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There aren't many actresses who can play characters who experience — and eventually confront — trauma in visceral ways quite like Elisabeth Moss. Whether its taking on the onslaughts of Gilead over four seasons of The Handmaid's Tale or her gut-wrenching but empowering turn as Cecilia Kass in The Invisible Man, Moss excels at roles where, at the end, we've all wanted to give her a virtual hug.
Moss is going once more unto that breach for her latest limited series Shining Girls, the Apple TV+ adaptation of the sci-fi novel The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes. As an executive producer, director, and the lead of the show, Moss was only the second person to sign on to the series after showrunner Silka Luisa (Strange Angel) because she loved the story so much.
The book is about a young woman in Chicago who survives a brutal assault and, years later, pieces together that her attacker is still out there and has done this many times throughout time. In the series, Moss plays Kirby, a woman who has the same backstory but gets to chart a very different, proactive path as the series shifts the point of view to her character as she crawls back to her place of power chasing her would-be killer. Plus, there's the addition of active time travel in the show.
Having lived in the shadows of her near-death experience, Kirby has found herself slipping in time with no explanations or anyone to confide in over the years. But investigative journalist Dan (Wagner Moura) enlists her help as his researchist as she works at a Chicago newspaper for a serial killer story that dovetails into her own. It will finally unveil the answers she's sought for so long as she doggedly chases the evidence.
Moss tells SYFY WIRE that she had never picked up Beukes' book so her entry point into the story was through Luisa's pilot script that came across her desk. "I had no idea what it was about. I had nothing, so I read it completely blind, which I'm really glad that I did. Because I felt like I had the experience that hopefully the viewer will have, right? And you can only have that once."
Impressed with the script, Moss says she was able to just judge it for face value and then came to know the major changes that Luisa made in adapting the 2013 book into a 2022 series that weaves together alternate universes, subtle time travel and a gritty true crime story.
"I didn't come into it with any baggage from the book, thinking, 'Oh, but I liked this part. And that part's not in there anymore.' I came into it really fresh," Moss continues. "And so I think as a person who had to tell the story from the show's point of view, and not the book, I think that was really helpful. I know that Silka has talked about the fact that she wanted to put it more in Kirby's point of view and focus it there. And it's not a novel, so you don't have hundreds of pages to tell the story, so I think that was a really smart move on her part."
And while Moss has dabbled with sci-fi stories in her career, appearing in Jordan Peele's Us and the aforementioned The Invisible Man, she doesn't actually have all that much experience with the genre — something that also excited her about taking on Shining Girls. "I don't know what the genres are of the things that I've done or how you would describe them, but I haven't done a lot of, not really sci-fi, but high-concept kinds of things," she says. "For me, I was just as, if not more, interested in the show as a whole which is why I wanted to produce and direct on it as well. I was interested in the entire thing, not just the character. And I'm a huge fan of things like Lost and The Leftovers — I'm a huge Damon Lindelof fan — so I felt like this kind of existed in some sort of space that those do. And I love that kind of thing, so I wanted to play in that space."
Perhaps one of the most ingenious changes from the book is that Kirby experiences random displacements where her reality will suddenly shift and change her whole life. There will be a sudden, subtle change of her hair or her outfit, but the repercussions are usually incredibly disconcerting and disruptive, which keeps her from being able to truly heal. The series makes these displacements a major mystery that ties into her attack and Moss says it was her anchor in keeping track of the show's time-shifting narratives.
Moss says Kirby's physical changes were drafted into each script as a marker for her to adjust how Kirby interacts in her day-to-day life. "It became something that was very clear as a way of showing the audience that something had changed, but in a grounded way, and in a non-morphing, VFX way. You could just change the outfit, change the hair, and it was obvious that we were now in a different time."
It's a technique that forces the viewer to pay attention as the episodes unfold and even reward viewers in rewatching to pick up clues and tie together things learned along the way. "I've never had so many different looks in one project," Moss laughs. "Normally it's a lot of work just to figure out the one. Having to figure out five or so was definitely a lot. I remember at one point asking Silka when we were getting to the seventh or eighth episode with the scripts coming out, I was like, 'That's it, right? This is going to be the last one. I don't have any other ideas for what to do with my hair.'"
Shining Girls debuts with three episodes today on Apple TV+. New episodes will premiere weekly through June 3.