Oct 052009
 

I spoke with Elisabeth Moss on Wednesday, September 30. After the interview was over, I could only be grateful that we’d met before, because this was not the way to make a first impression. First, for reasons beyond my control, I was late calling. When I did call, Elisabeth was in Central Park; it was a beautiful fall day, the first day that really felt like fall, and she was enjoying the weather. Unfortunately, she wasn’t enjoying the cell reception; my first call to her didn’t go through. Subsequently, we were cut off at least twice, and she faded into buzz several times, with me saying “Elisabeth? Eee-liiiiisabeth? Are you theeeeeeere?” Three minutes into our call, the batteries on my recorder died. So did the replacements. So the rest of the interview was done with me taking my famously fast dictation (I could so work at Sterling Cooper).

None of which stopped us from having a terrific little interview. Elisabeth loves Mad Men, and she loves Peggy. She’s deeply interested in the work she does and so every question, even minor ones, gets a thoughtful answer. Also, she’s just nice. She isn’t Peggy, but she has a lot in common with Peggy; the seriousness, the focus, and a basic sweetness that you can’t help but being charmed by.

Following are a couple of my favorite excerpts followed by a full transcript.

About doing Speed-the-Plow on Broadway: The discipline of doing something over and over; the physicality of that, allowed me to come back to Mad Men and feel fresh.

About “What if this is my time?”: The reason it resonates, is because it applies to women in the 21st century as well. Should I be working harder, should I be working less? Should I be more of a mother, should I be less of a mother? It’s a question everyone balances, no matter what decade you’re in.

About sleeping with Duck: If someone just told her she was beautiful or attractive, she would shrug it off and think it wasn’t true. But when he flatters her professionally, and tells her she’s needed, that’s what gets to her.

About fitting in: She’s never fit in. She’s not part of the boys, she’s not part of the girls she’s not really a mom”she’s trying to find out who she is. She’s also experienced a tremendous amount of loss.

About Basket of Kisses: We like to support Basket of Kisses. You guys have been there with us from the beginning, and it feels like you’re one of us.

Transcript follows:

Deborah Lipp: You’re killing it this season, just totally killing it.

Elisabeth Moss: Thank you so much! Thank you.

DL: Maybe it’s the scripts. Roberta and I had an argument; “Has her acting changed or are the scripts deeper?” I’m wondering what you think.

EM: Oh wow, that’s very nice of you. I don’t know! [laughs] I don’t know how to answer that without sounding very full of myself. I think that”and you guys know this as fans of the show”every season has gotten better, has gotten deeper. And I think that Season 3 has definitely gotten deeper into the psychological ways of all of the characters, including Peggy. Whereas the first two seasons”she still remains very much a mystery”but the first two seasons [her character was] really sort of vague and subtle, which I loved. But I think that Season 3 is seeing a little bit more inside her head, and a little bit more of what’s going on with her, and she’s actually making moves on things that she’s thinking and feeling. She’s a little more…more verbal about things.

So I think it’s both, probably. [laughs]

DL: You were on Broadway and that has to have had an impact, I’m guessing, on your acting.

EM: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, Matt said something that really [influenced] me after Season 1. He said, ‘you should go do theater now.’ He said ‘you should go do a play.’ And the discipline of doing something over and over; the physicality of that, allowed me to come back to Mad Men and feel fresh.

DL: Peggy has a better sex life than Don this year!

EM: I don’t think anyone does.

DL: Everyone says that sex scenes are very difficult and awkward to film. Can you walk us through the mechanics of it? Do you have a closed set for that? Are you embarrassed?

EM: I am such a private person, and incredibly modest, so for me it’s not necessarily my favorite thing. I prefer the talking scenes and that kind of acting. It’s sort of an awkward and strange experience. On Mad Men because of our [being on AMC] we can’t show anything. I hide in that.

DL: Paul hit on Peggy in episode 2 of Season 1. Do you think that’s still in her mind, in her relationship with Paul?

EM: Not in her mind, not at all. I think she has a good working relationship with him and they ended up sort of working together more in Season 3 and she’s”has a more, ‘one of boys’ thing.

