Elisabeth Moss: 'A traumatic experience turns your entire life upside down'

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Elisabeth Moss
Elisabeth Moss

Cast as director, executive producer and star of her latest outing, there's little Elisabeth Moss can't put her hand to.

The Handmaid's Tale actress, 39, leads Apple TV+'s Shining Girls, an upcoming eight-part metaphysical thriller based on the 2013 best-selling novel by Lauren Beukes.

Adapted for the screen by Silka Luisa, the drama places Moss as Kirby Mazrachi, a Chicago-based newspaper archivist whose journalistic ambitions were put on hold after enduring a traumatic assault.

When she learns of a recent murder case which mirrors her own, she sets out - partnered with seasoned yet troubled reporter Dan Velazquez (played by Wagner Moura) - to uncover her attacker's identity.

Much to the disdain of her assailant Harper, a distinctly dark, mysterious loner who seeks out women "whose aura of life and energy compels him" - in a portrayal brilliantly executed by Billy Elliot star Jamie Bell.

It's a gripping tale, says Moss: "If somebody has had a traumatic experience, whether it's an attack, like Kirby goes through, or if it's something like losing a job, a divorce, a pandemic, a war, or whatever it might be, it turns your entire life upside down from one second to the next.

"And what Silka is doing is telling that experience: how you're never quite sure where you are, you're never quite sure what's going to happen next, you are constantly on the lookout for when that is going to happen again."

"It's different from the book in that the book follows both Kirby and Harper's points of view, whereas the series is more about Kirby's point of view," notes Michelle MacLaren, 57, who makes up the all-female directorial team alongside Moss and Daina Reid.

"We wanted to make this very voyeuristic. Kirby has been traumatised, she had something happen to her by a man who stalked her, and so we wanted the audience to experience what these women went through, what Kirby is going through, that feeling that somebody's watching all the time. That was definitely our approach."

Clever timeline shifts throughout the "time-travelling series" add to the character's sense of a blurred reality, she explains.

"It elevates her trauma; they're ultimately a metaphor for how we deal with trauma after the actual act. And so it was exciting to execute this, but most importantly, to focus on the emotional relevance of trauma. And to really understand from Kirby's point of view how she was experiencing this.

"She starts out very vulnerable, and she gets stronger and stronger throughout the story. She is not a victim. She's a survivor."

But jumping between narratives can risk confusion, realises MacLaren, who won two Primetime Emmy Awards for her work on Breaking Bad.

"We realised, 'OK, how do we do it in a way that the audience understands a shift is happening, without revealing too much, without making it too complicated, but complicated enough that it keeps them guessing?'"

"So the shifts actually evolve, they grow. So we started out very simplistic, and then we got more and more complicated as the story went along. And that was very intentional," she details.

"We wanted the viewer to imagine, 'What would it look like if my world, in a very natural way, shifted suddenly, and everything was different?' What would that feel like?"

Very much in Kirby's present is "committed journalist" Dan, helmed by 45-year-old Narcos actor Moura.

"To me, the most beautiful thing in the show is when these two broken souls get together and start to slowly open up to the other," says the Brazilian native. "What starts as a very ambitious, professional goal shifts into a personal story. I really like that change. I really like that shift in the narrative."

Bell, Hamilton star Phillipa Soo and The Leftovers actress Amy Brenneman round out the main cast.

For Bell, 36, he compares playing a character like Harper to "jumping into some kind of abyss".

"Where do you pitch this character? How real do we want this to be? He's a deranged sociopath, so let's just start there..." he begins. "And there's also this other element where he's out of time; he's everywhere all the time, he's all knowing, all powerful, completely in control. That's the thing that gets him off."

"There's so much to play with!" he quips. "Lauren gave us a really great mould and an outline; she rendered him in this incredibly detailed way, so it was filling in a couple of blanks, working with Silka, Michelle and Elisabeth to round him, make him vulnerable and really weak at times - to show that other side.

"As an actor, those are the roles that you want. Those are the real roles that you can get lost in."

In what ways do its stars hope the show will resonate with viewers?

"Everybody goes through some form of trauma in their life, and there's all different levels, so there's a relatability for everyone," says MacLaren.

"Silka managed to balance the mix of genres of the show really well, which is it's a crime story, but it's also a story with sci-fi elements," Moura follows. "But it is more a drama about someone who survived a very traumatic situation, and how this person overcomes that, and that relates to everybody.

"Regardless of the genre, what connects us to any story is the characters and how we relate to those characters."

Moss agrees, adding: "I love projects that can Trojan horse a deeper issue. For me, that's so fun. I love watching those kinds of things. And I love doing them.

"On the surface, this show, you can watch it and it's fun, it's entertaining and it's a wild ride. It's a massive mystery. You're just spending every episode trying to figure out what's going on. And you have to watch the next one because you just don't know what's going to happen next. That's totally fine. And it has that."

"But then there's another way of watching it as well, where you take that, and you also can look at the deeper issues, you can look at the deeper things that we're talking about," offers the Emmy Award winner.

"You can look at the relevancy of the issues. And I love when a show has both, when a project has both, and I think this show does that beautifully."

Shining Girls premieres on Apple TV+ on Friday.

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