Her Smell Director Alex Ross Perry on Elisabeth Moss and Her Performance of the Year

Indie filmmaker also offers an update on his two Stephen King adaptations

Performance of the Year Elisabeth Moss
Elisabeth Moss in Her Smell (Gunpowder & Sky)

It’s been a year for great performances on film—every year is, of course, but 2019 feels special. This is total speculation, but perhaps because so many artists have a lot of rage to burn at the moment. Perhaps there’s something about the last few years that makes it the exact right time to run headlong toward a cliff, as the magnificent Adèle Haenel does in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, or to stare, skitter, and hiss, as Lupita Nyong’o does in Us, or to feel the full weight of even the smallest of victories, as Leonardo DiCaprio does in Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood. There’s boldness aplenty, as Florence Pugh shows in Midsommar, and no shortage of smart, subtle, endlessly layered acting, as Pugh shows in Little Women. And then there’s Elisabeth Moss in Her Smell. She does all of those things, literally and metaphorically, and sometimes both at once.

As Her Smell’s Becky Something—a fire-bright punk rocker burning up from the inside, set alight by her own jet fuel—Moss sneers and howls, smiles and sings, grins monstrously and doles out tiny nods containing infinite warmth and sincerity. She’s the monster under the bed, crawling out covered in glass and spit and ashes; she’s also a woman in a white room, singing a Bryan Adams song with such tenderness you might think it was a farewell—and it might be, in fact. The third of Moss’ collaborations with writer-director Alex Ross Perry, Her Smell is a towering, unforgettable experience, and Moss’ performance is the high-wire act that makes it all work. One step to the left or the right and it could all go horribly wrong, but whether she’s smashing bottles or whispering about dreams, Moss’ steps could not be more sure.

“My God, do I want to see this,” Perry told Consequence of Sound he felt as he was writing it. “My God, do I want to see this performer playing the character, I cannot write this fast enough, I cannot get it into her hands fast enough, and we cannot shoot it fast enough.” Needless to say, it was all he imagined. Below, we spoke with Perry about Moss’ performance of the year, the alchemy of their collaboration, and when (and if) we can expect to see one of the world’s great performers step alongside him into the Stephen King universe.

On how Becky Something came to be

Elisabeth Moss, Her Smell, Vinyl, Soundtrack

Her Smell (Gunpowder and Sky)

Which came first, Becky or Elisabeth? Were the two already linked when you started writing?

Yeah, certainly [they were linked]. Part of that is just that it’s our third movie together, and I had sort of softly promised that this was a character and a thing that I would create for her. And it was very specific—here’s the thing, here’s what I want to do, here’s how I kind of see the character. As opposed to Queen of Earth, our second movie together where I said, “Hey, I wrote this thing, take a look at it, I think it could be really great,” this was, “I’m going to write this character for you, put it in the bank that these scenes are your scenes. These moments are only in my mind as something I can see you doing, and I’m just going to work on that until I’ve finished it, and then I’ll send it.” So it was as extreme [an example] of writing for a performer as anything could be, aside from sitting in a room and doing it alongside them.

You’ve said that, as the two of you were leaving the soundstage after her first band rehearsal, you told her, “I’m really curious to finally see what Becky is like.” And she said, “Me too.”

It’s not like the other movies that I’ve made, even the others that we made together. [Becky is] so huge and extreme of a character that there really was a deep sense of uncertainty and excitement to see this character in action, because she’s one of the most hugely extreme characters you could conceive of, on the page. Therefore, there’s a very fine line between how this does or does not get executed.

I can only compare her in my mind to something like Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood. I just wanted the character and the performance to be the sort of thing that you can’t even imagine existing, let alone as a thing that is being done in front of a crew with a camera and “action” and “cut.” When you watch it, you’re just like, “How does the character even exist in the context of what I know about filmmaking and film acting?”

