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Photograph: Ben Rayner

Elisabeth Moss talks Mad Men, Broadway and feminism

Nobody puts Peggy in a corner—the actress opens up about her roles as a trailblazing ad mogul in Mad Men and as a feminist artist in her new Broadway play

Written by
Kara Mayer Robinson
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On a frigid evening, Elisabeth Moss ducks into midtown trattoria Casa Nonna, sheds her winter hat and wool coat and slides into a corner booth. Although she’s been pulling long hours and hasn’t had a day off in 10—she’s starring in The Heidi Chronicles, a revival of the Pulitzer Prize–winning play by Wendy Wasserstein—she seems upbeat, even jocular. Moss plays the lead in the show (which opens March 19), a feminist art historian making her way through the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, opposite Jason Biggs and Bryce Pinkham. This is her second big role as a forward-thinking woman in not so progressive times. Before Heidi Holland, of course, there was Peggy Olson, the initially mousy but ultimately badass adwoman in Mad Men—whose style evolution you can gawp at here—which returns for its final seven episodes on April 5.

Over a Moscow mule and lobster-and-burrata salad, the 32-year-old actor digs into these roles and delves, slightly hesitantly, into her life offscreen. It’s a breezy conversation—so much so that we both lose track of the time and have eaten into her cover shoot [view behind-the-scenes photos here]. “Oh, my God, how did it get to be 6-fucking-40?” she laughs midway through talking about one of her Mad Men costars. “Do you want to ride with me to 28th? We’ll just keep talking.”

So your schedule’s pretty grueling these days?
Yeah, I’m a little tired. This is our fourth week of rehearsals. And I did Letterman last night.

How’d that go?
It was great. I was pretty nervous. I don’t like public speaking, and I get a little bit of stage fright. My knees and hands will shake. I have this thing where my heart pounds so loud that my mike can pick it up. I’ve had several sound people come up to me and move my mike. There’s actually a scene in this film I did, Queen of Earth, where you hear it. [The filmmaker] left it in, because it’s kind of a really weird, creepy movie. 

Are you nervous about the opening of The Heidi Chronicles?
The thing about this play is that it’s more than I’ve ever done onstage. It’s a bigger part, it’s more challenging. So I don’t know, after a week, you don’t feel that way anymore, but it’s really scary at first. And yet you go back for more!

How have you prepared for the role?
I’m reading Isn’t It Romantic, another Wendy Wasserstein play. I’m going back and forth between Wasserstein and books on women artists, because there’s a lot in The Heidi Chronicles. I’m also reading [Virginia Woolf’s] A Room of One’s Own, a very feminist book.

You’re becoming an ace at playing feminists—first Peggy and now Heidi. Is this by design?
Not at all. It wasn’t my idea; the producer came to me with it. There are some similarities for sure between Peggy and Heidi, so I can see why Jeffrey [Richards], our producer, thought, Oh, she would be good in it. I’m interested in women who are complicated and strong, yet vulnerable, dealing with some of the same questions.

There’s a lot of talk these days about what feminism is. For a while, some celebs, like Shailene Woodley and Lady Gaga, were saying they’re not feminists because it equates to being a man hater or somesuch.
I don’t know where that came from. It’s a total misconception. Feminist became a little bit of a dirty word for absolute ridiculous, wrong reasons, for reasons that I don’t think I or any of my friends subscribe to. Listen, I can’t speak for everybody, but I love men. I think men are fantastic. I don’t think wanting more for women means that anything has to be taken away from men.

Let’s talk about Mad Men. Do you think Peggy has grown?
Peggy’s come a really, really long way, but that basic kind of problem or question or insecurity doesn’t change. The overriding theme of the show is: Do people change? I think a strong theory presented by the show is that they don’t. There was a scene in the last episode where Peggy pitches an ad campaign to the folks at Burger Chef.

Was that a pivotal moment?
Very much so. It’s this poetic speech that’s moving and beautiful. She spins it as if it’s personal and coming from her heart. Then, ultimately, it’s about selling burgers. That’s advertising. I love when we do that on the show—making some big, deep, meaningful moment about, like, Hershey’s chocolate bars. I feel like that was the moment where she finds her own identity and uses a lot of what Don [Draper] has taught her but becomes herself.

Will she ever reunite with the baby she gave up for adoption?
I could never in a million years tell you, if I even did know the answer. It seems to me very present on everyone’s mind, but I think that people have to remember the time that she lived in. If you had given a baby away, that would be the end of that. Peggy will have to live with that her whole life, if you can ever really move on from such a thing. She would never talk about it.

