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"I just like the element of surprise, something coming along when I could never have expected or planned for it."
"I was more of a workman when I was a child and it helped me avoid all of the pitfalls."
"It's nice to be at this point in my personal life and my career and also a part of a great show."
"We just have these great comedians working on this drama, which I think, gives it a lot more depth."
"The characters on the show are kind of messed up and dealing with these things in very wrong ways."
"I always want to be surprised by something."
"We have wonderful art direction and amazing art people that create all the ad campaigns and paint them beautifully."
"It was fun, it was scary, and a very different kind of thing for me."
Elisabeth Moss  

Interviewed by Mark Sells
October 2009

Elisabeth Moss is a woman among Mad Men. As the young, aspiring secretary turned copywriter, Peggy Olson, on AMC's Emmy winning show, Moss carefully balances innocence with determination, helping to convey the story of feminism in the 60's workplace. It's a role and performance so captivating that it earned her an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series this year.

But for this California native, the spotlight is nothing new. Says Moss, "I was a very focused, professional child growing up and I knew what I wanted to do and what I loved." At the tender age of six, that tenacity helped land her many commercials and break into the television scene with the CBS miniseries, Lucky Chances. From there, she moved from one Emmy winning series to another, starting with David E. Kelley's Picket Fences and running up through The West Wing, as Martin Sheen's daughter, Zoey Bartlet. All before landing as a regular on Mad Men.

Along the way, she also took to the big screen - as an inmate alongside Angelina Jolie in Girl, Interrupted, the daughter of a shopaholic in Mumford, and a young woman who believes she's part of an immaculate conception in Virgin. The latter of which would earn her an Independent Spirit Award nomination.

Next up, she'll dabble in a few comedies, as Sarah Jessica Parker's assistant in Did You Hear About the Morgans? and Jonah Hill's girlfriend in the Judd Apatow produced, Get Him to the Greek. Always eager to diversify, from Mamet plays to slapstick comedies and Emmy winning dramas, Elisabeth continues her workman like approach. Says Moss, "I just like the element of surprise, something coming along when I could never have expected or planned for it."

Reel Questions, Reel Answers

You've been acting for a very long time. Was there ever a point in your career where you thought about pursuing a different occupation?

Well, I trained in ballet when I was five years old. From five to fifteen. And started acting when I was six. So, during those years, I was going back and forth between the two. But when I decided to switch over to acting full time, there was really no need to find an alternative. Luckily for me, the decision was made in the early years of my life and it's what I've always wanted to do.

Child actors have gotten a really bad rap over the years. Fame, fortune, and all the troubles that go along with it. How did you manage to stay on the straight and narrow early on?

It might have something to do with the fact that I didn't have a whole lot of fame and fortune. I wasn't really a child star. I just worked and acted steadily and hoped that if something happened, that if I had gotten famous when I was little, that I would have remained sane. But it probably helped that I was able to mature and get into a good place professionally and personally before I got any major recognition so that I could possibly handle it better than if I was ten years old. I was more of a workman when I was a child and it helped me avoid all of the pitfalls.

How active were your parents in your career development?

I was a very focused, professional child growing up and I knew what I wanted to do and what I loved. And they just let me do it. But they would have supported me in whatever I chose to do. They're my biggest fans. And they always gave me the love and support I needed.

Along with all the accolades this month, Mad Men just got picked up for a fourth season. How would you describe the show to someone who hasn't seen it yet?

I would tell them it's about advertising in Manhattan in the 1960's. It's about that era, the people, and the parallels or differences between then and now. And it's about family and life.

What started out as a show about advertising in the 1960's has turned into so much more. And that's what has kept it going and kept it interesting.

One of the shows fascinating elements is how the show plays with society's perception of women, particularly in the workplace. In contrast to the more traditional roles that Joan and Betty represent, how is Peggy different? And what's it like playing this character who is leading a social transformation?

It's a lot of fun! I love playing Peggy as the working woman. And telling the story of feminism in the workplace. There were a lot of amazing women at that time who had already made it, if you want to call it that. They were already in great positions. But, there were a lot of women who were still making their way up.

It's just an exciting story to tell. I think a lot of women love watching it. It's gotten a great response, especially from young women, women in their twenties or around my age, which is interesting. And I like the way we tell the story which is not the angle of breaking through glass ceilings, but of a real woman who is just trying to do what she loves.

Both Peggy and Don have dark secrets that they keep outside of the work place. Do you think Peggy is evolving into the female version of Don or something else entirely?

You know, it's a difficult question. And a question I ask myself as an actor when I play her. But it's also something we're presenting to the audience and we haven't quiet answered yet, obviously. You can pick what you want from what you see on the show and the parallels between them are really obvious. People should have already gotten that part.

But I think that Peggy, through the similarities between her and Don, is also trying to figure out that question for herself. Does she have to be like him? Who does she have to be like? And this season, for her, it's all about change and figuring out her role and her own life and what that means. Should she be a mother? Should she be a wife? Should she work harder? Should she work less? She's just trying to figure all of that out. And watching her and Don work together is one of the interesting things on the show because they are so similar.

HHow different is it working on Mad Men verses other Emmy award winning shows you've been a part of, like The West Wing and Picket Fences?

I think the main difference for me is that I'm a regular on the show. Even though I felt very much a part of the others, there's something about being a regular on a show that's unique. You're there all the time, from the pilot and the very beginning. You feel a bit closer to the process and a bit of ownership over it in a way.

For me, I would have loved to have been closer to those other two shows. But I'm really happy to get the chance, with Mad Men, to be a bigger part of everything.

