Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss on her Emmy nomination, the show's viewership and visiting Clearwater as a child Scientologist
So I was amazed and gratified when co-star Elisabeth Moss made some time this week to talk about the show, which has mesmerized a certain segment of the nation's trendsetters with its sharp-eye for fashion, lavish recreation of the 1960s and wry social commentary of that time and the era to come.
Moss, who first came to prominence playing the president's daughter on The West Wing, is riding high this year with an Emmy nomination and new visibility for her character Peggy Olson -- who capped last season by telling married colleague Pete Campbell their brief tryst produced a baby which she gave up for adoption.
The show returns for its third season at 10 p.m. Sunday on AMC, and I've got a story running in Floridian on it all Sunday. But here's a trascript of our interview on Wednesday evening, coming at the tail end of a busy press day for Moss.
Me: Speaking of Peggy's moment, I wonder: Was that when viewers felt they finally knew Peggy?
Moss: “Possibly – I think they were just happy to see her talk about anything about herself. To reveal any sort of part about her, how she feels about anything. I think the real connection with that scene – people identify with her a lot. She’s sort of a bit of an everyman. She’s kinda the Ernest Borgnine of Mad Men – that Marty character – the character that’s really easily identifiable. I think that people wanted to see her succeed and they wanted to see her stand up for herself, so when she did and said just the right thing to just the right person, I think people felt vindicated. They waited so long for her to do something and then she did the right thing. People felt like happy for themselves in a way. One of the nice things abou t laying her, is that people seem to want her to succeed and believe in her. I think people really like her. That’s why people had a connection to that scene.”
Peggy seems one of the few characters on the show who have a connection to today times. Is that why viewers bond with her?
“You see these other characters – they really are of a different era. They wouldn’t be able to exist now. They’re fascinating to watch in that sense. Peggy, because of just her age, she is the next generation. People see themselves in her, more than they might in other characters who are doing things they would never do or seem so far from their lives. Somebody like Peggy who is just a real hard worker, and good at what she does and has personal issues but keeps them out of the office, I think people identify with that.”
The show’s viewership on TV doesn’t seem to match its popularity in magazines and TV stories and buzz – it’s visibility in the culture. Any theories why?
“My impression of it is – my naive impression of it is, I believe a lot of our popularity comes from DVDs and from iTunes. I don’t know a lot of people that, unfortunately, sit down and watch it on Sunday night. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked to that buy all the DVDs and watch them all at once. And that will not reflect in our viewership. It will be interesting to see what happens – to me, I’m saying 2-million viewers, that a lot. 2-million viewers, that’s a lot, isn’t it? I know it’s not good for ratings, but I personally don’t like watching a show once a week -- it drives me crazy. I hope we can find some sort of solution that makes sales our DVDs somehow reflect in our viewership. I fell like that’s a huge part of how people watch our show.”
What’s the one thing people most misunderstand about the show or your character?
“I think there was a general feeling from the very beginning that she was not smart. I used to get a lot in the very beginning about how she was not smart and very naïve. I always wanted to ask: ‘How smart were you at 20 years old?’ I’m sure every decision you made was perfect. I think people forget she’s 20 in 1960. The fact that she went and got a job in Manhattan means she’s smart enough. I won’t deny her naivete, but I think it comes less from stupidity but the sense that she’s a good person and she doesn’t understand why everybody else isn’t a good person too. She’s not trying to hurt anyone and she doesn’t understand why anyone would try to hurt her.”
Has she decided how much like Don Draper she wants to be?
She definitely is struggling with that. That’s a lot of what this season is about: How much like Don should she be? It’s obvious she’s following in his footsteps and becoming an odd little protégé of his. Although the relationship is not that caring – kinda of tough love. She obviously decide she has to be like him. But how much like him? And in what way?
“As much as there is a mentor/protégé relationship – another show would have them become best friends and have him become adoring of her ideas. But this is not that show. It’s a much more realistic approach. He’s almost, I think it’s safe to say, harder on her than ever. It’s just because he does have respect for her and he thinks she can stand up to it and possibly deliver. He’s almost harder on her because he approves of her the most.”
She also seems to struggle with relating to the other women in the office, because she’s not like them anymore.
“The women won’t accept her, but she’s not exactly palling around with the guys, either, She’s very much adrift. Filming season three – I have no idea where she’s going to land. That’s one of the individual gifts of the show. It takes so long to reveal anything and sometimes you never do. Some of the most interesting things about the show are things that aren’t done and aren’t said…you sort of have to fill in the blanks. I like that, personally. I would ratherp lay a mysterious character than have anything on the niose.”
You’re not in Sunday's episode very much.
“In typical fashion, you just don’t get what you think you’re going to get. You might expect it to be this Peggy-heavy episode and it’s not. As usual, it’s very unsatisfying.”
You’re nominated for an Emmy. Was it a surprise?
“It was definitely a huge surprise. I was not expecting it. It’s pretty healthy to not expect these things. It’s been nothing but a very lovely thing to be recognized. I try to keep it out of my mind. I’ve been to a few awards shows at this point, and I’ve gotten al ittle bit better at trying to think of the most healthy approach, which is really not to think about it. It’s sort of if it happens amazing. If it doesn’t you don’t want it to reflect in your performance on the show. All those women in that category are amazing. I don’t necessarily believe in the ‘One is better than the other’ theory.”
When you were doing the scene telling Pete about the baby, were you aware ‘This is my Emmy moment?’
“No, thank God – I think that would have been a horrible scene if I was thinking that! (laughs) I don’t know what makes it Emmy worthy. In my viewpoint, so much focus is put upon that scene – it’s really worthy of note. I’m sure it helped me in getting the nomination. But at the same time, I believe that my work the entire two seasons led me to be able to do that scene and have that scene. Yes, that scene is very important, but would it have stood on its own, or would it need all the work before it? I don’t know what works and what doesn’t, because everybody seems good to me. I’m not going to argue with it.”
What would be happiness for her?
I think that’s what she’s trying to figure out. I don’t think she knows, I don’t think the writers know. He whole jouyner this season is about what is the balance between work and personal life? Can she be a wife and a mother and still work? Does she want to be a wife and mother? Is that something she should be working on harder? She doesn’t know what’s going to bring her happiness yet. But I don’t know how many people did at age 20. She would have been the first in her office to do that. If she goes down the path of getting married and having kids and remaining at work, she would be the first woman at Sterling Cooper to do that. The only example she sees is one or the other.”
I see that you practice Scientology. Have you been to Clearwater?
“I’ve been to the Flag area many times. But I haven’t been there in so many years, I doubt anything I would remember was still there. I always liked it. It was sort of a family vacation destination. I have nice memories of sunny days, but a little hot sometimes. I was born and raised (in Scientiology). I would love to come back and visit; I’m sure its changed greatly.”