‘The rock ‘n’ roll moment’: Elisabeth Moss, Brandi Carlile discuss Moss’ role in ‘Her Smell’

Tiana Woodard

The streets downtown were less lively than usual Sunday afternoon as much of the SXSW crowd filed into the Austin Convention Center for Emmy Award-winning actress Elisabeth Moss and Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile’s featured session.

In one of the most favorited featured sessions of the day, Carlile interviewed Moss about her role as an spunky punk rocker struggling with sobriety in the upcoming film “Her Smell” and sprinkled in discussions about her notable past roles as well.

To accurately portray addiction and mental illness, Moss drew inspiration from notable celebrities such as Amy Winehouse, Marilyn Monroe and James Dean, and spoke with former addicts. But Moss said portraying the “awkwardness” of sobriety was just as significant in her role.

“I didn’t want ‘Her Smell’ to be some sort of perfect story of, ‘Oh, she gets sober and everything’s fine now,’” Moss said. “I just wanted to make sure (my acting) captured that anxiety and the instability of just trying to hold on.”

In her interview questions, Carlile, who helped prepare Moss for her role in the film, commented on how seeing Moss’ raw, unkempt look in “Her Smell” was oftentimes difficult to watch. With laughter, Moss said these “awful” looks were what kept the film interesting.

“The rougher I can look, the more fun (my role) is,” Moss said.

The interview transformed into a mutual discussion as the duo discussed Carlile’s role in helping Moss pull off one of “Her Smell’s” most touching scenes — a moment in which Moss, torn down by the effects of addiction, plays a moving cover of Bryan Adams’ “Heaven.” Though Moss grappled through eight takes to shoot the final product, Carlile said this difficult experience resulted in what she calls the actress’ “rock ‘n’ roll moment.”

“The rock ‘n’ roll moment of a song is only once,” Carlile said. “You took your rock ‘n’ roll moment at the end of this movie, and that’s why you feel this way.”

Discussion over her acting experiences also brought up her ongoing role as Offred in Hulu’s adaptation of “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Moss said she wants to force her audience to look at subjects they might be hesitant to engage with.

“You have to watch (shows over difficult subjects) because (they’re) not real,” Moss said. “If you can’t watch a TV show, how are you going to confront what’s actually going on around you in the country?”

After confronting Moss with her own questions, Carlile then took input from audience members. Through the diverse set of roles she’s played in her lengthy career, Moss said her mission is to make viewers empathize with her characters.

“I don’t care if you like the person (I’m portraying),” Moss said, “But if you can understand even just for a moment their situation and where they’re coming from, that for me is all I’m trying to do.”