My conversation with her took place less than a week later, up in her dressing room at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, an hour before Elisabeth’s 8:00 curtain. It was October 30th. The previous weekend, not only did the Mad Men Season Two finale air, but Jon Hamm was guest-host of Saturday Night Live. Elisabeth played Peggy in the Mad Men sketch, replacing Amy Poehler, who’d just had her baby.
What is hard to capture in these interviews is the enthusiasm. Everything out of Elisabeth’s mouth has an excitement and a sense of wonder and a lot of love.
RKL: So how was performing on Saturday Night Live?
EM: It was pretty awesome. I got the text [message] just before my matinee, around 1:45, from my friend Casey who’s a cast member. I knew Amy [Poehler] was gonna play Peggy
RKL: Which is brilliant!
EM: which is awesome enough. And I still am a little disappointed that I didn’t actually get to see her rendition of Peggy; that would have been fun.
RKL: Right. Rich [Sommer] just wrote about how that was just the greatest thing he’s ever experienced.
EM: Oh, I’m sure. So I got a text from her saying Amy just went into labor, can you come tonight, and I called her and I said absolutely. I went over in between my performances, and rehearsed a couple of times. They wrote a new joke for me because now it was like a guest appearing. So Seth Meyers wrote me a great joke. It was crazy. I wasn’t even nervous because I was like in shock. And then the great thing was that, during rehearsal, the SNL cast members kept looking around and being like, This is so cool, it’s like stepping into your favorite tv show. Because they’ve got the set and there are both of the Johns [Hamm and Slattery] and I was there. And I would just look back and be like, Are you kidding me? I’m on SNL! What are you talking about?!
RKL: That’s great; that’s amazing. That’s so amazing.
EM: Yeah, and it was weird because I’m kind of in a Peggy costume and I’ve got the bangs and a ponytail and there’s Jon and then John. And yet there are SNL cast members. It was very surreal.
RKL: And there’s the house [live audience].
EM: Yeah, so it was kind of like shooting Mad Men but not. It was very strange.
RKL: Like a dream. Like you’re in a Mad Men dream.
EM: It was like one of those weird dreams that you have where you’re like, It was so weird I dreamt that we were shooting Mad Men but we were shooting it with SNL cast members.
RKL: Well congratulations, that’s very cool, and fun.
EM: Thank you.
RKL: So. Mad Men. Because, omigod, the finale was as satisfying as everyone had indicated and certainly your story was stunning.
EM: Oh good! I’m so glad.
RKL: What do you want to say about it before I poke?
EM: Well I haven’t seen it yet ˜cause I think I’m on like [episode] 10. I’m sort of stretching them out. I’m just a fan too, and once they’re done they’re done so I’m stretching it out one every couple of weeks so they’ll last longer. But when I got that scene–Matt read a very early copy of that scene to me, and read that speech outside of our stage in LA and it just, it brought tears to my eyes. I thought it was the most incredible thing. And you know his wife wrote it.
RKL: Yes he did tell us that.
EM: Right, which I think is just so cool.
RKL: And at first they didn’t know which character would say it.
EM: Right, totally. But once Matt brought it to me, I just thought it was the most beautiful, most poetic speech. Peggy doesn’t talk very much, she’s not very verbal. So to have her give this little thing where she actually expresses what she feels and in such a beautiful, poetic, truthful way. I literally was like, I’m just gonna sit back and say the lines because these are just so good I don’t have to do anything. It was a really emotional scene to film for Vinnie [Kartheiser] and me because we’ve come so far in our characters and in our friendship. It was one of those things where every single time we did it, including the mark-through rehearsal, you could’ve heard a pin drop. And it felt like a very solemn, serious occasion. It was great. I loved it. I loved doing it.
RKL: You’ve talked about the scene where you were Twisting [The Hobo Code] as the end of it with Pete. What do you think allowed Peggy to become generous with him again, to allow a friendship again?
