Elisabeth Moss: 'Sex scenes are a big deal'

For her eerie new crime drama, Top Of The Lake (BBC2, 9.10pm, Saturday 13 July), Mad Men star Elisabeth Moss couldn't be more different from 1960s New Yorker Peggy Olson. Set in the mountainous South Island of New Zealand, she plays detective Robin Griffin, who returns to her hometown to help solve a shocking case. Here Elisabeth reveals all about the project which saw her filming her first naked sex scenes...

Top Of The Lake follows your detective character Robin, who's returned to New Zealand after some time away. What attracted you to this project?

"Well, the first thing was working with a director like Jane Campion as she's worked with some great female actresses like Nicole Kidman and Holly Hunter - those I admire - and she's done incredible work."

What draws Robin to the shocking case of 12-year-old Tui, who's found to be pregnant then goes missing in the New Zealand wilderness?

"I think she has a specialty in dealing with cases to do with young children, and gradually it's revealed through the episode that she has a very very personal connection with Tui's story, and to the town she's come back to and the people involved. The story is about her dealing with this awful case, and it's this one thing she's not wanted to face. There's a search for the girl and trying to find out why she's pregnant. It leads to a real unraveling of the town, the people there, and the truth of this story. It's very dark but also has some dark humour, and is quite an adventure."

Robin's quite kick-ass isn't she? Was that fun to play? She's a bit different to the more passive Peggy Olson in Mad Men...

"It was lovely to be a woman in charge, and thank you for calling her kick-ass. It was so cool but also challenging. I had to find those parts of myself. I'm a stronger woman than Peggy but I'm also I'm unlike Robin in that I'm quite girlie and not that serious, so it was difficult to tap into things to portray her tough exterior. Jane Campion knew I could do vulnerable but wanted me to show Robin covering it up. I wouldn't want a gun in my personal life, but playing a cop and getting to carry one around and use was pretty fun."

There's a lot of sex and nudity in Top Of The Lake. How difficult did you find this to do, especially a naked outdoor scene in the mountains?

"Well, we're not allowed to do nudity in Mad Men because of the channel we're on, because believe me if they could, we'd be nude all the time! It's from no moral high ground. But yes this was a massive decision for me. You are the first and only people to ask me about this - I thought it would be a bigger deal. It's probably a massive deal for every actor, and a lot of actors I admire have done it, but I think it's a personal choice. And I don't care whether you do it or not. It was about trusting the director.

"There was a lot of discussion and a lot talking about it, and it never really stopped until we were done filming, making sure I was very comfortable with every single shot. We do a lot of stuff that's raw, edgy and way out there. To not show that part would be incongruous. It wasn't something I'd say I enjoyed doing but it seemed to fit into the story."

So, like Robin, have you ever found yourself in throes of passion in the great outdoors?

"That's a very good question and I can definitely say no to that. Like most women I prefer to be comfortable, but this scene was the most exposed and naked I've ever been outdoors, in the daylight, in the flesh. I did think, why couldn't the naked scene have been in bed with the curtains closed? But no we had to do it outside - I guess that was my Jane Campion moment in the mountains and forests. It was definitely a leap of faith."

Did you enjoy playing alongside Peter Mullan as scary long-haired gangster Matt? We know him well in Britain from tough dramas like The Fixer and the film Tyrannosaur?

"Yeah, the first scene we did with him was where Robin shoots a dog. I'd met him before and we'd rehearsed and he's the most jovial man, hilarious, full of stories and loves to get a beer, and is so nice. And then we started doing the scene, and I completely forgot my part of the scene because I was just watching him and knew he was delivering one of the greatest performances I'd ever witnessed. He made himself so intense and frightening. I knew he was an incredible actor before but being in a scene with him and getting to react to what he was doing was amazing. I found it incredibly scary, but then immediately afterwards, he was just back to telling stories and being nice and totally normal. A totally remarkable talent."

Jacqueline Jones was also brilliant as troubled youngster Tui. What was it like to work with such a young actress?

"When I first met her I was holding my breath, as I knew we'd have such emotional scenes, and I was wondering if I'd like her and click, but within 10 seconds she was absolutely fine. She is way more mature than her years, and than me at her age. We liked the same things like Hunger games and Katy Perry. We bonded over what a 13 year old likes and not a 30 year old."

A women's camp around the lake provides some lighter moments, in particular with Holly Hunter playing their leader. How important do you think it was to provide a bit of humour to this dark story?

"It was very important. Jane Campion does have  a great sense of humour, and a very strange sense of humour but it's a very good one. There are parts of Top Of The Lake which are really funny and I think if you six or seven hours of just of horrible darkness then it would be just too depressing. tHat's something we do on Mad Men as well. There's a lot of humour in there and really funny moments."

Were you tempted to borrow Holly Hunter's wig?

"Not really, it wasn't too flattering , although she was fantastic. It was very similar to Jane Campion's hair but hers is more blond. I would take Jane's long gorgeous hair any day."

The New Zealand landscape looked stunning. Was it incredible film there?

"Yeah it was ridiculously beautiful. It was the most beautiful place I've ever been to and I've been to some nice places. I hope it remains untouched. There's something about the rawness of that untouched area. Mile and miles of landscape Robin has to comb through and the idea that you'd never be able to find Tui there. The whole project is about secrets and people living with secrets and lies, and it's a very easy place to hide and get lost, and you couldn't really have got that anywhere else."

How do you feel that there's only one more series of Mad Men?

"It's been such a massive huge chunk of my working life and will be difficult. It's all been crazy. I'm 30 and we made the pilot when I was 23,and I'll be almost 32 when we finish. I can't even wrap my head around Mad Men finishing. The strangest thing is the idea that I'll no longer be playing Peggy any more. The thought that the last time they say 'Cut' and I won't play her again is very weird for me. Maybe I'll just go back to New Zealand for a few months and deal with my depression."

Top of the Lake starts on Saturday July 13 at 9.10pm on BBC2.

Nicholas Cannon
TV Content Director on TV Times, What's On TV and TV & Satellite Week

I'm a huge fan of television so I really have found the perfect job, as I've been writing about TV shows, films and interviewing major television, film and sports stars for over 25 years. I'm currently TV Content Director on What's On TV, TV Times, TV and Satellite Week magazines plus Whattowatch.com. I previously worked on Woman and Woman's Own in the 1990s. Outside of work I swim every morning, support Charlton Athletic football club and get nostalgic about TV shows Cagney & Lacey, I Claudius, Dallas and Tenko. I'm totally on top of everything good coming up too.