Elisabeth Moss slips into crime-solving mode as Detective Robin Griffin in Top of the Lake: China Girl. Picture: Supplied
Elisabeth Moss gravitates towards fallible characters with backstories that have depth and, in most cases, despair. And each role is played with commendable conviction, as witnessed in her big- and small-screen work, of which there are too many to list.

The standouts in her TV career include The West Wing, Mad Men and, more recently, The Handmaid’s Tale, which bagged her an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series.

The show also bagged Outstanding Drama Series honours. On the movie side, she’s been in High Rise, Chuck (opposite Liev Schreiber) and will soon feature in The Seagull.

Moss is also back on the small screen, picking up where the first season of Top of the Lake ended. By the way, she received a Golden Globe accolade for Best Actress - Miniseries or Television Film for her role.

This time her character, Detective Robin Griffin, finds herself submerged in a new case that hits a little too close to home.

She recalls, “It came up in conversation over sushi in Queenstown, ‘What if there was a season two?’ There never was supposed to be a season two. And we all were like, ‘Oh, that’s kind of exciting’.”

Elisabeth Moss Picture: Supplied

Moss continues, “Then, over a year later, I was at the Emmys in LA. Jane (Campion, a writer, director and producer) and I met for lunch and she said to me, ‘So, if we did a season two, would you do it? I can’t really do it without Robin’. I said yes, I would love to, but it needs to be more challenging than season one. Otherwise there’s really no point, because we did a really good job with the first season, I felt, and we were all very proud of it, and people really liked it, and why do it again if we weren’t going to challenge ourselves and to make it even more interesting for ourselves and for the audience?”

Three years later, she got the script and her wish-list for her character was met. The 35-year-old actress admits, “She (Jane) wrote this character much better than I could have ever thought of. It was a very complex and a much more interesting challenge than I think you normally present a character in, in a second season.”

So what makes Griffin tick?

She shares, “What I love most about Robin is, from an actor’s perspective of playing her, not necessarily her best quality. It’s her flaws, her vulnerability. And her ability to be strong when she needs to be and to fight for justice and fight for the truth in her work. So the juxtaposition of that with the complete chaos in her personal life and her inability to get that under control; this season she’s so much more messed up than she ever has been before. It’s been a challenge to play, but it’s also been really fun.”

In the TV sequel, Ariel Kleiman was brought in as the second director.

“Jane does have an incredible gift for finding new talent and I trust her one thousand percent in that regard,” says Moss. “She did it with Garth and I believe that she’s done it again with Ari. He’s kind of this magical creature. He has a very enthusiastic youthful quality. And it’s interesting with this material, which is so dark and so complex and really just terrible, we’re in terrible situations. 

"We’re at a brothel, we’re at a morgue, we’re at a beach, there’s a dead body. It’s very dark. And he’s just laughing and he’s so excited. This enthusiasm that he has is so infectious and it makes it so fun to go to work with him.”

Unlike some whodunits, where the actor is kept in the dark until they are closer to shooting the scene, Moss was kept in the loop of her character’s trajectory.

“I knew quite a bit about season two as it was coming together because Jane would write me and ask me questions or tell me little things here and there,” she admits.

“It was a constant dialogue for three years about it. So there were big plot points that I knew were coming. But it was all the nuance, all the detail and the strange Campionesque things that go into something like this that really surprised me and I loved so much.

“Without spoiling anything, the thing that we reveal in the flashback and some things that have happened over the last four years to Robin have put her in this really, really dark place. She’s not had an easy life, this girl. So she starts out in season 2 in this much darker place, and really messed up, so when I was reading it for the first time I was like: ‘Yes, yes, yes, yes’.”

This season, Robin’s current case forces her to confront demons from the past. It’s going to be hard hitting, emotional and, as before, ingeniously executed.

* Top of the Lake: China Girl airs on BBC First (DStv 119) from January 31 at 8pm.