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Elisabeth Moss: role model

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For 14 years, Elisabeth Moss has had the Midas touch with her television role choices. Stylist catches up with the eternally watchable actress who turns every show into TV gold

Words: Lyndsey Gilmour

Sipping on a glass of red wine, Elisabeth Moss started giggling. Taking part in US chat show Watch What Happens Live, talk turned to fellow actor Jeremy Piven. Following a glug of wine the 31-year-old opened up, criticising her co-star’s reason for quitting the Broadway production of Speed-The-Plow in 2008, due to having high levels of mercury from eating too much sushi. The actress mischievously called him out for being “highly unprofessional”, coyly adding: “I saw him like a month later at the Golden Globes… When he was supposed to be really sick.” Startled host Andy Cohen was delighted with her straight-talking and viewers everywhere sent her virtual high-fives. A woman who speaks her mind, stands up for her beliefs and is highly regarded in her field. Not so different from Peggy Olson, Elisabeth’s Mad Men alter ego or Robin Griffin, the ballsy (but fragile) cop in BBC Two’s Top Of The Lake. Both of whom we’d happily share a bottle of wine with. Her star shone hugely; a breath of honest, fresh air in an overly media-trained climate.

But it’s her new role in Jane Campion’s New Zealand-based mini-series (now in week three of a seven-week run), alongside Holly Hunter and Peter Mullan, that currently has us talking. Amidst morbidly depressing issues such as statutory rape, Campion cleverly injects flashes of comedy, peppering scenes with absurd visions of commune-dwelling hippy chicks walking nonchalantly naked through Lord Of The Rings style scenery.

As the detective investigating the disappearance of pregnant teenager Tui Mitcham, Moss, who received a Critics’ Choice Television Award when the series screened in America earlier this year, feels privileged to have been given such a meaty role by the Oscarwinning filmmaker and tells Stylist why its twisted plot lines – with shades of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks – feeds our insatiable appetite for crime dramas and fills a hole recently left by The Fall.

ABOVE: Elisabeth channelling her inner tough guy as Robin Griffin in Top Of The Lake

“For me, you have this crime drama element, which is very important for the first couple of episodes, and then it takes a turn and gets very dark,” she says in clipped rapid tones, full of enthusiasm. “In episode four (on next Saturday) you fall down the rabbit hole and it becomes much more of a psychological emotional drama, about characters and love and relationships and pain. That’s what I was interested in. But what’s brilliant about it – and any crime drama – is that in the end you do want know who did it. You want that satisfaction. That is the driving force behind it.”

Elisabeth isn’t one of those fall-into it actresses –she’s old school. Cast in her first TV mini-series Lucky/ Chances in 1990 (based on two Jackie Collins novels), aged six; she grew up in Los Angeles with her brother and jazz musician parents who brought her up as a Scientologist – a subject she rarely talks about except to say, “it is grossly misunderstood by the media”. She studied ballet in New York and Washington DC to an elite level but insists that her childhood was much like ours, with sleepovers and dating boys, before her acting career kicked off in 1999, age 17, with roles in Girl, Interrupted and The West Wing.

From appearing in the critically acclaimed 2011 West End production of Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour alongside Keira Knightley, to the lighter Get Him To The Greek (2010) with Russell Brand and Jonah Hill, her recent projects have been nothing if not varied. But it’s of course Mad Men that really put her on our radar. Having joined Matthew Weiner’s multi-award winning drama as Peggy, the timid, compliant secretary who emerged into an ambitious copywriter, six years ago, it is fair to say that, like Peggy, Elisabeth won’t be short of life experience when its seventh and final series airs next year. But it’s the dramas in her personal life that she’s learnt the most from.

A 12-month romance with Saturday Night Live comedian Fred Armisen saw Elisabeth marry in 2009 but the pair separated eight months later. In another cutting public admission earlier this year, she told New York Post’s Page Six magazine, “One of the greatest things I heard someone say about him is, ‘He’s so great at doing impersonations. But the greatest impersonation he does is that of a normal person’. To me, that sums it up.” But if the actress has been damaged by the experience, she’s not telling us today and when we press her on the issue of trust and whether she now struggles to let people in, she’s cautious about what she divulges: “I kind of believe the best about somebody, and I don’t think there’s a reason to mistrust people,” she says matter-of-factly, “but I don’t have a massive group of friends, I prefer to have a smaller selection and dedicate more time to them. I suppose I’m a little guarded in that sense. I think if I’m hurt by somebody then I’m good about not caring and being smart about that.”