Looking at Plainview, or characters of that size and scope, that was kinda the hope, that that’s what we would unlock. Therefore, it needed to remain a mystery until the day we started filming because, otherwise, it wouldn’t be a mystery when you watch the movie.

On building the performance, one act and choice at a time

her smell elisabeth moss alex ross perry rock movie

Her Smell (Gunpowder & Sky)

You’ve described Moss’s performance as both impulsive and meticulous. How do those two things work together?

What’s meticulous about her performance is its relationship to what’s on the page. It’s all completely scripted dialogue. No matter how nonsensical the words out of her mouth seem, or how stream-of-consciousness everything is, it was written exactly as you see it in the finished cut of the movie. There’s a meticulous quality to that on a technical level. And then the other meticulous thing was the fact that, unlike any other performance in almost any other movie, she has to meticulously track what happens to the character over the span of the next 20 minutes—and do that five times [once for each of the film’s five acts]—rather than normal screen acting, where you’re tracking the four minutes of the scene.

Even if it runs into the next scene, there’s a break in the filming, or a break in the time of the movie, even if it’s only a break of 20 seconds. And we don’t have any of that. The meticulous quality of her work is if she goes behind a closed door, off-camera, and does a hit of drugs here on page six, what drug is that at this time in the story, at this time of day, at this point in the character’s life? And how does that drug affect you? Two minutes after you take it? 12 minutes after you take it? 42 minutes after you take it? Because you need to map those things out, scene by scene and day by day. So that was technically precise and meticulous.

And then the spontaneous piece of it is every other thing, other than what touches the dialogue … is up for grabs. Any prop can be taken, any actor, you could get an inch away from their face or yell at them from across the room. All of that stuff was kind of to-be-determined. The performance needed all [of the technical precision] to be what it could be, but then it also needed a lot of room for chaos.

Performance of the Year Elisabeth Moss

Elisabeth Moss and Alex Ross Perry on the set of Her Smell (Gunpowder & Sky)

So, she built each of these arcs brick by brick. Was the same true of the arc of the film? Were you able to shoot those in order?

No, each of the five acts was filmed in its own chronology, but the five acts were filmed in the order of 1-5-3-2-4, a completely arbitrary order based on the realities [of the situation]. The fact that we could shoot 25 pages chronologically, five times in a row, was kind of a miracle. But shooting 140 pages chronologically would be completely out of the question, even for movies that don’t start and end in the same location—so one and five needed to be done at the same time.

Was there a moment when you were watching the performance and thought, Yep, that’s it, she found it?

I don’t remember there being like a lightning bolt during the filming of act one, because of the cumulative effect of how the movie was shot. We were doing these long takes knowing that … we’re not trying to make it seem like this all one take, it’s going to be editing on top of editing, hundreds of cuts, left, right and center. If there was a moment, it was when we pressed play on the first cut of act one in the editing room at the end of the first week of editing. That was a moment of like, “Oh my God, this worked.” For all of the focused intensity and the insanity of the performance, and just the energy on set, it was like, “If this movie—the character and the entire thing—are not balanced perfectly in the editing, then the energy that we tried to create does not exist in the movie that people watch.” It certainly seemed like it was working on set, but there was never a sigh of relief.

Click ahead to read about what makes Moss so great and whether she’ll be joining King’s Dominion…

On “Heaven” and the vulnerability of rocking out

It often seems as though Becky is most coherent or honest when she’s making music, even at her lowest. What were those musical moments like to shoot? How did Elisabeth approach them?

That’s sort of a tricky thing. I’d never made a musical movie before… All you can do is put lyrics into a script and hope that people get what it is going to be. Therefore, the writing of those sequences always had an excessive amount of me saying, on the page, “This is an incredible performance, this is beautiful,” or in the case of the opening scene, “The energy is high, she gives no fucks,” and so on and so forth. Just so that, as a reader, people could get what it was. The other interesting balance to consider is that two of those performances, the first one and the last one, are in front of 200 extras, and then two of those performances, the ones that are in act four, are in a house with a skeleton crew and one or two other actors in the room.

