TOP OF THE LAKE is a seven-hour miniseries about New Zealand police detective Robin Griffin, played by MAD MEN’s Elisabeth Moss, who finds herself dealing with her past as she investigates the disappearance of a pregnant twelve-year-old girl. Adding to the mystery is a women’s retreat, run by Holly Hunter’s character, the enigmatic G.J.
Directed by Jane Campion, who previously helmed Hunter’s Oscar-winning performance in THE PIANO, and Garth Davis, and created and written by Campion and Gerard Lee, TOP OF THE LAKE debuts in a two-hour block on the Sundance Channel Monday at 9 PM, with the five subsequent hour-long episodes airing Mondays at 9 PM. The miniseries had a big-screen premiere in its entirety earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival.
At the Television Critics Association press tour, actresses Moss and Hunter, along with Iain Canning, one of LAKE’s producers, sit down with seven journalists to talk about their intense, idiosyncratic drama.
AX: As an American, how is it playing a New Zealand native while filming there?
ELISABETH MOSS: [laughs] It’s part of your job. When you approach any character, most likely, you’re in a place that you haven’t actually been, or living a life you don’t actually live. The great thing about being transported so far away from my home toNew Zealand is you did feel like you were in that world. There were no distractions; I didn’t know anyone. Holly was the only American I knew that was there.
HOLLY HUNTER: And we didn’t know each other.
MOSS: And we didn’t know each other, exactly. So it was like you really felt a sense that this is the world that you were in, this is where you lived, and there wasn’t anything else. And that kind of immersion as an actor is really fun and I think it really helps. But for us, it was very much about developing the character in the beginning, and we knew that the country and the landscape would take care of itself. It was much more for Jane and I to talk about developing Robin and how we were going to develop her over the series.
QUESTION: How did you develop the accent?
MOSS: I worked a little bit in L.A. – I had to do a little work to get the part, which was kind of just throwing something together to show that I could speak with somewhat of an accent at all, and that was apparent sufficient. Then I started working with a dialect coach in L.A. a little bit just to get going in changing the sound, but the dialect coach [Victoria Mielewska] that we hired for the project was this wonderful woman who’d worked with Jane on HOLY SMOKE with Kate Winslet, with Cate Blanchett on ELIZABETH – she’s kind of the go-to dialect coach of Australia and I talked to her on the phone a little bit and I really wanted to start working, I wanted to practice every day and do the actor thing where you’re really diligent and she was like, “It’s going to be fine, just get here and then we’ll start working.” “Okay.” It was my first act of trusting Jane, which was followed by many acts of trusting Jane Campion [laughs]. I got there and me and Victoria worked pretty much every day for about a month, and then she stayed on for the beginning part of the project and then she came back and forth, but the work never stopped. For Jane and I, it was really about just changing sounds, just not having it be an American accent. We weren’t going for the perfect accent [Robin is a New Zealander who has spent a long time in Sydney] – it was about her sounding like she could exist in that world. That took a lot of the pressure off of me, and Victoria was amazing.
QUESTION: You’ve said that you had wrapped MAD MEN only a few days before. What kind of challenge did that represent for you?
MOSS: The whole idea of doing this was really kind of scary to me. When I was inNew Zealand and I had rehearsals with Jane, I called my mom and said, “I don’t know if I know how to do this. I don’t know if I know what I’m doing. I’ve never done this before.” And that’s exactly as an actor what you want to feel. You want it to scare you. You want to be in that place where you’ve never done anything like it before.
HUNTER: With Jane.
MOSS: With Jane [laughs]. Exactly. She took my hand, Garth took the other hand, and then we had all these incredible actors and crew and you realized that you weren’t doing it alone, that you didn’t have to figure it out by yourself. I was so excited to be a part of the project that I couldn’t wait to get down there. I wanted to go down sooner, but I had to finish MAD MEN. I was just raring to go. I got cast in October, didn’t get there until mid-January, so by then I was like, “We have to start filming! It’s been forever.” So it was great.
QUESTION: How do you feel about doing a miniseries as opposed to a feature film?
IAIN CANNING: I think as far as Australian filmmakers, and filmmakers over here and in the U.K., they’re now choosing the longer form as the medium to tell their story, rather than feeling like they’ve got to compress it into a [120-minute] film, and they’re actually seeing the positives of that, rather than seeing it as too much time.
HUNTER: For actors and directors, it’s incredibly exciting to have the stretch [of a miniseries] without the obligation of six years [of a television series commitment]. MAD MEN is totally exceptional. It’s so cool that Jane can make the miniseries more of a possibility for filmmakers to think about.
QUESTION: Would you say TOP OF THE LAKE has a feminist bent, and that either or both of your characters are feminists?
MOSS: It’s an interesting question for [Hunter’s] character [laughs]. I think I’ve dealt with the feminist question for a few years now, because of MAD MEN, and it always puzzles me what makes a woman a feminist and what makes her not a feminist. I think that any woman that believes that she should have equal rights or the right to do what she wants to do would in my mind make her a feminist, but that’s pretty much every woman.
CANNING: [Campion] a realist.
MOSS: Yeah, exactly. That’s a great way of putting it.
CANNING: I think she’s a realist and I think there’s obviously a feminist aspect of that, but I think she just portrays the world in that way.
MOSS: I think for me, Jane is after truth, more than anything else. I mean, that’s her banner, that’s her thing, is finding truth, truth, truth in everything. And so whether that’s truth in a female character or a male character, truth in a child or a group of people, it’s all about for her, I think, more about finding the truth of something.
