Warning: This interview contains spoilers for The Invisible Man, in theaters February 28.
We don’t deserve Elisabeth Moss. Take any role she’s embodied in her nearly 30-year career — Zoey Bartlett in West Wing, Peggy Olson in Mad Men, June Osbourne in The Handmaid’s Tale, Masha in The Seagull, Becky Something in Her Smell, hell even her appearance in season 3 of Grey’s Anatomy (episode 19, for those who want to revisit) — and I dare you not to be mesmerized. She’s a witchy, electric performer, the kind of who elevates even the worst movie by her mere presence.
Leigh Whannel’s The Invisible Man is not a bad movie by any stretch, but it’s hard to imagine it being this good, or this visceral, without her. Moss plays Cecilia, a woman stuck in an abusive and toxic relationship with billionaire tech entrepreneur Adrian Griffith (The Haunting of Hill House’s Oliver Jackson-Cohen). But days after she finally manages to escape and leave him, news that he has died by suicide and left her a substantial fortune appears to be her salvation. There’s one catch to keeping the money coming, however. She cannot be charged with a crime. Easy peasy, right? Not in this case. Cecilia’s sense of freedom doesn’t last long. Slowly but surely, with eerie and vindictive coincidences mounting, she begins to suspect that Adrian may not be dead after all. In fact, he might have found a way to make himself invisible (it makes sense in context of the movie, he’s one of the world’s pre-eminent “optics experts”). Escaping a terrible relationship to which those closest to you turn a blind eye is one thing — how do you rid yourself of a stalker no one can see?
It’s a chilling concept, and one that Moss gives her all to. She gives off constant waves of tension, her limbs practically shaking as she tries to control them, and subdue her fears. Still, we’ve seen her embody emotional distress before — she’s the lead in a show that is literally about the subjugation of women by violent men. What’s different here is that for the first time, her character can eschew the cerebral calculations and mental gymnastics of trying to subvert her systemic aggressor. Cecilia does what June and Peggy could never — she physically fights back.
In a phone interview ahead of the film’s release, Moss told Refinery29 why this role felt like a new challenge, and whether we might see (or not) more of it in the future.
Refinery29: This is a pretty radical take on an old classic. What was your initial reaction when you first heard Leigh Whannel’s concept of using the Invisible Man to tell a story about abuse?
Elisabeth Moss: “I was really excited! I love scary movies, and the ones that are my speed are the ones that I feel are using it as a metaphor, or couching something important in entertainment. Take a movie like Gravity. It’s sci-fi, but then really what it’s about is a woman dealing with the loss of her child. You put her in a spaceship, and the visuals are incredible, and it’s a huge movie, but it’s about grief. And that to me is really interesting.”
Between Hereditary, Us, Midsommar, and now Invisible Man, horror films have recently been mining women’s interior lives and fears. What do you think is behind this shift?
“There’s been a general shift in not just horror, but all different kinds of films, and television. We’re realizing that there are a lot of other stories to tell, and that there is an entire other half of the population that is also interesting, and has interesting experiences. They also make up half of the movie-going and television-watching audience, so they can make money. That discovery has been slow, but it’s happening. Why make the same version of the horror film with the man in the lead? Why not do it with a woman? Why not do it with a diverse character? Why not do it with someone who’s experiencing a disability? Whatever it is, there are so many different stories to tell, and we’re finally seeing that there’s a whole world here that we’ve been ignoring.”
Do you think we have different fears than men do?
“100%. Ooooh yeah. There’s the experience that women will have just walking down the street and you’re alone and you’re walking to your car, or you’re walking into your house — I don’t know if men do this, but I don’t think they do it as much, anyway — you pull out your phone to have it nearby just in case, you put your keys in your hands just in case. There’s that sense of angst and danger that we’ve just gotten used to. There are things that we can be vulnerable to that are different.
Could you relate to Cecilia’s vulnerabilities?
“For sure. I think we all have [had that experience] to a greater or lesser degree. Everyone has felt that sense of ‘I think something is true and I am being told that I am crazy.’ That is really disorienting, and it’s really hard to find your voice when you feel that way. It’s been interesting, talking about this film. When I started making it, I’d tell people what it was about, and you would just see this shadow come across people’s eyes as they identified with it. I didn’t realize that so many people had experienced some version of that.”
What was the most challenging part of playing this character?
“For me, it was the physicality of it. The emotional stuff I’m really quite used to, but all the stuff I had to do physically was new, staying in good shape and staying in ‘fighting form,’ and warming up, making sure I didn’t hurt myself, that was a big thing.”
It’s so wild to watch you fight — really fight — thin air. What was that like to film?
“I was fighting a stunt double who was removed later in the effects. It’s really impossible to do it on your own. We had an incredible stunt team and worked for weeks and weeks beforehand, practicing and working it out, and choreographing the entire thing. It was semi-choreographed when I got there, and I was able to lend my voice and suggest [things that felt] more natural or scary, and put it together so that by the end, when we were really ready to make it as real as possible.”
Part of what makes your Cecilia so vulnerable is that she’s been cut off from her previous life, and as a result we don’t know that much about her. Did you create a backstory for yourself?
“I don’t really care about where she went to college or what her mom’s name is. For me, it’s about working out the emotional core of the character, and her heart and her experience. Our particular story, there’s a whole other movie to be made — a very different kind of film — about the relationship that she was in. And I would be interested in telling that story! Our film is about what happens when you try to get out, and what happens when you’ve think you’ve gotten out and you haven’t. What does it feel like to carry around that feeling that you are being held by an invisible string to a past relationship? Those were the things that were interesting for me to explore.”
Between The Handmaid’s Tale, Her Smell, and Top of the Lake, you’ve had a lot of experience playing characters thrust into violent emotional situations. How do you keep your performances so different?
“The circumstances are very different for me. I know the big broad themes can be the same, but the individual scenes and what they’re actually experiencing is so different for me, and who they are. Even throughout June’s journey, every single season, I’ve felt this is a different kind of June that we’re dealing with, and I feel that way with any kind of part or role. Even if it’s like, sure I am playing a woman who is being terrorized by a man, or I’m playing a woman who is under the thumb of the patriarchy, to me there’s so many different versions of that story.”
Speaking of different versions — at the end of the movie, Cecilia walks out of the house and keeps the suit. What do you think she does with it? Is she going to destroy it, or turn into some kind of vigilante? Can we expect Invisible Woman in the near-future?
“That would be cool, right? There’s a couple of ways to go. She can use it for good, to help fellow victims, or you could just bury it because it’s a very dangerous thing to have, and hope that no one ever finds it.”
What do you hope audiences take away from the movie?
“What Leigh and I talked about at the very beginning, on our first phone call, is that we wanted people to be entertained and we wanted them to be scared. We want people to scream, and then laugh at how silly they are that they screamed. We want all of those scary movie things. And then, if we can also make them have a conversation after the film, and they can think about how it can relate to their own life, or their friend’s life, or their sister’s life, somebody that they know who might be in trouble. Maybe listen to them next time they say something and don’t call them crazy.”