Sundance TV’s Top of the Lake was one of my favorite series of 2013. When a second series was announced, we knew it would take a while for it come around because Elisabeth Moss was wrapping Mad Men and then attached to Hulu’s juggernaut The Handmaid’s Tale. Alongside her other commitments, Moss went back to Australia to shoot that six-hour sequel, subtitled China Girl, and it will airÂ this weekend in a three-night mini-series event beginning Sunday at 9/8c.
While the original series had a lyrical, hypnotic qualityÂ (despite its stark subject matter)Â because it was filmed in New Zealand, the second set of episodes is set in Sydney, so it loses some of those mystical, ethereal aspects, trading them for a juxtaposition of the bleak corners of the city’s underbellyÂ against its bright, sunny beaches.
Once again shephered by Jane Campion and Gerard Lee, our hero, Inspector Robin Griffin (Moss), has returned from New Zealand in a fairly raw state of PTSD following the events of the first series, and she’s fumbling through reassembling her professional life and simply putting one foot in front of the other. She’s also chasing a personal mystery aboutÂ the infant daughter she surrendered long ago,Â which intersects her arc with that of a family in Sydney and a new homicide case about a young Chinese sex worker.
Julia (Nicole Kidman) andÂ Pyke (Ewen Leslie) Edwards are an estranged couple working on a new model of domesticity that their teenage daughter Mary (Alice Englert) bristles against. Mary acts out with verbal assaults and by spending time with the much older and sociopathic Puss (David Denick), who makes his home above a brothel staffed by Chinese women. He’s also running a side hustle that caters to the more affluent of Sydney’s population.
Gwendoline Christie rounds out the cast as Miranda, a socially awkward officer on the force — and one of its few women — who’s enamored of Robin’s career path and whom Robin begrudgingly accepts as a friend.
The heart of the series is Robin’s reclamation of self, set against another murder case with the added layer of human trafficking thrown in. It’s a gritty, complex story with several moving pieces that requires a level of acceptance of the ill-advised self-sabotage that frequently occurs. If you bought what the first series was selling, you’ll understand and appreciate that happy is a relative term, and that survival is the most important takeaway of all.
Moss, Kidman, Englert, and Christie appeared at the summer Television Critics Association to talk about the miniseries, and the conversation covered a range of topics from the setting to class toÂ women-centric storytelling to navigating those complicated mother/daughter stories.
Moss said the switch from the wilderness of the first series to the city in the second helpedÂ refine the focus on the characters. “Jane said something in the beginning that was really illuminating for me…that the first story was about the wilderness outside, and China Girl is about the wilderness within. And, to me, that sort of sums it up. [You’ve] got this environment that’s a very city environment. There’s a lot of closed spaces. It can feel claustrophobic. There’s small rooms. It’s busy. It’s crowded. Even on the beach,” she says.
“It’s intensely crowded. It’s just full of people, which is so different than the first one, which is, like, so solitary. And I think that juxtaposition is a wonderful way to develop the story and a wonderful way to change the characters and see what happens when you drop them into this different environment.”
“It’s one of the things that forces Robin and all of the characters really sometimes to look inside rather than hide in the wilderness. You can actually hide much better out in New Zealand than you can in Sydney, and they all have to sort of face things that they don’t want to face because of that.”
Christie addressed the caste and class system that’s also reflected in that switch to Sydney. “I think that we are living in a world where it’s coming to our attention there’s a greater gap between the haves and the have nots, and I think that…for instance, in the U.K., there has been a period of austerity, and there has been quite a loud response to that, a response of dissatisfaction,” she shares.
“And as a consequence, I think that’s something that is on people’s minds. I think that it’s something that’s happening around the world, and it is a comment from our evolving world in terms of a model of capitalism, which our world tends to focus on more and more. So, as a consequence, it only seems natural to me that that might find its way into our storytelling, particularly in mainstream television.”
Moss and KidmanÂ talked aboutÂ the series’ place alongside other women-centric productions this year, includingÂ their Emmy-nominated The Handmaid’s Tale and Big Little Lies. “I think there’s obviously still work to be done, and it has to continue to be pushed in that direction. We keep making obvious strides, of course. When you look at the landscape of television now and how much content is led by women andÂ made by women, it’s exactly where we should be going because that’s what the audience wants to see,” says Moss.
“And I think that all that’s happened is the people that hold the purse strings, the people who can give the money to do these projects, haveÂ finally…started to realize that [projects by and about women] make money and that people want to watch them. And it’s a very obvious thing in film and television that these things make money, Wonder Woman being the most obvious recent example. So I think that they are finally…catching up with something that the audience has always wanted to see.”
Christie adds that other media are also playing a part. “I think that also with the Internet being so prominent in all of our lives, we are interconnected. We do all now have a voice, and we all have an equal voice, actually, in the realms of the Internet. And what’s being uncovered is that people want to see stories that reflect them,” she adds.
“And as human beings, we are all so unique and different. That needs to be celebrated, and that needs to be explored. And in my opinion, it will only bring us closer to humanity and hopefully having a greater deal of empathy for each other where we see the similarities rather than focusing on the differences.”