So, in terms of the delicacy of filming for act four—not that this is a [perfect] comparison, but we almost treated them like intimacy scenes, like sex scenes would be handled in an erotic movie. In the case of the stage shows, it was about giving Lizzie the space and the comfort and the freedom to feel safe to just basically go for it and look ridiculous—swinging your instrument around, acting like you do this every single day of your life, and this guitar is a part of you. You can rock out if you’re strung out, and do this or that. It’s ridiculous, it’s nonsense, it’s completely embarrassing to imagine doing that, for me as a human being.

And for an actor, [as a director] you have to be sensitive to how vulnerable it is to sing. I don’t like karaoke, I don’t want people to see me like that, it’s too embarrassing. So doing it with 200 extras [who were] incredibly enthusiastic—but paid to [be enthusiastic]. You know what I mean? We had to film those songs in concert 12 or 15 times. It was just vulnerable. Those are some incredibly raw and vulnerable things to do. It’s different from acting in a theater, with a thousand people. [And it’s different from] acting for film and television typically, with sometimes with only five or 10 people in the room. But acting for film and television with hundreds of extras, that’s another thing, because you kind of have to combine the most vulnerable parts of both styles of acting. And [that’s also true of] the scene that’s not a “performance” per se: the onstage breakdown in act three, which again has hundreds of extras. I mean that’s the same thing.

With that scene, it was very clear, just in terms of the energy and the vulnerability, that she could not do that for an hour, that it had to be captured. And we had to be incredibly sensitive to how difficult it was to get up on that stage, smeared and wet and handcuffed, and then to fully go for it. If you bottle that energy and you do it three times, and you tell the performer we’re only gonna do this three or four times, then they don’t hold anything back. And if they think, I might be doing this all day, then they’re never going to give it [their all] because they’re pacing themselves constantly. We wanted all the performances, especially these crowds scenes, to not hold anything back. “You just get this perfectly on the second one; we would love to not have to do that again.” And she did.

Those two act four performances are incredible, and “Heaven”, in particular, is maybe the best scene of the year. What were your conversations with Elisabeth like around that scene?

Our conversations were basically focused on the fact that there’s nowhere [for her] to hide. There’s no trickery. These concert scenes, we were going to be shooting with two cameras, were going to do a dozen takes, it’s cut like a concert movie. We can cut to the other members of the band, we can do this and that. But with “Heaven”, it was, “There’s nothing you can do other than just do it perfectly in front of the camera.” And that’s the challenge, as the actor, to know that we can’t fake this, we can’t fix it. We can’t make it better than whatever it is when we roll. And we were doing it at the very end of the shoot. [I told her,] “Just give it 30 minutes a day, and practice. But it has to just be the thing.”

But honestly, I didn’t really have much to say to her, because it says in the script on the page, “This is the best performance of ‘Heaven’ you have ever heard or will ever hear.” And when you put that on the page, the actor knows, Oh, okay, no pressure, but I guess I need to deliver that because that’s how it’s written. It was there, on the page, that it was one continuous shot. The actor has to know this is an insane decision, but the director’s not doing it because they want to punish their performer. They’re asking for that because they truly believe this is the only possible correct version of that. In your third movie with somebody, [the actor] knows if I write in “one shot”, I’m not going to like be like, “Oh, I don’t have the confidence [in you]. So let’s just like get some insert shots of your fingertips so we can use different takes.” She’d know I’m not going to do that. And she’d be correct.

On what makes Elisabeth Moss great

Us, Horror, Jordan Peele, Red Carpet Photo, SXSW 2019, Elisabeth Moss

Elisabeth Moss at Us SXSW World Premiere, photo by Heather Kaplan

How would you characterize your collaboration?

