Elis­a­beth Moss: the Mad Men star’s Kiwi con­nec­tion

She’s cur­rently film­ing se­ries two of Kiwi di­rec­tor Jane Cam­pion’s Top of the Lake. Tom Shone meets the woman be­hind De­tec­tive Robin Grif­fin and Mad Men’s Peggy, and asks how the bright, vi­va­cious joker man­ages to por­tray such tightly wound char­ac­ters.

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - CONTENTS -

ELIS­A­BETH MOSS gets peo­ple com­ing up to her all the time and ask­ing how she’s do­ing. Is she sad Mad Men ended? Was it hard? The last day of shoot­ing was, she tells them. The pro­duc­ers saved all the scenes in the end­ing mon­tage un­til the very end, so all the ac­tors would be there that day. “It was like, ‘All right, so and so is up’ and ev­ery­one would trudge to set and two more ac­tors would wrap. You would be cry­ing. Walk away. Weep some more. ‘All right, it’s Vinny [Kartheiser] now. Let’s go.’ It hap­pened six, seven times that day. I left and I went home. I felt proud. We had wrapped. We were done.

“Then, al­most a year later, it starts air­ing and all of a sud­den ev­ery­one is ask­ing you about it again, and ev­ery­one is go­ing through their own cathar­tic ex­pe­ri­ence of it end­ing.

You are go­ing, ‘Right. Okay. I’ve got to get back there.’ I had done four movies since then, and I was do­ing a Broad­way play at the time. [View­ers] were go­ing through their own griev­ing process. You are like, ‘I know. It is aw­ful. It is sad. It is re­ally sad…’”

Elis­a­beth laughs at her predica­ment – com­mis­er­at­ing on be­half of peo­ple com­mis­er­at­ing with her, even though she her­self is not par­tic­u­larly sad – which seems born of her par­tic­u­lar mix­ture of celebrity, breezi­ness and po­lite­ness. She has a hard enough time keep­ing the episodes of Mad Men straight in her head. “You could have asked me what we shot last week or what hap­pened in the last episode. I don’t re­mem­ber. I can’t tell you how many times I have been on­line to check the plot sum­maries to re­mind my­self.”

In per­son, Elis­a­beth Moss is ebul­lient, flip, much more so than she is on screen, where she ex­cels at quiet, tightly wound char­ac­ters who sup­press their feel­ings to get on with the job: earnest, driven Peggy, the timid sec­re­tary turned ace copy­writer in Mad Men. Or her New Zealand de­tec­tive in Jane Cam­pion’s su­perb Top of the Lake, re­turn­ing to her home town to in­ves­ti­gate the dis­ap­pear­ance of a 12-year-old girl, an­ten­nae twitch­ing, steel­ing her­self against her own trau­mas.

On set, though, she is known as a joker, al­ways the ring­leader in games of Heads Up! – a cha­rades app – on the set of Mad Men, whose cast voted her class clown.

“Feel free to write that I am in­ter­est­ing and brood­ing, and very mys­te­ri­ous – I would be happy with that,” she says after turn­ing up at a restau­rant in Brook­lyn, New York, wear­ing what she calls a “horrible out­fit”: black sweat­pants adorned with what ap­pear to be sil­ver leop­ard paw prints, Ugg boots and a cream­coloured turtle­neck, all topped off with a tan­gle of sunny blond hair. “My work out­fit,” she says. “I pre­fer to be messy. I like to have my hair messed up. I like to be cov­ered in dirt. That is when I am hav­ing fun.

“I wish I was su­per-se­ri­ous, an­guished,” she adds. “I see those ac­tors and think they are so cool and they seem so in­ter­est­ing. I don’t take act­ing that se­ri­ously. I love my work, but I do not think I am sav­ing the world, and I do not think I am do­ing any­thing brave by ac­cess­ing emo­tions that I might have for roles.”

As we speak, a storm is brew­ing out­side. The bar be­gins to fill with refugees from nearby of­fices. Elis­a­beth or­ders a beer and a salad, although she

barely touches the beer. She’s not much of a drinker. When di­rec­tor James Van­der­bilt called Mad Men cre­ator Matt Weiner to find out what it was like work­ing with Elis­a­beth, be­fore cast­ing her op­po­site Robert Red­ford in the movie Truth, Weiner told him two things: “Elis­a­beth never gives a bad take and she is a rub­bish drinker.”

When not work­ing, she will hole up in her apart­ment on the Up­per

West Side for days, weeks, at a time, binge-watch­ing Scan­dal, Par­ent­hood, Nashville or The Good Wife. “Like, not leave the house,” she says. “I get sad any­time any­body makes me leave. I get pissy. I re­ally do.”

