Elisabeth Moss spent her “Mad Men” break filming another television project, Sundance Channel’s “Top of the Lake,” a seven-part miniseries premiering March 18. And just like “Mad Men,” “Lake” isn’t typical TV.
The project reunites actress Holly Hunter and director Jane Campion — both Oscar winners for 1993’s landmark film “The Piano” — in a quirky mystery set and filmed in a remote mountain region of New Zealand. In a testament to the series’ cinematic ambitions, all seven hours will screen at this year’s Sundance Film Festival before the small screen premiere.
Moss takes on the lead role of investigative detective Robin Griffin, who is drawn back to a town she had left behind by a sexual abuse case involving a pregnant 12-year-old girl. When the girl goes missing, Griffin becomes obsessed with solving the mystery.
“Every day was like the acting Olympics,” Moss says during a presentation at the 2013 Winter TCA Press Tour. “Every day was a new challenge physically and emotionally.”
“It’s one of the reasons why we both like to act,” Hunter adds. “You get to do things you’ll never do in real life. And fully express these things like rage and revenge. The situations are fantastic because they’re fantasy situations.”
Hunter, who last appeared on TV as the lead of TNT’s “Saving Grace,” plays the enigmatic GJ, a self-proclaimed guru who runs a camp designed to help troubled women. Although they hadn’t worked together since “The Piano,” Hunter and Campion remained friends through the years and it was the director who insisted the time was right for a new collaboration.
“[Jane] called me with this one and said, ‘Look I want you to do this,'” Hunter recalls. “I read it and said, ‘Why? I don’t even know if I can.’ She said, ‘Come to New Zealand.’ You can’t say no to Jane.”
“It’s an indescribable thing to work with Jane to begin with,” Hunter adds. “She’s so silly. She’s such an utterly silly person. She brings that to the set and she has wisdom that is hard won in her life. She’s got a giant soul and tremendous knowledge of her own self. She’s brought this incredible maturity to this movie. This is a director really stretching out across a canvas in the most startling shocking provocative way.”
After spending six months in New Zealand on the production, Moss believes the miniseries captures a side to the country never before captured on film. “This is the most comprehensive depiction of modern New Zealand ever done on that scale,” she says. “We’ve seen [the locations] in ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and ‘The Hobbit’ but this is a much more modern, grittier, raw side of it. By the end of five months you couldn’t pass a place we hadn’t filmed in, we went everywhere. You experience the landscape in a way no tourist ever could. [The series] captures a side to that landscape you feel when you’re there but is difficult to communicate. You feel when you watch it.”
The first two hour-long installments of “Top of the Lake,” also starring Peter Mullan and David Wenham and featuring Lucy Lawless in a cameo role, will premiere on Sundance Channel on March 18 at 9 p.m.