Premiering tonight on the Sundance Channel, “Top of the Lake” is a dark, riveting thriller set in a seemingly idyllic New Zealand lake town that hides a dark, seedy underbelly. That underbelly is rapidly exposed when Tui Mitcham, the 12-year-old pregnant daughter of a drug lord, disappears.
The critically praised seven-episode mini-series reunites director Jane Campion with her “Piano” star Holly Hunter, here playing GJ, the androgynous leader of a women’s camp. Leading the way is Elisabeth Moss as Robin Griffin, a big city detective who is called back to her hometown to investigate the missing girl case, and in the process winds up battling her own internal demons.
The character of Robin, in all of her 21st century clothed glory, is a departure for Moss, who is best known for her role in “Mad Men” as the ambitious Peggy Olson. It’s a role that presented many challenges, including perfecting a foreign dialect and uprooting her life directly after wrapping Season 5 of “Mad Men” to move to a remote location in New Zealand.
“The whole idea of doing this was really kind of scary to me,” Moss admits. “I remember calling my Mom and saying when I was in New Zealand and I’d had rehearsals with Jane [Campion] and everything, I remember calling her and saying, ‘I don’t know if I know how to do this. I don’t know if I know what I’m doing. I’ve never done this before.’ And that’s exactly as an actor where you want to be. You want to be scared. You want to be in that place where you’ve never done it before.
Preview “Top of the Lake”:
‘[Jane] took my hand and [directpr] Garth [Davis] took the other hand and then we had all these incredible actors and crew and you realized that you weren’t doing it alone,” she added.
Along with the help of Hunter and Campion, Moss ultimately believes she succeeded in delivering a thoughtful, provocative, character-driven story that will keep viewers engaged for the haunting ride. The critics agree. The Los Angeles Times calls “Lake,” “mysterious, beautiful, unsettling, [and] satisfying,” while The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum waxed poetic about the series’ “meditative beauty.”
So what will you think? Read on for details from our interview with Moss and Hunter:
Elisabeth Moss on getting acclimated to the setting of rural New Zealand: It’s part of your job, really. When you approach any character, most likely you’re in a place that you maybe haven’t been or are living a life that you don’t actually live. The great thing about being transported so far away from my home to New Zealand was you did feel like you were in that world. There were no distractions. I didn’t know anyone. Holly [Hunter] was the only American that I knew who was there. And we didn’t know each other. So you really felt a sense of this is the world that you’re in and this is where you live and there wasn’t anything else. That kind of immersion as an actor is really fun and I think it really helps. But I think for us it was very much about developing the character in the beginning and we knew that the country and the landscape would sort of take care of itself and be unavoidable. It was much more for Jane [Campion] and I and [Director] Garth [Davis] about developing Robin and how we were going to develop her over the series.
Elisabeth Moss on the Challenges of Going Into “Top of the Lake” Immediately After Wrapping Season Five of “Mad Men”: For me I was so excited to be a part of the project that I couldn’t wait to get down there. I wanted to go down sooner but we had to finish “Mad Men.” So for me I was just raring to go. I got cast in October and didn’t get there ’til Mid January. By then I was like, “We have to start filming, it’s been forever!” It’s been great for me.
Watch the Trailer for “Top of the Lake”:
Elisabeth Moss on Working with a Dialect Coach to Make Sure She Got the Accent Right: I worked a little bit in LA. [on the accent]. I had to do a little bit of work to get the part, which was kind of just throwing something together to show that I could speak somewhat of an accent at all. And then that was sufficient, apparently. Then I started working with a dialect coach in LA a little bit just to get going in changing the sounds and then, but the dialiect coach that we hired for the project is this wonderful woman who’d worked with Jane on “Holy Smoke” with Kate Winslet and had worked with Kate Blanchett on “Elizabeth.” She’s kind of the go to dialect coach of Australia. I talked to her on the phone a little bit and I really wanted to get going, I really wanted to get started working and practice everyday and do the actor thing where you’re really diligent and she was like, “it’s gonna be okay.” Just get here and we’ll start working and I was like, “Okay!” And it was my first act of trusting Jane which was followed by many acts of trusting Jane Campion. I got there and me and [coach] Victoria Mielewskaworked pretty much every day for pretty much just a month. And then she stayed on for the bginning of the project and then she kinda came back and forth but the work kind of never stopped. For us it was very much about for Jane and I it was about just changing the sounds. Not having it be an American accent. We weren’t going for the perfect Australian accent. It was about her sounding like she could exist in that world and that took a lot of the pressure off of me and Victoria was amazing. I couldn’t have done it without her.
Holly Hunter on the Decision to Give GJ A Long Gray Wig: When Jane offered me the part and she said, “you’re gonna get to wear a long gray wig,” and I was like, “That’s cool.” I was like, “Okay that could be fun.” And then there was a part in the process that maybe I wasn’t going to be able to wear the wig, that maybe the wig wasn’t going to work out and I was like, “This has gotta work!” Cause it was so cool. It was such an exotic…it’s one of the fun things about acting is the transformation to this. There was an “It” character, kind of thing about this chick that I wanted very much for it to be there and I thought the wig was gonna help with that identification. There was kind of a genderless thing I bound my chest. It was fun to have that wig be the total jumping off place, you know?
Elisabeth Moss on Whether She Thinks Jane Campion is a Feminist Filmmaker: I’ve dealt with the feminist question for a few years now because of “Mad Men”. It always puzzles me like what makes a woman a feminist and what makes her not a feminist. I think that any woman that believes that she should have equal rights or the right to do what she wants to do in my mind that would make her a feminist but that’s pretty much every woman, so I don’t. For Me Jane is after truth more than anything else. That is her banner. So whether that’s truthin a female character or a male character or truth in a child or a group of people it’a all about for her finding the truth in something than you know, feminism.
Holly Hunter on the Potential Weirdness of the “Women’s Camp”: I think Jane [Campion], undeniably expresses great glory in the power of women. I think she really loves women and she really loves men, too. Jane likes the heart beating inside of each one of us and wants to tickle every little heart. I always feel like she’s kind of seducing us all as she directs us, flirting. She’s an unconscionable flirt with men and women. The women’s camp in this movie… There’s no one who could describe women’s camp but Jane without making it campy. It’s wacky but it’s real. It has a reality in it because Jane kind of believes in that self investigation. She’s a person who’s investigated self her entire life. She’s not afraid of who she is and wanting to know more.
Holly Hunter on Her Reluctance to Take the Part: I just didn’t see it. Jane [Campion]really did. So it was one of those things that you’ve talked about which is that, you just trust Jane. You take the leap or she pushes you. She pushed me with GJ and I couldn’t say no to her but I did sort of want to because I didn’t see myself in the part. And then as I began to work on it I saw a way in. I certainly didn’t feel that way [that it was a no brainer] and I expressed that to Jane but if Jane sees something the I go towards it like a robot.
Elisabeth on Moss on the Difficulty and Darkness of the Material: It only gets worse! [Laughs] It’s not going to get any better for you! I think that telling tough stories is a good thing to do. And it’s real and it exists and these things do happen all over the world. And it’s like I said, Jane is very interested in finding the truth in things, and I don’t think she was interested in doing an expose on this particular thing that was happening in this area. It was about these people and characters and showing the universal qualities that these people have. And so, sure it was tough having to do certain scenes. You’d have to go from for me a scene where you’re jogging down the street drinking a soda to like beating up somebody to sobbing in the corner to a sex scene. So it was sort of a marathon physically and emotionally. But that’s what you do it for. That’s the fun part, you know?
“Top of the Lake” premieres on Monday, March 18 at 9/8c.