Top of the Lake: Jane Campion's new scandal melodrama starring the extraordinary Elisabeth Moss

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Mad Men star Elisabeth Moss wasn't even the first choice for the lead role in Jane Campion's New Zealand-set mystery series, Top of the Lake, which comes to BBC2 next week. But she's been a revelation, as the director tells Gerard Gilbert

Jane Campion is a surprisingly giggly woman, not at all what you'd expect from the New Zealand film-maker who made that beautifully restrained love story, The Piano, the poetic Bright Star, or the dankly erotic In the Cut. And her first foray into television, Top of the Lake, about the search for a missing 12-year-old girl, has moments of equally unexpected levity. It's slightly more Twin Peaks than The Killing.

"I really love David Lynch," she says. "Blue Velvet made me faint with delight, and Twin Peaks was incredible… so I guess I am an apostle." She even promises a homage to Lynch in one of the later episodes (I have seen the first two), but warns not to take the comparison too far. "I have to be myself even if I am inspired by him".

Top of the Lake, a BBC co-production with Sundance Channel in the States (it's already been shown to great acclaim in America), is set amid the majestic scenery of New Zealand's South Island – the same location where Peter Jackson filmed The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogy. "We came after The Hobbit, and the locals were a bit disappointed because our purse was a lot smaller," laughs Campion.

Her first New Zealand-set drama since The Piano, Top of the Lake has quite a lot in common with the 1993 film. The Piano begins with a woman (played by Holly Hunter) emerging from the crashing waves, while this drama starts with a girl walking into water, seemingly to drown herself. Hunter also co-stars in Top of the Lake, and while she's not quite as mute as her character in The Piano, she does confine herself here to the gnomic utterances that have made her character into something of a guru figure at a refuge for damaged women that is encamped at the eponymous lake.

Meanwhile, the central role in Top of the Lake – that of the policewoman investigating the girl's disappearance – was originally intended for True Blood actor Anna Paquin, who, as a child, played Hunter's daughter in The Piano, winning an Oscar at the age of 11. In the event, Paquin was pregnant, and the role went to Elisabeth Moss from Mad Men. Moss, who "somehow got hold of the script", and asked for an audition. "We were still thinking of English, Australian or New Zealand actors," says Campion. "But when she declared her interest, I thought, 'This can't do us any harm… she's a fantastic actor and I love Mad Menn.'"

In fact, Moss won a Critics' Choice Television Awards for the role last month. "Lizzie was great," says Campion. "She said to me, 'I want to be really pushed in this' and it's really quite nice because it gives you permission to go 'OK, we'll really go for it today'."

Moss is indeed captivating, despite a wandering accent that often sounds more English than Kiwi. Peter Mullan, as Matt Mitcham, the father of the missing girl, is allowed to speak in his native Aberdeenshire voice. "There are a lot of Scottish people in New Zealand," says Campion in defence of this decision. "I didn't feel it was too weird."

Mullan, in a greasy long wig that makes him look like a veteran Hells Angel ("very sexy," reckons Campion), first caught the director's eye in Tyrannosaur, putting in his world-class hard-man act familiar to anyone who saw the recent ITV series The Fear. "I think alpha males are really kind of fascinating," says Campion. "Difficult but also charismatic. Peter talked a lot about the guys he knows from Scotland, his sister works in a high-security jail and he met quite a few of those guys… he felt like he knew the territory."

Equal, in her own sweet way, to Mullan's bad-ass Mitcham is Holly Hunter's "GJ", the leader of a distinctly alternative women's refuge camped in shipping-container homes on the shore of the lake. With "bum-length grey hair", Hunter's character bears a striking physical resemblance to Campion herself. Was this intentional? "A lot of people have commented on that," says Campion with what has quickly become a trademark laugh. "I didn't really see it because Holly's so tiny."

Hunter was at first inclined to turn down the role that would have reunited her with the writer-director who created her Academy Award- winning part in The Piano. "I called Holly up, and I think she was calling back to refuse but I didn't understand," says Campion of a happy confusion. "She got off the phone and told her partner she was doing it and he said, 'What? I thought you were going to refuse?'"

Campion's cinema films have often been described as "novelistic", and although strictly speaking Top of the Lake isn't her first TV drama (her 1990 biography of Janet Frame, An Angel at My Table, was made for television, but exhibited in cinemas), this quality is what attracted her to the small screen. "I was thinking like a novel and I was really inspired by some of the HBO series like Deadwood. Television is actually commissioning amazing material now and in a way it has a more loyal and more interesting audience than film."

Asking about how the plot of Top of the Lake came together elicits a glimpse into her creative process. "One day I was down in this area because I have a hut there," she says, kick-starting a stream of consciousness. "I was starting to feel stimulated by this idea of a mystery story… I went for a walk and saw a container… a burnt-out tree root… organic and tough… and the image of a girl walking into a lake… I don't know where that comes from.

"I also love crime-mystery, and I like scandal as well. We've got the low-brow aspect to it, but I also like investing in it to make it more alive," she says, before light-heartedly summarising the genre to which Top of the Lake belongs. "Yup, it's a sort of scandal melodrama."

'Top of the Lake' begins on 13 July at 9.10pm on BBC2

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine