On the eve of the UK release of Ben Wheatley’s eagerly anticipated filmed adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s novel, HIGH-RISE, I am exclusively posting the entire transcripts of a series of interviews that I conducted with the cast and crew of the film for the British Film Institute film magazine, Sight and Sound. The magazine’s editor, Nick James, has kindly given me permission to post these in full, extracts of which can be found in the April edition of the magazine. The content of all these interviews remains the copyright of Sight & Sound.
Thanks: Nick James at Sight & Sound, Ben Wheatley, Elisabeth Moss, Zoe Flower, Alaineé Kent at RPC, James Rocarols (co-interviewer), Justine McGlone (for transcribing everything!)
Interview #4 – Elisabeth Moss
Stats: Recorded 14th August 2014 – Audio recording 20:32 – Elisabeth’s caravan on-set at Bangor Leisure Centre, Northern Ireland
S&S: So how long have you been here? Or have you just literally arrived?
Elisabeth Moss: No. No. I was here mid-July. Mid July I came in and was here for two weeks and then went back to America to do some promotion for a film I’ve got coming out there. And then for a week and just got back on Sunday.
S&S : Is this your first British production that you’ve been in?
EM: Yeah, I think it is actually, my first British film. I mean I did a play and then I did an Australian thing, which aired on BBC.
S&S: That’s right, TOP OF THE LAKE (2013)
EM: Yeah but this is my first proper British production.
S&S: How have you found the pace, I understand it has been pretty fast on this 6 week production?
EM: It’s so funny. It is fast but I’m used to 14-15 hour days. So this is like they say that you’re going to finish at 6 and you finish at 6. It’s unheard of in my world. So to me it’s amazing. Everyone’s like it’s so hard and I’m like it’s incredible.
S&S: I suppose with MAD MEN you were used to filming long hours all the time?
EM: Yeah, there was no such thing as a 12 hour day.
S&S: No. No. Sure. Yeah.
EM: It’s always more than 12 hours.
S&S: I remember James Cameron when he came over here to make ALIENS (1986), saying he used to get so frustrated because at 5 o’ clock or 3 o’ clock or something, people would come in with tea trays and all the British crew would have their cup of tea, like we haven’t got time for tea!
EM: Right, right. I’ve been offered tea three times, I think, so far today. I’ve been here for about two hours so.
S&S: Well, there you go. Don’t knock it.
EM: Ha-ha I don’t want any bloody tea!
S&S: So do you want to say a bit about your role?
EM: Yes. I play Helen Wilder. Wilder’s wife, played by Luke Evans and in the film as opposed to the book I’m 9 months pregnant, very pregnant. So it’s partly why I’m not in costume for my EPK today. Because it involves me putting on the pregnancy belly and it’s a whole hoo-hah so yeah she’s pregnant and she’s got two kids, a third on the way. And Wilder’s not the best of husbands. Not the best of partners. But she sort of is very put upon for quite a few years and when everything starts to hit the fan, so to speak, in the building she sort of sinks into this deep lonely depression and sort of bunkers herself in and tries to avoid the whole situation and then eventually kind of does become a crucial a part of it near the end. But she’s very much, in my eyes, the sort of the innocent of the whole thing. You know she’s almost sort of uncorrupted in a way, doesn’t mean that she doesn’t also kind of go a little bit mad but she’s a little bit on the innocent side.
S&S: So I didn’t know about the pregnancy. What was the idea behind that, to increase the vulnerability of her or to increase the maternal aspect or what was that, do you know much about that?
EM: I think it was more about something that happens at the end which I don’t want to spoil it, but it’s more about, how she sort of represents the future of the building and the hope of the building and the hope of this new…
S&S: That’s an interesting idea, quite Cronenbergian.
EM: Yeah exactly. Exactly. She represents the kind of the new generation. You know. Yes. You know how the building might continue to live on and continue its sort of empire.
S&S: Yeah I like the sound of that. It’s very interesting.
EM: Yeah. You’re right, I think it does make her more vulnerable and innocent and she’s a bit of the Virgin Mary of the building in a way.
S&S: So I guess the crucial thing has been the interaction between you and Wilder because there would be that sort of big dichotomy between them and the big opposing forces in a way.