The important, broader thing is there’s just so much value to collaborative units in my mind. It’s our third movie. But because I worked with the same crew and all the same departments, it’s also Lizzie’s third movie with the same hair and makeup department, and her third movie with the same wardrobe designer, and her third movie in front of the same cinematographer and the same gaffer. So, the fact that it’s not just the two of us finding repeat collaborations, but everybody on set is basically a familiar face, to me, is beyond the familiarity I can have when I’m writing something and thinking, This performer will do great with this role. I don’t have to worry about this feeling difficult and challenging for them, because the awkwardness of just showing up on day one, and launching into the character is gone, because she’s had cumulatively like 50 days around all these other people on our other movies, and she knows the Sean [Price Williams], the DP who’s going to be right up in her face, a foot away with the camera, because he’s done that on Listen Up Philip and Queen of Earth.

It’s like there’s no shame. We can be embarrassing in front of each other. We can try these things. Then the rest of the cast and people who I have not worked with before, because that energy level is set between [the person who’s] number one on the call sheet and the entire crew, everybody feels that. The whole thing is just comfortable and casual. When you see the lead actress calling the gaffer by his first name on day one, as another actor, you think, Oh, so this is the kind of production where everyone’s going to know each other’s names because the lead of this movie knows everybody’s name. And now that’s kind of how it’s going to go. We all need to just kind of learn each other’s names and be friendly. It’s [the responsibility of those] at the top of the call sheet to make sure everybody knows what it’s going to be like to come to work every day.

Performance of the Year Elisabeth Moss

Alex Ross Perry and Elisabeth Moss on the set of Queen of Earth (IFC Films)

This is an insanely broad question, but it’s pretty widely agreed that Elisabeth is one of the best performers out there. What makes her great?

I don’t know. There are so many buzz words I could [use] as a way of attempting to answer that. Like: mystery. There’s just an inherent unknowability and an inscrutability for the performer as an entity that we love the most about our best actors. There is a sort of unpredictability which we love the most about our best actors. To me, there’s a quality that touches on, clearly in terms of the other greats working right now, what we as a culture love about your Joaquin Phoenix-es or your Daniel Day-Lewis-es. A sort of fearless intensity, but also technical perfection of the craft, which is a perfect balance that no one can really put their finger on, including me. The 135 minutes of this movie show great work, but I watched 30 hours of footage for this movie, and there’s great work consistently.

It goes back to extreme confidence. My confidence as a writer that this character could be executed by this actress made the script better than it ever could have been if I was just writing it thinking, I wonder how we’re going to cast this. Her confidence reading the script and thinking, I can do this better than anybody else, not just because it was written for me, but because this is so clearly exciting [to me] makes the performance better than it would have been otherwise. And that confidence [comes from the fact that] a 30-year-old actress has been working since she was five years old and has the experience to back that up. But it was also that she [didn’t feel the need] to impress me or the crew. It’s not like, “Oh man, these people took a chance on me, I’m so lucky to be here.” We’re all here for this performance. The whole point of making this movie is to create the character and film it on 35mm. That’s why we’re doing this, so this performance can exist. And rather than being nervous and thinking, I better not screw it up, I would assume the actor’s attitude is probably like, Yeah, that makes perfect sense, I can do that. I can land this plane. Because, otherwise it’s just too much pressure. She doesn’t crack under the pressure. Nor do I feel there’s any risk of that happening.

Performance of the Year Elisabeth Moss

Elisabeth Moss in Her Smell (Gunpowder & Sky)

It’s totally mysterious. It’s not method, there’s no risk that if this gets too intense, she’s gonna yell at somebody on the crew and there’s going to be this tension because what we’re doing is too freaky. It’s just showing up, doing your job, being technically great at it, and then going home and coming back the next day and doing it again. That’s just called being a professional. But it’s also the ability to kind of be totally wild and reckless and have fun and be ridiculous. You think about the great performances of the year… I’m sure if you watched them filming Joker, it would look really stupid, but the way it comes together? It’s an incredible performance. It just has to be based in the process. The one answer, if I needed one, and this is part of our answer to the question of “Why do you guys feel like you work so well together three movies in?” …  it’s because she operates day to day the same way I operate both as a director and in my relationship with Sean, the DP. We do so much craft of a very specific kind, and then on the day when we’re rolling, we just want to fuck around and come up with new ideas to add whatever we’ve done. It’s meticulous but then it’s just chaotic. That’s how Sean and I worked on all six of the movies we’ve made, and on this movie, we realized, “Oh, that’s totally how she works too.”

