Alice Englert calls her mother “Jane” on set.
“To be honest, I’ve always noticed that ‘Jane’ gets her attention a little bit better than ‘Mum,’” she said, to laughter, at the Television Critics Assn. press tour in July.
It’s not always noteworthy when an actor works with a parent. But when that parent is Palme d’Or winner Jane Campion — and the set in question is for “Top of the Lake: China Girl,” a six-hour exploration of motherhood — it’s especially relevant. Englert plays Mary, a rebellious 18-year-old coming to terms with both her adoptive mother, Julia (Nicole Kidman), and her biological mother, Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss), the protagonist of “Top of the Lake.”
Where the show’s first installment was an excavation of rape culture, the second is about the complex landscape of motherhood. Set five years after the events of the first series, “China Girl” finds Robin in Sydney. Ostensibly, she’s hoping to restart her career as a detective. But she’s also looking for the daughter (Englert) she gave up for adoption after her brutal sexual assault two decades ago.
Her first case back on the job has her investigating the murder of a pregnant dead woman whose body was found in a suitcase that washed up on the beach.
And complicating matters, the powers that be have assigned her to work with the temperamental and pregnant Miranda (Gwendoline Christie), an impulsive and largely unsuccessful police officer with a kind of hero-worship of Robin, her diminutive superior.
With Englert in front of the camera and Campion behind it, maternal themes pervade the production. Nepotism can sometimes feel frustratingly inorganic, but with “China Girl,” it’s the opposite: Englert blooms in front of Campion’s lens, leaning into the director’s emphasis on presence and physicality.
“You may think it’s an interesting layer,” Campion says, laughing, when asked about how motherhood came into play behind the camera. Though the director insists that Englert’s casting was strictly a work decision, in the next breath she points out how it filtered into the production. “Directing these difficult episodes with Alice, I really didn’t trust myself to push her hard enough,” she says. “It’s actually physically uncomfortable for me to see my daughter in distress, even if she’s acting. It’s easier for me if I’m not the one saying, ‘Do it again.’” (Campion, who co-created and executive produces “Top of the Lake,” co-directed with series newcomer Ariel Kleiman.)
That behind-the-scenes tangle of intimacy extends beyond just Campion and Englert: Kidman, a family friend, has known Campion since the actress was 14 and watched Englert grow up. In 1996, the two teamed on indie film “The Portrait of a Lady.” Working with Campion again “feels like coming home,” Kidman says. And in some ways, it is home. Toward the end of the season, “Top of the Lake” utilizes some home footage that Campion took of Englert at a childhood birthday party. “I was in some of that,” she says. “Not the stuff that ended up in [the show],” she adds. “But I was at the birthday party.”
For Moss, who met Englert in 2013 on the set of the first “Top of the Lake,” the almost palpable chemistry she has with her on-screen daughter hit her almost immediately. When Robin and Mary first meet — in a fraught, awkward, yet ultimately beautiful scene — they find common ground when they share a smoke. “Lizzie and I, we did have a cigarette together,” Englert recalls.
Did her mom know she was smoking? “Oooh, yeah,” Englert laughs. “It’s hard to hide when you’re really chaining it.”
Like Robin, Mary is a character pushed to her limits over the course of the series. “I don’t know if anyone who wasn’t Jane’s daughter — and raised with Jane — could have had the bravery to do it,” says Moss with admiration.
“Jane said to me,” Englert says, slipping again between “Jane” and “Mum,” “that she knew what I was capable of.”
The two iterations of “Top of the Lake” emphasize the emotional impact of a mystery over simply solving it. “China Girl” introduces the audience to the perpetrators before we meet any of the protagonists. In the first episode, Mary’s boyfriend, Puss (David Dencik) — a sardonic, bitter intellectual more than twice her age — is one of three people arguing over what to do with a suitcase. When the bag yields the body of a young Thai prostitute named Cinnamon (Thien Huong Thi Nguyen), the viewer knows what Robin, Mary and even Puss don’t: Robin’s search for her birth daughter is going to intersect, sickeningly, with her search for a murderer. As the investigation unfolds, Robin discovers an illegal surrogate pregnancy scheme operating out of Cinnamon’s brothel — one that implicates several well-off families in Sydney and draws them into the investigation’s emotional fallout.
“‘Top of the Lake’ is all about scandal, in a way,” says Campion, who co-wrote the series with her collaborator on the first installment, Gerard Lee. “Scandal is a really great way to grab people’s attention. We all love that. You go to the hairdresser’s and you read those magazines and are sort of ashamed of yourself — but there is that fascination when things really go wrong. Who’s having sex with whom, who’s breaking up with whatever, who’s been killed.”
Notes Moss: “One of the great things that Jane does [is that] she’s un-judgmental of people.” That goes beyond the main characters. The actress points out that in “China Girl,” Campion and Lee introduce characters doing sex work, surrogacy, expensive fertility treatments and adoption. “She presents all of these different women who are taking all of these different paths in their lives … but without judgment.”
Campion says that her interest in these “messy” stories is to present them in a much more complex, compassionate, humanist way. “I want to make it easy to get people’s attention — and then take them on a journey they weren’t expecting,” she says.