EM: I think at the heart of Peggy is a very mature old soul. And I think for lack of life experience, she makes up with just an inborn sort of maturity and intelligence. And I think that yes, she made the mistake of falling for Pete, and sleeping with him (chuckles) twice. But I think she’s smart enough to not really make that same mistake twice and she has incredible personal integrity, so I think that when somebody breaks her heart so cruelly, and has no respect for who she is, and doesn’t see her at all, that’s it. She’s smart enough to go, Okay, I’m not going down that road. But her intelligence and her maturity allows her to be generous with him and almost kind to him and understand sort of–you know, I think that she still loves him, just not in that way anymore. So she does care about him. It’s a really kind of amazing relationship they have.
RKL: How do you reconcile the fact that he both doesn’t know her and doesn’t get her, and that what he said to her in that scene is true, that he totally knows her and totally gets her? Where do you see those two things fitting together?
EM: I think the funny thing is, he does get to that point. He does know her. There’s that great scene where she goes to the strip club and they exchange that look. And that’s about the fact that she’s trying to fit into this world and he just looks at her and he’s like, What are you doing? This is not you.
RKL: I got that. A lot of people thought that it was the same as P.J. Clarke’s, and it wasn’t.
EM: No, not at all, not at all. And even Vinnie and I joked about that at the time, we were like omigod we’re just going to be doing the same scene where we’re both looking at each other at the end of the scene in a very dramatic moment. But it was intended to be completely different. It’s actually that they’ve grown, they’ve really grown and it’s about now he knows her. Now he does get her. And she sees that in that moment, and she feels like he’s seen her and how she’s totally faking it to try to fit in. So I think he does grow to know her and get her and love her for who she is. He finally sees her, but it’s too late, and that’s what that speech is about; it’s too late. That part of her that loved him is gone and she can’t get it back. And it doesn’t mean that she doesn’t like him, it doesn’t mean that she doesn’t love him. It’s just, she’s lost that part of her. He’s literally just too late.
RKL: Some of my favorite scenes this season were you guys working together; it was right there in the first episode. Working on Clearasil, where the two of you were right on the same page. Really cool.
EM: They have a good working relationship. They do.
RKL: Tighter than most of the people working there.
RKL: What do you think, or what does Peggy think”and I’m sorry, but I feel like you know her probably better than most actors know their characters.
EM: Yeah (laughing).
RKL: What do you think of people thinking you’re in love with Don or that you’ve slept with Don? I mean you come to where you finally make the joke, which was beautiful, by the way!
EM: Isn’t that awesome? It’s Peggy’s first joke, you realize.
EM: It’s her first joke ever in two seasons.
RKL: I love it. I don’t know if she could have said it to anyone but Pete.
EM: Right, totally. I think that people are quick to be cynical. It parallels this play [Speed-the-Plow] a lot too, people are quick to take the jaded viewpoint. It’s very hard to believe that somebody would just have a sincere, honest respectful working relationship based not on an elevated idea of who the other person is. I mean, Peggy knows more about Don than anyone in the office. But it’s just a mutual respect and that’s it. We live in a cynical age and people want to believe that. I remember at the beginning of the show everybody thought that she was going to claw her way to the top and sleep with everybody in the office or just totally change…
RKL: I never thought that.
EM: Yeah, good! Most people who really get the show didn’t think that.
RKL: I just felt the pain of you putting your hand on his [Don’s] hand [in the pilot]. I was like, dying!
EM: Yeah! I know! Isn’t that amazing?!
RKL: And you came back the next day? Like, total strength of character, right there. You survived it!
EM: Uh huh, I know! I think that people want to sort of take the easy route, you know? And it’s not like that. And I think that the relationship that they do have is so much cooler. It would be so much more trite if she were sleeping with him, you know? We don’t do that show.
RKL: What about you and Bobbie? That was so interesting for Peggy to have to deal with his lover, his”yuck.
EM: It’s funny. I mean, I think it starts out that she owes him one. He gave her the greatest advice that she could get when he came to the hospital. She owes him. And then it kind of turns into this thing where– she’s so private, Peggy, and she doesn’t talk about herself.
