Two of the year’s most talked about performances came from actors we’ve been watching for years. Elisabeth Moss grew up onscreen, from “West Wing” to “Mad Men” to her now acclaimed role on Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” while Sterling K. Brown (NBC’s “This is Us”) has been toiling quietly on a slew of series, before last year’s breakthrough role on FX’s “The People v. O.J. Simpson” made the industry sit up and take notice. Turns out, they’re fans of each other’s work, too.
Sterling Brown: I’m really excited to have this conversation. Moss, you f–king slayed this shit. My god. What you were able to communicate with no words, was miles beyond anything that I could do with like a Shakespearean soliloquy. It was absolutely beautiful work.
Elisabeth Moss: I am just floored by what you just said. I don’t even know what to say, it’s so amazing.
Brown: Just soak it in.
Moss: When I heard that this was going to be you, I wrote this email back (to my publicist) that had so many exclamation points in it and was just like, “Are you f–king kidding me? I love him so much. He’s so amazing.” I am such a huge fan. Your performance was just on another level and that scene in the office when you’re on the floor, you just brought this vulnerability and delicacy to it that just destroyed me. Oh, he’s f–king bringing it.
Are there things you want to do in season two that you didn’t get to do in season one?
Moss: There was quite a bit in the book we didn’t do, so it’s been actually really cool to go back to the book and find that stuff and the things that are sort of touched on in the book very lightly but are not explored. Now we get the opportunity to do that. [Showrunner] Bruce [Miller] has this bit with the colony. Colonies are mentioned in the book, we don’t go there, the book doesn’t go there, we have the opportunity now to maybe do that. And as a fan of the book, the genesis of Gilead, I would love to know more about that. How that all happened, politically. And I was just as frustrated as anyone else by that book ending, the fact that it ends in such a cliffhanger. I was like what the f–k happens to her? So for me, I get to know what happens to her, and I know what happens to her right now, and that’s so exciting.
|Mark Williams and Sarah Hirakawa for Variety|
Brown: I really want to know a little bit about the backstory between Randall and Beth. How this young black man raised by this white family came to choose this black woman to share his life with. I think there is something interesting to that. Oftentimes guys choose people that are similar to their moms, and maybe Beth is similar to Rebecca in ways in which we don’t even know. I also feel like Kevin is sort of the linchpin amongst the siblings. There is a great Kevin/Kate storyline, and there’s a really strong Kevin and Randall storyline, but I would really love to have some more scenes with my dear sister Chrissy [Metz]. I would like to see more of that relationship.
What makes you say yes to any given script?
Moss: I think complexity and duality, never one-sided, never something that is a hero or a villain, never black and white, I love the gray area. For me, especially, for female characters are a little harder to find sometimes. I want to see complexity because I think that’s human and that is humanity. I don’t think that anyone is necessarily all bad or all good. We all have our moments and flaws, so for me, it’s something that I think that’s very, very important to me. As for your character, Sterling, he was a strong, put together man who seemed like he had it all and was just really on top of everything and living this perfect life and as the layers peeled back, you saw this broken person. Obviously, that was a complexity that really resonated with people.
Brown: I’ll say everything she said, and an addendum to that is it’s nice to find that complexity, if you’re doing a drama, really trying to highlight the moments of levity, and if you’re doing comedy, even if there are moments that are more sincere because the roller coaster helps the other moments pop out. If it’s all serious all the time, it’s hard to stay with it if it doesn’t have sort of peaks and valleys. On “Handmaids,” there will be these wonderful moments, like you are able to utilize in the voiceover, like her biting wit, and her having to get to know the other handmaids at the time and not being able to trust them and this chick is a goody two shoes and the way they interact with each other, just coming to realize she wasn’t as big of a goody two shoes as you thought.