EM: Absolutely, she’s sort of the opposite of him. She’s the sort of like lost little lamb in this whole kind of crazy world that’s happening and she latches on to Laing at a certain point as a kind of hero for her.
S&S: He protects her, sort of looks after her.
EM: Yeah. Yeah.
S&S: And how did you, yourself come to be involved in the film? How did that process work?
EM: I heard about it from my British agent and because I got me one of those hahahahaha, very handy because I’m a citizen I have a British passport, so yeah, my dad’s British. So I can work in the EU.
S&S: Where’s your dad from?
EM: Birmingham. Yeah easy for me. So I can work in the UK. I was like I should get a British agent because I can legally sort of work here.
S&S: Is that how the play came about, as well?
EM: No that was kind of a separate thing but she brought it to me and she was like this is, they’re making this amazing movie and it’s Ben Wheatley and I watched SIGHTSEERS (2012) and flipped out I was like oh my god he’s such a genius and so great. I had heard it was really good and I finally watched it and I was like oh man he’s amazing.
S&S: That’s a proper Brummy film as well.
EM: Yeah a little bit.
S&S: It’s always interesting, I find, how well, obviously now you’ve said that you’re part British as well, how that kind of a film which is very British comedy, works Stateside.
EM: Well I was raised on FAWLTY TOWERS and MONTY PYTHON, I watched some FULL HOUSE and things like that but I was really more raised on British comedy. My dad used to play cassette tapes of MONTY PYTHON skits in the car like over and over and over so I knew all the sketches from a very young age.
S&S: It’s a bit like Mike Myers, he says the same thing. His dad used to do the same thing.
EM: Oh right, exactly. So it’s this incredible introduction to that kind of comedy anyway so I loved SIGHTSEERS and then I kind of thought well there’s absolutely no way that they’re going to cast me though, they’re going to cast a lovely British lady. And then they did…I was really surprised. I really was genuinely flattered because there’s so many incredible actors here in the UK and I was just really, really flattered to be asked to be a part of it. I didn’t think it was going to happen. Yeah so that was it.
S&S: It is a very strong cast. We were just saying it’s almost like a stepping-stone for Ben as well in terms of budget and cast. Did you work with Jeremy when he was here then?
EM: Thomas?, oh Irons.
EM: Yeah we have one scene together, so no not really. He was around. A really, really nice guy but we only have one scene together.
S&S: Can you see yourself making more films over here then?
EM: I’d like to, I mean part of the reason why I got the British agent was because the work is so good over here and because there’s so many good films and television happening and you know I’m a huge fan of British television, things like BROADCHURCH, THE FALL, so I was like if I can get in on that, that would be awesome.
S&S: Well that’s just been made in the States hasn’t it?
S&S: Yeah. It’s with another name
EM: It is. They’re making it, they’re making one in the States, with David Tennant.
S&S: But sadly not Olivia Coleman.
EM: No. I know.
S&S: Yeah but there you go.
EM: I know. We’ll see, I mean, I’m such a huge fan of the original. You never know if it’s going to translate, but, but at least he’s doing it and I think the writers are doing it too, so, yeah, so hopefully it’ll be good. I just can’t wait for the second series.
S&S: What do you think of working in this rather strange environment, this leisure center?
EM: It’s so weird. It’s so strange. Well first of all I didn’t know what a leisure center was. You know, they were like we’re at the leisure center. I was like what are you talking about. I guess we would kind of call this like a Y, like a YMCA or something. It’s kind of like that’s our equivalent I think. It’s super bizarre, so strange. It’s great though, I mean this whole experience has been so strange. My first day I was being dragged kicking and screaming up the stairs by two men, you know, fully pregnant. Then I had other hijinks ensue and I’ve just done nothing but really bizarre scenes. But it’s been really cool. I did loads of work on Tuesday with Tom, it was just Tom and I all day and it was really fun.
S&S: Tom…we’ve been chatting to him quite a lot today.
S&S: Yeah. Yeah. He’s been lovely. Very accommodating.
S&S: He’s really thought through his role.
EM: He’s a very sweet guy. Yeah. Yeah. He takes it very seriously. He’s a very professional actor.
S&S: Did you know much about J. G. Ballard before it started, had you read any of the books?
EM: Not really, no, I hadn’t read High Rise and I read it after, I actually read the script first and then read the book. I hadn’t read it, I was familiar with him, hearing about CRASH and things like that but hadn’t read this particular book.