RKL: She doesn’t answer questions.
RKL: At all.
EM: No, no she doesn’t. That’s a very good observation. But then it kind of grows into this thing where Bobbie finally ends up getting into her and you see why somebody as dynamic as Don is attracted to somebody like Bobbie. There is an intelligence there, she’s not just some girl he’s having sex with. There is something there. And that finally kind of gets through to Peggy. And I think it’s interesting that the woman he’s sleeping with ends up being the one that gives her the second most valuable piece of advice that she gets which is, Be a woman; it’s a very powerful thing. And I love that relationship. Jen Getzinger, who is our script supervisor, directed the episode [The New Girl], and she just did such an incredible job. And we had these great series of scenes, Melinda [McGraw] and I, that were one after the other, all very similar. It was almost like doing a play, all in my apartment, boom, boom, boom, we did them all in a day, and it was great. We did them I think in order and so we really got to progress through the episode. It was very cool.
RKL: Do you guys rehearse in general?
EM: A little bit. We usually do it like once or twice and then we do a marking rehearsal. And then we might do it one more time for the camera before we actually do it.
RKL: So how is going from that to rehearsing a play?
EM: It’s cool. I mean it’s funny, it takes some getting used to. In a way it’s great because, for me I’m used to shooting things completely out of order, no rehearsal, you don’t know what’s happening next, you don’t know where your character’s going. So to come to something that you know the beginning the middle and the end, you know all there is to know and you get to do it in order every night so that by the time you get to the end of your character’s arc, you’re there because you’ve done everything previous to it. I mean the scene with Pete and I in the finale was the first scene I shot in the episode.
EM: Yeah. For the both of us I think. Maybe we’d shot one tiny scene before that, but it was pretty much the first scene. So to get to, every night, go from beginning to end, it just makes it so much easier. Then again, the flipside to it is that I’m used to not rehearsing. I’m used to doing something once or twice. And so to do something over and over and over again is challenging. I remember after the first couple of weeks of rehearsal I was like, Okay, let’s do it! I’m done, I don’t want to do it anymore, let’s do it! In the end it’s challenging, but it’s different, which I like.
RKL: And what’s it like being on stage every night?
EM: It’s cool, it’s really cool.
RKL: It’s my favorite thing in the whole world.
EM: Really? (we’re laughing) It’s great. The immediacy and the direct line you have with the audience; there’s nothing like that. I mean, you know when you’re doing film or television, you do it and then you hand it off. And it goes through so many hands. The directors, the editors, the producers, the network. By the time you see it it’s gone through, you know, twelve different people and can be different than what you did. Sometimes better than what you did.
RKL: And you’re getting feedback on it a month later. Or several.
EM: Exactly. You see it months later. So, this is incredible. You go out there and the only person that is in control of your performance is you. And no matter what anybody says or no matter what anybody does, you’re the only person who can do it out there. And that’s awesome; you’re in such control. And I think that’s why actors love the theatre and return to the stage often. It’s because you’re in such control over your character. Whatever you want to do you can do out there, even if it’s wrong, you know?
RKL: How did you approach Karen [Elisabeth’s character in Speed-the-Plow] and how do you approach your work? Are you just intuitive or do you do that stuff that people do?
EM: Actors do? (we both laugh)
RKL: It’s funny, [Inside the] Actor’s Studio has sort of changed our culture because we all hear so many people’s versions of their methods.
EM: Right, totally. Honestly I think I’m very intuitive. I don’t have a method or a way of doing things. I always feel like the characters that I have enjoyed playing the most, and the characters that I usually end up doing or getting the job are the ones that I feel some sort of odd connection with, where I feel like I know that person. Like with Peggy I auditioned for it twice, and I knew who she was. And the person that I saw was the same person who Matt wrote. We both just knew who she was. And it’s been like that ever since. Matt barely ever tells me what to do or talks about the character. We never talk about Peggy. We’ll talk about like, oh, something that happens, and then we’ll kind of talk about it, but we’ll talk about it in the sense of where I already know and he already knows, we’re just discussing how cool it is. Or how interesting or like how much we love it. He never tells me what to do. He always says to me, You know. (whispering) :You know. You know. You know.: And I feel the same way with Karen in a way; I get her. And it’s just been a matter of figuring out how to portray that to the audience. But essentially I know who she is. I really don’t have any method; I mean, I didn’t go to school for it or anything. I am actually extremely not versed in acting. Sometimes I hear terms or words and I’m like, (whispering) :What is that?: (laughs).
