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Elisabeth Moss on Saying Goodbye to ‘Mad Men’ and the Ballsiest Role of Her Career

The award-winning actress opens up about putting Peggy Olson out to pasture, feminism, and her spellbinding turn in the new film Queen of Earth.

08.21.15 9:27 AM ET

“What is a meme?” Elisabeth Moss asks me. We’re seated across from one another in the bowels of a nondescript building in Midtown Manhattan, and the chirpy actress, armed with a green juice concoction that even she can’t identify, is in the throes of describing that scene in Mad Men. You know the one: Hangover. Shades. Cigarette. Tentacle porn. Boss bitch.

That moment, of Peggy Olson gliding down the hallways of McCann Erickson, had fans of the show unleashing their inner Arsenio chant, and received Beyoncé-level GIF treatment.

“It’s a JIF, right?” she continues. I reveal to her that, in one of the nerdier moments in recent history, the creator of the GIF came out two years ago and shocked the world by revealing its true pronunciation, with a hard G. Moss loses it. “Oh God!” she says, laughing hysterically. “I’ve been calling it the other way. That’s so funny! This is the way it’s really pronounced.”

For fans, that scene was the apotheosis of Peggy’s career—one marked by tragedy and struggle, with the strong-willed copywriter jackhammering away at the glass ceiling, one inspired ad campaign at a time. But Moss didn’t think it would be such a big deal.

“I certainly was not thinking that was going to happen at all. In particular, I was trying to do it correctly. I had to carry the heavy box, had sunglasses, and had the cigarette hanging out of my mouth—which was very difficult to do,” she says. “And then I had the painting, which was quite large, and they wanted it to stick out a certain way, and the box was bumping up against my stomach. I was trying to not bump into people and look cool. I never thought it was going to be so awesome or this great moment.”

For the first few takes, they played the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” to help her channel her inner Tony Manero. “And then they stopped it!” she says. “I don’t know why. It really helped! You have to walk cool when you’re listening to ‘Stayin’ Alive.’”

She pauses. “But I think people are really excited about women these days and really excited about feminism, and that was a great success for everybody—her walking down that hall. People took it personally.”

So the opening scene of Moss’s follow-up project, the riveting Queen of Earth, will come as more than a bit of a shock to the Mad Men appassionati. Hair wet and tangled, with mascara running down her face and tears welling in her eyes, her Catherine stares off-camera. “Why are you doing this to me?” she pleads to her unfaithful fiancé. Then, over the course of three devastating, convulsion-filled minutes, her sorrow turns to contempt. It’s a genius bit of acting by Moss, but only the taste of what’s to come, as her tormented character falls deeper and deeper into oblivion.

Moss had previously worked with the film’s director, Alex Ross Perry, on the overlooked film Listen Up Philip, a Woody Allen-esque tale of a literary misanthrope in a perpetual state of nervous breakdown. Perry pitched Moss on Queen as “an ode to Roman Polanski,” so I ask her if, like Polanski or Kubrick with their leading ladies, Perry tried to coax the horror out of her by first holding the camera up tight against her face, and then haranguing her until she broke. Her response is, well, pure Peggy.  

“First of all, I would slap a director across the face if he fuckin’ did that to me,” she says with a grin. “That’s not my style. I’m not the type of actor that thrives off of criticism, or being prodded in any negative way.”

Calling it a “ballsy, cool way to start a movie,” she adds: “I am not a Method actor; it’s all pretend to me. I think acting is super fun and ridiculous, most of the time. The fact that anyone pays for this profession is incredible to me. It’s not that far from being a sort of clown, so I don’t think of it as that serious, frankly.”

Her performance in Queen would have you think otherwise. Following the breakup, coupled with the passing of her father, Catherine (Moss) retreats to the summer house of her best frenemy, Ginny (Katherine Waterston). The film cuts back and forth between her trip to the same home one year prior with her fiancé—depicting a sunnier Catherine and a skeptical Ginny, who is critical of her codependency—and the present, as Catherine, relieved of all her male crutches, begins to slowly lose her mind.

“It’s a struggle for all women to not base their life on the male relationships, and some people are better at it than others,” says Moss. “But I think all women have gone through that struggle at some point—the struggle to figure out who you are and have it not be defined by a man has, to varying degrees throughout the centuries, been a problem.”

It’s Persona by way of The Yellow Wallpaper, and a fascinating meta-deconstruction of how women are so often mistreated on film—as characters who not only must be validated by men, but also serve merely as Virgils guiding their Dantes to planes of self-realization.

Of course Moss has actively avoided those roles, instead opting for a revolving door of independent-minded women with agency, whether it be her hell-raising first daughter on The West Wing, Peggy Olson on Mad Men, or Detective Griffin in Top of the Lake.

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“A lot of times, especially with the bigger-budget films, you are the secondary character—the wife, the girlfriend,” she says, rolling her eyes. “It’s a thing and not made up. It is what it is. I’m not trying to be on a soapbox to change the world, but it’s very common. So indie film and television are where a lot of the complex characters are for women—and by ‘complex’ I mean real, and honest.”

It’s that last role I mentioned, in Jane Campion’s magnificent miniseries Top of the Lake, that Moss says helped her realize she was more than Peggy Olson, and also helped her move on from the iconic character when it was time for them to part ways.

“The end of Mad Men doesn’t feel that crazy to me because the past few seasons I did stuff in the hiatus,” she says. “Doing Top of the Lake was really helpful for me as an artist, because it helped me believe I could do something other than Peggy. It might have let other people believe that too, but it helped me to believe it. When you get so comfortable with a character that you love playing so much, you have a little of, ‘I hope I can do something else.’”

She couldn’t be more right. Between Top of the Lake and last year’s underrated one-two indie punch of Listen Up Philip and The One I Love, as well as her Tony Award-nominated turn on Broadway in The Heidi Chronicles, Moss’s post-Peggy future is looking awfully bright. And by the way, while some found her Mad Men character’s rom-com ending a bit mawkish, Moss was very pleased by the way Matthew Weiner wrapped up her story—finding love with her ascot-sporting co-conspirator, Stan.

“I thought it was so nice,” says Moss. “She’s struggled the entire show and never could find a guy, and I loved the His Girl Friday-ness of that phone call. It’s so Howard Hawks, and I love that kind of shit, so that was super fun for me. The fact that the love of her life was right under her nose? Some of my favorite movies are about those people who fight the whole movie and then end up being in love. So I thought it was perfect.”

“Unfortunately,” she adds, “this movie might be more realistic.”