Elisabeth Moss and director Jane Campion talk about the return of a ‘darker’ Top of the Lake and a rise in female-led drama
From the manslaughtering Monterey mothers of Big Little Lies to the scarlet-robed surrogates of The Handmaid’s Tale and the first female Time Lord in Doctor Who, it has been a mighty year for women in television. It’s hard to think of a period when so many of the must-see dramas have been female-led. The time is ripe, then, for the return of Top of the Lake, that unique countercultural take on the detective mystery from the New Zealand writer-director Jane Campion (The Piano, An Angel at My Table), one of the godmothers of feminism on screen.
Moving the action from rural New Zealand to urban Australia, the second series again stars Elisabeth Moss, recently nominated for an Emmy for playing Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale. In Top of the Lake she reprises her role as Robin Griffin, a troubled but brilliant Sydney detective specialising in sexual assault cases. She has been joined by two new female co-stars, both huge in different ways: Nicole Kidman, Emmy-nominated herself for Big Little Lies, and the 6ft 3in Gwendoline Christie, confounder of gender stereotypes as Brienne of Tarth in Game of Thrones.
Top of the Lake further cements the 34-year-old Moss’s place as one of the most watchable actresses of her generation, capable of being ballsy and broken at the same time. In the first season Robin investigated the disappearance of a pregnant 12-year-old girl and had to contend with Kiwi hard nuts, her own demons and the discovery that Peter Mullan’s monstrous patriarch was her father (“You’re my seed, girl”). This time it gets “even darker and more f***ed up”, Moss says. It’s five years on and Robin is reeling from a failed engagement. Far worse is to come. “I wanted her to be brought to her knees in a much harder way,” she says.
In the new series, subtitled China Girl, Robin and her strapping police partner (Christie) investigate the murder of an Asian prostitute whose body is found in a suitcase washed up on Bondi Beach. Campion decided to move the series to Sydney, where she lives, because “we felt like we’d said everything we wanted to about New Zealand. I love the ocean in Sydney — it’s a big lake! The beaches are very important to the story.”
Can Campion smell a change in the ocean air, a renewed appetite for female dramas? “I can, although I’m old enough now to have lived through a few surges — and some big pullbacks.” For Moss, it’s about numbers as much as emancipation. Many surveys suggest that women watch more TV than men: according to the statistics portal Statista, in the UK they watched 4.18 hours a day in 2015, while men watched 3.64.
“The audience is mostly made up of women and we want to see ourselves reflected back,” Moss says. “The times they are changing, and the largely male executives of the studios and the networks are waking up to the fact that this is what works, this is what gets viewers, this is what makes money.”
With Robin, Offred and her glass ceiling-smashing Peggy Olson in Mad Men, Moss can claim to have played three modern feminist icons. “Gosh, I’ll hang my hat on that,” she says. “As a hardcore feminist I can’t imagine anything better.”All three of those characters had to give up their children (“It’s a weird recurring thing in my career”) and motherhood is an especially potent theme in Top of the Lake. In this season Robin meets her 17-year-old daughter, Mary, for the first time since giving her up for adoption as a baby. Their meeting is touching, but awkward. Robin is numb and ashen; Mary, the product of a multiple rape revealed in the first series, asks for a selfie.
“It’s not like all of a sudden Robin is washed over with feelings of motherhood,” Moss says. “This is a very modern take on motherhood. It’s about finding out what it feels to be a mother and to fail as a mother.”
Moss says that Campion’s advice was invaluable (“If you’re speaking to somebody who’s a mum about being a mum, that’s going to be extremely helpful”) and, in an extra twist, Mary is played by Campion’s daughter, Alice Englert. That wasn’t weird, Moss insists. “They’re both so independent that it’s very easy to forget that Alice is Jane’s daughter.”
Not so for Campion, who found it “scary” to see her daughter face the challenges she had set for her character, which included seeing her adoptive mother, Julia, played by Kidman, leave her adoptive father for a woman. “I wrote the part for Alice and then suddenly thought, with my other hat on, ‘God, I’ve got to be here while she goes through all these things.’ ” She made sure that her co-director, Ariel Kleiman, took charge of Englert’s most harrowing episodes.
Englert does Campion proud, exuding a believable combination of volatility and vulnerability as Mary, while Kidman has great fun with Julia, a controlling feminist academic with — gasp — grey hair. She gets into a wonderfully excruciating argument over dinner with Mary’s 42-year-old German boyfriend, who taunts her by saying: “The destiny of man is to enslave women.”
Campion has been friends with Kidman since casting her in The Portrait of a Lady in 1996. Having seen the first series of Top of the Lake, Kidman asked if she could be in the second. “I said, ‘I’ve only got a little part,’ and she said, ‘I don’t care, I’ll do it,’ ” Campion says.
“Then when she saw how little it was, she said, ‘Can you make it bigger?’ So I did, and it was a bit of a rush, but I think it was a really good call from her. She’s so good and so funny in the role, and I think our long history together made that possible.”
You’d think Moss might feel threatened by the arrival of such a big star, but Kidman was reassuringly down-to-earth. “What I was impressed with was that this clearly mattered to her.” The two women share a link to Scientology: Moss was raised as a Scientologist in California and remains one, while Kidman’s two adopted children with her former husband, Tom Cruise, follow the religion, as does their father.
Some of the teachings of Scientology, such as the belief that women should remain silent during childbirth, don’t exactly dovetail with feminism. Moss prefers not to talk about her religion (“Let’s stick to the show, shall we?”), while Campion says the subject never came up with either Moss or Kidman. “If people have a faith or if they don’t have a faith, I respect it. I don’t set out to change them, especially when they are such fine people.”
Kidman fed her own experiences as a mother of adopted children into her role, as she did in the film Lion, while the subject of mothers’ rights is an important one for Moss — she says she’s delighted that pro-choice campaigners in America have taken to dressing up in the red costumes of The Handmaid’s Tale. “The fact that they’re using symbols created by Margaret Atwood that we helped to illuminate in the show, fantastic.”
The exploitation of women is a recurring theme in Top of the Lake. Researching this series, Campion sneaked into brothels in Sydney to talk to the women who work there. A sex workers’ union accused her of stereotyping, the old trope of the murdered prostitute, so Campion and her co-writer, Gerard Lee, responded by having one of their characters address that cliché in the script.
“It was something we took on board,” Campion says. “It’s also unfortunately true that women in that industry are more at risk. They’re probably less at risk in Australia now that [prostitution is] legal, but it’s still a very tough industry.” Many sex workers in Sydney are migrants who apply for student visas so they can work in the city. “It’s heartbreaking,” Campion says.
Just as the women in Top of the Lake are strong and nuanced, the men are weak and contemptible. In the first series they were a grisly gallery of rapists, paedophiles and sad-sack junkies; this time they’re pimps, bullies and nerds who pay for sex because they can’t talk to women.
Moss giggles. “I f***ing love it because so often we have something led by a man, and the woman is either a whimpering idiot who is being walked over or she’s just a whore. So it’s great to go to the men, ‘We’ll either make you gross, weird, nerdy or evil suppressors.’ Why not turn the tables?”
Having a confident female figurehead such as Campion is vital, Moss says. “She has this wonderful ability to adapt to different situations and different people. She always says she loves actors and you can tell.” A Campion set differs from a male-led one in its “sense of communication and discussion”, she says. “A sensitivity chip, you know? She rules with a strong hand, but it feels so nice and soft.”
Top of the Lake starts on July 27, BBC Two, 9pm