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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Elisabeth Moss and Alex Ross Perry on admiring Roman Polanski’s films

Illustration for article titled Elisabeth Moss and Alex Ross Perry on admiring Roman Polanski’s films

The Internet features more than its share of negativity and snark—sometimes you’ve just gotta vent. But there’s plenty of room for love, too. With Fan Up, we ask pop-culture people we admire to tell us about something they really, really like.


The fans: Having gotten her start as a child actor, Elisabeth Moss was already a seasoned pro by the time she was in her teens, with a prominent recurring role as President Josiah Bartlet’s youngest daughter on The West Wing. It was, however, her role on Mad Men as the determined secretary-turned-copywriter Peggy Olson that first brought her wider attention and acclaim. Since the recently ended series’ premiere in 2007, Moss has turned out to be the most adventurous of its breakout stars, winning a Golden Globe for her role in Jane Campion’s ambitious small-town procedural Top Of The Lake and establishing herself as something of an indie stalwart.

Moss’ new movie, the unnerving Queen Of Earth, marks the second time she’s worked with writer-director Alex Ross Perry. Moss plays Catherine, a New Yorker who goes out to a lake house with a friend in the wake of a bad breakup and the death of her father. When we last spoke to Perry, he had just finishing shooting the film; in many ways, a major departure from his earlier work, it further establishes the filmmaker as one of the most important and vital talents in the current American independent film scene. Shortly before Queen Of Earth opened in theaters, The A.V. Club spoke to Moss and Perry over Skype about Roman Polanski, whose films were a major reference point for the two during the making of Queen Of Earth.


The A.V. Club: How did you get into Roman Polanski?

Alex Ross Perry: You know, the young discovery of film—you’re talking like 10, 11, 12 years old—for sure Rosemary’s Baby would be in there. So you would be aware of the work before you really knew where it was coming from. And of course, you see Chinatown around that same time, which is not relevant for what we’re talking about, necessarily.


Elisabeth Moss: We don’t all see Chinatown when we’re 10 years old.

ARP: Well, around that time. You know, when movies are opening up to you, I’d imagine that’s when you see Chinatown. You’re seeing his movies before you know where they came from. At the time we’re talking about, the late ’90s, the availability of movies like Repulsion and Knife In The Water would have been pretty questionable, so you wouldn’t necessarily know where to track them down. I don’t remember when those films would have first been available to me, but it was definitely when I was in late high school, early college that I went deep. The Tenant would have certainly been around. Stuff like that started to reveal itself to you as pretty unheralded and magical in the history of that kind of cinema.


AVC: What about you, Elisabeth?

EM: I haven’t seen any Polanski films. [Laughs.] I was probably a little older. When I became a little bit of a cinephile, I was 16 or so. I grew up in L.A. I discovered all those movie theaters that everyone kind of knows about and goes to now, like the New Beverly. I think it was before LACMA [Los Angeles County Museum Of Art] was doing their thing, but eventually it was LACMA and the Silent Movie Theatre. What is it now? Cinefamily. I think I saw Rosemary’s Baby on DVD. I had a membership at all the video stores that are probably no longer there. When I moved to New York, it was all about Kim’s. It was probably Chinatown first, and then Rosemary’s Baby. I actually didn’t see Repulsion until Alex mentioned it in the context of doing this film.


AVC: What did you think of Repulsion when you saw it?

EM: I thought it was awesome. I mean, I wanted [Queen Of Earth] to be in black and white for like a day, and then Alex was like, “There’s absolutely no way it’s going to be in black and white.” I just love the look of it, and I love [Catherine Deneuve’s] performance in it. It is so creepy. It’s just so unusual. In a way, there are things that we’ve done with Queen Of Earth that have nothing to do with Polanski and nothing to do with Repulsion, but there’s sort of a feeling that I got from that film of how far you could go with scaring the audience while there’s nothing really happening. That was what I took away from it.


ARP: It’s an elegant kind of art film with a beautiful, nuanced performance by a really great actress, that also succeeds in creating this entire other set of reactions that goes beyond the aesthetic surface value of the film—which is superlative, of course—and then kind of gets under your skin. To me, what he does in every film, regardless of genre, is he always has completely excellent craftsmanship. Also, all the movies just have this feeling of confusion and paranoia. From something like Rosemary’s Baby to Chinatown, movies where you have these characters who don’t really know what everyone around them is up to, but they’re pretty sure that everyone around them is up to something. That feeling—you can do a lot with that. He’s done a lot with that in many different genres, and many different movies that just look and seem different. But they all kind of have that same feeling.

AVC: He’s a really great director of actors. Something like Rosemary’s Baby really works because of the lead performance.