Also, when I was doing Picket Fences, I don't even remember how I old I was (Laughs). And with The West Wing, I went from 17-24. And then, started this. So, it's nice to be at this point in my personal life and my career and also a part of a great show.

Now, this is your third season on Mad Men and your fiance, Fred Armisen, has been on Saturday Night Live for 8 seasons. As you become more familiar with your characters, do you guys ever find yourselves slipping into the roles or mannerisms off the set? Or is it easy to just let go?

I think it's easy for me to let go, but maybe that's just because I've been doing it for so long? I love playing Peggy. She is very similar to me, but also very different. There is obviously a part of me that is her. But then again, I do have to change the way I talk a little bit, the way I stand, and the way I hold my face. It's all kind of different.

I love doing the transformation, but I also find it relatively easy to leave behind. I don't really have to work at leaving it behind because I've been doing it for so long. It's just more fun for me to pop in and out of it.

So Fred never says "Elisabeth, stop being so Peggy?"

(Laughs). No, he doesn't. But he loves Peggy, so I'm sure he wouldn't mind!

Speaking of Saturday Night Live, I love the parody you guys did in "The A-Holes Pitch Meeting." With all the seriousness of the subject material, is there room for practical jokes and humor on the set?

Yes, absolutely! It's a really fun set to be on! Despite the demeanor of the set, the awards, how the writing is praised, the look of the show, etc. - all very serious things. You'd be surprised. There are actually a bunch of goofballs on the set. In fact, I just watched the season three gag reel that was sent to me and it was really funny.

The cast, for all their excellent skills in drama, are also very talented comedians. People like Jon Hamm, Vincent Kartheiser, John Slattery, Rich Sommer, and all the women. We just have these great comedians working on this drama, which I think, gives it a lot more depth. Comedy is hard and the cast can do both, which you can clearly see once the cameras aren't rolling!

Will we ever get to see the gag reel?

You know, I don't think it will ever go out. It's such an interesting balance. You want the perception of the show to remain what it is so you don't want to put too many jokey things out there. You really have to do them in a safe, professional form, like Saturday Night Live, where you know it's going to be good and classy. So, unfortunately, I think it will probably remain under wraps for the cast and crew.

One of the things I love is going out to AMC or madmenfootnotes.com and reading the background on things like Patio Cola and London Fog and Clearasil. What's been your favorite add campaign or piece of nostalgia and why?

I like the ad campaign we came up with that I believe was not based off an actual ad campaign. If I'm correct, it's the one about popsicles. It was a great campaign. And it was Peggy's first campaign that she worked on in Season Two that really was all hers.

The poster for the ad was this great photo of a girl with two kids and she's holding out two popsicles to them. But the whole idea behind it was that it looked like children had taken Communion. And that tied into her whole arc for Season Two with the priest, Colin Hanks, and her confession about her deep, dark secret. She comes up with this ad campaign and that has an obvious Catholic reference.

So, that was my favorite. But we have wonderful art direction and amazing art people that create all the ad campaigns and paint them beautifully.

One of the very visual characteristics of Mad Men is the depiction of cigarette smoking and drinking in the office place. How does the show remain true to the time without endorsing the habits?

With all the drinking and smoking, especially in the past, we've had people say that we endorse it. Not too many, surprisingly, because you'd think there would be more. But, the characters on the show are kind of messed up and dealing with these things in very wrong ways.

We're also depicting it at a time when that really happened and we didn't know all the things we know health-wise. People made mistakes and they died for it. So, there's definitely self-awareness of what we're commenting on and it's done, not with the idea of glamorizing, but the idea of depicting the real time. And luckily, most of our audience has been smart enough to recognize that.

So who or what inspires you as an actress today?

Working on the show inspires me. The scripts we get and the fellow actors I work with are incredible people. And personally, my fiance inspires me to always do my best and do a good job.

Besides that, I have certain idols that I look up to, like Meryl Streep, Kate Winslet, and Cate Blanchett.

Now you've crossed genres and mediums over your twenty plus years doing Mamet plays, voice over work, leading roles in great films like Virgin. Is there anything you haven't done that you would like to try or something you've done that you would like to do more of?

Oh yes! There are a lot more things I would like to try. I would love to try my hand at theater with a lot of different playwrights. I would love to do Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and go into different areas and push the experiences.

Besides that, I always want to be surprised by something. Mad Men is something that I could never have seen coming along. I never could have said 'Oh, I would love to do this great television show about advertising in the 60's.' I just like the element of surprise, something coming along when I could never have expected or planned for it. As far as I'm concerned, if I could do Mad Men for a few more years, I would be perfectly content with that.

I think we would be perfectly content with that too!

Oh, thank you. Well, we'll try to keep it going!

Now, I see a lot of comedy in your future. What can you tell me about your upcoming projects?

I did a couple of comedies, but completely different styles of comedy. The first is called Did You Hear About the Morgans?, which comes out in December. I'm a huge romantic comedy fan and it's an old fashioned 1930's screwball comedy. It was really a thrill to work with Sarah Jessica Parker and Hugh Grant, particularly in a physical comedy with one-liners and things. It was really fun.

Then, after that, during the summer, I worked on a film called Get Him to the Greek, which is a spin off of Forgetting Sarah Marshall, a Judd Apatow produced comedy. I worked with Jonah Hill and played his girlfriend. And that was a completely different style of comedy. All improv. And if anyone has seen his movies you know what kind of comedy it is! It was fun, it was scary, and a very different kind of thing for me. But very exciting!



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