She’s done all this work and is off book and has made decisions and mapped out a performance, and then when we’re rolling, it’s just like, “I’m going to try something different on every take, because why not. I figured this out, I know what I’m doing, I’m gonna do the thing I planned on doing five times in a row, and you’ll have five versions of it. We’re gonna try one take that’s completely paranoid ,and one take that’s completely goofy, and one take that’s mean and you’ll just figure it out.” And that’s a performance that becomes better in the edit than it was on the day because an actor knows to give the director and the editor all those options.

Bonus: On when we can expect to see Elisabeth Moss in the Stephen King universe

Stephen King Adaptations, artwork by Cap Blackard

Stephen King Adaptations, artwork by Cap Blackard

We were really excited to hear about your forthcoming adaptation of The Dark Half. Are you still planning to do Rest Stop as well?

They’re both in the hopper. I’ve been working on Rest Stop for a year, and Dark Half has just now come together. Obviously, due to the vagaries of [the industry], you can never really speak to anything, but, in terms of what I’m doing at home at my desk, they’re both happening. When you’re making an independent movie, you can basically will it into existence. When you’re developing something with studios, there’s a hundred other factors in place. I feel like my strategy on everything I’ve done is, if I want to make one thing happen, I should have two things going and then hopefully one of them will work out. But, everything is all about balance.

What draws you to King?

Beyond the nostalgia and just a lifetime of considering this to be some of the most fun mass-market genre pulp fiction I can crack open any time and just get lost in, it’s the breadth of the imagination of that body of work. When I looked down at my shelf of all of my identically-sized paperbacks, starting with Carrie—my collection going up to about maybe ‘96 or ‘97—you just have to be inspired by the scope of that imagination, and the ability as a writer to not only create so much, but create so much that is so different and to write everything equally well. It’s just as inspirational as any body of work can be. It truly is writing you can disappear into as a reader. I’m not saying anything anyone hasn’t already said.

Elisabeth Moss in "Baggage" (George Kraychyk/Hulu)

Elisabeth Moss in The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu)

Is there a King story you’d want to do with Elisabeth?

Yeah, certainly. Every time I’m pitching any project, to anybody, anywhere, everybody in the industry says, “Can we get her involved with this?” And my answer is always, “Well, it would be easier for me than almost anyone else to at least get an honest answer on that, but my problem is, honestly, if she’s going to do this, I need to know that now, because I would need to find some way to make it better than Her Smell in the sense of what she’s going to be asked to do.” If we’re going to just cast this with actresses far and wide, I’m going to do what I’m going to do. But if we think that we’re going to make this potentially the fourth movie she and I make together, I need to know that now, because then that character has to be exceptional. It has to give her something to really sink her teeth into. Because now my biggest crushing sense of fear and insecurity is, “What do you do after we made this movie?”

I can see how that would mess with your head.

There’s an answer to it somewhere. It makes me nervous.

her smell gif Her Smell Director Alex Ross Perry on Elisabeth Moss and Her Performance of the Year

So, should we expect a fourth Moss/Perry collaboration?

I certainly hope so. I mean, if I can think of something that’s as thrilling and as challenging as this was, and when I’m writing it, if I have that feeling that I had when I was writing this, which was just like, “My God, do I want to see this, and my God, do I want to see this performer playing the character, I cannot write this fast enough, I cannot get it into her hands fast enough, and we cannot shoot it fast enough”: As soon as that level of excitement is back then, then we’re in good hands.