Celebrated actress Elisabeth Moss has forged her own path in Hollywood, excelling in the craft even though she never received formal acting training. Moss is known for her acclaimed roles as Offred in the haunting Hulu original series The Handmaid’s Tale, Detective Robin Griffin in Top of the Lake, and the secretary-turned copywriter Peggy Olson in AMC’s Mad Men. The Los Angeles native originally aspired to be a professional dancer, even studying at the School of American Ballet and the Kennedy Center as she progressed as a ballerina. But when she started landing small acting gigs in her youth, Elisabeth’s aspirations gradually changed as she foresaw more longevity in the field of acting. Supporting roles in films like Girl, Interrupted alongside Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie encouraged the budding star as well as a recurring part in the prestigious show West Wing playing the first daughter Zoey Bartlet for seven years. Elisabeth largely attributes her acting prowess to instinct. And she recently shared how music and creating charts inform her acting. Here is a glimpse into her acting approach.

Instinctive acting

During an Off Camera interview, Moss told Sam Jones, “I don’t feel that different now than I did when I was ten on the set. Because I never had any formal training, so I don’t have anything to make it any more complicated or make it any more technical. So for me, it all is instinctive. So if people ask me about acting…I don’t really know how to describe it. It’s an intangible thing to me.” She describes the dichotomy of not being the character and yet playing the character this way: “I find that when I’m acting it’s like there’s two things going on. Because I’m thinking as the character obviously in the moment…but there’s always this other person who’s aware of where the camera is, who’s looking at the mark, who’s ignoring the guy on his phone over there. You know what I mean? Who’s doing things that are not the character.”

Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner once noted Moss’ intuitive style. He told the New York Times: “[Moss] is that kind of actress where we don’t ever intellectually delve into what is going on with her character. It’s almost like it doesn’t pass through Elisabeth’s brain. It’s completely instinctive.” Similarly, Director Jane Campion remarked about Moss’ Top of the Lake audition, “It was remarkable for being so quiet. She was very simple. As you’re watching it, you’re thinking, oh, it doesn’t look like she’s trying. I just found myself really interested in watching this gentle, quiet, obviously interior performance. It was coming from the inside out….She’s a little bit like a Mona Lisa. There’s a lot that she’s not showing you.”

Moss on Music

Elisabeth revealed the important role that music plays in getting in touch with her characters. First, she finds music that she associates with her role. “For me, who a person is is very difficult to put into words. What I love about music is you can express something without using words, and it can capture an intangible quality that I couldn’t describe to somebody,” she says. Moss is known to often wear headphones between takes, sometimes listening to wistfully mournful compositions by Max Richter or the ethereal sounds of the Icelandic band, Sigur Ros as she did while shooting Mad Men. “That is my go-to, if I need to go to a darker place,” she once shared. And for a difficult Top of the Lake scene when her character recalls a traumatic personal experience, it was Eminem that got Moss in the right frame of mind. “Really loud. For some reason I was like, this is what I need, and it got me to this place that I needed to be in.”

Charting a character’s emotional arc

While working on Top of the Lake, Moss turned to graphing out the entire season of her character’s emotional arc. Doing so helped her to zero in on her character’s state of mind–especially when the scenes were shot way out of order. Using graph paper, Moss says, “Then I write at the bottom the scene number, and then on the side I write…it’s an emotional kind of scale. Somebody’s doing really well, they’re up here; and if somebody’s at the bottom of their arc, when they’re really bottomed-out, will be down at the bottom. And so I mark them out on the graph of where they are scene by scene. It’s so nerdy.” Well, Moss went on to win a Golden Globe and Satellite Award for Best Actress in a Miniseries or TV film for her Top of the Lake performance. Clearly, it’s a strategy that works for her.

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