There’s plenty of Courtney Love in Becky Something, the jaded punk rocker Elisabeth Moss plays in noted indie director Alex Ross Perry’s new film Her Smell, which plays SXSW March 9 before its April 12 release. A ’90s-era frontwoman struggling to write the album that will keep her all-female trio afloat, Becky is brash, intellectual and does have platinum locks. But Perry insists that when he and frequent collaborator Moss (who goes by Lizzie) created the character, they didn’t have any model in mind. “This is a movie about an explosively fractured personality,” he says. “If I [set out] saying, ‘I’m going to write the definitive woman in rock in the ’90s’ or ‘write the definitive addict,’ there’s no way I could do that.” Adds Moss, who plays guitar and piano and sings onscreen: “I tried to give Becky as much realism as possible — to give her levels and vulnerability and to show the cracks.” To credibly portray Becky and her band, Perry, Moss and the cast created their own school of rock.
How did you ensure that Something She, Becky’s group, felt like a real band?
Perry: We got their guitars together from Rivington Guitars. A friend of mine named Howie runs the store, he and his wife used to be our downstairs neighbors. At one point I went in there with [castmembers] Lizzie, Agyness [Deyn] and Ashley Benson. We played him the music and asked, “What is era appropriate? What piece of equipment tells a story?” And that’s what they all practiced with. [Moss] sent videos of her practicing in Toronto on the set of Handmaid’s Tale. On set we had people around to just jam with the actors whenever they had a spare 15 minutes. If we wrapped 40 minutes early, that was 40 minutes of band practice.
Moss: It’s actually impossible to learn to play the guitar in four months and I knew that. I come from a family of musicians so I have a deep respect for the craft. All I needed to do was learn to look like I [was] playing it. I got some good callouses going on my fingers [that] I was pretty proud of. I had a piano put in my dressing room with the keys labeled in tape, so I could practice every day.
Lizzie, you had a week between Handmaid’s Tale wrapping and Her Smell beginning. How did you make the jump from Offred to Becky in that short span of time?
Moss: Honestly you just don’t think; you jump into the deep end. I had thought about it for so long and worked on the script with Alex and learned the music and done all my research. So it was very much a part of me. But you can think about it and plan as much as you want, and it’s not the same as actually doing it. You can’t prep for the reality of it or that character. I knew it had to be bigger and faster and crazier than anything I’ve ever done. It required being at the top of my energy level at all times, right when I was at my most exhausted after filming season two of Handmaid’s.
What did you read to ground yourself in the era?
Perry: I tried not to read memoirs because then you’re just soaking up a lot of one person’s experience. There’s a great book called Girls to the Front [by Sara Marcus] that’s a history of Riot Grrrl. I read a zine called Lady Parts, another called Her Jazz. And the 33 1/3 series about as many of the relevant albums as I could. Then I exposed Lizzie to as much of this music as possible — which she knew, by her own admission, absolutely nothing about.
Moss: I grew up with jazz and blues because that’s where my family’s careers were, and then classical because of my ballet training. I can name any Gershwin tune for you but I couldn’t tell you who Nirvana was when I was like, 12. So this was a real education for me.
At what point did that whole world feel less foreign?
Moss: When I was on stage in costume and in hair and makeup and singing live into the mic with a band behind me. That’s really when it all came together. We were so nervous before we did our first take of “Another Girl Another Planet,” which opens the film. And then after the first take we all were backstage, Aggy, [castmember] Gayle [Rankin] and I looked at each other — and I just said “Again!” We wanted to do it over and over and over. I can totally see how you get addicted to that high. I mean in this case the extras are paid to cheer and sing along, but still: it was pretty cool to be a rock star for a day or two.
Did you all have a shared playlist?
Perry: Lizzie, Agyness, Gayle and myself had a big email chain. Agyness grew up in Manchester, England in the ’90s and her encyclopedic knowledge of music from that era put everyone to shame. She took the lead and sent documentaries about The Slits and The Raincoats that she’d seen on BBC. One was so good, called Girls in Bands. The Culture Show’s “Girls Will Be Girls” [episode] is another one. I just loved seeing that footage.
Plenty of Riot Grrrl groups didn’t have the financial success that Something She experiences.
Perry: You can read all the books you want about Riot Grrrl but the stakes of all those bands even at their peak were so personal that by their own design they never became financial or professional in the way that a movie like Her Smell [makes it happen]. To work for an average viewer, there [needed to be] a lot of money riding on this band. We looked at Elastica and The Breeders, bands that were on major labels or major independent labels that were hooky enough. Looking at the narrative of Elastica, it’s like these two women and this band and one perfect record. There’s a poorly considered second album [followed by an] immediate breakup. In terms of arc, Jawbreaker and Guns N’ Roses were also bands that never figured out how to be moving forward and not backwards at the same time.
Did the cast go to any shows before filming?
Perry: Gayle somehow knows Jennifer Finch from L7 and when they came to New York [on tour], a bunch of us went to see them. The band approved of the title Her Smell. So anytime someone says, “What a gross title,” I say, “Trust me, you don’t know what you’re talking about.”