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Between the fifth and sixth seasons of Mad Men, Elisabeth Moss spent five months in New Zealand filming the acclaimed drama Top of the Lake. In 2014, she earned an Emmy nomination and a Golden Globe Award for her performance as obsessively driven police detective Robin Griffin in the Sundance Channel series. Now, amid acclaim for her stellar turn in Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Moss is reprising her role in Top of the Lake: China Girl, created, produced, co-written and co-directed by Jane Campion and featuring Nicole Kidman in a key role.

In this installment, the action shifts to Sydney, Australia, where Griffin has returned to the police force after (justifiably) shooting a fellow officer, and bearing the emotional scars from that, a broken engagement, and her history as a rape victim. When a suitcase containing the body of a young Asian woman washes up on Bondi Beach, she’s drawn into an investigation that leads her into the dark underworld of prostitution and illegal surrogacy. To her dismay, she’s saddled with an eager yet awkward new partner, played by Gwendoline Christie (Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Game of Thrones), with personal baggage of her own.

Elisabeth Moss and Gwendoline Christie

Meanwhile, Griffin searches for the daughter she gave up for adoption at birth. Mary, played by Jane Campion’s daughter Alice Englert (Beautiful Creatures), is now 17 and defiantly rebellious, much to the exasperation of her adoptive mother Julia (Kidman). Mary also has a shady, much older boyfriend who lives in the brothel connected to Griffin’s investigation—which puts Mary in danger.

“This season is so much about motherhood, and Robin's main challenge is to figure out how she's going to be a mother to Mary, somebody who is a stranger,” says Moss. “She knows nothing about her, and yet she has to kind of figure out what their relationship is.”

Because of her past traumas, “She's so closed off from any kind of relationship with anyone, a friendship or a partnership,” Moss continues. “She's made this decision that she's not going to have friends, and she's not going to date anyone, and yet, at the same time, she goes after trying to find and have a relationship with Mary. It's a fantastic juxtaposition, and it breaks down all of these preconceived ideas that she's had about the other relationships in her life. Gwen’s character Miranda and Nicole’s character Julia are constantly pushing her buttons and challenging her, but the most important thing is to solve this case. Then in typical Top of the Lake fashion, the personal always lines up with the political, and she has to kind of figure out both.”

Nicole Kidman and Alice Englert
Although she’d just finished shooting Big Little Lies just days before, Kidman jumped at the chance to play Julia, who is separated from her husband, living with her lesbian girlfriend, and has a difficult relationship with her adoptive daughter, Mary. She had no problem de-glamorizing to play a woman with graying hair and a makeup-free face.

“I consider myself a character actor, so when a director gives me the chance to really find the character, physically and emotionally, I'm just thrilled,” Kidman says. That’s especially true when the director and a co-star are practically family. Campion directed her in The Portrait of a Lady 20 years ago.

“I’ve known Jane since I was 14, so she encountered me with all of my insecurities and my hopes and my desires,” Kidman notes. “I've shared probably the deepest, most intimate secrets I have with her as a friend. I have incredible trust in her, and I’ve known [her daughter] Alice since she was born. I feel very at ease with her. It’s a built-in love and affection that’s hard to get.”

Not surprisingly, Kidman “really wanted to be in the series. I wanted to work with these incredible women. I wanted to be part of an ensemble and contribute. I'm just very fortunate that directors will see me in different lights and give me the opportunity to explore all different characters and beings.”

Alice Englert says that Campion encouraged her to take on the complex role of Mary. “She knew what I was capable of as an actress. We really enjoy working together. But I call her Jane on set. I’ve always noticed that ‘Jane’ gets her attention a little bit better than ‘Mom.’"

Englert eagerly met the challenges of the role. “She's a young woman, and she's in love, but she's also a kid with a broken heart. Mary wants to choose something for herself in her life. She wants to feel like she has something that is hers, that she has chosen. Mary is prickly and sometimes a little monstrous. She knows that, and that scares her.  And I think you see that as the series goes on.”

Gwendoline ChristieAfter her roles in The Force Awakens and Game of Thrones, Gwendoline Christie “was looking for a challenge and really looking to do something different. What has always interested me is exploring what it is to be human, and particularly the darker recesses of life. I told Jane I'd like to be taken out of my comfort zone, and I certainly was because I was given a character who is intensely vulnerable, intensely emotional. She doesn't have a lot of reflective thought, and she is a woman who essentially is failing in life, or so she feels.  She has a very open heart and a wonderful sense of humor, but she doesn't have a lot of success in her life, either professionally or personally. As an actor, you don't just want to play one thing. You want to explore all of those facets, but you also want to explore those elements of yourself.”

