No one evolves like Elisabeth Moss. For eight years on AMC’s Mad Men, Moss grew Peggy Olson from a timid secretary to a confident, tentacle-porn carrying boss. It was one of the great transformations in TV history. As Peggy climbed the punishing corporate ladder of the 1960s, Moss was able to play the pain and absurdity of every single rung.
Newly freed from the advertising business, Moss has taken her talents to the big screen with a series of performances that are startling in their complexity. In 2014’s The One I Love (directed by Charlie McDowell), she played two versions of the same woman – one frustrated, one strangely happy. In Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip she played a difficult writer’s unwilling muse. And in Perry’s new film, Queen of Earth — in limited release and on demand now — she’s Catherine, a young woman rocked by heartbreak who comes apart before our very eyes.
After watching Moss weep and crack across Queen’s 90-minute running time, I was expecting a more intense encounter when she joined me in our Manhattan studio earlier this week. (Moss lives in New York and admitted to being crushed when, after filming the pilot in Queens, Mad Men moved its production to Los Angeles in 2007. Though, as she noted, “that worked out.”) But Moss’s most remarkable transformation may occur off-camera. In person, she is cheery and delightful, quick with a laugh and even quicker to downplay her ability to go dark on command. She arrived in a T-shirt and flip-flops and apologized for eating yogurt near the microphone. “I think acting is super fun!” was her response when I sought to find hidden meaning in her heavy career choices. (Moss has made but one big studio Hollywood film — 2010’s Get Him to the Greek — in the last five years.) What can I say? Talking to her is super fun too. You can listen to our full conversation, which ranged from deep thoughts about her surprisingly uncomplicated process to what she thought of the end of Mad Men, here. Or just enjoy the excerpts below.
As an actor, when you hear a director say “psychological break,” does that make you immediately excited?
[Director Alex Ross Perry] basically goes, “You’re going to go crazy and have a psychological breakdown,” and I go, “I’m in.”
Really? That fast?
Yeah! That’s really fun. I’ve never really done the sort of happy-go-lucky, romantic comedy where everything’s fine. Maybe there is something to that. But this is what I love to do. And I think all actors love to do something where a character is going through turmoil. It’s far more interesting to play than everything is fine.
The other week Kevin Bacon told me something similar: “Well, I’m an actor. I just love to act.” And for those of us who don’t do it for a living, it can be a surprise. You often think about Method actors talking about the toll it takes to reach those dark places.
I can’t speak for other actors, except for Kevin Bacon. [Laughs.] But I’m not a Method actor at all. I’m sort of the opposite — the least amount of research I can do is perfect. I don’t consider acting to be that serious. Obviously, I think it’s an art form. But it’s not different from what I did when I was, like, 5 years old and I was pretending.
Queen of Earth begins with this very powerful shot. The camera is close and you’ve just received devastating news. You have a thousand emotions all at once on your face. So you’re telling me five minutes before that and five minutes after that, you’re joking around with the crew?
If it’s literally a scene where I have to start out in tears like that, then no.
So there’s no magic switch.
I would have to take a few minutes beforehand to get into that place. But I don’t actually consider that I, Lizzie, am in that place. I’m not actually sad. I don’t think somebody just broke up with me. But I am playing the character that thinks that that’s happening. Does that make sense?
That’s probably healthy.
I think it’s for the best. I always say — if I was to think about something that was sad, that’s only going to work like once, and then what am I going to do the next 12 takes? Or what am I going to do the next scene that I have to be sad? Personally for me, that doesn’t work.
Really, how many times can an actor remember watching a childhood pet die? At some point, the dog is gone.
At some point it’s like: It’s been a while. You should get over it.
Let Fido go.
Fido has moved on!
The bulk of Queen of Earth takes place at a lake house and features Katherine Waterston, who plays Virginia, the “best friend” of your character. And I’m putting that in quotes, only because these women are extremely harsh to each other.
The friendship in the movie is very stylized; there’s not a lot of realism. It’s one of those things where you’ve probably been friends for 20 years and you wouldn’t be friends with that person now if you met them at a social event. But it’s too late to not be friends with them.
The momentum is still carrying you.
Exactly. There’s too much history. Now in this specific case in this film, my character, Catherine, is being completely unreasonable, though. She’s not being a good friend. I blame her entirely.
She’s gone mad! Ginny is just trying to have a nice weekend. She’s not really mean to me until Catherine goes crazy.
My thought — I’m realizing I would make a terrible movie — was that on Tuesday Virginia should just call the authorities. Catherine needs to get some help!
Your movie’s like 10 minutes long. Like, “You’re depressed. Let’s call a therapist.” And that’s the end?
It’s more of a PSA, really. Like, “If your best friend hasn’t eaten the salad you made her for six days, call a doctor.”
Or at least her parents.
Did you “get” Peggy Olson right away when you saw the script and auditioned for Matt Weiner?