QUESTION: G.J. is the leader of a group of women …
HUNTER: Well, I think Jane undeniably expresses great glory in the power of women. I think she really loves women. And she really loves men, too. Jane just likes the heart beating inside each one of us, and she wants to tickle every little heart. I always feel that she’s kind of seducing us all as she directs us, flirting – she’s just an unconscionable flirt [laughs]. But with men and women. There’s no one who could describe a women’s camp [like the one in LAKE] but Jane without making it campy. It’s wacky, but it has a reality. Jane believes in that kind of self-investigation. She’s a person who has investigated self her entire life. She’s not afraid of who she is, wanting to know more.
AX: You’ve said you were afraid to play G.J. at first …
HUNTER: I didn’t see it. And Jane really did. You just trust Jane. You take a leap – or she pushes you. And she pushed me a little bit with G.J. I couldn’t say no to her, but I didn’t see myself in the part. I expressed that to Jane, but if Jane sees something, then I go towards it. Like a robot [laughs]. And then as I started to get to work on it, I saw a way in.
QUESTION: How much did you know your characters up front?
MOSS: I read the first three [scripts] before I got the part. And then I think I read four and five somewhere in the midst of auditioning. But I was on board from the word “Jane,” and then from the first script, and the second one, it made me just get to three and four and I’m like, “Oh, no, it’s so much better than I thought it was.” [laughs] I felt like I understood the character in a very simple way. I think for me, as an actor, my first response to it is, I understand something about her that I can’t quite describe, and then it becomes about the director helping you to figure out how to show that and when to show it, and like I said, it was a terrifying experience. I had no idea what I was going to do. And they cast me off of three scenes that I put on tape fromLos Angeles. I was like, “They don’t know if I can do this or not” [laughs].
CANNING: There are certain people that Jane had in mind for certain roles and ninety percent, we went to those people and they said yes. And then we had [the character] Robin Griffin and we really wanted – Jane wanted – somebody to bring something to the auditions, to the scenes, wanted to bring an energy that would be interesting for her to deal with in the part, and it was when we saw [Moss’ audition] we knew – and Jane definitely knew – that this was the right person for it and was totally sure from that point. I remember the moment in Sydney, sort of all crowding around and getting together and watching the thing. [Campion] was like, “Call her now, call her now, call her now.”
MOSS: Aww … [laughs]
AX: You’ve actually played a cop before, in the “Eater” episode of FEAR ITSELF, directed by Stuart Gordon, where you were dealing with very violent situations. Did you draw on that at all?
MOSS: [laughs] No. That was like one episode of a TV show. I got to wear a cool uniform in that one, though, which I didn’t get to wear in this. This was very different. Even though [Robin Griffin] is a detective, for me, it was so much more about finding out what was inside of her and developing that. It’s not easy. You get, “Oh, she’s got a hard exterior and she’s tough and she can carry a gun,” and I’m like, “Okay, I have to learn how to do that, but I understand that.’ But for me, it was about exploring with Jane and Garth everything that was going on underneath, and when to bring it out. It was very much about not revealing too much too soon in the episodes, and making sure that there was a real development to the character and you really saw this hard exterior at first and then she starts to fall apart. That was important as well. This wasn’t like anything I had ever done before and I probably won’t do anything like it ever again.
QUESTION: This is not easy material, I would think. Was it tough to be inside these people?
MOSS: I think that telling tough stories is a good thing to do, and [the subject matter] is real, and these things do happen all over the world. And it’s like I said – Jane is very interested in finding the truth of things; I don’t think she was interested in doing an expose on this particular thing. It was about these people and these characters and showing the universal qualities that these people have. And so, sure, it was tough to do certain scenes. For me, you have to go from a scene where you were jogging down a street, drinking a soda, to beating up somebody, to sobbing in the corner, to a sex scene. So it was sort of a marathon, physically and emotionally. That’s what you do it for, that’s the fun part.
QUESTION: Can we talk about G.J.’s hair?
HUNTER: When Jane offered me the part and she said, “You’re going to wear a long gray wig,” and I was like, “That could be fun.” And then there was a part in the process where maybe I wasn’t going to be able to wear the wig, maybe the wig wasn’t going to work out, and I was like, “No, this has got to work.” Because it was so cool, and it’s one of the fun things about acting is the transformation to this. And there’s an [androgynous] kind of thing about this chick that I wanted very much to be there, and I thought the wig was going to help with that identification.
CANNING: There wasn’t a gender written in the script for quite a long time.
MOSS: I didn’t know if they were casting a man or a woman
HUNTER: I bound my chest – it was fun to have that wig be the total jumping-off place.
AX: What would you most like people to know about TOP OF THE LAKE right now?
CANNING: I’d like them to know that at the heart of it, there’s this mystery of this missing girl, but at the heart of it, it’s about, like [the characters] are saying, there’s the top of the lake, and there’s this beautiful place, but the whole of humanity exists in this place underneath this lake, and there are lots of things to discover.
HUNTER: And a dark, beating heart that makes the lake rise and fall.
CANNING: Absolutely. And that’s I think the richness of it. And I think people, once they start, will really hopefully get intoxicated by this special place of paradise.
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Article: Interviews with TOP OF THE LAKE actors Elisabeth Moss, Holly Hunter and Iain Canning