S&S: It’s interesting when you say you read the script first and not the book because the script I understand is a little bit different in some scenes to the book.
EM: Yeah. Yeah. Well it’s one of those things that you know that the book is so expansive and it would be almost impossible to make that whole thing into a movie. So I think what they’ve done is really good though I think they’ve taken what the book is about, and the message of it, the idea of it, and distilled it into something you could watch as a movie and maintained the characters that are really important and maintained the themes that were really important. It’s one that Jeremy’s been working on for how many years?
S&S: Over thirty I think?
EM: Yeah, so there’s definitely been a lot of thought put into it, about how to do it the right way. Yeah, but I read the script and then read the book and I actually thought that they were going to be more different than they are. I thought there was going to be a bigger discrepancy, but there really isn’t.
S&S: I think that’s what Jeremy liked about this.
EM: Yeah. It really does kind of…
S&S: It’s pretty close.
EM: It does. Yeah it’s very close. It does all the same things for you.
S&S: And it’s got the seventies.
S&S: It’s got the same setting/period as well which I don’t think the other scripts had when they were looking to make the film before as they had updated the story to a modern time.
EM: Oh really. Well it’s like when I was talking to Ben in the very beginning, it’s like this sort of futuristic seventies it’s kind of like an Orwellian 1984 thing where it’s like yes it’s seventies but is it? It’s kind of like not our seventies that we know of, it’s kind of a different one. It’s very like sort of out of time in a way.
S&S: Ballard had this very strict vision of this kind of weird suburban concrete world and it permeates all the novels that he wrote around that time.
EM: But it’s amazing how relevant it is and it’s amazing just I mean how it doesn’t make any difference that it’s 1975 it just it’s the same…
S&S: It’s the same social class.
EM: Yeah you could put in 2014. It’s the same thing. It’s the same idea. You know. I mean even just been hearing recently I think it’s in New York as well as maybe the UK that they’re doing all these things for high rise buildings where they’re putting like different entrances. Were you just talking about this?!?
S&S: Yeah we were. Yeah. It’s such a Ballardian concept.
EM: So Ballardian! They have like a lower class citizen entrance. You live on the like, in the cheaper apartments.
S&S: Then you’d go in round the back.
EM: It’s amazing rather than using like the big grand entrance, really it’s very relevant.
S&S: No, I think it is very relevant, we were saying as well earlier that when Ballard wrote it it was more of a case of the class wars between the working classes and the middle classes. But this book is a lot about the middle classes against the super rich and that’s the theme that has emerged in the last sort of 5 or 6 years isn’t it? Its how the super rich are taking off and it’s the middle classes that also feel they’re a part of this class war stuck in the middle of it against both sides.
EM: Exactly. It’s not even like the working class it’s like it’s the people who actually do have a bit of something but are still sort of put upon.
S&S: So you must be fed up with having roles where you’re in period costume, I bet?
EM: Hahahaha a little bit. I mean this is, this has been more about having a belly and having the pregnancy is a little bit of a challenge.
S&S: Yeah I guess it is. It’s quite a physical role as well from moving around a lot.
EM: Exactly and it’s fine except after like ten hours your back actually does start to kind of hurt a little bit and you have to remember to sit down and you have to like kind of act a little bit like a pregnant woman. You know, you have to, it gets kind of hot and um…
S&S: I guess that’s the point it has to make it feel realistic.
EM: Yeah, it really does work and I find myself like stroking it. I haven’t quite talked to it yet but I do find myself kind of doing this absently and there’s nothing in there but foam. But it’s a great look and we’ve done this kind of Ali McGraw sort of hairstyle and very prairie dresses and long dresses and it’s very kind of a little bit weird you know. It almost looks like she could be in the 17th century or something sometimes, very strange.
S&S: Have they made the character American or are you having to speak with an English accent?
EM: Having to speak English. That’s why I’m in my own clothes and not my character as well because I thought it would be weird to do my EPK in full costume but then in my American accent because I’m not going to do a British accent for the whole interview and so I was like that’s going to be strange and then if people watch the movie right afterwards or something and then I have a British accent it’s going to be weird.
S&S: How difficult is it for you speaking with a British accent?