DL: I’d like to talk about specific episodes, and I want to go straight to the line that is everyone’s favorite. You must have seen it all over the Internet and as 500 Facebook statuses: “I’m Peggy Olson. I want to smoke some marijuana.”

EM: I didn’t know that, that’s really funny. Matt told me that line, we knew it would be a great line, a great line in the press.

It only works”if one of the other characters had said it, it wouldn’t have worked”but Peggy is so not like that. And my friends all know I’m anti-drug so it was really funny.

DL: Can you talk about filming the scene of getting high with the guys? It was seemed like so much fun.

EM: It was a funny scene to film. The main thing that Matt said, that actually helped everyone [when] we had to do any scenes when we were high, which was genius and made it work, was not to play “high.” This is not a college frat boy movie.

That scene with Olive when she gives that speech to her is one of my favorite scenes of the season.

DL: Mine too!

EM: I loved, loved, loved that scene. Peggy’s version of high is even more confident, she becomes this cocky individual, and I loved playing that.

DL: Now I want to talk about Peggy’s confrontations with Don, first in The Fog, “you have everything, and so much of it.” It was such a powerful scene.

EM: That’s another one of my favorite scenes. That’s just on of those scenes that you get on the show you can have such a great time with; the lines are so good. One of the great things about playing Peggy is that she boils things down to one point and its so simple; one of my favorite lines is [for just a moment, Elisabeth forgets the line, and then we both say it at the same moment] “What if this is my time?” To me, this encapsulated her entire arc for the season and was a really beautiful moment for the character. And it encapsulates the whole movement of women at that time in the workplace, in one line: That’s the question.

DL: We’ve been talking on the blog about how women still don’t know how to negotiate, how it’s still a struggle for women in business.

EM: Exactly. I think that question, the reason it resonates, is because it applies to women in the 21st century as well. Should I be working harder, should I be working less? Should I be more of a mother, should I be less of a mother? It’s a question everyone balances, no matter what decade you’re in.

DL: Okay, then there was that really ugly confrontation in Seven Twenty Three. First, what was it like working with Jon [Hamm] on that?

EM: That’s a great scene. Jon Hamm is a brilliant actor, and he’s the nicest guy in the world, and so funny and goofy, but of course he is a brilliant actor, so he can turn it off and be terrifying. Don Draper yelling at you is a scary experience. [Anyone would be scared.] We fall into our roles easily, and he knows how to upset Peggy, and Peggy knows how to get under his skin. I kind of love doing the angry scenes with Don [they’re so meaty] and that was a great one.

DL: I had such a strong emotional reaction. I was so mad at Don that my stomach was in a knot.

EM: Well, thank you.

DL: Some of our readers argue that Peggy deserved it, that Don was right, but my feeling is he was cruel.

EM: I think it was pretty simple. In that moment, he was cruel. He was being mean. I don’t think there’s any finesse about it, he’s being mean to her.You can’t just keep having Don being her champion, and helping her and holding her [up]. The same thing that happened in season one, with Joan and Peggy; they’re not going to become best friends, is happening in season three with Don & Peggy; [he’s flawed, he has a temper], he’s not perfect.

DL: People think there might be a little spark between Peggy and Smitty.

EM: Peggy and Smitty? [Laughs] I think Smitty would like if there was a spark between Peggy and Smitty, but I don’t think there is anything there, beyond the way a young man will act with a young girl sometimes. Any spark comes from his end and not from Peggy’s end.

DL: Duck. ew.

[Elisabeth laughs a lot at this.]

EM: It’s a storyline we knew was going to be a surprise, and a little controversial, but I was talking to a good friend yesterday, and we were talking about how there’s always a reason for everything on Mad Men, and there’s never anything frivolous. And there’s a reason for this as well; it’s more than titillation and surprising the audience.

DL: I absolutely believe there’s a reason for it.

EM: I think that what that relationship is about is, having an affair, she picks this older man, it’s based on”he’s telling her what she wants to hear, and he’s looking at her in a way she’s not used to being looked at. The whole things comes about because he compliments her professionally. The relationship comes from a professional place for her.

DL: She’s confident there, not as a woman; we saw that when she sang Bye Bye Birdie in the mirror.