Now for the million-dollar question: How will Mad Men end?
It’s never gonna be what people think. It just won’t—we’ve never done that. You can guess, maybe, little things, but as far as what happens to Don Draper? No, you won’t, which is great. I remember what happens in the last episode, but honestly, if you ask me what happened at any point before that, I don’t know if I’d be able to tell you. You can torture me, and I will not be able to tell you. I’ve done four films since then and then this play, and I don’t have the best memory anyways. I’ve sort of left it behind in a lot of ways.

Why does everybody love Jon Hamm?
He’s a really nice person, and people respond to that. He has no idea how good he is or what he looks like. That’s fantastic, because if he did, he’d be such an asshole. [Laughs] If you’re a semidecent person, you don’t go around thinking you’re God’s gift.

He’s also hilarious. Who else from the cast cracks you up?
[John] Slattery is one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. Oh, my God, he’s hilarious. So smart and witty.

I’ve heard the whole cast used to hang out on set in a space you call “base camp.”
It started with this little white table, folding chairs and an umbrella on a sidewalk outside the stages. It developed from there. I bought a fountain. Jon bought a bigger tent. The crew built lattice walls. Last season, we had a double, two-level wooden deck with a cover and an outdoor fireplace and patio chairs. Not to toot my own horn but I did start bringing stuff, and I became president of base camp. [Laughs] I had two vice presidents.

Is it true you don’t like talking about acting?
Totally. It’s really hard for me to put things into words. And it always sounds so pretentious when you talk about acting, doesn’t it? How can you talk about it and not sound like a total dork?

Do you think about it, though?
I’m not that precious about it. I’m a pretty simple person. I don’t think too deeply about myself. I’ll overanalyze, like any girl, a relationship. You know what I mean? [Laughs] I am a girl, so I’ll overanalyze a text conversation or a date to death.

Have you developed any major relationship insights?
Women, especially, can be such caretakers. We’re just naturally good at taking care of shit. Learning to take care of yourself is something I’ve definitely gotten better at as I’ve gotten older. When you’re in your twenties, if a guy reads a certain kind of book or listens to a certain kind of music, you’ll become an expert on it. I think all girls do that. All of a sudden, you love Hootie & the Blowfish or whatever. Then you get a little older, and you realize that’s probably not the best thing to do.

Can I ask if you’re dating anyone?
You can ask. Kerry Washington says it really good—she says, “I don’t talk about my personal life with the press, but I’m happy to talk about anything else.” I love Kerry Washington, so…

Do you watch Scandal?
I do and I love it!

What are your shows?
Oh, my God, now this is a subject I will talk about! I love Scandal, The Good Wife, Parenthood. Did you see the end? Were you bawling? I love that show, and I don’t understand why I can’t watch it anymore. It’s not fair. Downton Abbey I’m watching. Before that, I watched Fargo. So good. You have to watch. It’s really, really well acted. The woman, I’m blanking on the name, who took the Frances McDormand role [Editor’s note: It’s Allison Tolman], Colin Hanks…

Colin Hanks—wait—didn’t he costar with you on Mad Men?
Yeah, Pastor What’s-his-name. He was in it. He’s fantastic.

How’s it going now that you’re squarely in New York? Do you miss L.A.?
No. I’m not a fan of L.A. I was born and raised there, so I feel like I can say that. I love New York. Everything is right outside your door. You’re never alone, and yet you can be totally alone if you want to be, in a crowd of people. One of the great things about doing a play is that I’m stuck here for six months and nobody can make me go anywhere else.

Are your friends here?
I have a very small group of close friends—three or four girlfriends. We all used to live in New York, then all of a sudden everyone started going to L.A. I came back to New York, and I was like, Where did everybody go?

Do people recognize you a lot in New York?
It’s a range, from double takes to stopping for pictures. I actually find people are more willing to go up to you here. They’ll say that they like your work, then they’ll move along. It’s not a big deal.

So nothing crazy?
I’ve done this thing where, when people look at you on the subway, you’re a little like, Why is that person looking at me? I’ve had this experience of having some guy looking at me and being like, uh, God, what a creep, then giving him a dirty look. Then just before we get off the train, he says, “I’m a really big fan of yours!” And I’ve been throwing him nasty looks the entire ride! I’ve done that more than once. Then I feel really bad.

See more Elisabeth Moss

The style evolution of Mad Men's Peggy Olson
  • Theater

Without doubt, Peggy Olson is Mad Men's most interesting and richly-textured character. While Don has the charisma and Joanie has the sizzle, Peggy is to Mad Men what George Harrison was to the Beatles—the dark horse, and therefore everyone's fave.

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