The 6’3” Christie and 5’3” Moss found “a natural chemistry” from their first rehearsal. “I felt an exquisite trust and bond with Lizzy immediately, that she was very serious about the work and serious in investing in me as a fellow actor,” Christie says. For Moss, the feeling was mutual. “I just knew immediately that this girl was here to work, to act, to try things, and challenge herself. I feel that way about all the actors in this. We got along like gangbusters from the get-go.”

She felt that the Sydney setting was perfect for the story that China Girl tells. “Jane said that the first series was about the wilderness outside, and China Girl is about the wilderness within. You've got this city environment with a lot of closed spaces. It can feel claustrophobic. There are small rooms. It's busy.  It's crowded, even on the beach. It’s a very different environment and it forces Robin and the other characters to look inside rather than hide in the wilderness,” she says. “They all have to face things that they don't want to face.”

The series shows another side of Australia, devoid of kangaroos, koalas and landmarks like the Opera House. “It’s a very particular part of Australia and a very particular part of Sydney,” says Nicole Kidman, who has a home in the city. “The landscapes and the way in which they are depicted are very different from the way you see films from Australia. You see the beaches, and the underground culture of Sydney.”

Top of the LakeAn Emmy nominee for Big Little Lies, Kidman relishes the pair of TV roles she’s played this year. As an actor, you go where they great roles are, and those roles for women are in television,” she says. “It's so exciting to be part of different directors' visions and the way in which they work and having to change and mold myself and find the characters. Would I love to do more TV?  Absolutely. I would love to be able to do a comedy. I never get offered them.  I'm always offered dramas.”

Elisabeth Moss, who received an Emmy nomination for The Handmaid’s Tale, is also encouraged by the increasing wealth of opportunities for women in television, both on camera and behind the scenes. “When you look at the landscape of television now and how much content is led by women and made by women, it's exactly where we should be going because that's what the audience wants to see,” she says. “The people who can give the money to do these projects have finally started to realize that they make money and that people want to watch them. They’re finally catching up with something that the audience has always wanted to see.”

Reflecting on a career that began when she was eight and skyrocketed thanks to her seven-season run on Mad Men, Moss points out the “many years of being unemployed and broke and wanting to get a job and not getting it. I have not gotten far more things than I have. So to be in a place where I know I have a job, that’s the Holy Grail, and I’m very grateful. I want to take everything, but I can’t, so I’ve tried to just pick the best material I can find, and that's what it all comes down to.” Next year, she will star in the second season of The Handmaid’s Tale, and promises, “It’s going to take us to places that we didn’t think we could go.”

Nicole Kidman, who is currently shooting Aquaman, playing Queen Atlanna, hopes that there will be a sequel to Big Little Lies. “We would love to work together again, if we can wrestle the abundance of ideas into script form,” she says. “We have a deep understanding and love for each other. Because we worked together so intensely, we’re very connected and that’s hard to find, and when you find it you want to go back to it. But right now it’s very up in the air.”

Nicole KidmanShe served as a producer on Lies, and embraced the responsibility. “I love being able to support and get things done. I like being able to say, ‘Yes, I can get this made.’ I like doing it rather than talking about it,” she says, adding that at this point in her life, she’s “so up for anything. I'm at that place where I'm like, ‘I want to try it.’ I'm willing to fall flat on my face.  I know how to get back up again. I want to just keep trying things.”

Kidman, who turned 50 in June, is also embracing that milestone, “with gratitude. I’m very happy to be here, and to have this year, with all of these things coming together at the same time. I’m very grateful and none of it goes unnoticed.” Her secret to happiness?  “Good love,” responds the actress, who is married to musician Keith Urban and has two young daughters. “I believe in giving love and receiving love and being open to the world and being willing to contribute and say ‘I’m sorry,’” she says. “And in being a participator, not a voyeur.”

Top of the Lake: China Girl premieres Sept. 10 at 9:00 p.m. ET/PT on Sundance Channel, airing in two hour installments over three consecutive nights. / Issue 195 - June 2018
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