EM: Exactly. If someone just told her she was beautiful or attractive, she would shrug it off and think it wasn’t true. But when he flatters her professionally, and tells her she’s needed, that’s what gets to her. And it comes right after Don, her sort of mentor, is cruel to her, and turns his back on her, and [his behavior is] driving her to another man.

DL: She was soothing herself.

EM: Exactly. Like if she had maybe been accepted by Don, maybe it didn’t happen. She really was driven there.

DL: Do you think she arrived late on purpose? Do you think she had it in her mind it might be sexual, so she waited until Hermes was gone?

EM: Honestly, I hadn’t really thought about it. I tend to take a lot of these scripts at face value. One of the interesting things about Peggy is, she has very little artifice. She very rarely has an ulterior motive. I tend to believe she really was just late. But one of the things that has always helped me play Peggy is believing in what she says, and allowing the audience to read the subtext as they will. Even though somebody might be feeling something else in real life, you ask someone how they are, they say good, it doesn’t matter the kind of day they had, they say good. To me, an interesting thing to play with in acting is that people don’t play subtext. They don’t play something else is going on [in real life]. If people choose to see something else is going on, that’s up to them.

DL: Peggy seems like an explorer this season: Exploring her sexuality, exploring her business opportunities, exploring marijuana. Yet she’s so methodical about it. It’s like she’s treating life like a science project.

EM: That’s awesome, I love that. I totally agree. I think that’ s an acute observation. With the marijuana, with the one-night stand, with asking Don the things she shouldn’t be asking for, with sticking her nose out about Bye Bye Birdie; she’s seeing where the edge of the cliff is and putting her foot over and living a little bit dangerously.

DL: On the blog, we’ve been looking at the symbolism of a solar eclipse, and one thing we’ve come up with is living dangerously.

EM: Exactly. She’s doing it in this way that’s conscious and at the same time unconscious. She’s not saying “I’m going to live on the edge,” she’s just seeing how far she can go in different directions, and seeing what she should be in life.

DL: I have to think that it affects her, I know people who’ve done it, who’ve given up a baby for adoption, and you live with it every day, don’t you? Peggy has to be living daily with that.

EM: I can’t imagine what it would be like, and I try to, to play Peggy. These profound experiences have given her a maturity and strength. She’s very not frivolous and everything has meaning to her.

DL: She’s living on top of pain and she doesn’t fit in.

EM: She’s never fit in. She’s not part of the boys, she’s not part of the girls, she’s not really a mom…she’s trying to find out who she is. She’s also experienced a tremendous amount of loss.

DL: We know very little about it, but she lost her father, and maybe recently.

EM: Interesting little things that are dropped and you go “Wait, what?” I can’t say they will be explained. On Mad Men we sort of leave things…it took two seasons for Peggy to confess to Pete about that baby, and it might take just as long with everything else.

DL: Peggy’s wardrobe is getting better!

EM: A little bit better, thank God. She’s moved up in the world just slightly, but there’s still plaid and wool and mustard colors.

DL: Peggy loves plaid.

EM: Janie and I have a running joke about the large patterned wool plaid she seems to just adore.

DL: There’s that pale yellow and pale blue dress, which is really pretty, except that it’s plaid. [I then go off on a tangent about me and plaid and my mom.]

EM: Janie has been kind enough to keep away from most of the large print plaid this season, for which I am grateful. I don’t mind a good plaid once in a while but I had a scarring experience with Season 1, with all that padding and the large print plaid.

DL: [Laughs] I’ve recently been re-watching some of Season 1 for some writing. When I watched Season 1 the first time, it was week by week; gradual, and it was a pretty girl getting heavier. But to go from watching Season 3 to watching The Wheel!

EM: [Laughs] It’s kind of hard to believe it really happened, or to remember it all. There was makeup, and three chins, and jowls, and it was all very bizarre. Matt always says he took his ingénue and put her in a fat suit, and he always thanks me for that.

DL: Oh hey, the last time we spoke was actually the afternoon that you did [Saturday Night Live], and that’s when you met Fred [Armisen, Elisabeth’s fiance]. Congratulations!

EM: Thank you!

DL: What a day in your life that was! [A Broadway performance, then Saturday Night Live, then meeting Fred.]