RKL: I’m a singer and a guitar player and I call myself musically illiterate.
EM: Uh huh! (we’re both laughing.)
RKL: Doesn’t mean I’m not a musician!
EM: Yeah! Like I still don’t really understand what a beat is, when I’m supposed to play like a beat (whispering AND laughing) :I still don’t really get it:
RKL: That’s awesome!
EM: Yeah, I think I really should :but I don’t!:
RKL: Two scenes. The one with you alone in the center of the office with the cigarette where you stretch. What a luxurious scene! And the bookend to that scene, where you are alone in your new office. So, what was scripted? What direction were you given? Discuss!
EM: I loved when she got her office. I thought that was the coolest thing, I was so excited. I remember when I walked over and saw her name on the door next to Don’s office, and I saw Peggy Olson, and then, walking into that, they lit it in this incredible Hopper way, and I was standing there with a drink. And the other scene, the walking out and having a cigarette. That was one of those things where I was like, How would Matt do this? How would he want me to do it?
RKL: So he didn’t actually show you, like he did with the skip [in The Hobo Code]?
EM: (laughing) No, no he didn’t actually come and demonstrate that one. But yeah, that was cool because it was just this little tiny moment. And where a lot of shows would have a whole scene and a speech and like something that showed what the character was feeling or going through, on our show we just have this little moment that shows how something is changing or how a character has progressed.
RKL: One of the things we love about the show is what it doesn’t do. A lot of what we love about it is what it doesn’t do and what isn’t said.
EM: Yeah, absolutely it’s true. And we shot that scene maybe like three or four times and it was cool. That set’s so cool, it’s great. It’s great to work on.
RKL: Yours and Joan’s relationship this season. Probably harder to find scenes for you together, they [the writers] were probably working harder to do that.
EM: We barely had anything together.
RKL: What does Peggy think of Joan? There was the You don’t take my advice moment.
EM: It’s funny, Matt’s always said that people probably thought from the first season that they were gonna be like best friends or end up as roommates like Laverne and Shirley, and he never had any intention of going that way. And I love how their relationship has developed, where she doesn’t really need Joan anymore but she still looks up to her in this funny way? It’s still kind of– Joan has her life figured out and it’s not the life that Peggy wants, but she does seem to have it figured out, at least Peggy thinks so. And I love that she still goes to her for advice. And I think Joan, if I can speak for Christina [Hendricks] is like, I don’t think she understands Peggy. I don’t think she doesn’t like her or hates her or anything like that. She just doesn’t get why this little thing wants to do something more than what she’s doing. Like what’s wrong with her life.
RKL: And I mean earlier than that, it’s, [in 5G], [Peggy:] This job is odd. [Joan:] But it’s the best. Two people just totally not understanding each other!
EM: They’re just in completely different places. I loved how Joan stood up for Peggy, though. Joan understands, regardless of how she thinks Peggy is silly for wanting more than being secretary, she still understands how the office works. And understands that if she does have a copywriting position that there’s a certain line of respect. I love that she stood up to her for Peggy to the new secretary.
SPOILER WARNING: This section is spoilish for Speed-the-Plow. Scroll for the “End of Spoiler” notice for the next section.
In Speed-the-Plow, Elisabeth plays Karen, a temp secretary working for Jeremy Piven’s character. She woos him with her sincerity and her deep belief in a book that he has given Karen to read. It may just be the worst material for a movie ever pitched, but Karen believes in it.