Moss: I couldn’t agree more. It’s so important to us in “Handmaid’s” to make sure it wasn’t this bitter pill that you had to swallow every episode, that there were those moments of levity and we kept it human. Because even in the darkest of circumstances, sometimes people can have that, whether it’s through love or a silly joke or through connecting about something. That’s the beauty about humanity and so it’s really important to have that.
Lizzie, talk about the voiceover. How did you match that to your performance?
Moss: That was a very interesting part of the process because none of us had ever done that before. None of us knew how to do it. We were like, “Do we record before, do we record during, after? Where do we record this?” None of us really understood, so the first episode was kind of our learning experience on how to do it. The first episode I recorded three times. Before, and then twice after, and it was amazing because it allowed me, when we recorded it the first time, it helped me to understand the character, before playing her. Then, after I played her, then I was like well now I really understand that character, so now we have to go back. Then that second one was very dark. It was a very dark read. Then we were like it’s too dark. We need to add some levity to it, we need to bring the tone of Margaret into that voiceover. It needs to be Margaret Atwood’s voice, with that dark, dry sense of humor. We did a third recording and imbued it with a little bit more of that dark sense of humor. The only thing that we kept from that first recording was the last lines of the show, the last speech in the bedroom where she says, “My name is June.” That was a moment where I learned who June was and that kind of carried me through to the rest of the show.
Sterling, you’re playing Randall as an adult, but we also get to see Randall in various stages of his life. Do you work with the other actors in trying to match performances?
Brown: I watch some of the things that they do, Lonnie and Niles both, and I think they’re just phenomenal, so I think everybody kind of steals from everybody. Lonnie has just a real warmth and goofiness that’s lovable about him that I try to sort of incorporate into my delineation, and then Niles has a real soulfulness about him. And we get a chance to see more of the teenage kids this year, and the three of them are really wonderful actors. Ken Olin directed the first episode of the season and I’ve gotten a chance to watch some of the things that the kids have been doing and they’re bringing it. They’re making sure that us, the adult big three, are staying on their toes, because these kids aren’t playing around.
|Mark Williams and Sarah Hirakawa for Variety|
I think both of your shows both reflected and drove the conversation that’s happening nationally. Clearly, “Handmaid’s” was pretty overtly political, but “This is Us” in its own way hit on what people are thinking and feeling right now. What did that mean to you to be a part of that conversation?
Moss: I think one of the things that has been most gratifying that has come from the show is the people saying how it has maybe given them strength, how it has moved them, how it opened their eyes, how it has given them the strength to cope, say what they want to say, and believe what they want to believe. You set out to make a TV show, you set out to entertain. We’re not politicians, so it’s not necessarily something where we’re going to change the world. But it’s such a wonderful gift when through art, you can try to do that. You can try to bring people together. It’s just kind of a wonderful sort of something that gives you this extra fire in your work and that’s something that has been really valuable for all of us who have worked on “Handmaid’s.” Ultimately, it’s about the human connection, which on “This Is Us” is all about these people coming together and finding those commonalities, and ultimately, that’s the same thing we’re trying to do on “Handmaid’s Tale.” We’re trying to tell human stories as well.
Brown: Absolutely. I think that the sweet spot for me as an entertainer is when you are able to have a piece of material that simultaneously entertains, educates, and edifies. It takes people out of their day-to-day and it gives them some sort of relief, but it also teaches them something about humanity at large and about the world in which they inhabit, and I can finally, hopefully, inspire them to go out into the world to be of benefit. To make it a better place. Whether it’s an internal sort of change or transformation or something that they actively do to the community around them. When I watched “Handmaid’s Tale,” I said, “Oh, word, these women are slaves. They have no rights. They are expected to put a smile on their face and be grateful that they are in this position.” It’s very interesting, because as someone who was raised in St. Louis, Missouri, bible belt-ish, if you will, and see how religious texts can be utilized to reinforce whatever the status quo that you want to be, right? It’s profound to me. I’ve seen that happen. Maybe not to the exact same degree, but I’ve seen people, the institution of slavery was very much biblically recorded about slaves obeying their masters and whatnot. It hits me in a really deep way.