“You can al­ways find Elis­a­beth around Ja­panese food,” says Jane Cam­pion, who wrote and di­rected

Top of the Lake, for which Elis­a­beth won a Golden Globe. After the 2013 Em­mys, for which the show got eight nom­i­na­tions, Elis­a­beth took

Jane and her pro­duc­tion team to her favourite sushi restau­rant on Sun­set Boule­vard, or­der­ing for ev­ery­one. “She was look­ing after us,” Jane tells me. “When­ever she likes some­thing, be it food or clothes or shoes, she or­ders heaps of it. I re­mem­ber her apart­ment in New Zealand was piled with boxes. She does girly-girl very well.”

At the same time, Jane says,

Elis­a­beth “isn’t afraid to say no. I think that’s re­ally im­por­tant for a woman in this in­dus­try: not to be afraid of up­set­ting some­body.”

Re­cently, Elis­a­beth pitched to a se­ries of pro­duc­tion com­pa­nies a project she had been work­ing on for a cou­ple of years, based on a book she had op­tioned (she won’t say which), with her­self at­tached to star. “We were told by more than one place that it was too fe­male, which was shock­ing,” Elis­a­beth says. “I ac­tu­ally asked if it was le­gal for them to say that.”

THESE TWO SIDES to Elis­a­beth – the lover of shoes and the stub­born truth-teller – are the twin threads that made Peggy Olsen, in the words of New York mag­a­zine, “a fem­i­nist icon”.

Now, the first seeds of Elis­a­beth’s post- Mad Men ca­reer are be­gin­ning to bear fruit, with the re­lease of both Truth and the film adap­ta­tion of J.G. Bal­lard’s 1975 fa­ble High-Rise, about the dis­in­te­gra­tion of a tower block into an­ar­chy. High-Rise fea­tures lots of tight-lipped so­cial climbers and petty bu­reau­crats find­ing their in­ner cave­man amid the shag-pile rugs. Elis­a­beth plays He­len, the wife of a thug­gish TV doc­u­men­tar­ian who leads the tower block in rev­o­lu­tion: cock­tail glass held aloft, smok­ing through her preg­nancy, eyes averted from her hus­band’s phi­lan­der­ing.

“There was some­thing about He­len’s in­no­cence and her lost qual­ity, her odd whistling-in-the-dark thing,” Elis­a­beth says, de­scrib­ing what drew her to the role. “Whereas other char­ac­ters go crazy, and the build­ing brings out the worst in them, I feel like it ac­tu­ally brings out the best in her. She be­comes a hap­pier per­son. She finds love. She gets out of her apart­ment for what you feel is the first time in prob­a­bly a while.”

For a mo­ment, I won­der if we have seen the same film. Her part looked to me like a sub­ur­ban house­wife gone to hell. But Elis­a­beth is re­lent­lessly up­beat in her as­sess­ment of other peo­ple’s char­ac­ters and mo­tives. It’s a qual­ity you get from her per­for­mances, too; that slight blink­ered­ness that al­lows her to walk into the lion’s den and tame some other­wise ag­gres­sive, bor­der­line abu­sive al­pha males: Don Draper in Mad Men, Peter Mullan’s hot-tem­pered, dom­i­neer­ing pa­tri­arch in Top of the Lake. She’s the Brute Whis­perer. She laughs when I point this out.

“I love that,” she says. “That is awe­some. To­tally. You’re say­ing, ‘There are nice men out there. Doesn’t she know?’ What is weird is I haven’t re­ally had a lot of [brutes] in my life. I find I like the de­cent ones. But, for dra­matic pur­poses, it is far more

in­ter­est­ing to play the dark side of any­thing. I do think there is some­thing about an in­tel­li­gent, strong woman, who also needs to be taken care of, that will at­tract a cer­tain kind of man some­times. And that re­la­tion­ship is in­ter­est­ing on screen. Bad re­la­tion­ships are more in­ter­est­ing than good re­la­tion­ships to watch.”

In real life, Moss mar­ried Satur­day Night Live co­me­dian Fred Ar­misen in 2009, after be­ing in­tro­duced to him when Don Draper ac­tor Jon Hamm hosted the show. They sep­a­rated just eight months later, and Ar­misen said on the Howard Stern show in 2013 that he had been a “ter­ri­ble hus­band”. He later went even fur­ther, sug­gest­ing to pod­caster Marc Maron that he thought he had mar­ried Peggy: “I was get­ting to know the other peo­ple from the show and her, and it was very, very ex­cit­ing, and I got caught up in that.”

When I ask Elis­a­beth about the mar­riage, she sounds very much as if she is still look­ing for her part in it. “I learned so much, I am still sift­ing through it. I was young. I was 27, and cer­tainly I am still young, but now, look­ing back, six years ago, it seems young. I didn’t know what I wanted, and what I was look­ing for. With time, I think, you learn who you are and what you need.”

ELIS­A­BETH WAS raised, and still is, a Scien­tol­o­gist. She has long since given up de­fend­ing the re­li­gion, speak­ing with the hon­est con­vic­tion of some­one who knows their own be­lief to be pure-hearted.

