Playing a feminist icon could go to some actresses’ heads. But not Elisabeth Moss’. The 29 year old may have garnered an Emmy nomination for her portrayal as Mad Men’s Peggy Olson but she’s quiet and unassuming; thoughtful and polite. Rather like Olson in fact.
Words: Benji Wilson, picture credit: Rex Features
Making her screen debut at the age of nine in US TV movie Bar Girls (1990), you’ll have recognised her pre-Mad Men as President Bartlet’s gutsy-but-honest daughter, Zoey, in The West Wing, and from film roles such as Get Him To The Greek (2010). But it’s as the understated Peggy that Moss has really hit her stride; rising through the ranks from typist to junior copywriter to Don’s (only) confidante and second-in-command. And these days, Peggy’s landing the big accounts while Don’s busy at three-martini lunches or proposing to his latest squeeze. Peggy’s ascent to the top seems set to continue in the show’s fifth series. Notorious for being the most secretive drama on-air, all that creator Matthew Weiner will reveal is that, “Peggy and Pete figure strongly,” and, “it’s 1966, which means massive social upheaval, uncertainty and change”. Stylist sat down with Moss to talk about a woman on her way up…
“Peggy Olson – feminist icon.” How does that sound?
I think she represents what feminism is really about: equal opportunities, being respected and being heard. For Peggy, the term ‘glass ceiling’ didn’t exist. She wasn’t necessarily aware of feminism. She wasn’t trying to make a stand. She just wanted to be respected and treated the same as everyone else because she has good ideas. That’s something that women today still feel but they don’t want to make a big deal out of it. You just want to be able to have your ideas heard. I am thoroughly lucky that I get to tell that story because it’s an important story for all women today.
Can you describe Peggy and Don’s relationship?
On any other show, they would have totally hooked up – that would have been the obvious choice. But we don’t do that and I think that’s one of the great virtues of the show. It’s allowed them to have a much deeper and more important relationship.
If you could go back in time to the Sixties, what would you bring back to the present day?
The furniture. Honestly, that Sixties thing is totally my style – the low couches, the low chairs, the bright colours... I love that.
Why does every woman except Peggy fancy Don?
The reason women are mad about him is obvious! But Peggy knows that her job and her work are more important to her. She knows not to go there. They have a deeper relationship that is more interesting to the both of them too maybe.
I think she represents what feminism is really about: equal opportunities, being respected and being heard.
How has Peggy’s look evolved?
In the first season, you got the feeling that she was borrowing her sister’s clothes, maybe even making her own. Now she’s more stylish: she wears things that are tighter, a little bit more nipped, a little bit tucked, shorter, more colour. I wore black for the first time last season, which was great. I mean, she lives in Manhattan in the Sixties and works in advertising – that can’t not rub off on you. Yet at the same time I don’t think she wants to attract attention for her sexiness or being a woman – she wants people to focus on her work.
Did you think Mad Men would be a hit or that it would be axed after a few episodes?
More of the latter! I thought it was really smart but not very fast with not a lot of action, much more character-driven. We are continually shocked by the reception, the awards, the recognition and the fact that it keeps going.
Do you think a woman’s lot is better now than it was in the early Sixties?
In a lot of ways there has been some incredible improvement… But I don’t know that the objectification of women has gotten much better. You could argue it has gotten a lot worse. At least in the Sixties, women got a better sense of respect and decorum. Now I feel like it’s all gone out of the window.
Do you have any advice for Peggy?
Oh man, I think she has learned a lot in the past four seasons, so I don’t know if there was any advice I could give her that she would listen to. I might tell her not to sleep with Pete. And I’d probably tell her, “don’t go off the pill.”
Finally, are you upset there’s not a Peggy Barbie doll? There’s a Don and a Betty…
I was always more of a Cabbage Patch girl so I’m shooting for the Peggy Cabbage Patch doll. I’m gonna put that into the works.
Mad Men series five starts at 9pm, Tuesday 27 March on Sky Atlantic