EM: It’s always difficult at the beginning, it’s never easy. I’m a little bit of a perfectionist too so I stress about it, and when I did TOP OF THE LAKE when I did the Australian accent I stressed about it and made it far harder for myself then I’m sure it had to be. But I’ve had wonderful help, Carla Meyer in Los Angeles and Brendan I’m going to forget his last name out here who’s Irish.
S&S: The voice coaches are amazing these days. If you go back 10, 20 years in film, the accents are often a little bit dodgy but you rarely see a bad accent these days.
EM: I hope it’ll be okay.
S&S: You don’t get the old Keanu Reeves in DRACULA (1992) anymore do you?
EM: Right. Exactly. It’s really important to me to try to make it sound real and trying to make it sound believable. It’s the same thing with TOP OF THE LAKE like I don’t care about it being perfect, I just don’t want you to listen to it I want you to listen to the story I want you to watch. I don’t want you to be distracted by it. That’s all I care about.
S&S: You were incredible in Top of the Lake. How was it working with Jane Campion?
EM: It was one of the most memorable experiences of my life and she’s a very close friend now, bit of a mother figure as well. She’s an incredible woman, she’s sort of magical in a way. She’s a little bit magical, she has an uncanny ability to know exactly what you’re thinking or to just know something a little bit before you think that she’s going to know it. She’s just very observant and she’s also really tough. I think you kind of get this idea when you meet her that she’s a little bit easy going and she’s so nice and she’s so sweet. She’s tough, she’s a strong woman and she’s very exacting and she wants what she wants and she’ll get it from you.
S&S: It sounds quite a demanding role.
EM: Very, it was really, really demanding.
S&S: Tough subject material.
EM: Yeah. Yeah. It was really tough. But she was amazing and she made me feel from the beginning like she was my partner and not my boss. You know we discussed in the very beginning, just on the phone when I was in the States before I went out there. I said I’m not here to do what I always do, I want to be challenged and I want you to push me and I want to do something different and this is Jane in a nutshell, she was like well me too. I want you to push me and challenge me. And that’s kind of her in a nutshell you know.
S&S: How has your relationship with Ben? Everyone says he knows exactly what he wants and when he’s got it, he sort of moves on?
EM: I love him. First of all, he’s so fucking funny. I mean I’m not surprised because his work is so funny but he is so funny. And he just makes me laugh all the time. And he’s exactly like that. I mean when he’s got it he moves on. That’s it. And you just are like I guess, great, I guess I assume we have it. Yeah and then if he wants something different he’ll have no bones about just telling you exactly what he wants different there’s no artifice or trying to be careful or take care of you. He just tells you. It’s a great really simple way of working, which I really like.
S&S: Luke was saying that you have been watching the footage back like each day or he has anyway so you get to see your performances you’re doing.
EM: They do a lot of that. I kind of avoid that a little bit because I’m not really used to that. We don’t really do that a lot in the States. It’s not that common anywhere. We certainly didn’t do it on MAD MEN so I kind of avoid it a little bit because I just feel like I’m not going to be a good judge. I’m just not going to be a good judge of it. I’ve just been looking a little bit to make sure my hair looks okay, looks real and all of that and the baby looks real but I don’t listen with sound or anything. I did this scene with Tom the other day, we did this little dance and we watched it back because I wanted to see that and it looks amazing. I mean it’s like the look of this film is so crazy. It looks so cool.
S&S: Yeah we can’t wait to see it.
EM: Have you been on set at all?
S&S: We have. Yeah. We’ve been on set a bit today, so we’ve seen the different scenes filmed and just you know watching on the monitors it does look quite incredible.
EM: It’s so bizarre hahaha.
S&S: I love the whole sort of apocalyptic angle of it where everything is just detritus everywhere.
EM: The sets are amazing. You step out into hallways sometimes and you’re just like what the fuck is going on like it’s just like what is going on it’s so crazy.
S&S: It looks like a lot of homeless people have been living for a couple weeks or something.
EM: Exactly! And we were doing a scene in an apartment the other day, we were inside this apartment almost all day and then we had to move into the hallway to do a scene and we like opened the door and they transformed this hallway into this like post-apocalyptic sort of war zone. And you’re just like what the fuck have you guys been doing. It’s so crazy. It’s great fun though. Really fun.
S&S: That’s brilliant. Thanks very much.
EM: You’re welcome. Thank you guys. Thanks for coming.