EM: Yeah, absolutely. With both [Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion and Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby], they may be a little bit more delicate as women than I feel like [Moss’ Queen Of Earth character] Catherine is. I feel like she’s a little bit stronger. She just has a little bit more anger to her, rather than fear. But the idea of that paranoia, and feeling like everyone is looking at you, and everyone is talking about you. In those films, the case is that it turns out to be totally valid, and that there really is something going on. In our film, maybe not so much, but it also doesn’t really matter. That idea where something is around the corner or someone knocks on your door and comes into the room—the fear it would instill in you as a woman I think is really interesting. That’s what I took away from those performances, that paranoia that someone is out to get you.

AVC: Polanski’s really good at getting viewers inside the protagonist’s head.

EM: Right.

AVC: And inside their point of view. Chinatown sticks to Jake Gittes’ point of view for the whole movie. I always wonder what it’s like to watch movies as an actor. Is that the first quality you look for?


EM: Like what the point of view is?

AVC: Yeah, how the film relates to the characters.

EM: I don’t even know if I’m that analytical about it. Even though I’m an actor, even though I know a little bit about film, I very much view things as an audience member. For me, whether it’s TV, film, theater, whatever, it’s a big movie, a small movie, whatever it is, I look for—-it sounds so cheesy—but I look for the truth in it. I look for the honesty. I don’t think there’s any sort of right or wrong way to do anything. I just look for if it feels honest and real to me. Even if it’s not real, it can still feel honest. It is interesting as an actor to act in a film where it is from your point of view, especially a psychological drama like this where it’s definitely helpful as an actor. If you’re trying to communicate a sort of descent into insanity, it’s helpful to have the other elements helping you to see why you might be feeling that way, if that makes any sense. When you’re shooting a scene where you think that, you know, Patrick [Fugit] and Katherine [Waterston] are talking about you, and the cinematographer and director help you out by shooting it in a creepy way where it totally looks like they’re talking about you, that’s obviously very helpful to me.


ARP: I feel like what you’re describing about his films, which is by far the most influential thing about them, is the totally overwhelming sense of subjectivity that he creates between the audience and the character. You know, The Tenant tagline, “No one does it to you like Roman Polanski”—he’s taking you and putting you in the mindset of the protagonist. Often in the films, there’s always a sequence—you know, climactic, Rosemary’s Baby and so forth—and we do that here in this party scene where we have the camera lens be the character’s point of view, and there are people looking right at the lens. There’s certainly no more simple way to subject an audience to the character’s warped, fractured POV than doing that exact shot. It’s all over The Tenant, as well. A moment like that, where he really creates this bizarre sort of connection, where the characters feel sick and unwell and distrustful. Then the whole movie is kind of about getting the audience to feel that way as well, mostly using that camera specifically, and other tools of cinema to achieve that. It’s the kind of thing we were hoping to get here.

AVC: Any time Roman Polanski’s work comes up, his life comes up as well. How do you approach that as a Polanski fan?


ARP: Sean Williams, our cinematographer, has a great answer for this.

EM: Oh, boy.

ARP: When people bring this up, he says, “Do you think the stuff that happened with Polanski—do you think that never happened with Elvis? Or Sinatra?” He’s like, “We just don’t know about it because not everything got revealed. I can guarantee some hero of yours, something probably worse happened very privately.” He’s convinced that those two men specifically committed worse atrocities against women than anyone who has ever been publicly accused or tried of it. Maybe he’s right. I don’t know.


EM: Well, look at Bill Cosby.

ARP: Sean’s perspective is kind of as absolute as I’ve ever heard on this, which is like, “Well, probably every man you admire in the history of entertainment has done worse things than you could ever imagine.” So, you can take from that what you will. The interesting thing about Polanski is that he kept working. Obviously, it’s a pretty loaded issue. I look forward to reading the comments on this article and seeing what people say. Sean’s Elvis-Sinatra point, he’s pretty forceful about it. He does a better job of explaining it than I’m doing.


EM: Please direct all your comments to Sean Price Williams. Thank you.

ARP: Yeah, if Sean were Polanski’s lawyer, this all would have been swept under the rug and forgotten about in the ’70s, because he’s so persuasively confident about the way he talks about this. People do all sorts of terrible things, and they always have, and they always will.


AVC: But do you think that just because there’ve always been terrible people, that’s an answer?

EM: I don’t think that Sean is a saying… [Laughs.] I’m just going to speak as Sean. There’s no way to be any other way but disapproving about that issue and what happened. But at the same time, we’re filmmakers talking about a filmmaker’s style.


AVC: But at the same time, I think people tend to read things biographically, right? In his work, especially. How do you feel about the later films?

ARP: When you started saying that, I was going to say—I know you’re a The Ghost Writer fan, right?


