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How Elisabeth Moss Became a Grunge Icon for ‘Her Smell’

From playing guitar on the ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ set to watching an Amy Winehouse doc repeatedly, the actress explains how she found her inner riot grrrl

elisabeth moss her smell

Elisabeth Moss discusses how she found her character in the movie 'Her Smell.'

Gunpowder & Sky

Although Elisabeth Moss was a teen in the Nineties, she never paid much attention to grunge or punk. “I just wasn’t cool enough,” she says with a laugh. “I grew up on classical, jazz and blues, and I was a ballet dancer. I was definitely more [into] Britney Spears.” In the past year or so, though, when she wasn’t filming The Handmaid’s Tale, she was immersed herself in the worlds of L7, Bikini Kill and Nirvana, as she prepared to portray an unhinged, fictional punk singer from the era named Becky Something in Alex Ross Perry’s hyperrealistic new film, Her Smell. The movie depicts a low point for her all-female trio, Something She, as Becky becomes a reckless whirlwind of drugs and ego. Moss says it was one of the hardest roles she’s ever played. Here’s how she pulled it off.

Grunge 101
Since she had a lot of catching up to do, she sought out as much music from the era as she could to get a better understanding of it. “I started out with the obvious, Nirvana, and then I focused on the women: Bikini Kill and that kind of thing,” she says. “I went back to the Runaways to go a little bit into what Becky would have listened to growing up. … I was really interested in the idea of this generation that felt left behind and abandoned by the grownups.”

Riot on the Set
To understand the things that motivated the real-life artists who would have been Something She’s peers, Moss hit the books and watched documentaries. She read Sara Marcus’ Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution twice. “That was a bit of a Bible just for that movement,” Moss says.

Chasing ‘Amy’
Perry got the idea for Her Smell after reading Rolling Stone’s Guns N’ Roses special collector’s issue and got to wondering what Axl Rose was up to during his years of seclusion in the late Nineties. But when Moss decided to tap into the pathos of an out-of-control artist in decline, she looked outside the box. “I didn’t really connect with Axl Rose, so I looked at anybody who was dealing with an extreme level of fame at a young age and had an addiction problem,” she says. “So I was looking at Amy Winehouse and Marilyn Monroe, and anyone I felt was not equipped to deal with the life they had.” She figures she watched Amy, the documentary about Amy Winehouse, about 10 times. “That kind of kind of vulnerability that she has is so interesting,” she says. She also underscored that, as far as grunge icons go, “It’s just as much Kurt Cobain as Courtney Love.”

Handmaid’s Riffs
Moss grew up in a musical family, but she never learned any instruments herself. So for about five months, she took guitar lessons in Toronto, where The Handmaid’s Tale was shooting. “I carried the guitar around with me for the entirety of Season Two,” she says. “I practiced in the car, in my trailer, whenever I could. My goal was never to learn how to play the guitar, but to look like I knew a little bit about what I was doing.”

Beck-ducation
To get a better feel for what life was like for a Nineties rock star, Moss sat down with Beck. “He helped me so much in understanding where that music came from — why were these kids so mad at everybody? And all of a sudden I started to love the music.”

Let Yourself Go
In the film, Moss is full of manic energy — cutting herself and strangling her bandmates. “No crazy fucking thing was off-limits,” she says. One of the hardest parts was maintaining the energy level of a coke addict. “Modulating the different levels of her highness — when she’s up, down, what the different drugs make her feel — was challenging,” says Moss. How did she do it? “Coffee,” she says. “A lot of caffeine.”

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