Top of the Lake: China Girl’s Elisabeth Moss On Working Together With Her Female Counterparts

It’s girl power on the set of the mystery drama series

You’ve seen her show-off her acting chops on The Handmaid’s Tale, not to mention her show-stopping performance as  Zoey Bartlet on the cult classic Mad Men. One may hazard a guess that Elisabeth Moss is truly destined for the theatrics of television, who now makes a return to the highly-acclaimed series of BBC’s Top Of The Lake: China Girl for season 2.

When the first season of the crime drama went on air in 2013, it was unlike any other. Not only did it tell a tale of misogyny, motherhood and murder, the show portrayed women as complex human beings instead of damsels in distress. It thoroughly examined the women in their multifaceted glory, which was refreshing to witness on our television screens.

Shifting its setting from New Zealand to Australia, the highly-anticipated drama is back for season two with Jane Campion helming as director once more. The second installment will also see Elisabeth Moss working alongside Game Of Thrones’ Gwendoline Christie, taking up the role of rookie constable Miranda who offers assistance to the murder investigation.

Moss tells us more on what it is like working with this female power duo in an exclusive interview.

What are the qualities in Robin that made you want to play her again?

What I love most about Robin is, from an actor’s perspective of playing her, not necessarily her best quality. It’s her flaws, her vulnerability. And her ability to be strong when she needs to be and to fight for justice and fight for the truth in her work. So the juxtaposition of that with the complete chaos in her personal life and her inability to get that under control; this season she’s so much more messed up than she ever has been before. It’s been a challenge to play, but it’s also been really fun.

Were you surprised by how well received Top of the Lake was?

Yeah. I don’t want to say I was surprised because that sounds like we weren’t expecting it. It’s just you think it’s good, but you just never know if an audience is going to agree with you. And it was so dark and so weird and the tone of Jane Campion is so strange. So you really throw your hands up and go, “I don’t know if anyone’s going to get this.”

So the fact that it went over so well, it’s a testament to audiences’ intelligence, which I have experienced before in previous work on television. But it was a true honour because we all worked really hard on it and really long hours and really tough conditions. It was not a glamorous situation; it was really for the love of it and for the love of Jane, for the passion of the project. So it’s always amazing when you put your heart into something and you get all these cherries on top of people really liking it and wanting to give you honours. It’s a wonderfully gratifying thing.

What was it like working with Jane Campion the second time?

There’s nobody like Jane. She has this very in-tune way of guiding you through a scene. She’ll say something that you just go “Oh, I didn’t think about it that way”. Or she’ll come up to you and say, “This is your playground sweetie. Just have fun.”

There’s been a lot more of that in season two because we know each other quite well now; we’ve known each other for over four years, which I guess doesn’t sound like that long, but it’s been a really deep relationship and an intense relationship. There’s a lot of trust that’s been built from season one.  When you feel like a director trusts you that just gives you so much freedom and so much confidence. That’s the other thing too, she knows me so well as an actor that she knows if I can give something else. She knows if I’ve already given it. And I know her very well as a director, so I know when she’s looking for something that she hasn’t gotten yet and I know when she feels like she’s gotten it but she’s just going to keep doing it for fun and see if she can get something else. We’re very honest with each other.

Were you kept informed as the story came together for Top of the Lake: China Girl?

I knew quite a bit about season two as it was coming together because Jane would write me and ask me questions or tell me little things here and there. It was a constant dialogue for three years about it. So there were big plot points that I knew were coming. But it was all the nuance, all the detail and the strange Campionesque things that go into something like this that really surprised me and I loved so much. Without spoiling anything, the thing that we reveal in the flashback and some things that have happened over the last four years to Robin have put her in this really, really dark place. She’s not had an easy life, this girl. So she starts out in Season 2 in this much darker place, and really messed up, so when I was reading it for the first time I was like “yes, yes, yes, yes!”

What are the key themes that Season 2 deals with that are different to Season 1?

The themes of season one very much are about children. Robin coming back to her childhood home – revisiting her childhood, her childhood with her mother, her childhood with her father. This horrific experience that happens when she’s sixteen. She’s obviously still a child. Tui representing a child, and then the barista ring, the children there. So it was about children in season one.

I feel like season two is about parenthood, and specifically motherhood. The different kinds of motherhood, the different ways that people become a mother, how motherhood doesn’t always have to do with being a biological mother. Robin having had a child and giving birth to a child but then not raising it. Nicole’s character having not given birth to the child, but raised her. And then these surrogates, these women who are objectified and put into a position that is not only illegal but incredibly heartbreaking.

What were the biggest developments for you and Robin in Season 2?

Because Robin is back in Sydney, she’s back on the police force, officially. She was unofficially on the police force in New Zealand, but here she’s actually there, she’s at the police station, she’s carrying a weapon, she has a badge. We shot tons of stuff at the police station. I was sort of a rogue police officer in season one. So this one I really actually had to act like I knew what I was doing. 

Then obviously the other one would be my relationship with Mary, my daughter. One thing Jane and I discussed really early on was, what is that relationship? You’ve given birth to this person, but you haven’t spent any time with her. So, is she your daughter? Just because you gave birth to her doesn’t necessarily mean that you feel like you’re her mother. Because motherhood isn’t just that, as anyone who is not a biological mother would understand. We really wanted to explore the idea that when she meets Mary she has no idea what she’s doing, and she doesn’t feel like a mum. It was really fun exploring that idea and Robins feeling of inadequacy about not feeling like a mother and not feeling anything, and then this incredible arc that was built of her getting to know her daughter and getting to know herself as a mother. 

Did you and Gwendoline Christie get close through working so closely together?

I don’t even know where to begin. She’s the love of my life! I thought I would like her, you know, and I’m a fan of hers as an actor, but it’s been this really wonderful deep friendship that has happened. Sometimes you meet people and you know that you’re going to be friends with them for the rest of your life. Season one I didn’t really have that buddy, Robin didn’t have that friend. It’s been really amazing in season two to have this female relationship. This actress, another woman, to act opposite, it’s been a really interesting and special surprise out of this season for me as an actor and, and it ends up being the same for Robin as well.

The entire series of Top Of The Lake: China Girl is available on BBC First (Starhub Channel 22) and on the BBC Player

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