I’ve always said that whoever I thought Peggy was in that audition was who Matt thought she was. And that’s why I got the part.
It’s such a crazy idea behind auditions: to be in sync with someone that you’ve never met before.
Yeah! That you’d never met before and had never spoken to before. Anyway, I do feel like I got [Peggy], and I don’t know why. We have a lot in common.
You look alike.
We have an uncanny resemblance.
As the series went on, Peggy’s impact on women in my life — friends and family, people beginning their own careers — was something to marvel at.
I didn’t want to make Peggy a woman in the ’60s, I wanted to make her a woman of any time. Matt and I talked about wanting her to be like Marty, that kind of person you could identify with that just seemed to keep having these struggles and keep banging her head against the wall. I think that might have helped for people to identify with her because she wasn’t a caricature of a woman experiencing sexism. I wanted to show what it would be like if I, Lizzie, were to experience what Peggy experiences in that office in that first season, when the sexism is most rampant.
In terms of long-running TV shows, the extent of Peggy’s arc is remarkable.
I went from 23 to 32 on the show. I might, if I’m lucky, be on another long-running show again. But that experience of me growing up over those pivotal years and then allowing that to inform the character — I don’t think I’ll have quite that same thing again.
During the hiatus between Mad Men seasons 5 and 6, you went to New Zealand and made Top of the Lake, a brilliant miniseries that was my number-one show of 2013. Other than how to live in New Zealand for four months, what did you learn from it?
It was the first time that I’d ever been number one on the call sheet in such a significant project. I’d been playing Peggy for five seasons and I thought I had gotten pretty good at that. And then, frankly, I was a little nervous to see if I could do something else. I became a stronger actor. I worked 55 days on the show in a row, which is pretty rare. Not rare for a crew member — those guys work super hard! [But] you’d be doing a scene where you were running and then you’d be doing a breakup scene, then a sex scene, then you’d shoot somebody, like all in one day.
That’s just a typical Tuesday for you, I imagine.
It was like the acting Olympics. It was a strengthening exercise. So I was able to take that strength and complexity back to Peggy and add another dimension to her. Mad Men has had a very strange way of paralleling my real life. Like, sometimes it comes before something happening in my life, and sometimes it mimics something.
It’s super weird.
Like in terms of, you bought a sexualized octopus painting in your real life and—
Maybe I did. [Laughs.] No, I wish I had that painting. It’s far more literal. Like, in the case of Season 5 with Top of the Lake, I knew I was coming back to the show, because I asked Matt …
… that was the hiatus right after Peggy had left the office?
Yeah. So when he called and told me you’re leaving SCDP to go to CGC, I was like, “Uh-huh, that sounds great. What do you mean?”
“Am I done?”
Yeah, what happens to Peggy? And he was like, “Are you crazy? I would never do that.” He was, like, mad at me for asking. So I knew I was coming back to the show, but I didn’t know in what capacity. Or when.
Because he’s done some traumatic things to people; moved them in, moved them out.
A lot has been mentioned about your chemistry with Jon Hamm, and some of the best moments from the show are obviously between Peggy and Don. But I want to talk about the comic chemistry between you and John Slattery. I mean, think of that amazing scene where you shake him down for cash!
We loved doing that scene! I just tried to do a straight-up Roger Sterling imitation, which I didn’t tell him at the time. I told him later, “I was totally trying to do you,” by, like, putting my feet up on the desk and acting super cool. Every time we got a scene together — because we rarely had scenes together — we were both giddy.
And I think Weiner knew it, too, because he steered the ending toward the two of you. You roller-skating, drunk on vermouth, while he plays piano.
[Slattery] does such a beautiful job in that scene — I get chills talking about it. And obviously there was so much that was about real life. We were basically saying that we were going to miss the show.
I was very moved by the last season as a whole, because it was so meta in the way it considered endings, how we can’t manage or predict them — in art or in life.
It was really helpful for us to be able to have the real emotions of this chapter coming to an end, and to be able to let that inform some of your interactions with the characters. It made a lot of the scenes very easy in a way. Because when you know that you’re saying goodbye to Vinny [Kartheiser] and you’re not going to necessarily act on camera with him again, it makes it very easy to deliver with some sense of emotional depth.
So, two more specific things about the ending. You mentioned that Matt would talk to you about where things were going. At what point did he tell you about where he wanted to leave Peggy? Or was it a surprise to you when you got back to set?
I’m trying to think. I knew about the Coca-Cola ending for, like, about four years.
Did you really?
Yeah, I knew about it for a long time. And by the way, anyone can tell me secrets. I am clearly a very good secret keeper. I knew about the fact that he goes to that, whatever it’s called …
Wow! So how did he tell you about the Coca-Cola thing? Was he just like, in passing, “Oh by the way, lockbox, but — ”
We’re pretty close and we used to talk on the phone a lot, for hours. And [writers] often will float things past you or tell you their ideas. Not that they expect you to say anything, or expect any critique. But it’s just a little bit of, “I wonder what this person is going to say about it.”
