INTERVIEW | Why Elisabeth Moss needed to return to Top of the Lake

Elisabeth Moss stars in Top of the Lake: China Girl
Image - BBC WorldwideANZ

This weekend will see the premiere of Foxtel/BBC First impressive local drama production Top of the Lake: China Girl.

The series sees Elisabeth Moss reprise her role as Detective Robin Griffin who returns to Sydney to rebuild her life. When the body of an Asian girl washes up on Bondi Beach, there appears little hope of finding the killer, until Robin realises “China Girl” didn’t die alone.

Robin looks to the investigation to restore herself, but her problems are personal. Haunted by a daughter given up at birth, Robin desperately wants to find her, yet dreads revealing the truth of her conception.

Elisabeth Moss recently discussed what drew her back to the series.


What are the qualities in Robin that made you want to play her again?

What I love most about Robin is, from the perspective of playing her, not necessarily her best quality. It’s her flaws, her vulnerability. And her ability to be strong when she needs to be and to fight for justice and fight for the truth in her work. So the juxtaposition of that with the complete chaos in her personal life and her inability to get that under control. This season she's so much more messed up than she ever has been before. It's been a challenge to play, but it's also been fun.


image - BBC WorldwideANZ

How did Jane Campion approach you about doing Top Of The Lake?

It came up in conversation over sushi in Queenstown: “What if there was a season two?” There never was supposed to be a season two. And we were all like - oh, that's kind of exciting. Then over a year later I was at the Emmys in LA. Jane and I met for lunch and she said to me: “So, if we did a season two, would you do it? I can't really do it without Robin.”

I said I would love to, but it would need to be more challenging than season one, otherwise there would be no point. I felt we did a good job with the first season, which we were all very proud of it and which people liked. Why do it again if we weren't going to challenge ourselves and make it even more interesting for our audience? I remember saying, “I just want her to be challenged," and thinking, on the way to the Emmys, how Robin could be challenged, what she might be going through.

I left it with Jane, and three years later she did it. It was a complex, much more interesting challenge than you would normally present a character with in a second season.


Were you kept informed as the story came together?

I knew quite a bit about season two as it was coming together because Jane would write to me and ask me questions or tell me little things here and there. It was a constant dialogue for three years. So there were big plot points that I knew were coming. But it was all the nuance, all the detail and the strange Campion-esque things that go into something like this that surprised me.

Without spoiling anything, the thing that we reveal in the flashback and some things that have happened over the last four years to Robin have put her in this really, really dark place. She's not had an easy life, this girl. So she starts out in Season 2 in this much darker place, and really messed up, so when I was reading it for the first time I was like, yes, yes, yes, yes!


What are the key themes that season 2 deals with that are different to season 1?

The themes of season one very much are about children. Robin coming back to her childhood home - revisiting her childhood, her childhood with her mother, her childhood with her father. This horrific experience that happens when she's 16. She's obviously still a child. Tui representing a child, and then the barista ring, the children there. So it was about children in season one.

I feel like season two is about parenthood, and specifically motherhood. The different kinds of motherhood, the different ways that people become a mother, how motherhood doesn't always have to do with being a biological mother. Robin having had a child and giving birth to a child but then not raising it. Nicole’s character having not given birth to the child, but raised her. And then these surrogates, these women who are objectified and put into a position that is not only illegal but incredibly heartbreaking.

This season is about being a mother and a parent, and it's interesting, going from that very strong theme of season one to an even stronger theme in season two, with all of these plot lines being connected around this central idea. But done in a brilliantly subtle way, which is believable. All of these storylines converging and becoming important for an emotional reason and not for a plot-line reason. But also being super interesting and mysterious and awesome and page turning.


Elisabeth Moss and Alice Englert
image - BBC WorldwideAN

What were the biggest developments for you and Robin in season 2?

Because Robin is back in Sydney, she's back on the police force, officially. She was unofficially on the police force in New Zealand, but here she's actually there, she's at the police station, she's carrying a weapon, she has a badge. We shot tons of stuff at the police station. I was sort of a rogue police officer in season one. So this one I really actually had to act like I knew what I was doing. 

Then obviously the other one would be my relationship with Mary (Alice Englert), my daughter. I loved that part. To play with that was so interesting. One thing Jane and I discussed really early on was, what is that relationship? You've given birth to this person, but you haven't spent any time with her. So, is she your daughter? Just because you gave birth to her doesn't necessarily mean that you feel like you're her mother. Because motherhood isn't just that, as anyone who is not a biological mother would understand.

We wanted to explore the idea that when she meets Mary she has no idea what she's doing, and she doesn't feel like a mum. It was interesting exploring that idea, and Robin's feelings of inadequacy about not feeling like a mother - not feeling anything - and then this incredible arc that was built of her getting to know her daughter and getting to know herself as a mother. What a journey to go on for her to be able to come to terms with that and for her to be able to become a mother in her own way.

And then she has this friendship with Pyke and they start to co-parent accidentally, almost out of necessity. Through that co-parenting and through that love for their daughter, they fall in love themselves, in this very beautiful surprising way. I think that it's exactly what Robin needs. There might be a shade of like a happy ending for Robin, you might just get a hint of "this might actually turn out okay".


And there is another kind of love story for Robin in Season 2, isn’t there?

Yeah, I think it is going to be very surprising for the audience, this yin and yang team of Robin and Miranda (Gwendoline Christie). These two people who obviously not only look so different, but act so different. It starts out in this quite humorous place of Miranda being this fan girl of Robin. And then mutates into this terrible argumentative, judgmental, hurtful relationship. And then they have this amazing scene where they have it out and reveal things to each other.


Gwendoline Christie with Elisabeth Moss
image - BBC WorldwideANZ

Did you and Gwendoline Christie get close through working so closely together?

I don't even know where to begin. She's the love of my life! I thought I would like her, you know, and I'm a fan of hers as an actor, but it's been this really wonderful deep friendship that has happened. Sometimes you meet people and you know that you're going to be friends with them for the rest of your life.

Season one I didn't really have that buddy, Robin didn't have that friend. It's been really amazing in season two to have this female relationship. This actress, another woman, to act opposite, it's been a really interesting and special surprise out of this season for me as an actor - and it ends up being the same for Robin as well.


How important is Sydney as the location for Season 2?

New Zealand was so much about the wilderness outside, and this season is about the wilderness within, and that is very much represented by the story but also very much represented by Sydney. Obviously it's a much more urban landscape. It is much more modern in a lot of ways. But at the same time we have this coastline that we're dealing with and shooting at a lot. And so we've gone from this very still, freezing cold lake, to this ocean and this coastline and these beaches that are temperamental and change all the time and look different. To me the ocean is the other character as much as Sydney.

We did get a chance to show New Zealand to a large part of the world that hasn't been there, and I'm actually very excited to be able to show Sydney to a large part of the world that hasn't had the opportunity to come. I know the city really well now, and it's become a strange second home for me, which is so weird, because I have no reason for Australia to be my home.

Top of the Lake: China Girl premieres Sunday August 20 at 8.30pm on Foxtel's BBC First