EM: It really was, it was the best day in my life. I thank my lucky stars that I wound up being in New York on that day.

DL: Matt was right, theater worked out for you.

EM: He had it right. I have to thank him for that.

DL: I get all sappy about engagements. I’m very happy for you.

EM: I’m really happy. I’m deep into wedding planning. It’s so much fun, and I can’t wait.

At this point, we were about to get off the phone and I had stopped taking notes, and thanked Elisabeth and told her Central Park must be getting cold by now. Then Elisabeth joked a little about Peggy’s mom not trusting Manhattan, which led us to the actors who play her mother and sister, Myra Turley (Katherine Olson) and Audrey Wasilewski (Anita Olson Respola).

EM: They’re super, I love working with them. I wish they could be in every episode! They’re geniuses, I know people know that but they don’t get to be on the show much.

DL: They are so real.

EM: Yes! The way her mom [Myra Turley] says those things, I can’t imagine any other actor pulling that off. it’s pitch perfect. I don’t know how she knows how to say it just right.

DL: I assume shes a mom. [Myra Turley is actually the mother of actress Tannis Vallely]

EM: Exactly.

DL: Thanks again, now I really will let you go.

EM: Thank you so much. We like to support Basket of Kisses. You guys have been there with us from the beginning, and it feels like you’re one of us.

DL: [Dies from happiness.]

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  5 Responses to “Exclusive interview with Elisabeth Moss: Don't play subtext”

  1. LOOVE Ms. Moss!!! So sorry not to have any Peggy (even with the shudder post-Duck glow) in last night's episode.

    When I read her comments on subtext, though, I immediately thought of Ingrid Bergmann's advice to daughter Isabella Rossellini about acting. I am paraphrasing here, but Bergmann basically said that if you don't know what to do as an actor, just let your face go blank, the audience will fill in for you, with the help of the music.

  2. Give me the paddles. The paddles. CLEAR!

  3. EM: That’s awesome, I love that. I totally agree. I think that’ s an acute observation. With the marijuana, with the one-night stand, with asking Don the things she shouldn’t be asking for, with sticking her nose out about Bye Bye Birdie; she’s seeing where the edge of the cliff is and putting her foot over and living a little bit dangerously.

    Given the running debate about Don's (mis)treatment of Peggy in that scene, I tought it worth highlighting EM's comment about Peggy's asking. It doesn't make Don any less cruel (as EM notes) or any less sexist (as I'll note). But one of the great things about the writing throughout this series is that Matt Weiner usually ensures that there are two sides to a scene. People can win arguments despite being wrong. People can behave badly and still be at least partially right. Events in one part of a person's life affect what goes on in the other parts, often to bad effect. It's a big part of what makes Mad Men stand out from almost all other TV dramas.

  4. "She’s never fit in. She’s not part of the boys, she’s not part of the girls, she’s not really a mom…she’s trying to find out who she is. She’s also experienced a tremendous amount of loss."

    When I read that, it struck me that Peggy is really a lot like Don.

    She hasn't developed professionally to his level of course, but think of it: Don isn't Dick Whitman, he isn't even Don Draper really.

    Biologically, he's a parent, but in many ways, he's quite detached from that aspect of his life. And, ever since taking on Draper's identity, it's been a continual process for him, of defining/finding out just who he is (or is becoming).

    In a way, Don has experienced a tremendous amount of loss, as well. As the show has unfolded over nearly three full seasons, we've learned about this and I hope we can start to learn more about Peggy's backstory.

    I think Don sees a lot of himself (or, the process/journey of becoming one's self) in Peggy. More often than not, in the course of the show, he has been supportive to her because, on some level, I think he can relate to Peggy.

    Yes, he did come across as "harsh/cruel" when Peggy approached him about being on the Hilton account, but I don't think it was personal or deliberate – more like something that arose out of a bad moment and his not thinking before speaking.

  5. SmilerG,

    To the extent that Seven Twenty-Three was about the caging of Don Draper, I think there's a case to be made that he is harshest to Peggy and Betty not only because he can get away with lashing out at women who are to varying degrees dependent on him, but also because he really thinks they are the two who should be his allies. I'm not defending Don's outbursts, but note that there may be an element of "you always hurt the ones you love" in them.

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