I know that by virtue of being married to an actor as well, that my path and her path in this industry are very, very different, and so to see strong stories of female characters, god bless you, is so important to the world. In the same way that I think about when people have an opportunity to see Randall and they may be in a very homogeneous community and they don’t know a lot of black folks, but they get a chance to see this man, first and foremost, who is funny and who is sincere and who is supportive of family and brother and sister and loves his mom and dad and then they’re like, “Wow, I never would have been introduced to that character before.”
I have a question. You guys made a very big decision and I’m curious…
Moss: I bet I know what you’re going to ask.
Brown: The multicultural aspect of the show is something that I found very interesting, and I’m wondering, from a producing standpoint, how was that decision made?
Moss: It’s a great question and it’s one of my favorite things that our showrunner Bruce did. It was his decision, and his answer for it, I will steal, because it’s just the best answer, which is that ultimately, we wanted to make a show that reflected our audience, that reflected the world that we live in today, and that reflected a modern society. And we wanted our audience to see themselves in it and if you’re going to do that, you have to have a multicultural show and you have to have different people and you have to have people of different skin colors, because that’s the world that we live in. That’s America and that’s our reality. If you’re going to make a show that reflects our modern society back in 2017, you have to make it look like what it looks like in 2017. It was a maybe a big decision, because it’s a bit of a departure from the book, but also I think one of our best decisions.
Brown: I agree. It was really good because for me, it helped to un-muddy, for me, what the story was about, and it made it purely about the women. I didn’t have to decipher whether or not this was a racial [issue], like who was being oppressed based upon what and why. These men have taken it into their power to place these women in a subservient position, and I was able to follow it with absolute clarity.
Moss: With the decision that was made about the diversity in the show, with the story, we were able to then have this whole new element to it, which only deepened the characters, which is, what is it like for somebody, for someone who is a black woman and also a handmaid? What is that experience like? Is that different? Is her approach different? What is her attitude like? To be able to bring that into it only deepens the character and only deepens the story and makes it more resonate with our audience and that’s an opportunity that we had that I’m so glad we didn’t lose. Samira [Wiley], I mean, she’s just a force to be f–king reckoned with, that girl, personally and professionally. That is a powerhouse of a woman and what she is able to bring to that role with her own experience in her life is something that I never would have wanted to not have.
How far ahead do you both see scripts? Does knowing the endgame help you modulate your performance?
Brown: My answer is if you’re doing a play or a movie, you have a beginning, middle, and end, and you’re able to sort of help shape the journey of the character together, so I was like, “If you know where we’re going, please, let me know.” [Dan] knew that William was going to die. He knew that Randall was going to have a breakdown, because he hints at it in episode 102 when Beth has this long monologue with William when she talks about “My husband, perfection is his actual downfall, and he has been blinded at a certain point, and he just sort of self corrected because that’s what he does.” So I knew that that was coming. I think at a point in time in my life, there was the sort of naïve belief that perfection was something that could be attained. I think that Randall very much at the beginning of our show, is of the mind that perfection is something that can be attained and he works very, very hard to do it. He’s almost taunted by it, by virtue of being an adoptee, of not feeling that he was enough, of having to work extra hard to gain the love of his parents based upon the fact that he had abandoned by the people that actually brought him into this world. My hope for him is I’m hoping that he can learn a lesson. I think it may take time. It took time for me to recognize that it’s really all about the journey. If you waste too much time concerned about the end point, you miss what life is supposed to be.
Moss: The first season, I knew the book, so I knew where it was going, and I knew that the arc was going to be what was in the book, so I was very kind of blessed in that way of having this bible to refer to. Then, in season two, I know the broad strokes of what the arc is, and I know where she starts and maybe where she has to end, and I have a few puzzle pieces in between, right now, but obviously those will be sewn in a bit more. It’s a gift because [as a producer] I do get the opportunity to know a lot more than I normally would as an actor on a show. I get to sit down with Bruce and go, “All right, how am I going to get here? Help me out. What are the peaks and valleys so that I can map this arc out and get where I need to be in that last scene?”
