Filmmaker Jane Campion is trying something new with the Sundance Channel mini-series Top of the Lake, which is that she’s directed something for television rather than the big screen. The seven episode series debuts tonight, starring Holly Hunter and Elisabeth Moss and is shot in a desolate yet magical part of New Zealand where a grisly crime takes place. Hunter plays GJ, the leader of a women’s camp on a highly coveted piece of land, and Moss is Detective Robin Griffin that becomes an investigator on the case of a missing young girl.
Moss described her character as having a hard exterior, as many cops do, but says Robin slowly unravels during the series. “The whole idea of doing this was really kind of scary to me,” Moss said during TCA this past August. “I remember calling my mom and saying, when I was in New Zealand and had rehearsals with Jane and everything, ‘I don’t know if I know how to do this! I’ve never done this before!” That’s exactly as an actor where you want to be, I feel like. You want to be in that place where you feel scared, where you’ve never done it before — with Jane. And that was the thing, she took my hand.”
It didn’t take much for Elizabeth to want to get involved in the series (“I was on board from the word ‘Jane!’”), but co-star Holly Hunter said it took some more prodding from her The Piano director to be convinced. “She pushed me a little bit with GJ, and then I couldn’t say no to her but I did sort of want to,” Hunter said. “I didn’t see myself in the part. But then as I begin to work on it, I saw a way in. If Jane sees something, then I go towards it like a robot.”
What’s interesting about the role of GJ is that she is, in a way, genderless, as the character was written that way. “It’s one of the fun things about acting is the transformation,” Hunter said, mentioning the long grey wig she donned for the role.”Just the whole thing — there’s a line, ‘What is it, a he/she?’ There’s an “it” kind of thing about this chick that I wanted very much for it to be there. I thought the wig was going to help with that identification. It was genderless and I bound my chest.”
Jane Campion is often hailed as a feminist filmmaker, and Hunter said she thinks Jane has an innate way of getting what she wants out of people, and that is what drives each story she tells.
“I think Jane, undeniably, expresses great glory in the power of women. I think she like really loves women,” Hunter said. “And she really loves men too. Jane likes the heart beating inside each one of us and wants to like tickle every little heart. And I always feel she’s kind of seducing us all as she directs us. Flirting — she’s an unconscionable flirt but with men and women. The women’s camp in this movie is, there’s no one that can describe women’s camp but Jane without making it campy. It’s wacky but it’s real. It has a reality in it because Jane kind of believes in that in self-investigation. She’s a person who has investigated self her entire life. She’s just not afraid of who she is and wanting to know more.”
Moss agrees, saying, “For me, Jane is after truth more than anything else. That is her banner, that’s her thing — finding truth, truth, truth in everything. Whether that’s truth in a female character or a male character or truth in a child or a group of people, it’s all about for her finding the truth or something rather than feminism.”
Moss said she’s been “[dealing] with the feminist questions for a few years now because of Mad Men” and that she doesn’t necessarily see her strong female character as a feminist. “It always puzzles me what makes a feminist and what makes her not a feminist,” she said. “I think that any woman that believes she should have equal rights or the right to do what she wants to do — in my mind, that would make her a feminist. But that’s pretty much every woman.”
Although GJ and Robin don’t share any screen time in the debut episode, their paths will cross soon enough as their small worlds collide. On set, Moss said she and Hunter were the only Americans and that they didn’t know each other before shooting, but became close through the world they discover at the top of the lake.
“The great thing about being transported so far away from my home to New Zealand is you do feel like you’re in that world. There were no distractions, I didn’t know anyone,” Moss said. “You really felt a sense that this was the world you were in. This was where you lived and there wasn’t anything else. and that kind of immersion as an actor is really fun and I think it really helps. But I think for us it was very much about developing the character in the beginning, that the country and the landscape would kind of take care of itself and be kind of unavoidable.”
“[It's about] a dark beating heart that makes the lake rise and fall,” Hunter said. And no mind that it’s on television versus a big screen. “It’s Jane Campion — she’s a filmmaker! It looks and feels like a film. The lines are just disappearing.”
Top of the Lake premieres tonight, March 18 at 9 p.m. on the Sundance Channel.