Elisabeth Moss has been acting since she was a little girl, and if there’s one thing she knows how to do, it’s picking fascinating projects that allow her to stretch herself creatively. With “The Invisible Man” hitting theaters this week and garnering praise especially for her performance, it looks as though she’s chosen another winner. But her career is filled with gems, whether her performance is front-and-center or a small, perfectly crafted part of a larger whole.
11Claire Walsh, “The Kitchen” (2019)
dir. Andrea Berloff
As a female-led mob drama, “The Kitchen” is not without its flaws, but Elisabeth Moss as Claire Walsh is far from one of them. It’s intensely rewarding to watch her freed from an abusive relationship to find inner reserves of strength and an almost intimidating steeliness: this is a woman who has resolved to never be hurt again, and it’s hard not to respond to that. She has incredible chemistry with Domhnall Gleeson, her would-be savior, and their Bonnie and Clyde-esque relationship is one of the most engaging elements of the film.
10Masha, “The Seagull” (2018)
dir. Michael Mayer
One of Moss’s most underutilized skills is her self-deprecating sense of humor. The adaptation of “The Seagull” isn’t perfect, but her Masha is a delightful mess of a character. A drunken spinster in love with a man she can’t have, Masha has clearly decided at some point to embrace her feelings of bitterness on her own terms and build an entire personality out of clinical depression and caustic wit.
9Zoey Bartlet, “The West Wing” (1999-2006)
Long before the role on “Mad Men” that singled her out as an actress on the rise, Moss was a recurring character on “The West Wing.” She played the president’s daughter, and although the script rarely required her to do more than roll her eyes at her dad, date White House staff, and occasionally get kidnapped, she nevertheless left her mark. She brought vitality and charm to the character, and her star potential was clear even then.
8Robin Griffin, “Top of the Lake” (2013-2017)
While in the middle of filming “Mad Men,” Elisabeth Moss somehow found time to star in an atmospheric New Zealand mystery drama called “Top of the Lake.” She played Detective Robin Griffin, a police officer investigating the strange disappearance of a pregnant preteen girl. Alongside director Jane Campion, “Top of the Lake” gave Moss opportunities to explore skewed gender dynamics and the often disturbing experiences of women, topics the actress seems frequently drawn to.
7Sophie, “The One I Love” (2014)
dir. Charlie McDowell
“The One I Love” is a perfect example of the type of projects Elisabeth Moss seems especially prone to attaching herself: strange, a little ungainly, but elevated by her powerful performances. This film about a struggling couple who sign up for a bizarre marriage retreat is no exception. Although the concept may be a bit cleverer than its execution, Moss nevertheless shines in the lead female role alongside delightful indie comedian Mark Duplass.
6June Osborne, “The Handmaid’s Tale” (2017-2020)
What Moss taps into in “The Handmaid’s Tale” is dark and nightmarish, all the more so because of how much her experiences feel like a genuine threat facing women in America today. Her June is strong and smart and should not be underestimated at any cost. June’s innate personality is always infuriatingly at odds with the degrading role she’s been forced into. Here more than anywhere else Moss has a tremendous fire, one that her character never loses even when faced with the unimaginable.
5Shirley Jackson, “Shirley” (2020)
dir. Josephine Decker
One of the critical darlings out of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, “Shirley” sees Moss step into an unconventional biopic as she plays famed author Shirley Jackson. Ever allergic to the idea of doing something expected, she adds nuance to her portrayal of the deeply troubled writer, allowing the lines between reality and her stories to ebb and flow until there’s little meaningful distinction. Her work alongside equally underappreciated Michael Stuhlbarg is delightful, both actors clearly relishing the opportunity to dig into the psychosexual elements of “Shirley” with borderline unseemly glee.
4Kitty Tyler/Dahlia, “Us” (2019)
dir. Jordan Peele
Lupita Nyong’o gets a lot of credit (and rightly so) for her work in “Us,” as she uses a tremendous physicality to bring to life two starkly different characters. But Elisabeth Moss is noteworthy here as well; where Nyong’o’s performance is externalized, Moss’s is focused inward. The contrast she establishes between Kitty and Dahlia using just her facial expressions is remarkable. She’s great as the boozy suburban mom, sloshing out uncomfortable truths about her disappointing life between glasses of wine, but her performance as Dahlia simply looking in the mirror and applying makeup is one of the most chilling and memorable moments of the film.
3Becky Something, “Her Smell” (2018)
dir. Alex Ross Perry
There’s a beautiful sort of chaos that Moss brings to her role in “Her Smell.” She plays Becky Something, an entirely id-driven hellion of a riot grrrl lead singer, and clearly relishes the opportunity to act with no restraints, leaving everything on the table. But as with all Moss roles, the real artistry is in the contrast, and here we see both the balls-to-the-wall, endlessly unpredictable rock star as well as her more introspective post-rehab counterpart. It’s a nuanced performance that shows her abilities as an actor and, perhaps more importantly at this stage in her career, a hypnotic star presence.
2Peggy Olson, “Mad Men” (2007-2015)
The journey that Elisabeth Moss takes us on over the course of seven seasons on “Mad Men” is mind-blowingly satisfying. She goes from soft-spoken office mouse at the start of her career to a strong, opinionated creative force in her own right. Peggy becomes a woman who doesn’t suffer fools and can go toe-to-toe with Don Draper without flinching. She’s ambitious in a way that few women were allowed to be in the 1960s, and is uncompromising in how she forges her own path both personally and professionally. Peggy is one of the most well-rounded, consistently engaging female characters on television, and you don’t get that without Moss’s intelligent, witty, and empathetic performance.