Interview date: 07/01/2008
Run date: 07/28/2008
As of this writing, Elisabeth Moss is being hotly tipped as an Emmy Award nominee for her work as Peggy Olson on AMC’s “Mad Men,” and we wouldn’t begin to bet against her. She did some phenomenal work over the course of the first season’s 13 episodes, and we have every reason to believe the trend will continue in Season Two, which premiered on July 27. We had an opportunity to speak with Moss in conjunction with the DVD release of “Mad Men: Season 1,” and we quizzed her about her role on the show, what we can expect from the second season, and how she enjoyed her earlier gigs on “Invasion” and “The West Wing.” (Warning: if you haven’t watched Season One of the show yet, there are some substantial spoilers contained within this piece, so you should probably just go ahead and buy the DVD set before you read this. You won’t regret it.)
Bullz-Eye: Hey, Elisabeth! It’s a pleasure to speak with you.
Elisabeth Moss: Hi!
BE: I just finished devouring Season One of “Mad Men” on DVD a little bit ago…
EM: Oh, good!
BE: …and it’s absolutely fantastic. I gave it 4.5 out of 5 stars, in fact.
EM: Thank you!
BE: I understand “Mad Men” was the show to audition for. How much did you know about the show when you first found yourself auditioning for the role of Peggy, and, for that matter, how did you come to audition in the first place?
EM: Well, given that there was only one script at that point, I didn’t know any more about it than what was in that script. It was a brand new idea. I don’t really audition for pilots. In fact, this was the first pilot I ever did…and the first pilot I ever booked! So for me, it was a whole new thing that…I never really thought about it that way. I just thought about it as this amazing project; I didn’t think in terms what it might mean for the next five, six, or whatever years of my life. I was just, like, “Wow, this is really good, and I want to do it.” So I auditioned for it. I had two auditions, and that was it!
BE: I actually made a point of singling you and Vincent (Kartheiser) out as providing two of the strongest performances in a show that has no real weak links to begin with.
EM: Oh, that’s so amazing! Thank you!
BE: I know it sounds like I’m blowing smoke, but I just felt like you evolved over the course of the season. It was a really complex performance of a girl who was naïve but intelligent, who doesn’t really have a strong backbone but who stands tall when it’s something that’s important to her. It was just really layered.
EM: Oh, wow. Thank you so much! I was given a lot of opportunities, and it was really great.
BE: How did you find the part, as far as developing the character?
EM: You know, I wish I had a better answer, since I get asked that a lot. I wish I had some sort of answer like, “Oh, I did all this research and read this book, blah blah blah,” but to be perfectly honest, besides the fact that I’ve just been working in this business for many, many years, so I’ve gained a little bit of experience with characters, I just felt like this was a character that I knew. I felt like she has a common sort of…she’s a young girl at heart, basically, and I’m a 25-year-old girl. So I’ve been there. She’s a 20-year-old girl, and it doesn’t matter what time period she’s in. It’s still the same thing. And that’s just what I wanted to play. One thing that I wanted to focus on was her real honesty. She’s an open book sometimes, and that’s an interesting thing to play as an actor, because you’re always trying to be honest, anyway.
BE: Your rapport with Jon Hamm was as key to the show as the one you had with Vincent. Did you have to kind of force yourself to flinch when you were working with Jon?
EM: Force myself to what?
BE: To flinch.
EM: (laughs) What do you mean?
BE: Well, just because Peggy was supposed to be so intimidated by Don at first.
EM: Oh, yeah! No, I love working with Jon, and he’s such a professional, and he’s a very funny guy. He always makes it really fun. It’s easy to do a scene with someone that good, and I think that there are some things coming…I loved what happened to them over the season, that relationship, and there are things coming up that develop that more. But I think that she has so much respect for him, and he actually has respect for her. And they’re kind of the one honest relationship in the show, as far as neither of them is trying to get something out of the other.
BE: In the episode where she finally gets her shot as a junior copywriter…obviously, he respected her over the course of the season, but at the same time, it was pretty clear that he gave her the job to spite Pete as much as anything.
EM: Absolutely. But he’s the kind of guy who…I think that move was the kind of move that, yes, he did it to spite Pete, but he also wouldn’t jeopardize the agency or an account by putting anyone there that he didn’t think could do it. It was kind of like…it was a great thing, because it was the perfect opportunity for him to do both. He got to spite Pete, which he probably enjoyed more than promoting Peggy!
BE: How is Vincent to work with? I spoke with him last year, and he seemed like such a nice guy, but he’s so good at playing a weasel! I guess that’s high praise.
EM: I know, and it’s funny because everybody hates him, and they’re, like, “Oh, he’s so mean!” But he’s actually a really nice guy. He’s a sweetheart, and I think…he’s one of those actors that’s really, really, really good, and he’s not like his character at all. And I think it takes a second for people to discover that, because he’s so into it that you just think he’s a total asshole. But he’s really not! It’s one of those things where, maybe in a year from now or in the second or third season, people will finally start to realize that, hey, he’s actually just playing that character! It’s a lot of fun playing with him because he’s a little older than me, but we’ve both been in the business a long time, and we’ve had that track of working for a long time, so when we get together to do a scene, there’s something about it. We just have this common reality, and it works.
BE: With Peggy’s pregnancy revealed at the end of the season, it’s almost a “Sixth Sense” kind of ending, where all the clues were there if you were paying attention. How far into it did they let you in on the secret?