Lizzie, how have you exercised your role as a producer?
Moss: It’s honestly been so incredibly fulfilling and it has been something that has only, I feel, enabled me to be a better actor and to give a better performance because I know all of the work that it’s taken to get to certain places. I know how we got to that decision that that character is going to do that and also I’ve been able to have a say in that. So many times during season one, there were times where I was like, “I’m not quite sure if this is giving me what I need to get to where I know you want this to go” and was able to sit down with Bruce and work that out from an actors perspective. I would write him these long emails saying how I felt about the character, what I felt she was feeling in this moment, what I felt she was thinking, what I thought she was trying to say, what I felt she couldn’t say.
I’m not a writer, but he was able to take them and turn them into dialogue, turn it into moments and beats, and it was an incredible working relationship in that way. Then also just being able to be involved in the post production process. Watching all of the dailies and being able to be involved in all of the editing. When I was watching a scene, and it was cut a certain way, and you’ll love this, knowing that,”Oh wait, I remember we did this other take, and I really feel that actually that take was kind of what I was going for” and be able to make that call.
Brown: Yes, that makes me so happy.
Moss: I knew you would like that! Being able to say, “This is what I was going for in this scene, and in this take, I did it. Let’s do that and let’s do that take.” That kind of control over the character and over the performance was just, I mean, Jesus Christ, like god’s gift to actors.
Sterling, is that something that you would want to do? Is that a role you would want to take on?
Brown: It’s been interesting, because this year, I’ve been spending a lot of time in the writers’ room. I just love seeing how the sausage is made and their pitches. They’re constantly pitching each other until the best idea [wins]. Then every once in a while contributing an idea myself. I’ve written a couple of long emails myself of storylines that I think are worth pursuing and then sometimes they’ll be adopted and sometimes they’re not, which is perfectly fine because oftentimes Dan will come up with something better than mine. In fact, I think more than producing, I’m also interested in directing. Sitting in the editing room and seeing how decisions are made and also the difference between something like Hulu or FX even versus network and it’s a really interesting thing to see how you’ve got to get down to 43 minutes. Whereas on one of the other streamings or FX or HBO, the story, you can take as long as you need to take to tell it. It’s really an interesting barricade or limitation in terms of storytelling, but you just work within the limitations that you’re given. Because I used to think so many times in the past, “Why did this get cut? I thought that was really good.” And sometimes it’s systematic. It’s really made me look at the different mediums in a very interesting way and a way that I hadn’t looked at it before.
Unlike most shows which have directors come in for just one episode, both of your shows have strong directorial perspective with Reed Morano and then John Requa and Glenn Ficarra and Ken Olin. How do you work with them in shaping your performances?
Brown: It’s nice to be with people who are intimately familiar with the characters from their inception, and there is a greater deal of comfort I think the actors have, by and large, with folks that have an investment beyond just the singular episode. I always like when the directors come in and they feel like guests in your house, whereas the people who are producers/directors, it’s their house, too. We’re all working from a similar perspective and have a similar level of investment. It’s nice to be with people who are as familiar with the story as you are.
Moss: I had that on “Mad Men” where we honed it down over the seasons so it was just a small group of people who had either DP’d, script supervised, acted in it, written it, been an assistant to somebody. Everybody was involved in the show in some way before they directed it. That was amazing and I totally agree, it really does lend something to it where you don’t feel like it’s a guest in the house, you feel like you’re working with your own family, and they know all the characters just as well as you do, and it’s much easier.
We tried to empower each and every one of them. We would say to them, “This is your show now. This is your opportunity to, like, go balls to the wall. Do crazy s–t. We support that here, we want that. The only mistake you can make is in not going far enough. This is your opportunity to do things that you never thought you could on television. So go for it.”