People are paying attention. The first installment of “Top of the Lake” was a critical hit, both for its technical brilliance and for its sharp analysis of pervasive sexual assault. Moss went on to win a Golden Globe for her performance. And it translated, in a way, into ratings: Though SundanceTV won’t release concrete numbers for the show’s American viewership, it reports that the series ranked as the highest in network history among adults 18-49.
The first season didn’t necessarily need a sequel, but Campion was encouraged by the reception. “Knowing that there was an audience that was ready
for this kind of conversation,” she says, “that showed us that something as unusual and original as the first season of ‘Top of the Lake’ could be looked at for what it was.”
For SundanceTV chief Jan Diedrichsen, the prestige attached to Campion is the payoff for investing in her storytelling. In the four years since the first installment debuted, SundanceTV has ex-panded its availability in households. A star-studded piece like “Top of the Lake: China Girl” “helps us elevate our network,” says Diedrichsen, especially for the new viewers. To heighten the linear experience, the show will air over the course of just three nights.
It’s Campion’s approach to a TV staple — the murder mystery — that makes her work so appealing to the network. “There’s this feeling that TV isn’t good enough for these top filmmakers,” Diedrichsen says. “But Jane really has told this story in a way that maximizes it for TV. … She understands how to bring an audience along and bring them to the next episode.”
When watching “China Girl,” part of the reason it’s hard to stop thinking about Englert as Campion’s daughter is that both Robin and Julia are seeing her as mothers, trying to reconcile themselves to Mary’s growing independence. Though they have that in common, territorialism brings them into tense opposition with each other.
“It’s a little bit ‘battle of the moms,’” Campion chuckles.
“Julia is ferocious,” says Kidman. “She’s terrified they’re abandoning her. She’s there with open arms. … She has no idea why Mary has this anger toward her.”
Robin and Mary’s easy rapport doesn’t help Julia’s distress. Neither does Mary’s continuing involvement with the slimy, untrustworthy Puss.
“What do you do?” asks Kidman about a teenage daughter determined to make a choice. “Do you wrestle her to the ground? She might fight back — and she’s probably stronger! And that’s where Jane is so interesting [as a writer-director]. Because really, what are your options?”
Caught between the adults in her life, Mary struggles to find her identity. “She was a mystery on the page,” Englert says of her character. That’s because “she is a mystery to herself.”
At first, Christie’s Miranda might seem superfluous to the show’s multiple investigations of motherhood. But as Moss tells it, Robin’s relationship with Miranda is the most crucial piece of the story. “This knack [Robin] has for running away from her feelings … she’s so closed off,” she says. “Miranda confronts her with this — exactly what she does not want to be looking at. Miranda is just so open, and tries to pull it out of her.”
Miranda feels awkward in her body and self-deprecatingly draws attention to it, with a clumsiness not at all seen in Christie’s other roles. The actress is no stranger to playing a character defined by her appearance — and Christie is fearless about it, wearing high heels to add to her 6’3” stature, like the 5’8” Katharine Hepburn. Which is why Miranda’s discomfort presented a fascinating challenge.
“It’s so different for me — from what people know me to do,” Christie says. In the past she’s played characters who are not only “physically strong but have a very strong character, and a deep foundation in strong decision-making and an intense moral compass,” she says.
Miranda is almost the opposite of that: “persistently failing, persistently unsuccessful, almost without skills,” says Christie. “Moving through life in an intensely emotional way.”
Christie came to the project first as a fan. She was so captivated by the first season of “Top of the Lake” — and Moss’ performance in it — that she wrote Campion a letter. “Four months later she rang me and said, ‘Since I got your letter I’ve been dreaming about you. I’ve written a part for you in my new show, and I hope you can do it,’” she recounts.
She still had to audition, though. Says Christie, “Jane said, ‘I know you were in “Game of Thrones,” but I need to check you can act.’”
During Variety’s interview with Moss and Christie, the latter tenderly holds Moss’ foot in her hands. Unlike the rest of the “China Girl” team, the two actresses did not have a prior relationship. But they’re making up for lost time. In addition to their on-screen chemistry — which at times takes on a hilarious, odd-couple bent — the two are smitten with each other. So when Moss wanted to show Christie her sparkly new Tom Ford stilettos, Christie accepted her foot and cradled it as if it were a precious gift.
“I think in a previous life I was one of Lizzie’s charwomen,” she explains. Adds Moss, her foot still in Christie’s hands: “The most beloved one. A personal favorite.”
An hour after Moss and Christie first met, they improvised a scene between their characters that went in unexpected directions and left them both in tears. “We did the best acting of our life within an hour,” Moss says. Campion liked it so much that she put the finished product into the show — an example of how she values instinct from her performers.
The result is a great deal of trust from her stars. “She makes me feel like I can try anything and it’s OK,” Moss says of Campion. “That allows me to go to places that I normally maybe wouldn’t.”
The actress recalls a conversation with Campion about her performance during the first season. “I said: ‘I want you to push me further than I’ve ever gone. I’m not here to do anything else,’” Moss says. “But the best part,” she adds, “is that she said, ‘That’s what I want you to do to me.’”