As secretary-turned-copywriter Peggy Olson, Elisabeth Moss is both Mad Men’s symbol of wide-eyed innocence and a complete subversion of the idea of innocence: She’s a canny corporate climber whose most valuable weapon is the fact that people constantly underestimate her. It’s a perfect role for Moss, who first garnered notice as the president’s earnest, crisis-prone daughter on The West Wing, and whose natural sprightliness there carried over into Peggy’s likeability, even as she’s cruelly cutting down a room full of auditioning actresses, or coolly telling her office fling Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) about giving away their illegitimate baby. Moss has been acting since she was a child, including a role in the cult TV show Picket Fences and starring in the 1995 Disney remake of Escape To Witch Mountain, and her résumé includes breakthrough parts in films like Girl, Interrupted. Yet there’s no question: Mad Men has increased her profile tenfold. Thus far, it’s netted her two Emmy nominations—including one this year for Best Supporting Actress—and helped land her supporting parts in a recent Broadway revival of David Mamet’s Speed The Plow, as well as big-screen comedies like Did You Hear About The Morgans? and Get Him To The Greek. The day after her latest Emmy nomination, Moss spoke (carefully) with The A.V. Club about what the fourth season of Mad Men has in store for Peggy, how she sees the character as a stand-in for the audience, and why she always seems to wind up working with a bunch of dudes.
The A.V. Club: You’ve been nominated for an Emmy before. Was there less surprise this time around?
Elisabeth Moss: No, definitely not. It’s still kind of a surprise. I always psych myself up for nothing to happen, because you just never know. So it was definitely a big surprise. [Laughs.] I was pretty sure it wasn’t going to happen. It’s so cool. You never get used to it. It’s awesome every time.
AVC: This year, you were entered as a supporting actress to give January Jones a chance at a lead-actress nomination, which paid off for both of you. How did the show approach you about doing that, and what was your reaction?
EM: I think that everyone kind of assumes that’s what happened, but it was actually my decision. You submit yourself—I mean, obviously they do it for you, but they come to you and they’re like “What do you want to submit as?” I just thought supporting was more appropriate for that particular season. It wasn’t by any sort of design. I’m not giving anyone a chance at anything. I thought that different seasons have different arcs for people, and different storylines, and I thought that for season three, it was maybe a little more appropriate to do supporting. I had amazing stuff in season three that I’m so proud of, but it just seemed to make a little more sense. It was actually totally my decision and my idea, and obviously it turned out best for the show, so it definitely all worked out. You never know with these things. It’s like a dice game. [Laughs.] You just sort of roll and see what happens. I just had to do whatever was the best thing, and if it gave an opportunity to January, then great.
AVC: Was there a specific episode that you submitted? And was it the “I’m Peggy Olson, and I want to smoke some marijuana” episode?
EM: [Laughs.] I don’t think you submit a specific episode for the nomination. But you do have to pick one for after you get nominated, and I haven’t picked one yet. I don’t know if it’ll be that one.
AVC: Where are you at in the filming of the upcoming season?
EM: We’re about to start episode nine.
AVC: How’s it going so far?
EM: It’s a really great season. I think it’s the best season we’ve had. It’s funny, because you get nominated for the Emmys, but it’s for last season. [Laughs.] So we definitely have a feeling of, “Wow, well wait until they see this season. This season’s really good.” Matt [Weiner] took a huge risk last season in the way he ended things, and I think it’s really paying off.
AVC: Do you feel like it’s starting over, since it’s a new agency and a new setting?
EM: Yes and no. It’s a new start, but with all the same people you know and love. So yes, it’s new, but it’s also still very much Mad Men.
AVC: How much knowledge of the storyline are you given in advance? Do you know how the season’s going to play out already?
EM: Yes and no. You hear things, and you get told things sometimes. But sometimes not. And sometimes things change. We’ve been working a lot, and I almost don’t have time to think about what’s coming. We’re just trying to get through every episode.