Speed-the-Plow is a three-person play. Bobby (Piven) is a producer, Charlie is his friend and associate, and Karen. Charlie is convinced that there’s no such thing as sincerity in Hollywood, and that Karen is playing Bobby. Most of the third act is Charlie and Karen vying for Bobby’s soul. It really looks like Karen will win, but there’s a moment where she gives herself away. And what she says to do that is,
For Christ’s sake, we have a fucking meeting.
RKL: So more about Speed-the-Plow. Okay wait. First, I have to tell you. So, in the finale, when Duck blows it in the meeting, I turned to my sister and said, (and this was right after having seen your play), That was his, For Christ’s sake, we have a fucking meeting moment!
EM: Oh, totally! (we laugh)
RKL: Okay, so about Karen. Really? Did she really buy everything she was saying? I mean, I felt like she did.
EM: Yeah. I think she does. I think she’s completely sincere, and completely telling the truth, and I don’t think she has an agenda. And I think in that moment [the For Christ’s sake moment] she just gets caught up in, she sees this thing, the most important thing that has ever happened to her, and it’s going away, and she’s losing it, and she panics. So I think that that’s what that line is about and that’s what I mean when I said earlier that everybody is so cynical, and we’re so quick to think that somebody has an agenda and that somebody wants something. And she doesn’t. She wants to do something big and important, but she doesn’t have any sort of rising to the top agenda, so I think she’s completely honest and telling the truth the whole time, and that’s how I choose to play it. But also, Mamet always has a con. In Glengarry [Glen Ross] it’s the real estate, in American Buffalo it’s the coins, and in Speed-the-Plow it’s the girl. It is a Mamet play, people will leave wondering. That’s fine.
RKL: Have you ever seen footage of Madonna [in Speed-the-Plow]?
EM: Uh-uh. I have not. I don’t think I’d want to. But I wouldn’t want to see footage of anyone doing it because I wouldn’t want to be affected by it.
RKL: What do you think of the idea of her version of sexuality for Karen verses yours?
EM: I don’t know how much she used that, I have no idea what her performance was like. I really don’t. We’ve always looked at Karen almost like she’s a child. She’s so open and honest and she has this sort of nakedness that is very attractive. She kind of goes like, Yeah, I’m here. I know what you want, I came for it too, and let’s just be honest about that. And there’s something very attractive about that. So, I don’t know if she [Madonna] did that or not, I don’t know if Felicity Huffman, who came in after her, did that or not. I don’t know what their take on it was. When you get into a character you kind of can’t imagine somebody doing it any other way.
RKL: Yeah. I can’t imagine the Madonna version of Peggy.
EM: Right! Exactly!
RKL: Sort of, what did Madonna do with the Peggy role. It’s just not gonna work.
SPOILER SECTION IS NOW BEHIND US
We pause for a time check. We’re still good. For the first time since I’ve been there, I reach for my notes.
RKL: Do you believe how long I can talk about this show without looking at my notes?
EM: I gotta say it’s great talking to you, now I know why Matt went to the party. [our BoK season finale party] It’s great talking to people who love the show so much and really get it.
RKL: Thank you. I mean, we love the show and really get it! And by the way, thank you for, and I know you didn’t write it, but Deborah was like, I think Basket of Kisses would be a good name, and I was like, Do you understand that we’re women writers and how it’s perfect?
EM: I know!
RKL: Okay. How attracted was Peggy to Father Gill? Like, percentage-wise?
EM: I don’t think she was at all. I think that she didn’t even think in those terms.
EM: Yeah, I really don’t think so. I mean Matt and I discussed it, and I think she really used him as a priest. She’s brought up in a very Catholic family and she’s used to addressing someone who would be in the clergy in a certain way, and I don’t think she goes there for a second.
RKL: I don’t know if I thought it at first, but my sister wrote a really short piece about Peggy liking the wrong boys and it was a list of the kind of boys you want to avoid and ˜priest’ was on there. And I was like, I hadn’t thought of him being lumped in with that statement, but it was interesting.
EM: Well, did Matt talk to you about what he was thinking early on for Father Gill?
