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Elisabeth Moss and Brandi Carlile explore music-and-film overlap at SXSW

Peter Blackstock
A video screen in the Austin Convention Center shows singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile and actress Elisabeth Moss in conversation at South by Southwest on Sunday, March 10, 2019. [Peter Blackstock / American-Statesman]

Fresh off a banner awards ceremony in Los Angeles where she won her not only her first Grammy but also her second and third, Seattle singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile arrived at South by Southwest not as the center of attention but rather to interview renowned actress Elisabeth Moss. It was a perfect role for Carlile, really: Moss is in Austin partly for the SXSW screening of "Her Smell," in which she plays a female rocker whose experiences echo the 1990s Seattle grunge scene.

Carlile's star began to rise in Seattle about a decade after grunge's heyday, but she grew up with the specter of Nirvana, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains and others looming large around her. So when she watched Moss onscreen in "Her Smell," she could relate. "I was so touched by the way you portrayed the conflict in that punk rock and grunge and rock & roll community,” she told Moss early in their one-on-one conversation Sunday afternoon at the Austin Convention Center.

The film, which screened Saturday night at Zach Theatre, will open nationally on April 12. Moss also is in the case of "Us," the new film from Oscar-winning director Jordan Peele that premiered Friday at the Paramount Theatre.

Few actresses are on hotter streaks right now than Moss, who rose to prominence mostly with TV roles in the acclaimed shows "West Wing" and "Mad Men" before her current star turn as June Osborne on the award-winning Hulu drama "The Handmaid's Tale." 

On Sunday, the conversation flowed freely and easily between Carlile and Moss, who recently worked together on a video for Carlile's song "Party of One." "It was really fun to try to turn a song into a visual," Moss said, citing in particular a crucial moment in the song where a couple on the verge of splitting ends up reconciling. Moss's acting provides a sense of short-story drama in six minutes that perfectly reflects the song's musical changes.

“I wanted to physically represent those strings coming in,” Moss said of the moment her character leaves the house, then turns around. Carlile responded in kind: “You’re really in touch with me, in a way that I’m not sure you are aware.”

The session concluded with 15 minutes of Q&A from the audience. A question involving the challenges women musicians face that men don't elicited both humor and pathos from Carlile, who first recounted with a smile the changes on her touring bus since becoming a parent: “On what used to be beer coolers, we have diaper changing stations.”

But she added that she's dealt with the double-standard of expectations women performers face as parents compared to men in similar situations. Recalling a journalist who urged her not to "lose her edge" after becoming a mother, she lamented that “it bothered me so much psychologically, the thought that the birth of my daughter was going to bring the end of my potency as an artist.”

A perhaps inevitable question arose about whether Courtney Love influenced Moss's character in "Her Smell," but Moss said she was just as likely to have taken inspiration from Kurt Cobain's experiences. And, indeed, judging from a trailer for the film that aired at the panel's outset, the band that seems perhaps most influential on the storyline could be early-1990s Seattle punk group 7 Year Bitch.

Carlile noted, as well, that Moss's performance in the film transcended genres. "Emotionally, I felt the weight of Seattle and the grunge movement and how that came to fruition," she told Moss. "But musically, I heard a lot of the riot grrl movement — I heard a lot of Team Dresch and Butchies and Sleater-Kinney in your voice."

Carlile has no musical performances scheduled as part of her SXSW visit, but she'll be back in the Austin area next month as a headliner of the Old Settler's Music Festival near Lockhart.