AVC: Fans have been combing through every bit of promo material that’s been released, and one of the most talked-about scraps of info has been a photo of Peggy’s new haircut. So what sort of deep, symbolic clues does Peggy’s new haircut hold as to what she’s going through this season?
EM: [Laughs.] I heard about that. I heard that people were really interested in the new haircut, which I think is so funny. Great haircut, I really like it. It goes great with the time period. And I was super, super, super-happy to have my bangs swept to the side rather than straight in front of me, which I dealt with for three seasons. I’m very, very much done with that. So when I showed up and we did it to the side, I thought, “This is the greatest day of my life, and this is going to be the greatest season ever.” I’m super-happy with it. For me, personally, I’m happy with it as Lizzy, but also I think that it’s still very much Peggy. We would never lose the bangs. We would never do anything like Joan does, with those updos. So she’s still very much Peggy, but just a little bit more fashionable.
AVC: While you were doing press around this time last year, before the start of season three, you said that year would be all about Peggy trying to figure out who she is—as a woman in the office, and as a woman in the 1960s. Do you feel as though she’s accomplished that yet?
EM: Oh, God no. I think she’s definitely still figuring that out. She’s getting better at it. She’s getting more confident at it. She’s not spinning in place anymore. She’s definitely going in a certain direction. But she’s definitely still figuring things out. I mean, she’s still super-young.
AVC: In seasons past, there’s been a lot of compartmentalization in terms of the characters, some of whom wouldn’t interact from episode to episode. But now it seems like, with the new and smaller agency, you guys are kind of bundled in one place. How has that affected the way you play off one another?
EM: I think we’ve always felt that we—besides January, who nobody ever really works with, unfortunately—I think that we’ve all felt that we were already a pretty tight-knit group. I work with all the boys all the time, and have worked with Vinnie [Kartheiser], and Christina [Hendricks], and Jon [Hamm] obviously, so much. But I think there’s definitely a sense this season that the hierarchy has shrunk, and it’s obviously smaller, and there’s definitely a sense that they’re a group of survivors. But at the same time—well, unfortunately, I can’t talk too much about it. There’s, like, literally nothing I can say. [Laughs]. I’m sorry! I’m trying to figure out what I can say, but I can’t say anything, because I’m so afraid I’m going to reveal something.
AVC: We knew going into this that we would only be able to talk about the upcoming season in the broadest terms.
EM: Believe me, it’s just as frustrating for us.
AVC: Just in general, since Peggy and Joan are working together again, how do you see their relationship evolving from here?
EM: Peggy has her own job now. She’s not going to Joan for advice every day, necessarily. I mean, that was already happening in season three, so that’s not really revealing anything. But I think, definitely in the office at least, Joan is just never wrong. There will always be that dynamic. They’re never going to be best friends. We said that from season one, that it was not going to be Laverne & Shirley. They are these two great women who are completely different, but they have their very specific roles in that office, and they’re both very good at their roles.
AVC: There seems to be this inherent conflict in Peggy between her drive to be this strong career woman, and her need to be desired as a woman, like Joan is. Do you see that as still being a factor for her?
EM: Yeah, absolutely. I think she’s maybe less vulnerable to that idea now. I feel like in season three, with the whole Duck [Phillips] thing that happened, she was so vulnerable to anyone thinking she was attractive, and anyone thinking she was desirable. And I think she’s grown out of that a little bit. But she still absolutely has trouble and conflict between what it means to be a woman and be sexy, and what it means to be respected in the office. Can they be the same thing, and can they overlap, or should they not? And in dealing with that, I think she’s a little better at keeping them separate.
AVC: What about her relationship with Pete? How do you see that developing?
EM: The great thing about Pete and Peggy’s storyline is that you barely have to do anything. [Laughs.] There’s so much there, so much history, that you can have them exchange a look and it’s so loaded. So you honestly don’t have to do anything. I can’t say if anything happens, or if they even have any scenes together this season, but I can say that there’s so much history there, but at the same time, they have both moved on, and have jobs, and they’re concentrating on making the agency successful. Just as when you have a personal drama going on in life, you don’t walk around dealing with it every day; sometimes you just go to work. And I think that’s very much applicable to this situation, if that makes any sense.
