This week at the domestic box office, the breakout hit was Universal and Blumhouse’s reimagining of the horror classic The Invisible Man. After a seemingly endless succession of attempts to remake their Golden Age monster movies into a modern-day Hollywood franchise, Universal finally made it happen by letting another studio do their thing, and critics loved them for it. Writer-director Leigh Wannell’s decision to redirect the well-worn story of a mad scientist and his invisibility serum into a tense drama about a gaslit woman trying to outsmart her abusive spouse in the face of overwhelming disbelief from the rest of the world felt like the right fit for a familiar tale. Holding it all together is a stellar performance from the always impressive Elisabeth Moss. The actress has been putting in strong work for over thirty years now, having gotten her start as a child actor in film, TV, and voiceover projects. It is in the past decade, however, that Moss has risen to near-stratospheric heights in terms of critical adoration. With a number one box office hit under her belt, she could easily find herself on the way towards solid commercial success as well. She certainly has that kind of power in her as an Emmy, Golden Globe, and SAG Award-winning actress. Of course, there is the small subject of that thetan-possessed elephant in the room…
If I were to put together a list of my favorite actresses currently working in film and television, Moss would easily be in the top five. As a Mad Men devotee, I spent many years worshipping at the altar of Peggy Olson. Moss’s transformation over the course of seven seasons, from hopelessly naive new girl to seasoned career woman with an edge of weary bitterness embedded in her ambition, became truly enthralling to watch. On a show that was so often overtly enamored with its difficult men, there was something truly radical and encouraging about the rise of Peggy, and Moss controlled the reins of that character with such precision and warmth, albeit with just the right amount of prickliness on top. The series may have been centered on Don Draper but Mad Men was always at its best when it focused on the women, and we have Moss to thank for that on some level. Even though she’d been a familiar face on film and TV for decades before that — you can see her in everything from Girl, Interrupted to Picket Fences to The West Wing — there was something about Peggy Olson that felt like a breakout opportunity.
Indeed, out of the vast ensemble of Mad Men, I would argue that its true post-finale star in terms of acclaim and potential is Moss. She formed a sharp and boundary-pushing collaborative partnership with writer-director Alex Ross Perry, who gave her one of her greatest roles as the trainwreck rockstar in Her Smell. There were films with Jordan Peele (Us), David Lowrey (The Old Man & the Gun), and Ruben Östlund (his Palme d’Or winner The Square.) She didn’t abandon television after becoming an indie movie darling either. She took home a Golden Globe award and landed an Emmy nomination for the Jane Campion drama Top of the Lake, pushing her into a leading role of immense difficulty and emotional turmoil. That was followed up, of course, by a little show called The Handmaid’s Tale. Make no mistake: Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s depressingly timeless dystopian novel would not work without Elisabeth Moss, especially as the series moved past the source material into unknown and often narratively unwieldy territory. With the most minute of expressions, Moss conveys the agonizing mix of emotions experienced by the Handmaids that they must keep under wraps lest they face fatal punishment. There are so many moments in the show where it could, or just straight up does, go off the rails, yet Moss grounds even the most eyebrow-raising moments in a sense of the horrifyingly relatable. While her range is undeniable, there’s something especially satisfying about Moss playing women who are sick of male bullsh*t.
Rare for a star of her caliber and exposure, Moss is an actress defined almost exclusively by her work. She’s not a gossip regular, her love life isn’t obsessively documented, and her brief marriage to SNL star Fred Armisen isn’t talked about anywhere near as often as you’d think it would be given the oddity of their relationship. Even on talk-show interviews, she nimbly bypasses such questioning without seeming crass or rude. This is clearly a luxury for someone like Moss, or indeed anyone working in this business where your personal life is considered a crucial commodity, but it’s also something she’s almost certainly had to work for. She gets to control that narrative and we all know the reason why.
Moss isn’t the most prominent Scientology in entertainment. That’s still an honor that belongs to Tom Cruise. Many people don’t even know that she’s part of the most infamous pseudo-religious organization in Hollywood. It’s not something she is open about in the way that Cruise or John Travolta are. You don’t see headlines or her attending big Scientology events or thanking L. Ron Hubbard and David Miscavige in awards speeches. It seems that a lot of people are much less harsh on Moss for her devotion to Scientology since she was raised in the church and didn’t sign up for it as an adult like Cruise. It’s a lot harder to disentangle yourself from a cult when it’s all you’ve ever known. On the rare occasions where Moss does talk about Scientology, such as the interview where she was directly asked about the seeming contradiction of supporting a notoriously restrictive cult while working on a show women’s rights, she slyly avoids the question in favor of discussing religious freedom. She doesn’t defend the church so much as her right to worship freely, which is a clever way to sound like you’re responding to criticisms without ever doing so. It’s one of the reasons that Moss is never as defined by Scientology as its more vocal supporters.
As someone who absolutely loves Moss and her work, her dedication to Scientology remains a tricky roadblock for me to overcome. I am painfully aware that I don’t give this sort of leeway to Cruise or Travolta and that my instinctive response is always to defend Moss over anything else as if she needs me to do so. As sympathetic as I am to her status as a lifer in this ‘faith’ and the unimaginable control they could have over her — Scientology thrives on the exploitation of its members through blackmail and emotional turmoil — I also know that she’s certainly rich and powerful enough to make a stand. Supporting a Scientologist means you are inevitably supporting Scientology itself since its members donate so much of their money to the ‘church.’
Talking about Elisabeth Moss presents an endless series of conundrums, but at the end of the day, it’s really a rather simple question: Do you like her work enough to ignore her Scientology support? In our endless arguments over separating the art from the artist, this issue isn’t one that comes up as often as our ceaseless battles against sh*tty men, but it’s a crucial one, nonetheless. Frankly, I hesitate to get into squabbles about issues of faith because I’ve no desire to put a match to that trash pile and watch it go up in flames. Still, I love Elisabeth Moss’s work and I resent and am fearful of Scientology, and it’s tough for me to continue deluding myself into believing that these contrasting points-of-view can co-exist in perfect harmony.
Header Image Source: YouTube // ABC