Elisabeth Moss Could Be the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Hulu

The Handmaid’s Tale is bringing her even more acclaim than Mad Men did—and elevating the streaming service

Robert Ascroft for Adweek
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After you’ve starred in one of the greatest TV series of all time—Mad Men—it would seem that there’s nowhere to go, career-wise, but down. That is, unless you’re Elisabeth Moss, whose 28-year acting career has revolved around one seemingly peerless TV project after another. “If you thought about it too much, you’d never do anything again, because you’d be like, there’s never going to be anything as good as The West Wing, or Top of the Lake, or Mad Men, or whatever,” says Moss, who in 2015 wrapped her seven-season stint as Mad Men’s secretary-turned-copy chief Peggy Olson. “My own choices have proven to me that it’s best just to follow where the great material is, and don’t worry about it.”

Incredibly, her instincts seemed to have led her to a role that could bring her even more acclaim than Peggy: Offred, the star of Hulu’s riveting and visually stunning new drama The Handmaid’s Tale. Based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel in which the government has been overthrown by a fundamentalist regime and the few women still able to conceive are enslaved, the MGM Television series, which premiered last Wednesday, has garnered the kind of rapturous reviews and buzz that the decade-old streaming service has spent years longing for. “It is unflinching, vital and scary as hell,” says The New York Times, while The Hollywood Reporter deemed the series “Hulu’s first essential original.”

The show’s splashy debut—which seems primed to give Hulu the same credibility and awards spotlight that Transparent previously orchestrated for Amazon, and House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black for Netflix—comes as Hulu prepares for its NewFronts presentation on Wednesday morning, where it will celebrate its most ambitious year yet.

“This is really special,” says Hulu CEO Mike Hopkins. “We’ve been on a path of making really good shows over the last year, and this one feels like it has a real chance to break through in a way that we’ve been trying to but haven’t quite done so yet. If that happens, it will be a really good thing for us as a company and a brand.”

That gives buyers, who have been warming up to the service in recent years, even more reasons to be impressed. “They’ve continued to evolve to a place that brings the best of digital and the best of TV for us and our clients,” says Jon Stimmel, chief investment officer, UM. As Hulu prepares to unveil a live TV service later this month, which will pair a livestreaming bundle with its standard subscription VOD options, “it actually displaces the notion of the MVPD, which is really interesting,” says Stimmel. With the now-deafening buzz around Handmaid’s Tale, he adds, the service “becomes more of a different conversation,” on equal footing with its SVOD rivals.

Moss insisted that she join The Handmaid’s Tale as a producer as well as its star.
Robert Ascroft for Adweek

But that conversation would never have happened without the involvement of Moss, who was thrilled by the opportunity to bring Atwood’s book to life, but even more intrigued to explore the world beyond the page. “What I was actually more excited about is this would be a really good TV show for people who hadn’t read the book—which is a lot of people. I needed it to be something that could stand on its own,” says Moss. (Atwood is also a consulting producer on the project.)

“Lizzie is at the perfect point in her career to be doing this,” says showrunner and executive producer Bruce Miller, noting that throughout her career, the actress has “put herself into really challenging roles and came through,” which is why he knew she’d rise to the challenge of portraying such a famous literary character. “This is a classic book—it’s taught in high school—so there’s a little bit of intimidation. You don’t want someone who’s going to shrink from that.”

The role required Moss, who is so effusive and effervescent in real life, to spend long stretches on-screen in silence, her face a stony mask. “There’s something about Lizzie where it’s like her heart is connected to her face with a big main circuit cable. Every emotion she has, you can see it flicker across her face, no matter how complicated, no matter how subtle and no matter how much her character is trying to hide it,” says Miller. “I am spellbound at her performance in the show. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Given that so much of The Handmaid’s Tale revolves around tight close-ups of Offred’s face, and her voiceover narration, the series’ success or failure rests almost entirely on Moss’ shoulders. “I’m just going to throw up now,” she jokes, but admits, “That was probably the main reason why I asked to be a producer on it, to be able to have some sense of control.”

The producer role wasn’t just a vanity title for Moss, who has been knee-deep in postproduction work since filming wrapped in February. “I was just watching the latest cut of the last episode and writing notes before I came here, because they’re due today. Every single day, I wake up, make coffee and turn on The Handmaid’s Tale,” she says. “It’s been a lot more work than I’m perhaps used to, but also as fulfilling as you could imagine it would be.”

Moss also used her producer clout to make sure that Hulu gave the series a worthy marketing campaign. “Mad Men was on AMC before AMC was AMC; Top of the Lake was on Sundance [Channel] before Sundance became Sundance. So I know the benefits of being the first one they put their muscle behind,” says Moss. “Are you going to give us the marketing budget? Because that’s everything. Mad Men had such a great marketing campaign, and a show will live or die on that. I’ve been more involved with this marketing department than I have ever been involved with any marketing department in my life!”

@jasonlynch jason.lynch@adweek.com Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.