AVC: You’ve talked before about how you see Peggy as being an honest person, but she’s also advancing further and further into what is basically a business of deception, and she’s surrounded by men who are skilled liars. How do you see that affecting her?
EM: I think that she is a very honest person, but at the same time, she’s good at keeping secrets, and can operate with discretion, and is very good at compartmentalizing her life. There’s lying, and then there’s selling. And there’s advertising, and the business of pitching and selling and getting people to buy things. It’s this sort of gray area. And I think she’s trying to figure out how to follow the rules of what she’s supposed to be doing, and not hurt anyone. She’s supposed to sell things and pitch things and sometimes lie, and do what’s best for getting an account—but at the same time, not hurt anyone. And I can’t say which direction she’s going in, but she’s definitely going in one direction. [Laughs.]
AVC: Don Draper’s power is that he’s able to get at the idea behind a product, and how it’s selling you the hope that you can be a better person, which seems to come from a slightly cynical place, like he knows it’s an illusion. How does that differ from how Peggy approaches the job?
EM: I don’t know that it does differ. If anything, she’s definitely following what Don’s taught her. And I think the way she approaches things is exactly the same way, honestly. Looking at it, isn’t that the only way to approach these things? That’s why Don’s so brilliant. It’s cynical, but it’s also hopeful. It’s the idea that someone can change and be a better person and be who they want to be. It may be a bit cynical to tap into that to sell coffee, but at the same time, it’s what people want. They’re just giving people what they want. So I think she’s getting better and better at that. I don’t think she does it differently than Don, necessarily.
AVC: In the first season, Peggy gave that great speech about things not being fair—about people who do the wrong things getting rewarded for them. Do you think she’s evolved past that point now?
EM: Absolutely. I definitely think she’s not so naïve, and she’s had some hard knocks. I still think she retains this sort of odd naïveté, and I like that. I think that’s great. She’s still an observer, and she’s still constantly observing things around her and taking them in. And that’s why, in the pilot, she was very much the audience’s viewpoint. It’s a tried-and-true thing to do, to have a character be the eyes of the audience as she was in the pilot, and I think she has continued to be. And as much as she’s gotten tougher, and she’s a little bit better at what she does, I think she’s still the observer for the audience.
AVC: Where would you like to see Peggy end up?
EM: I’d like to see her continue to grow at her job and to see her be able to figure out how to be happy in her personal life and still be able to do a good job at work. I think that that balance is something that men and women are always trying to figure out, still. I think that’s kind of the goal for everyone, to try to figure out that balance. I don’t know that she ever will, though. It would make for boring television if everything was perfect. [Laughs.]
AVC: When we talked to Matthew Weiner in 2008, he said he often holds “tone meetings,” where he’ll actually perform the script pages in character. Have you seen those?
EM: No, we’re not in the tone meetings. [Laughs.] Oh no, no, no. The cast is not in the tone meetings. It’s all production—hair and makeup, producers, writers. I don’t think they would let us anywhere near those. So I have no idea what goes on in those tone meetings. I’ve heard that they’re six hours long. But I have heard that it’s great. I think that Matt and the writers go over very specific elements of every scene, from where are the pencils to what exactly they’re drinking. I’m sure Matt performs the lines. [Laughs.] He should. He knows how they’re supposed to be.
AVC: He said he does “a great Joan.”
EM: [Laughs.] I haven’t seen that! I’m sure he does, though. I mean, he created these characters. He probably does them better than any of us.
AVC: How much room are you given to inject the character with your own instincts and characteristics?
EM: It’s a symbiotic relationship. It’s a very back-and-forth relationship. It’s a liquid relationship. The writers see things that we do, and that inspires them. And I think that by this point, where we’re almost at the end of the fourth season, the line between what the writers have created and what we are creating is blurry. Obviously, they create the storylines and the scenes and the lines, and I’m not saying that we create what happens to our characters, but the way we perform them, I think they see us doing things and then it’s just there. When they write lines, they already know how we’re going to say them.
