Pierce: Sundance reels us in to 'Top of the Lake'

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Elisabeth Moss ran toward her role in the Sundance Channel miniseries "Top of the Lake" because of Jane Campion, while Holly Hunter tried to run away from the film — only to be reeled in by the Oscar-winning writer/director.

"The whole idea of doing this was kind of scary to me," said Moss ("Mad Men"). She plays police detective Robin Griffin, who returns home to a remote New Zealand town to investigate the disappearance of a 12-year-old girl, in "Top of the Lake," which premieres Monday at 10 p.m. on the Sundance Channel (with multiple repeats throughout the week). And the missing girl is five months pregnant.

Moss had to master a Kiwi accent and play her character in some very tough situations. But "I was on board from the word 'Jane,' " Moss said. "It was sort of a marathon, physically and emotionally. But that's what you do it for."

Still, she worried about the role — something very different from Peggy on "Mad Men" or Zoey Bartlet on "The West Wing."

"I remember calling my mom and saying, 'I don't know if I know how to do this. I don't know what I'm doing. I've never done this before.' And that's exactly, as an actor, where you want to be," she said. "You want to be scared. You want to be in that place where you've never done it before."

"Top of the Lake" marked Moss' first collaboration with Campion. Hunter and Campion have a history — they teamed up 20 years ago in "The Piano," and both won Oscars.

Hunter didn't jump onboard because she didn't see herself playing GJ, a decidedly odd, enigmatic woman who survived a lightning strike and is the leader of a decidedly odd group of women living in shipping containers next to the lake.

"I didn't see it," Hunter said. "And Jane really did. You just trust Jane. You take a leap. Or Jane pushes you. And she pushed me a little bit. I couldn't say no to her, but I sure wanted to because I didn't see myself in the part.

"Then as I began to work on it, I saw a way in."

Hunter is almost unrecognizable in "Top of the Lake"; GJ is more than a bit androgynous and somewhat hidden under a wig.

"When Jane offered me the part, she said, 'You're going to get to wear a long, gray wig,' " Hunter said. "And I was, like, 'That's cool. That can be fun.' "

"Top of the Lake" isn't exactly fun — it's a deliberately paced seven-part miniseries that deals with some very tough events. It is at once violent and disturbing, engrossing and absolutely gorgeous to look at. The miniseries has such a theatrical look that it was screened at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City in January.

"For actors and directors, that's incredibly exciting," Hunter said.

Scott D. Pierce covers television for The Salt Lake Tribune. Email him at spierce@sltrib.com; follow him on Twitter @ScottDPierce.