Being smart is her default setting and though her earlier indiscretions may have taught her to be more considered with what she says in public, Elisabeth tells Stylist she won’t be censored, while discussing the virtues of Jay-Z and Chekhov, and how, career-wise, she’s acquired the Midas touch.

ABOVE: Breaking new ground in a man’s world as Peggy Olson in Mad Men

You have a knack of picking projects that are both universally adored and critically acclaimed. Do you have a sixth sense for success?

When I started on The West Wing in 1999, I had to do a scene with Martin Sheen, and obviously there were all these incredible actors on the show and working with Aaron Sorkin and everyone, at such a young age, made me feel like I was stepping into quite mature role. I felt very privileged to have that material. Aaron’s such a brilliant writer – it’s like working with great playwrights. You want the chance to see people like Tennessee Williams’ work, or work with them. And for me, working with Aaron was like that. I remember hearing about the show before I auditioned for it – I saw a preview on TV because I didn’t come in until the fifth episode and they’d started advertising it. I remember thinking, ‘Oh my god; that show looks so cool’. I was working the night it aired for the first time and everyone was really nervous, and they didn’t know how it would go. It was interesting being part of the group the moment before it was a success. They were afraid. It was very fast and smart. The big concern for me was, ‘Is it going to be too intelligent for the audience?’ And the lesson is, that along with The Sopranos, the audience is really smart and wants intelligent TV.

What’s it been like collaborating with Jane Campion in Top Of The Lake?

She is completely about making that scene, that project, that moment the best that it can be. And it doesn’t really matter how you get there, it doesn’t matter whose idea it is. She’s very opinionated. She has ideas and she’s very good at sharing those ideas. But if you say to her, “No I don’t agree with that” or, “I’d like to try it differently” it’s absolutely not a problem. She might push you one way and have you do it her way once, but she’s perfectly happy to hear your argument about why it doesn’t work that way. I think it’s a very brave thing to say to an actor, “I’m not sure”, and she is fine with that, she’s very good at making me feel supported, safe, protected… There’s no wrong move.

You adopt a Kiwi accent in Top Of The Lake. How was that?

I am pretty good at it! I have a good ear. But it’s not a Kiwi accent, it’s an Australian accent as a Kiwi one is really hard to do. We wanted it to be a little hard to place. Everyone thinks it’s Kiwi, which is fine because if they think I did a Kiwi accent then that’s even better! [Laughs] You didn’t want to spend the whole first half thinking, ‘Oh, Elisabeth Moss is doing an accent.’ We just needed it to blend with the environment and fit in with everyone else, and I think it does.

Your time as Peggy in Mad Men is coming to a close. What qualities would you say you share with her?

We were different at the beginning. In a way she’s sort of grown closer to who I am. She’s got much smarter and become more of a modern woman and obviously I’ve had a lot of things happen as well. I’ve changed. I’ve grown up. For me what’s so interesting about TV is that you grow with [a character] and it becomes a living, breathing thing that you carry with you. Your experiences form the character and playing the character forms you. It’s like two people living at the same time.

ABOVE: No time to eat on the fast-talking presidential drama The West Wing

So will a little piece of you die when Mad Men ends?

It’s a really strange feeling. It’s definitely emotional. It’s been something that has taken up a large part of my life. I think it will definitely leave a hole. It’s going to feel very strange. At the same time all good things must come to an end and it will be nice to have the opportunity to do other things.

Is there anything you’d like to try your hand at in future?

There’s a lot of theatre I’d like to do. I’ve never done any Chekhov which I’d love to do, or Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller. I’ve been lucky enough to try David Mamet, but you could just never stop. I’m going to see Once at the theatre tonight.

You seem very level-headed. Is that something that was instilled in you by your parents?

