In 'Her Smell,' Elisabeth Moss 'Turned It Up To 11,' Then Turned It Up Some More In her new film, Moss plays a punk singer struggling with addiction. "The only mistake we could make was not going far enough," she says.

In 'Her Smell,' Elisabeth Moss 'Turned It Up To 11,' Then Turned It Up Some More

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A new movie features an actress better known for TV. Fans of "Mad Men" and "The Handmaid's Tale" will know Elisabeth Moss. In "Mad Men," she played Peggy Olson, a determined copywriter at a male-dominated advertising firm.


ELISABETH MOSS: (As Peggy Olson) I don't know if you're aware, but I brought in the Popsicle account today - on my own.

INSKEEP: In her new film, Moss plays a very different kind of role.


MOSS: (As Becky Something) So enough with this jibber-jabber, and let's rock. And that sums it up in one big lump...

INSKEEP: This movie is called "Her Smell." It was written and directed by Alex Ross Perry. We should mention the studio, Gunpowder & Sky, is among NPR's financial supporters. Now, the film imagines the chaotic life of a drug-addled musician. Moss plays Becky Something, the lead singer of a fictitious all-female punk band in the '90s. She joined Rachel Martin to talk about the part.

MOSS: Becky Something is a toxic personality sort of dealing with a lot of her own issues and demons. But I think we've all kind of experienced that kind of person who we just - you know, somehow you can't get away from them. They're very interesting, but they're not good for you.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Yeah. There is a manic intensity to, I mean, everything she does. And the film does such a good job of creating that frenzy from the very beginning. I mean, it's just, like, nonstop, just crazy.


MOSS: (As Becky Something) I got to get out of here. I got to go to Becky's room. Stinks of [expletive]. I bid you ado. And hibida, hibida, hibida. That's all, folks.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Oh, geez.

MARTIN: I mean, was that hard? Where did that come from?

MOSS: Well, it was on the page. And so I...

MARTIN: It was on the page? That's not ad-libbing?

MOSS: Oh, no, no, no. There's pretty much zero improv or ad-lib. And that's kind of - one of the things that Alex did was he wrote this character who had these long monologues, who spoke in this stream of consciousness. But it was incredibly specific. It was the hardest dialogue I've ever had to learn because if you - even though it sounds like rambling, even though it sounds like it doesn't make sense, if you change a word or if you flip two sentences, it actually really doesn't make sense. So it really had to be pretty much spot on.

MARTIN: Hibida hibida was on the page?

MOSS: A hundred percent.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

MOSS: I mean, I think he threw every pop culture reference previous to the early '90s that he could throw in there.


MOSS: Most of which I didn't know or understand.

MARTIN: I was just going to ask you, is that your time and was this your music?

MOSS: No, I mean, I was born in '82. So I sort of missed this. I missed the '90s music.

MARTIN: You had music growing up, right? Your parents were musicians?

MOSS: Yeah, but much more in jazz and blues. I learned the piano a little bit when I was little because it was just sort of, like, required. But no, because I was a dancer and an actor, I didn't really have time to also (laughter) learn an instrument.

MARTIN: Did you then need to work on playing the piano and just the musicality of the character - singing, guitar?

MOSS: Yeah, I mean, I learned the guitar. I practiced for about four or five months, I guess. I was not going to become a guitarist. But I just needed to learn how to look like I was playing these songs. The piano was the one I did actually have to learn because that was one take live, from beginning to end. But it was a very, very simple version of Bryan Adams', "Heaven."


MOSS: (As Becky Something, singing) Oh, thinking about all our younger years. There was only you and me. We were young and wild and free...

MARTIN: It's great scene. You're playing a song for your daughter.

MOSS: Yeah. And she sort of abandoned her daughter. She is an alcoholic and a drug addict and recovering and trying to repair her relationship.

MARTIN: It's the most beautiful - no offense to Bryan Adams, but it's a great version of that song. (Laughter).

MOSS: Oh, thank you. Yes, I like to think it's better. No, (laughter) I think Bryan Adams is not going to be threatened by my performance.

MARTIN: (Laughter).


MOSS: (As Becky Something, singing) Baby, you're all that I want. When you're laying here in my arms. I'm finding it hard to believe. We're in heaven.

MARTIN: There's this energy between you and the young actor who's playing your daughter. And I did, in that moment, think as I was watching it, how do you act that? How do you act through playing the piano when it's not natural to you?

MOSS: Well, what's interesting about that scene is just that I was sort of saved by where Becky is in the film because I think she is really nervous. And I, as an actor, was really nervous to play the song because it's not my forte. And so it really didn't hurt that I was a little bit nervous myself.

MARTIN: Right, it actually played into the fact that they don't really know each other, these two people.

MOSS: Yeah, exactly.

MARTIN: What came out of that in terms of your own ambition? I mean, this was you. This was Elisabeth Moss. I mean, it was a beautiful script, but the number of minutes where it's just you on screen - either those monologues or your face - did you learn anything about your craft from this particular project?

MOSS: I didn't think about it that much. I just did it and just kind of went as big as I could and threw it all at the wall knowing that the - Alex and I knew that the only mistake we could make was not going far enough. And so we both just went for it.


MOSS: (As Becky Something) And you know what? That's why I'm leaving because when I needed it, nobody ever put a hand on my back and told me it was going to be all right.

MARTIN: Did he ever have to pull you back? I mean, did it ever feel too far? Or you're like, nope.


MARTIN: That's where it should be.

MOSS: So we started with act one. And I remember basically him just being like, faster, faster, faster. And I was like, OK, OK, OK. And we got there. And by the time we got to, like, act three, where she's just truly lost her mind and is high on so many things, I had turned it up to 11 and then realized I had to go even higher. (Laughter).


MOSS: (As Becky Something, screaming) Just a little thing. Just a little thing. (Collapses to floor).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, gasping).

MARTIN: What was it like for your co-stars, I mean, just to be in your energy?

MOSS: I felt bad for some of the people that I didn't know as well. I'm not really that good at being social on set. I'm not somebody who, like, sits around and chats because I just - it's too tiring for me. And I need to kind of conserve my energy.

So I only felt bad for people that I didn't really know as well. I remember Amber Heard came in and did a couple days. And I apologized to her at one point. I was like, I'm really sorry. Like, I just met you, and I'm not this person.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

MOSS: But everybody else was incredibly supportive, particularly Agy and Gayle, my bandmates. We had a real nice unit from the very beginning.

MARTIN: And that's clear. I mean, it's a subplot. But the nature of female friendship, too, is really strong in the film.

MOSS: Yeah, thank you. I think so. And the forgiveness that's possible.


MOSS: And also the generosity in sometimes saying, that's it; we're done.

MARTIN: Yeah...

MOSS: You know, especially with an addict, there's a point that you have to walk away. And both of those characters reach that point.

MARTIN: Elisabeth Moss, her new film is called "Her Smell." Thank you so much for talking with us.

MOSS: Thank you, I really appreciate it.

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