RKL: No, whadya got?!
EM: We did have an idea at the beginning that it would turn into some sort of romantic relationship and we ended up not going that way. And I think it’s because first of all, that’s not our show. This is not Thornbirds or”that was the show, right? Yeah. And it takes away from the importance of what he’s telling her and the importance of what he’s wanting her to do if there’s like a romantic thing there. So there was an idea to go there in the beginning and then that was nixed.
RKL: Which is the same as what you were saying about Don. Same thing, it would diminish his”my sister and I were just talking about this, if they [Don and Peggy] had ever been lovers or become lovers or something it would diminish that mentorship that you have with him.
EM: Exactly! It would have completely diminished it and it would have completely diminished it with her and Father Gill”it would have been a completely different thing and that’s not our show. I’m really glad it didn’t go in that direction. It would have been interesting and cool. But it wouldn’t have been as interesting. So, if you do catch anything in the early episodes it’s probably because that idea was still there that we were gonna go in that direction. I might have been playing it just a little bit.
RKL: Well they’re young and they’re attractive and they’re in the same age group and they’re both a little bit–what Matt said was that she’s a light, and he definitely reacted to that. And he is too! He’s lovely.
EM: Absolutely! And he’s smart and he’s really talking to her; asking her advice. And she’s flattered by that.
RKL: As a person with an advertising background I love how you trained him to deal with his clients.
EM: I know!
RKL: That was awesome! That was so great. I want to have that conversation with every account person I’ve ever worked with.
EM: What does she say? Like no, you’re supposed to
We’re trying to remember the line and we’re laughing a lot.
The line is, for the record: “You’re supposed to tell them that they should trust me. That’s your job. They’ll listen to you.”
RKL: I love that again in the finale, you say to Pete, Don’t blame Creative. Don’t you blame Creative! And she said it smiling. And he didn’t! And you so thought he would. He was so good in that episode, like good as a human. It was weird.
EM: I know. I think people are starting to like Pete, and they’re like, this is weird. I’m not comfortable with liking Pete.
RKL: I actually brought some questions from our Basketcases. [From Karl] Can you speak about the experience of doing the DVD commentary?
EM: I did it in Canada and I did it in like six hours in a hotel room. It was cool. You know, we’re all so passionate about this show. We love it. The cast loves it, Matt loves it, we all just really love the show. So, we love talking about it. I mean Matt loves to talk about it.
RKL: I know! More than I do!
EM: We love it! Because we’re very passionate about it. So the commentary’s fun because we get to talk about the show for a long time. But I haven’t heard it, so I don’t really know what it sounds like.
RKL: It’s like a commentary. It’s better from some people than from others. You know what? I haven’t watched them all. I’m a bad fan”I would put them in and I would fall asleep.
My hurried excuses for falling asleep turned into a longer exchange about the history of BoK, how the blog was growing while we continued to talk about those same thirteen episodes, and the kind of work we were doing on it. And how the first ever BoK post was about Peggy’s baby.
I then told her about Basketcase Noah, how he is very young and how he pours our drinks a la Sally in our eWorld that is BoK.
RKL: So Noah said, of Speed-the-Plow, that he would give a kidney to see it if only he were closer to New York than Alabama.
RKL: I told him kidneys are very important
EM: Yeah, you should keep your kidney. It’s good, but it’s not worth your kidney.
RKL: That is the money quote for Noah!
EM: No, don’t say that, that makes it sound like the play is not good!
RKL: No! It’s a kidney! C’mon!
EM: (directly to the recorder) But you should keep your kidney. Keep your kidney and come to New York and see the play. With your kidney.
Then there were thank you’s and hugs and stuff.
And then someone brought in a huge box for her and she told me how cool this was and how great it was that I was there for this. We schlepped it downstairs (three flights, I think; her dressing room was many stairs up) and I helped her open it and they had framed a print for her of the Popsicle ad that she pitched while Don was away.
See the picture way back up at the top of the post, taken from my not-a-camera cell phone.