Just as we’ve watched Peggy Olson mature on “Mad Men,” Los Angeles actress Elisabeth Moss is turning out to be one of the more compelling young actresses working today. Her greatest success has been in television, where she played Zoe Bartlet, the daughter of the president on “West Wing,” and most recently,New Zealand police officer Robin Griffin in Jane Campion and Gerard Lee’s miniseries “Top of the Lake,” for which she won the Best Actress in a Miniseries Golden Globe.
During her “Mad Men” hiatus, Moss crammed in two movies that both played Sundance. In “The One I Love” she plays Mark Duplass’s wife, trying to rekindle their marriage after he has had an affair. At a relaxing weekend retreat they confront the younger versions of their romantic selves who they wish they could still be. But is it too late?
Moss took a break from the mid-season filming of “Mad Men” to come to Park City. She was 23 when they shot the “Mad Men” pilot, and is 31 now. With various uneven hiatuses, she’s been on that show for nine years. She recognizes that “a lot of women connect with Peggy, who represents all women. I always wanted her to be the representative of a woman at any age and any time period.”
Because Peggy is so different from her, says Moss, that has “given me leeway. She’s a very specific character and that has enabled me as an actress to be challenged and be able to hopefully show other sorts of women in other things I want to do.”
Three days after finishing Season Five Moss went around the world to a different hemisphere to do “Top of the Lake,” which was “quite the adventure,” working with two very different directors who shared a “pride in having a female lead who was a strong independent smart woman.” When “Mad Men” ends she’s planning to take a break from television to focus on theater and movies.
Both Sundance films presented not only strong scripts but talent attached who she wanted to work with. “They both were very different experiences for me,” she says. “I got to explore modern relationships and things that maybe I would have a little more experience with in my everyday life.”
She feels strongly about keeping the plot twists under wraps for “The One I Love,” which was developed by executive producer Mark Duplass from his idea: “From testing the film and hearing audience reactions, so many people had no idea what the secret was and were so glad they didn’t know. It’s a valuable part of the story to be surprised by that element.”
What she can say is that she and Duplass go to an Ojai couples retreat to work on their marriage. “The scenes that attracted me to the project are very relevant to the way we do it. What do you present to your partner when you’re first dating them and how does that fall apart when you end up being the person you are? How do you both grow with each other and how that is revealed? What is it that a man wants in a girlfriend and what do they want in a boyfriend? What do you think a man wants? How do you deal with an affair and come back from that? When a relationship goes through ups and downs, how do you get back to what you fell in love with in the first place? What is worth fighting for? Those were interesting things for me to explore.”
Moss enjoyed the collaborative nature of the writing process with director Charlie McDowell (son of Malcolm McDowell and Mary Steenbergen), Duplass, producer Mel Eslyn and writer Justin Lader, she says: “Three boys and two girls, a scriptment of 30 to 40 pieces of the detailed whole story. Justin would write the next day’s scenes every day, before every scene whether it took 15 minutes to an hour and half we’d talk and work out what we liked and didn’t like and what we wanted to do with that scene. It’s the most collaborative experience I’ve ever had, with no hierarchy. Every opinion mattered, the producers and writer and actor mattered, we all did it together.”
While she always insists on a good story and script, “I look first at who I’m working with.” On “Listen Up Philip” she had always wanted to work with her friend Jason Schwartzman, and liked writer-director Alex Ross Perry’s “Color Wheel.” “It was unique, like this script. I wanted to work with those two men. The challenge was making our relationship convincing, he plays kind of an asshole. And make it believable they would be together. ‘Listen Up Philip’ is about figuring out maybe that one person isn’t right for you and they have changed too much, and moving on with your life.”
The trick when picking any role–and strong movies are hard to come by in Hollywood– is to “look for something new,” she says. “When Hollywood succeeds it wants to repeat itself, make a movie like THAT. I tend to look for things that are new and different and that we haven’t seen in a movie.”