the movie?
EM: Personally, I don’t have many friends. [Laughs] I mean, I have a very small group of friends and I really like them and like being with them. But I do have girlfriends who have relationships with other girls where they’ve known them since they were 11 or 12, like they went to camp together, and now it’s 20 years later. They’ve had a lot of fights, but they’ve had good times and there’s this sense of, Well, it’s too late to stop being friends we might as well keep being friends. I feel like that’s a very common relationship between women that’s not all sleepovers and pillow fights, although those are awesome. But for me, I was like, that’s a relationship you rarely see but is super common. 

Alex, how did you go about crafting that dynamic?
ARP: To me, there’s nothing you can do but fail when you write a gendered character. Catherine was a fully realized person whose experiences were, in a way, similar to what I’d been going through—which says to me, if done properly, this will be relatable, male or female. So this isn’t what I imagine it’s like for women that are having a hard time, this is like, as with everything I’ve ever done, what I imagine two different characters are like when they’re approaching the same situation from very different view points. Therefore, it’s a totally neutral dramatic approach and it’s not like, Well I know how I would feel if I were going through this and what one of my guy friends would say to me, but what would a woman say? I don’t think anything is going to come from that, so instead, here is a way for these characters to interact and for their relationship to have the weight of whatever friendships I have, few though they are. 

In the past you’ve mentioned films like Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, but were there other female-relationship movies you looked to for inspiration?
ARP: Anything that takes place in that heightened state of psychological warfare on or by women, which is a huge tradition of movies and really fun to parse through. You see films like Petra von Kant, that are essentially a melodrama, and then see things that are basically the same kind of emotional arc but are set in a different genre. You can see two films in a day and realize there’s a weird connection between this European art film and this '70s independent horror film, and just find the common ground there. After Listen Up Philip, my interest was in doing a women’s story after doing a movie that was largely narratively driven by two men, and to me this is my favorite kind of women’s story.

Now that Mad Men has ended, do you feel like you’re free to pursue projects you might not have been able to before?
EM: Yeah, for sure. For almost nine years I was in this blessed schedule where I got to go back to my awesome TV show—so I’m not complaining, because it was amazing—but it was nine years of having four months here or nine months there to work on things. There are so many components that go into even getting a film, and so many things that could go wrong, so if you can just knock out one of them, which is not having time to do the movie, it just opens up your options. For me, it was awesome to go play one character and then a month later be able to do something completely different. 

Do you prefer the chaotic shooting style of a film like Queen of Earth where there’s a very small crew and the shoot is super fast-paced? Is that exhausting when you’re playing a character whose emotions are turned up so high for the entire film?
EM: It was actually easier in a lot of ways. When you get down to like 11 people, it’s scary when you realize how few people you actually need and how many extraneous people there actually are on a set. I’m very much a person who doesn’t like a lot of people on set, and I don’t like people watching or the monitor situation. I like just the people that I know and I like it to be small, so for me it was awesome and way easier than some other experiences. Yes, it was highly emotional and dramatic at times, but having such a small, collaborative atmosphere, I wish I could do that every time. With a small group of people, you can literally just turn to the people in the room and say, "What do you guys think?" Decisions are made like that; it’s so much easier. I don’t like sitting in a trailer and waiting three hours to shoot, I find that really frustrating. So for me, I wish we could do everything like this.