Elisabeth Moss and Gillian Anderson on Spending Their 20s on TV, Playing Margaret Thatcher and the Post-Trump ‘Handmaid’s Tale’

Elisabeth Moss (“The Handmaid’s Tale”) and Gillian Anderson (“The Crown”) sat down for a virtual chat for Variety‘s Actors on Actors. For more, click here.

When Gillian Anderson and Elisabeth Moss met virtually to talk about their respective roles as Margaret Thatcher on Netflix’s “The Crown” and June Osborne on Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” they discussed the benefits of being on long-running television shows, directing and characters they’d like to play again. Anderson detailed how she’d built Thatcher from the inside out, and Moss mused about how “Handmaid’s” might feel different in the Biden era.

And they discovered that they both had come of age as young actors — and young women — between the ages of 23 and 32 on “The X-Files” (Anderson) and “Mad Men” (Moss), and were delighted by the coincidence.

Gillian Anderson: I heard you guys shut down for a bit on “The Handmaid’s Tale” — and were just about to shoot one you were directing?

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Elisabeth Moss: I actually had already started. I’d done about a day and a half, and I’d done all the prep, and then, yeah — we shut down from March 13 until September. It was interesting, because as a director, I had a prep period that you’d get for a feature. So I had this chance to look at all of my plans and think about what I was going to do, and talk to my DP, which was actually really nice. We were like, “These plans are actually pretty good!”

Anderson: That’s pretty cool. Because that’s a long time to get yourself in a tizzy about all the things you could do or you might do or you could have done.

Moss: Were you shooting when the shutdown happened?

Anderson: We were at the very end of “The Crown.” We were meant to go shoot an avalanche sequence in the Pyrenees. And then it was no avalanche sequence for an episode called “Avalanche.” Miraculously, you wouldn’t know the difference.

Moss: This is such an interview question, but I really do want to know: Where did you start with Thatcher? Did you start from the inside out or the outside in?

Anderson: I started inside out, mostly because I knew I was playing her for such a long time prior to when I was, and there weren’t scripts yet. I started reading about her childhood, reading about her prior to even joining the Conservative Party. As we got closer, the production team provided me with research people extraordinaire — and also movement people, a voice coach, etc. I got very lucky, because around the same time that I was doing research, there was a six-part BBC documentary about her that came out, and it was behind-the-scenes stuff that you never normally got to see. I think that started slightly changing some people’s opinions about her, and seeing an element of humanity in her and having a bit more compassion towards her. Then I started with the wigs and the makeup, and then all the bodysuit and stuff.

Moss: It’s an absolutely mind-blowing transformation. I’m very familiar with you as an actor, and I just could not see you. I just kept forgetting. You don’t seem at all hampered by the makeup or the wig. You were doing something with the teeth — the mouth thing.

Anderson: We were thinking about teeth prosthetics, and so we tried three or four different shapes, sizes. She was notorious for having bad teeth. And because she has such an overbite, I was just wanting to explore that. Everything just looked wrong. And so then it became, is that something that I can just do with my
mouth, and how I hold my mouth? I actually found that, yes, that was enough. And that informed how I spoke. It was actually a gift to have made that choice, because that informed everything.

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Elisabeth Moss as June Osborne on “The Handmaid’s Tale” Courtesy of Hulu

Moss: Was there something that you found in her story that was untold?

Anderson: My partner, Peter Morgan [“The Crown” creator], had expressed that we had some similarities, just in terms of our work ethic; I’m quite a perfectionist. I really didn’t know her until I had started to do the research, and she’s such a divisive character — over here specifically. It wasn’t until I dove into her that I kind of understood why it made sense that I might play her. It was almost like an alchemic thing.

Moss: People ask, “What makes you choose a certain character?” And I always have a lot of trouble answering, because I don’t know what it is. It’s just a feeling of there’s something about that person that either I know or I want to get to know — like you said, it’s an alchemy.

Anderson: Having done a couple of long-running series in my life, you’ve done four seasons now of “Handmaid’s,” and I know from watching interviews of yours that is something that you still clearly love and embrace — and have also added directing. Tell me the challenges and the delights for you of being four years into something.

Moss: I’m curious if you like the same thing about it, but I feel like you get something from doing a long-running show that you don’t really get anywhere else except maybe theater, but you’re telling the same story every night. Like on “Mad Men,” that was nine years of my life — 23 to 32.

Anderson: That’s exactly what it was for me on “X-Files.” Moss: Is that right?

Anderson: Yeah, that’s just so interesting.

Moss: You grow up during that time; you become an adult during that time. And so it feels like this merging of life and work. And the way that you get to develop a character over seven seasons, or however many seasons it is, is like nothing else. There are certain characters I played in film that I would love to play again, and I would love to explore more — but you only get to do it in TV. There are things that you can do in Season 4 that you can’t do in Season 1. And to get that opportunity of 92 episodes, it’s like an acting exercise. Television is my first love, weirdly. I know for most people it’s either theater or film, but television is where I grew up.

Anderson: For me, too, it was very much growing up in front of the camera. That job for me — I had a baby while doing the series. Married, divorced, all that kind of stuff. How many episodes per season of “Mad Men” did you do?

Moss: It was 13 usually. We did, I think, 92, which is just insane.

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Gillian Anderson as Margaret Thatcher on “The Crown” Courtesy of Des Willie/Netflix

Anderson: I’m gonna trump you here. We did 22 episodes per season. And we did, I think, 201 episodes — and then did a couple more seasons. Is Peggy a character that you would want to play again, or do you feel like you put her to bed? Are there any characters that you played that you’d love to revisit?

Moss: Peggy — I like where we left her on “Mad Men.” It was from 1960 to 1970, and I feel like I know what would happen to her. I think she became creative director of the agency, and worked the rest of her life, as she wanted to. But never say never, I guess. I think the one I would like to play is “Top of the Lake,” the thing I did with Jane Campion. We had always talked about it being three seasons. That’s one I think there’s actually definitely more story to tell. What about you?

Anderson: I think probably “The Fall,” and that’s something we are in discussions about. Even when we ended those three seasons, we talked about the fact that one day — maybe in the same way that “Prime Suspect” came back. There were huge breaks between their seasons. Our writer-creator-director Allan Cubitt has been ready to dip back in and revisit it and her.

Moss: Oh, that would be fantastic. I have one more question about Thatcher, though. I find that during a season, there’s often one scene that really defines the season, or defines the character in some way. And I’m curious if there was that scene for you in “The Crown.”

Anderson: There was a scene where she is cooking for her cabinet in the flat above No. 10. Such a big part of her identity was as a wife and mother, and that she maintained those roles simultaneous to being the prime minister. And that she continued to cook for her husband and children and iron shirts and was proud of that — and wanted all women to do the same!

With “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the first season premiered right after Trump came into office, and there’s been a lot written about all the parallels of his America and his presidency to Gilead. I was wondering whether you thought that “Handmaid’s Tale” will hit differently with Biden as president?

Moss: We tried this season to take our show to a new place, to fulfill some of the promises that we were making over the past couple of years, and we really tried to imbue a sense of hope and a sense of triumph. A sense of victory, a sense of people coming together, of connecting and family and relationships.

Of course, it’s still “The Handmaid’s Tale,” so the stuff hits the fan eventually, as always. But we really wanted to focus on a new day, and a new era in the show.