Top of the Lake: Elisabeth Moss, Holly Hunter and an international cast stun in Sundance Channel’s Jane Campion mini

Channel Guide recently sat down with cast-members Elisabeth Moss and Holly Hunter, and co-executive producer Iain Canning, to discuss Top of the Lake, Jane Campion’s engrossing seven-part miniseries for Sundance Channel, which premieres March 18 at 9pm ET/PT.

Twelve-year-old Tui Mitcham has a secret.

Truth is, the girl seems made up entirely of the collective secrets of Laketop, the squalid New Zealand town where she lives with her charismatic thug of a father and grown half-brothers who haven’t fallen far from their patriarchal tree. After her failed suicidal march into the neighboring lake reveals that this child is with child, Tui goes missing. And all those hidden truths spill forth in Jane Campion’s stellar miniseries Top of the Lake, which premieres on Sundance Channel March 18 having debuted at January’s Sundance Film Festival — the first television project ever to do so.

Top of the Lake also marks the first time Campion reunites with actress Holly Hunter since both won Oscars for Campion’s 1993 tour de force The Piano. Fans of that movie and other Campion-crafted works like Sweetie and Holy Smoke will recognize her signature themes in this project, too. Damaged mothers. Dangerous fathers. Sons and daughters steeped in the failings of their families and surroundings. The mystery of Tui’s fate may be the skeleton of the story, but the emotional entanglements common to all of Top of the Lake’s characters, major and minor — parent and child, man and woman, woman and self — are clearly its heart and guts.

The series is shot in the muted palette of grays, browns and blues of the New Zealand mountains in which it was shot, and the result is a claustrophobic world of stunning physical beauty and human abomination brought to life by a top-notch international cast that includes Hunter, Mad Men star Elisabeth Moss and award-winning Scottish actor Peter Mullan.

According to co-executive producer Iain Canning (The King’s Speech), Top of the Lake sprang from discussions he had with Campion about the remote New Zealand locale in which she keeps a summer retreat. “She said wouldn’t it be great to tell a longer-form story about this place and all of the different aspects of humanity that she wanted to explore,” he says. “We just went along with the ride.”

Campion herself seems eerily present in Hunter’s character GJ, the enigmatic and reluctant spiritual leader of a commune of off-kilter fortysomething women who’ve set up camp on a plot of lakeside land known as Paradise. The ladies serve as a sort of human shorthand for the foibles of women of a certain age; we get to know their leader only through her reactions to others. For Hunter, seeing that on the page was downright daunting — even though Campion was convinced she was perfect for the part.

“I completely love Jane and was tickled that she would see me in the part,” Hunter smiles. “But I was like, ‘I don’t know the way in! But I trust that there is a way in because you are telling me there is.’ So, on that basis, I said yes. From any other director, it would have been hard to say yes.”

The sole bit of backstory we get about the androgynous oddball comes from her single encounter with Tui (newcomer Jacqueline Joe), who visits the camp out of equal parts curiosity and allegiance to her family, who claim squatter’s rights to Paradise. While GJ’s followers talk only about themselves, the guileless Tui gets right to the point: “What happened to you?”

“A calamity,” GJ tells her. “It was as if I was hit by lightning. Every cell in my body changed.” What sort of calamity, we never find out. But it rendered the tiny, often-motionless creature anchored firmly in the reality everyone around her seems so desperate to avoid.

“In a way I think this character experienced death — a real kind of physically felt, mental, emotional, psychological death,” explains Hunter. “That’s why she does have these followers. But she doesn’t want the followers — she doesn’t feel like that was in the lightning. She feels that that wasn’t something she would ever wish on anyone. They interpret that as enlightenment, but for her, the pain was unimaginable.”

As is the internal suffering of Moss’ Detective Robin Griffin, a former resident of Laketop who has returned to see her ailing mom and “have a think” about her faltering engagement. Griffin is drawn into Tui’s case with local cop Al Parker (Australian actor David Wenham), which unleashes a tidal wave of horrors from her past. For Mad Men fans — Campion counts herself among them — the role displays an astonishingly earthy side of the actress who so memorably embodies Peggy Olson.

“There’s a freedom that exists on Mad Men in playing Peggy that’s like no other,” says Moss, who aced a Sydney accent to play Griffin. “It’s my home. It’s my favorite character to play. This was freeing in a different way. It was uncomfortable. It was strange. And I was developing it from scratch, so that was very scary.”

Scrubbed free of makeup and dressed in workout clothes, her turquoise eyes projecting everything, Moss is a mighty presence, sprinting, brawling and shooting guns, all the while battling (and occasionally indulging) her demons. “It was exhilarating,” Moss says. “It feels like you’re in the acting Olympics — now you’re going to yell, now you’re going to fight, now you’re going to cry and you do it all in one day. I like it that way!”

Mullan’s drug-peddling don Matthew Mitcham is grubby and grizzled in a way instantly familiar to anyone who has sat among the locals in a small-town tavern — but with layers of intelligence and industriousness and a bottomless well of evil born curiously of his religious faith. Even though they are the center of Laketop’s moral abyss, Matt’s sons are named Mark, Luke and John. That’s no coincidence. And you find yourself wishing the elder Mitcham was in every scene.

Canning, Hunter and Moss agree that Top of the Lake would have been woefully underserved in a feature-length format. “When you’ve got seven episodes, you can show your hand slowly,” says Moss. “I think this really allowed Jane to just bust open and show all of her colors.”

And with her deft touch, the show’s intrinsic rawness — bracing, sexual and violent in a way that would be prohibitive on most networks — is effortless and authentic. “Jane is a rare jewel in her ability to compute detail about what makes us human,” says Hunter. “She has a very curious lack of judgment in her life. There’s no ceiling that she puts on people.”

Top of the Lake > Sundance Channel > Mondays beginning March 18

Video: Sundance Channel
Images: Sundance Channel/Photo Credit: Parisa Taghizadeh

About Lori Acken

Lori just hasn't been the same since "thirtysomething" and "Northern Exposure" went off the air.
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