AVC: Oh, I love The Ghost Writer, yeah.

ARP: To me, when I saw that film, it was so heartbreakingly personal. It’s about this guy, Pierce Brosnan, who is holed up in this house, and this thing from the past comes out, this one way he feels about it. The film really follows that. It’s about these people and these reporters trying to parse this situation. He’s so shut-off and so miserable. I honestly might think it’s my favorite movie by him.


AVC: I think it’s one of his best. I think Bitter Moon is my personal favorite.

ARP: Yeah?

AVC: The Ghost Writer is up there. Obviously, there are all the play adaptations later on…


ARP: That’s the interesting thing. Even Carnage, which he has no claim of authorship of the material, it being based on a play, I saw that film and I was like, “Well, this is a movie about a bunch of insufferable pieces of shit spending the entire time arguing about some horrible event that nobody witnessed.” I was like, this is a deeply personal film. Maybe this is him coming to terms with this public perception that you can’t get away from. Venus In Fur was about—there’s so much of what you’re describing, separating the artist from the work—I think that what people throw at him is something he’s been engaged with very directly for a really long time. You know, shying away from making statements is one thing, but I think the work is so clearly about his life and the life he’s lived. It makes these recent films all kind of interesting, if not exceptional.

AVC: Elisabeth? Any feelings on the later Polanski?

EM: I would have to say that I’m way more familiar with earlier Polanski, but for example, Carnage I loved. I saw the play twice. I loved the play, and I had my doubts about the film, and I loved the film. Regardless of his personal life, which obviously I have my personal opinion about, you cannot deny that he’s a brilliant filmmaker. One does not exclude the other.


AVC: I have a question for you as an actor. His play adaptations keep a fairly theatrical acting style.

EM: Yeah!

AVC: Do you feel that it’s just stylized?

EM: I do feel like that’s sort of what Queen Of Earth has too, I think a little bit. It’s not a natural film. It’s not a realistic film. I don’t think my performance is an everyday normal performance or character, right? And I think that’s a common, common thread in all of his films. The style of acting and the style of cinema are the same, in a way. Does that make sense?


AVC: It does make sense. It’s interesting because earlier, you mentioned something feeling authentic. Being naturalistic and being authenticare those two different things?

EM: Yes, I definitely think so. It doesn’t have to be real to feel truthful, you know what I mean? It can be totally stylized and be something highly unusual. It can be a character reacting in a completely crazy way that you’ve never seen before, or have never personally experienced, but if it feels real and feels truthful, what’s the difference, you know?


AVC: I guess the question from that is what makes something feel real? Through style and really through performance, you can sell the viewer on something unbelievable.

EM: Yeah.

AVC: You think that there’s a specific formula to it?

EM: Well, I think that’s getting down to the super nitty-gritty of what is a good performance, and what is acting, which I don’t know if I can answer. For me, what makes a good performance is not necessarily, “Oh, I’ve experienced that,” or, “That relationship is like the relationship that I had,” or, “I’ve experienced that scene in my life.” I think it’s just a matter of feeling that you understand what the character is feeling. If you really want to boil it down to something super simple, I think it’s just a matter of getting the audience to understand what you’re feeling in that moment, and to be able to see it. How you do that, how big it is, how small it is, what exactly you’re doing to portray that, that’s where I think there aren’t any rules. I do not think there is a formula. And that’s why I think you can get really subtle performances that communicate what a character is feeling, and then something that was really more broad and theatrical and communicates it, and they both feel authentic.


AVC: Do you think all of the performances in Polanski’s films are fairly stylized? Or do you think they run a range?

ARP: I think it depends. The earlier films, and the ones Sean and I were talking the most about here, like Knife In The Water and Cul-De-Sac, are miles away from the performances in something like Carnage. Of course, they’re a different type of movie, and a different nationality of cinema. I do feel like, as people always say about him, he’s one of the truly international directors. You know, Eastern European born, making films in America and France and London. There’s always this kind of disconnect—something about the language and the performances that comes from this kind of omnidirectional sense of wherever he’s coming from. All those early films are pretty extreme, but I think that it’s just he makes so many different kinds of movies. Like, how can you compare the acting style in Repulsion to Pirates? How can you compare the acting style in a gigantic, outstanding Macbeth adaptation to The Ninth Gate? The kinds of movies he made, and still makes, are so vast that I feel like he’s just able to adapt differently. But they’re always being driven by the same authorial impulses. Bitter Moon, Death And The Maiden, and The Ninth Gate, they don’t feel the same way at all. Frantic has this other quality, but they all have the same feeling at the root of them, this distrust, being ill at ease around other people, which is really what our movie hopefully is going to feel like.


EM: We’ll pick Woody Allen next time.

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