The naked eye on a film set can’t appreciate how skilled Elisabeth Moss has become as an actress.
That’s according to Ariel Kleiman, who co-directed “Top of the Lake: China Girl,” a three-night miniseries in which Moss returns for a second round as troubled detective Robin Griffin.
Like the first installment of the mystery drama series, “Top of the Lake,” which aired in 2013, “China Girl” underscores how Moss has quietly risen to become one of the most charismatic and intriguing actresses working in TV today.
Kleiman laughs that he’d never seen Moss in anything except the first “Top of the Lake” when he signed with creator Jane Campion to co-direct “China Girl,” premiering Sunday at 9 p.m. on Sundance.
The Australian director has an idea why Moss, 35, has risen so far.
“There are some actors who, off the screen, you might not think are doing much,” he tells the Daily News. “But when you put a camera on them, they light the screen up.
“Elisabeth is one of those. She has the ability to express so much emotion while looking like she’s doing very little. As a director, it’s a lot of fun to work with that.”
Moss first made her mark as Zoey Bartlet, the teenage daughter of Martin Sheen’s Josiah Bartlet on “The West Wing.” She soon vaulted upward into Peggy Olson, a 1960s career woman fighting almost indescribable odds as the female interloper in the testosterone -driven world of “Mad Men.”
She won a Golden Globe for the first “Top of the Lake” series in 2013 and she has been nominated for a fistful of awards as Offred in the Hulu series “A Handmaid’s Tale,” whose second season will roll out next year.
In “China Girl,” her detective character Griffin has just returned to the job after taking time off to deal with personal and professional trauma. She is soon investigating the murder of a teenage girl while navigating the wrenching process of reconnecting with the teenage girl she herself gave up at birth.
Alice Englert plays the adopted child, Mary, while her parents are played by Ewen Leslie and Nicole Kidman. Mary’s life has recently been ominously complicated by her infatuation with “Puss” Braun (David Dencik), a 42-year-old hustler with ties to the porn and sex trades.
Griffin also has an inexperienced and somewhat neurotic new police partner, Miranda Hilmarson (Gwendoline Christie, who plays Brienne of Tarth on “Game of Thrones”).
Like Moss’ Peggy Olson and Offred, Robin Griffin is a character dealing with a world that seems to have toppled over on its side. She wants to put it back the way she knows it should be, which often leaves her frustrated and exasperated.
For that reason, Kleiman says, it’s critical that a story as dark as “China Girl” have respites for breathing space and humor.
“That undulation of tone is something I include in all my work,” he says. “That’s what life is about, moments of tragedy followed by moments of absurdity. You have to make them work together.”
Campion’s writing, he says, does that.
“These characters are so raw,” he says. “They are so extreme in their behavior that they’re very true to the human experience. Even the darkest characters have many shades.”
Moss said in a 2013 interview that she was drawn to the complexity of Griffin’s character. She likened Griffin to Peggy Olson in the sense that each is so focused on a goal that other areas of their lives fall apart.
“Robin’s our hero, but she’s so flawed,” says Kleiman. “The way Jane has written her, and Elisabeth plays her, brings her to life in spite of the fact she’s not 100% likeable.”
Not to worry. The camera gets it.