But you could’ve been like “Eh … ”
Yes, I totally could have!
Wow, you have real power.
I don’t think I have that much power. But it would’ve put a damper on things if I’d been like, “Ugh, that’s the worst. Thank god you have a few years to rethink it.”
For the record, you’re currently wearing a Coca-Cola T-shirt that says “The Real Thing!” Which is incredibly on brand, and much appreciated.
I’m very excited!
But you didn’t get that four years ago as your wink to the world?
No. Can you imagine if I was just wearing this Coke shirt for four years? Matt would kill me! Anyway, yeah, he told me about that, but about Peggy specifically being with Stan? I feel like I knew during Season 7. But you have to understand, everyone’s very close [on the show]. We were so lame. We would sit around and talk about what we thought was going to happen, like fans. It was so pathetic.
So what did you fan out over for yourself?
I never thought that [Peggy] would take over Don’s job or anything. Because that’s not possible; she’s too young. And then I thought that just a promotion would be sort of lame. I didn’t know that Joan was going to offer her that job. I didn’t know that until I saw the script, I think.
I liked that a lot. Because it hinted at a fan-servicey thing, but stayed true to the show.
Totally. The audience would’ve loved it. It would’ve been super cool. Everyone loves Joan and Peggy together, we totally get it, but like it’s not realistic.
Peggy’s an ad person. That’s what she does.
Thank you! Thank you very much! That’s what I’ve been telling people.
OK, so I have to push back on you a little bit on the Stan thing. I loved watching it, but I didn’t want it to happen.
You didn’t want her to end up with Stan?
Not because I don’t love him and love them together. But I loved everything about the slow arc of Peggy — I knew she would be fine. She was the one character I didn’t worry about. I thought that her career would be great and creative and long. And I loved that she had this wonderful, emotionally fulfilling work relationship with him.
Right. You wanted it to stay there?
I mean, we don’t know that they didn’t just immediately break up and become friends again.
That’s true, it doesn’t matter.
Because it is a fictional television show, we should say that.
Right, we should clarify.
Did you at any moment resist it, or were you into it?
I thought it was cool. I didn’t necessarily think it had to happen, and I think I would’ve been fine with her alone at home with her cat; I also like that kind of ending as well.
And her sweet neighbor kid.
And her sweet neighbor kid.
Although, he moved away.
Yeah, he did move, unfortunately, to New Jersey.
So he’s basically dead.
I’m not going to say that! But, you know, Peggy’s never been lucky in love. And I just personally like that she had that. I also liked the way we did it. I loved that phone call. That was very His Girl Friday. I love the idea of the person you’re ending up with is right under your nose. But I also don’t think it should define who she is or define her arc on the show.
That’s the thing with endings, though. They leave a mark. And I just felt, and I still do, that the long phone calls, when they’d be like, “Stay on the phone with me,” were some of the most romantic things on the show — or on TV. They were the most real, sweet moments.
So what, she’s just supposed to have that?!? That’s so frustrating!
You caught me. I’m a terrible judge of what audiences want.
I totally get what you’re saying, and that would’ve been nice, but like, that’s not an ending.
No, let Peggy be happy.
Let her be happy! For god’s sakes, let her have a boyfriend, just one boyfriend that likes her and isn’t an asshole!
OK, you’ve talked me into it. Before I let you go, I do want to ask about the Emmys, which are happening next month. It is an insane thing that Mad Men has never won a performing Emmy. What’s up with this? How can this be?
I know. Speaking objectively, it is difficult for me to understand [specifically] about Jon [Hamm]. Because I just feel that he is Mad Men — he is the show. So it’s difficult for me to understand the sort of reverence that the show is treated with, and then … I don’t get it.
This is your seventh nomination. When they get to your category, will you still have butterflies?
It’s terrible. I often don’t remember the moment when the camera’s on me and they’re like, “And the winner is,” or whatever they say. I’ll turn to my mom or whoever’s with me and be like, “Did I smile? What did I do?”
You have to sort of do a knowing nod, right? And a big smile.
Yes. You know who said the best thing once, she described it the best way, was Tina Fey. She said — it was years ago — she said, “No matter how many times you lose, the moment right before they call the name you like to think you might win.” Even if you have fully, 100 percent convinced yourself that it’s not going to happen, and you’ve spent months doing that, just in that two-, three-second gap, it’s anyone’s game. [Laughs.]
I don’t want to jinx you, but do you prepare a little bit just in case?
No. I’ve learned not to do that. Because it doesn’t matter. You’re so nervous when you go up there you’re going to forget anyways. And if you prepare something and then you don’t win, which is what happens 99 percent of the time, you feel like an asshole. So it’s just best not to think about it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.