AVC: One of the very few criticisms the show has received is that it leaves so many things unspoken and open to interpretation, that it kind of operates opaquely, where the characters are rarely saying what they actually think, and the plot only advances incrementally, and sometimes almost imperceptibly.
EM: I think that’s one of those things that you could take as a criticism, or someone might say that exact same statement as a compliment. I’ve heard people say “I love how the characters never say what they’re really thinking, and I love how things are so open-ended and you just never know what’s going to happen.” Do you know what I mean? So it’s an opinion, you know? I’ve heard very few, if any criticisms of the show, and I think that it obviously is working, whatever we’re doing. [Laughs.] I love that we have a storyline and then we drop it for three episodes and make the audience wait. I love that, in season two, we did not bring up that goddamn baby until the last episode. That made it so much better. I just think that maybe that’s a criticism to some, but it’s one of the things that make the show brighter. I mean, there are shows that present the storyline, work it out, and it’s resolved within the hour. And I love those shows too. But this is a different show.
AVC: Even outside of Mad Men, you’ve been asked to hold your own against some male-dominated ensembles—including the Broadway revival of Speed The Plow that you did recently. How do you feel about playing those sorts of “guy’s girl” roles?
EM: Yeah, I don’t know how I sort of stumbled into that happening all the time, but I love it. I love working with male actors, and I think there’s a tendency to write really interesting characters that would work solely alongside men where they would be in a man’s world and have to deal with that, and it creates a lot of interesting storylines. For me, it’s kind of circumstantial, but I definitely enjoy it. It’s not something I seek out, but it’s certainly fun to play. It’s a great dynamic. The dynamic between men and women in the workplace is really interesting.
AVC: Do you ever have the desire to do things that are a little more “girly,” for lack of a better word?
EM: [Laughs.] Um, I don’t know. I don’t even know what that would be.
AVC: Did being married to Saturday Night Live’s Fred Armisen—who’s obviously had some experience with improv comedy—help you prepare for Get Him To The Greek?
EM: No, because when you’re making movies, it’s just you sitting there. [Laughs.] The cameras are rolling, and no one is going to help you. If anything, Jonah [Hill] really helped me, because most of my scenes were with him. He was so supportive, and he really made me feel like I couldn’t mess up. Same thing with Nick Stoller, our director. He made me feel like I was really funny. He’s the quickest person to laugh that you’ll ever meet. He laughs at everything. He’s got the greatest big laugh. You can hear him from the monitor when you’re doing the scene, and it’s just really encouraging. It makes you feel like you’re not a total dork.
AVC: Mad Men has obviously become so acclaimed, and people expect so much from it now. Does that put pressure on you and the people involved—that it’s held to this almost impossible standard?
EM: Yeah, absolutely. It’s a lot of pressure. I think every season is more pressure. It doesn’t get easier. Which is why every single time we get something like 17 Emmy nominations, we’re so happy about it. Because it’s not like we’re like, “Well of course we’re going to get this. We are awesome.” We work so hard every season to try to make it better and to live up to the standard that we ourselves have created. So there’s a lot of pressure, but at the same time, I feel like things are looking good. Every single season, we have managed to reach that standard—or set a new and higher one. So I have high hopes for this season.
AVC: Have those high standards ruined other projects for you? Do you think you’ll always be comparing whatever role you take on to Mad Men?
EM: Yeah, I’m sure. I mean, I haven’t had the opportunity to really look at playing another series regular on television, obviously. But I think that we have all said, at one point or another, that some people do TV and then, in their hiatus, go to do some more quote-unquote artistic and fulfilling work, but we feel that our day job—our TV show—is for us, the most artistic and fulfilling work we could do. So it’s like, during our hiatuses, it’s just a game of finding anything that approximates that. [Laughs.] Which is really hard. So I think that, for sure, it will forever be something I will compare things to. But I think there’s a lot of good work out there. I hope it won’t be a problem. [Laughs.]