Moss points out that although women are front and center, men factor into the story as well. “I think Pyke is our, sort of, representation of our more classic idea of what a good man is, a good, honest man, and I’m happy that we have that character because that is something that obviously exists,” she says.
“At the same time, there are other men that exist as well, and they have different qualities. And we’ve all met our fair share of men that are in arrested development.Â Jane and Gerard…represent people for who they are, without judgment, and the judgment that we have as we view them is our own.”
“But she’s not judging them. And I think that she represents men and women in that way, flawed and vulnerable and complex, and that’s what makes for great stories. That’s what makes for stories that feel real to you. And you feel like you are watching yourself [or] you feel like you are seeing somebody that you know.”
“And all of these characters in this are in some way familiar to me…and I think that’s what makes it so incredibly relatable. Even in the…darker, stranger world that they are in, you can see people that you know, and I think that’s important to have in any story. Right?”
Kidman came straight to China Girl after wrapping Big Little Lies and embraced the challenge of switching characters so quickly. “It’s really like being in acting repertory.Â To go from Celeste to Julia was such a great thing to do, but I loved it,” she says.
“I love that for the two series that I’ve done on TV, I’m sitting with women up here. I know that I’m not sitting up here with a group of men. I’m sitting up here [for China Girl now and Big Little Lies in January] with women, and that means…the roles are here. The roles are in television. That’s really exciting.”
“I think, as an actor, you go where the great roles are. Julia was far easier for me in terms of coming into it than, say, Celeste. Celeste, I played her for six months, and I sort of — was pretty disturbed. WithÂ Julia, it was like I got to come in, and I got to have this fierce exterior with — I think, I would hope, a vulnerable interior, but I also came [into] a series that was already constructed to some very rigorous directing.”
“I had Ari and Jane rigorously directing me, which is reallyÂ exciting, whereas with Jean-Marc, doing Big Little Lies, he was feeling me, and I was feeling my way through that with him. And he kind of would stand back and just capture things, whereas with Jane and Ari, they were both incredibly precise, and they had a very strong idea of what the character should be. So that was exciting. As an actor, it’s so exciting to be part of different directors’ visions and the way in which they work and having to change and mold myself and find the characters. I love doing it.”
China Girl is the first time Englert has worked with her Mom, Campion, and close family friend Kidman. “I really wanted to work for my Mom because we have a relationship that is a working one that we really enjoy that we’ve had ever since I thought I could be good at acting. It exists outside of our mother-daughter relationship, but…you couldn’t have had one without the other,” Englert explains.
“I…heard…when we started doing press, Jane actually did say that she knew I could do Mary, and she knew what I was capable of as an actress and that it’s not so much that she wrote Mary [for] me. But she said that…her knowledge of me as an actress made [her realize I could do it]. We like working together. So I want to be professional for her. And I call her Jane on set. To be honest, I’ve always noticed that “Jane” gets her attention a little bit better than “Mom.”
Englert also acknowledged that Mary is not an easy sell. “I think she’s a young woman, and she’s in love, but she’s also a kid with a broken heart. The other big romance of her life is with the birth mom, and I think that when you become a part of Mary’s life, you know, it’s sort of interesting the way that legend clashes with [reality],” she says.
“I found that Mary wants to choose something for herself in her life. She wants to feel like she has something that is hers, that she has chosen; not that she wasn’t chosen and maybe not wasnâ€™t any good anymore, you know. As the daughter, you see…Mary is prickly and sometimes a little monstrous. She knows [that], and that scares her. And I think you see that as the series comes on.”
“She kind of has to wrestle with the belief that she feels in Puss, who I generally think is a wounded human who is using some truth for his own wounded bias. And that’s why it’s seductive for her, and that’s also why it’s really complicated and it can get scary. So I struggled to get there, and then I got there, and then she struggles too. I can promise you that.”
Kidman’s longtime friendship with Campion and Englert helped inform the onscreen mother/daughter relationship between Julia and Mary. “I feel very at ease with Alice. I do. I feel…affectionate and easy and that we can say and do whatever we want and also take care of each other after a take or, you know, reach out for each other,” she explains.
“So I have an enormous, sort of, ingrained, in-built ease and affection. That’s hard to get. So I’ll take it. I think working with Jane and Alice and being in that mix with them, that also just felt like — we would work on scenes, and then she would pick things out. [There’s] a lot of improvising and finding the structure of the scene as well, and she’s willing to change it and find it, which is beautiful.
“I love that about her, the way she’s kind of just interested in what’s going to be good,” adds Englert of Kidman. “She kind of has taught me that, how to, like, kill your darlings. If something is not working, just get it out, and I love that. It’s exciting working in that way.”
“I find it’s really easy to work with [her]. “I think a lot of people find that when they meet [her], that [she is] very genuine, and…immediate and easy to be with. And, yeah, we had such good improvs. I felt like we knew we wanted to do something weird that we love, and we really invested in mother and daughter relationships because we have them.”
Top of the Lake: China Girl premieres Sunday at 9/8c on Sundance TV with parts 2 and 3 airing Monday and Tuesday at 9/8c. Here are a few sneak peeks.
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