“It is weird for me to be put in the po­si­tion where I say, ‘I don’t re­ally want to talk about this.’ I am a per­son who likes to talk about stuff. I get the cu­rios­ity. I get the fas­ci­na­tion. I be­come fas­ci­nated with things that are none of my busi­ness as well. But you have a right to your pri­vacy.”

There is a strain of op­ti­mism to Elis­a­beth that one could eas­ily see leav­ing her open to ex­ploita­tion by oth­ers, even as it lends vul­ner­a­bil­ity to her per­for­mances. “I like char­ac­ters who have two dif­fer­ent things go­ing on, whether it is Robin from Top of the Lake hav­ing that strength jux­ta­posed with the vul­ner­a­bil­ity and be­ing in pain, or whether it is Peggy from Mad Men with her naivety and her sort of id­iocy at times, com­bined with her in­tel­li­gence and courage to do what she did. I felt with He­len [her character in High-Rise], it was the in­no­cent, naive qual­ity com­bined with this sort of brav­ery and op­ti­mism.”

This jux­ta­po­si­tion – the feel­ing of be­ing slightly out of kil­ter with her en­vi­ron­ment, or time, that made Peggy so com­pelling – goes back, in part, to Elis­a­beth’s child­hood, grow­ing up in what used to be a hippy en­clave in Los An­ge­les. Her mother was a har­mon­ica player in a blues band, her fa­ther a music man­ager who was “al­ways on tour with clients. My ear­li­est mem­o­ries are at the Blue Note here in New

York, or back­stage at dif­fer­ent the­atres or dif­fer­ent clubs. We grew up with mu­si­cians com­ing over, jam­ming. We had tons of in­stru­ments. So hol­i­days were al­ways like, 50 peo­ple would come over and there would be a jam ses­sion with ev­ery­one play­ing jazz.

Not rock. When I was 12, I didn’t know about Nir­vana or Oa­sis or any of those peo­ple. I was lis­ten­ing to Ella Fitzger­ald and Gersh­win. I was raised with a lot of clas­si­cal music. I loved bal­let. I was a bun-head for 10 years.”

Her par­ents later sep­a­rated – her fa­ther now lives in Florida – but she re­mains very close to her mother, who lives nearby in New York, and her brother, who is 18 months younger. Music, too, re­mains very im­por­tant. Elis­a­beth often has her head­phones on be­tween takes, partly be­cause it stops peo­ple talk­ing to her. She lis­tened to a lot of Max Richter and Ice­landic band Sigur Rós dur­ing Mad Men (“That is my go-to, if I need to go to a darker place”). For the most wrench­ing scene in Top of the Lake, where her character re­calls be­ing raped, she charged her­self up on Eminem. “Re­ally loud. It got me to this place that I needed to be in.”

“I would often see her with her head­set on,” Jane Cam­pion re­calls, who was per­suaded to cast Elis­a­beth after see­ing the au­di­tion tape of that scene. “It was re­mark­able for be­ing so quiet. She was very sim­ple. As you’re watch­ing it, you’re think­ing, ‘Oh, it doesn’t look like she’s try­ing.’ I just found my­self re­ally in­ter­ested

“I THINK IT’S TO DO WITH a lit­tle lamp switched on in­side Elis­a­beth. IT AL­WAYS SHINES BRIGHT­EST IN THE DARK.”

in watch­ing all the way through this gen­tle but quiet, ob­vi­ously in­te­rior per­for­mance. It was com­ing from the in­side out. Some­times you get to the end of a project and you think, ‘I don’t re­ally think they have much more to show me.’ With her, at the end of about six hours, I was still re­ally in­ter­ested. She’s a lit­tle bit like a Mona Lisa. There’s a lot she’s not show­ing you.”

They first started talk­ing about a sec­ond se­ries at Elis­a­beth’s favourite sushi restau­rant after the Em­mys, and con­tin­ued the con­ver­sa­tion while she was shoot­ing Truth in Syd­ney. Elis­a­beth’s one con­di­tion for do­ing the se­ries was sim­ple: take her character to an even darker place.

“I think it’s to do with a lit­tle lamp that is switched on in­side Elis­a­beth,” Jane says. “I think it al­ways shines bright­est in the dark.”

The week­end after we meet, Moss is due to be­gin work with her di­alect coach to help dust off her Kiwi ac­cent in prepa­ra­tion for the sec­ond se­ries of Top of the Lake. She tends to wipe clean after she is done with a part, which may be what al­lows her such blitheness as she dances with the devil on screen – that and Sigur Rós.

It’s time to wrap up. The weather is clos­ing in, and it is dark out­side.

But Moss could not be hap­pier.

In­side, look­ing out at the storm, is her favourite place to be.

From left: Elis­a­beth as Robin in Top of the Lake with co-star David Wen­ham, as naive but tal­ented Peggy in Mad Men, and with Tom Hid­dle­ston in the movie High-Rise.

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