Thank you for saying that. Yes, I had a very good and grounded upbringing. I grew up in a family of musicians and they were all practising for hours and hours on whatever they were working on so I grew up with the sense that if you want to be good at something you should work. You don’t just get success and fame and you don’t get to achieve your goals by doing a few magazine shoots. I did ballet for many years which is much more disciplined than acting, so I’ve always had this sense of discipline, hard work and that these things aren’t just handed to you. I was never famous when I was a kid. I was never rich.

Working relentlessly from such a young age, do you have any regrets about missing out on ‘normal’ things?

I didn’t. I went to three or four different schools. I had a large group of girlfriends and we’d all spend weekends together. We’d hang out in between classes, it was very social. There were three boys in our ballet school and everybody dated one of them at some stage! Those experiences of crushes and growing up, I never felt like I didn’t have that.

We love how you speak out about things that aren’t acceptable. Do you find it hard to censor yourself when you feel that passionately?

I’ve learnt that there’s a difference between things that you would talk about with your friends and things that you would talk about in an interview. If you’re gonna talk about something, you’ll always come up against things that you regret saying. I’ve read interviews where I’m like, “Oh god, did I say that?” It’s a weird thing where you’re taking your life into your own hands. So I’ve learnt to be a little more private and guarded.

ABOVE: At a press conference for Mad Men earlier this year

So, you’re less likely to speak your mind now?

I think that you have to be yourself but if you don’t want to talk about something and you choose to be private then that’s OK. I’m a very open person and I don’t necessarily censor myself and my opinions, so you learn over time. Sometimes in the past I think I’ve talked about things because I’ve thought people will be mad at me if I don’t. But I also think that you can’t control everything that people think and say, so you have to be yourself and hope for the best.

Is there anything you regret?

I know you should never have any regrets and everything happens for a reason, but I would say probably when you’re living your life sometimes you forget to enjoy it. You can forget the great moment you’re in and then you look back and you go, “That was so great”.

What makes you feel anxious?

Every time I’m about to start a new project I have a dream that I won’t know my lines or I’m not able to get to the set on time. I think, ‘Oh god I don’t have my costume!’ It’s always some form of not being prepared.

You’ve been in some of TV’s biggest shows – how do you keep a low profile?

I don’t know. I think for one I look pretty different from my characters. For the first few years I was definitely able to walk around without people really recognising me, but now it’s changed. But I’m not really a party girl, I don’t go out clubbing. I got that out of my system in my 20s, so I’m not very much a person who goes out all the time and gets photographed. It hasn’t been a conscious decision to not always be noticed...

OK, so when was the last time you took public transport?

Yesterday! I took the subway to see a musical. I definitely get some sneaky looks but it’s the fastest way to get around the city and people are very nice usually. I just put my head down and listen to my music and move quickly.

Life must be busy, do you rely on a lot of takeout?

[Laughs] I really can’t cook much, but I can make two things. One is pasta and one is an egg scramble. It’s like an omelette, but it’s also like a frittata. So lots of takeout and eating out at restaurants too. In New York my favourite restaurant is Gemma. It’s under the Bowery Hotel which is my favourite hotel. I’ve had pretty much everything on the menu because everything is amazing but I have a particular love of the meatballs.

What do you do to unwind?

I am reading a book called Fever [by Mary Beth Keane] that I adore. It’s about typhoid in New York in the early 1900s – it’s brilliant.

What are your pet hates?

People who are not polite or kind, especially if they’re strangers. I have a big amount of respect for everybody and try to be polite to people. If people are rude to me in a shop, for example, I take offence because I’m like, “I didn’t do anything to you!” I remember someone once honked at me loudly while I was pulling out of my driveway. They were really mad at me. I felt like getting out of the car and having a conversation with them!

Do you get angry often then?

Only if I’m hungry or hot. Then I can get a little crazy. Or if you wake me up and I haven’t had enough sleep!

Finally, we hear you have a penchant for karaoke – what’s your go-to track?

Probably something by Jay-Z. I don’t know if I would go so far as to say I can rap, but I know the words to most of his songs.

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