EM: Oh, I knew even before we started working on the first season, because I had to be fitted for the costumes that would simulate gradually gaining weight, so I had to know.
BE: Geez, how embarrassing. I didn’t even think about that!
EM: Yeah, Matt took me into his office, and he sat me down and said, “So do you want to know what happens?” And I said, “Sure!” So he told me this whole story, saying, “She’s going to start gaining weight, she’s going to start de-sexualizing herself because she doesn’t want attention to men, blah blah blah,” and I’m, like, okayyyyyy. And then he gets to the end, and he says, “And in the last episode, she finds out she’s pregnant, and she has a baby.” And I think my jaw just dropped. I was just absolutely floored. But I said, “Okay, let’s do it!” But first I checked to make sure I didn’t actually have to gain the weight. (laughs) And once I confirmed that, then I said, “Okay!”
BE: How hard was it for you to play the episode where you have to write the copy for the “exerciser.” And I’m making air quotes right now.
EM: (laughs) Oh…
BE: Because you were so hysterical with your embarrassment as you tried to explain the “benefits” of the device’s vibrations.
EM: Right! I know, it was great! Well, what’s fun about that kind of thing is that, in 2008, we’re so jaded, and there’s not a whole lot that anyone can say to embarrass anyone. I mean, “Sex and the City” is one of my favorite television shows, and, you know, that show pretty much blasted everything out of the water. You can’t say anything anymore; everything’s been said. So doing that was fun because I had to play embarrassed and I had to play like I was not wanting to talk about that, and the whole thing was embarrassing then. So that was really fun.
BE: I’m very impressed with the way the show stays true to the mores of the time. I mean, particularly Bryan Batt’s performance. I think it’s impressive that, even though you get the impression from his first appearance that his character was gay, rather than explore it with any great detail, they gave him one opportunity to explore that side of himself and he basically just said, “It wouldn’t work with the life I’m living.”
EM: Absolutely. It’s very cool. There are so many directions to go in in that era, and there are so many things to look at, and we’re doing a pretty good job of covering everything. (laughs)
BE: So with Season Two, obviously there’ll be some reveals about the fate of the baby and the Peggy/Pete relationship as a result…
EM: Mm-hmmm. Um, yes. (laughs)
BE: …but, apparently, you can’t really talk much about it. (laughs)
EM: I can’t. I’m sorry, I don’t want to ruin it for anyone! But there will be…it’s funny, because there will be things revealed, but they’re not going to be what you think, and it may not be when you think. We don’t do anything on this show the way you would expect it, and I don’t think the audience would want that, anyway. There’s not going to be a big 25-minute explanation of what happened, but you will find out, you know? It’s just going to be done in a much more interesting way.
BE: Will we get more of Peggy’s back-story over the course of the season?
EM: Um…you mean before she came to Sterling Cooper?
BE: Right. I mean, will bits and pieces emerge over the course of time?
EM: Absolutely. Oh, definitely. You’re going to meet a little bit more of her family and get more into her life. It’s interesting, because the show is going to be a little bit bigger in the second season. Everything’s going to move outwards to go to people’s apartments more and to people’s houses more, and to other locations. There’s still, y’know, 75 percent of it in the office, but there’s definitely going to be delving into the characters’ lives a bit more.
BE: Before we wrap up, I wanted to just touch on a couple of other projects you’ve worked on. I was a big fan of “Invasion.”
EM: Oh, cool!
BE: Did you enjoy working in the sci-fi genre?
EM: I did. It’s funny, though, because I always forget there are genres! I just don’t think of them in that way. But it was fun. I got to be really, really mean. I got to be kind of evil, and I never play that, so that was really fun for me! I’m always…well, I’ve definitely played crazy a lot, but to actually be crazy and mean at the same time was really great! I loved it. It was really fun. The special effects stuff was hard. My character was pregnant, so I had to have this belly kind of glued onto me, and they actually ended up taking some of my skin off! So that was tough. And I had to run around in miniskirts and the belly! But it was fun, you know, and you’d be shocked at how many people came up to me after that show was cancelled and were so upset that it was cancelled.
BE: Oh, I can believe that. I had a chance to interview Tyler Labine a few months ago, and he sounded like he was still in mourning.
EM: Oh, yeah! People loved that show! I don’t know why they cancelled it.
BE: Well, you know how it is: it’s a business. You were also on “The West Wing,” and I’m guessing the talent alone would’ve made that a fun experience.
EM: Yeah, and it seems so long ago! I was 17 when I started that show, and I was on it from 17 to 24, but I loved it. It was an amazing experience, and I got to be a part of this really good piece of work at a young age, and to work with these actors who were so good and were such professionals, veterans of their craft. It was really an incredible experience, you know? And I got to see it grow over time, because when I started, it was the fifth episode of the first season, so I really got to see it expand. It was a family in the sense that “Mad Men” is, although “Mad Men” is a bit more, since I’m a regular here and I was a recurring character on “The West Wing,” but it was a bunch of really great people working on a really great show.
BE: Well, I will keep you on track, but it’s been a pleasure talking to you. And I’ll be at the TCA Press Tour next week for the “Mad Men” panel, so I’ll be sure to come up and say “hello.”
EM: Oh, great! Yes, please do! And thank you very much!