As if dealing with the mercurial Don Draper in “Mad Men” wasn’t bad enough, in “Listen Up Philip,” Elisabeth Moss tangles with the arrogant and self-centered author of the title, played to asshole perfection by Jason Schwartzman. But just like on the hit AMC show, Moss’ character is more than up to the challenge of dealing with Philip, who has a chip on his shoulder as big as his ego, and who believes the world needs to recognize his self-described genius.
It’s another terrific turn by Moss, who is quickly establishing herself as one of the most fascinating actresses of the moment, not only in her choices, but in performances that defy easy expectation. And “Listen Up, Philip” is another in which Moss turns what could so easily be side character sketch into a full fleshed out person, equally as interesting as the lead the movie revolves around.
With Alex Ross Perry’s film debuting at Sundance, recently screening at the New York Film Festival, and set to open this week, we caught up with Moss on the phone to discuss “Listen Up, Philip,” the projects she has on the horizon, and her dream “Mad Men” spinoff.
There’s one scene in particular in “Listen Up, Philip” that really blew me away. It’s the sequence where you and Philip finally break up, and the camera just holds on your face, and you can really see every emotion that your character is going through at that moment as it happens. It was fantastic. What happened on set as that was shot?
That was a cool moment. That was not scripted, really. There was something in the script about how she feels afterwards, like experiencing some relief, but I didn’t know what it was going to be or what I was going to do. So we just kind of did it, we got to the end of that scene and Sean [Price Williams] the DP, bless his heart, held on me and Alex didn’t cut and I was trying to show all the emotions that you feel after you break up with somebody. You know, I was trying to show how many emotions are involved in that, that it’s deep sadness, anger, but it’s also relief and happiness. I also kind of wanted to show that she was proud of herself, like she did it after all this time, she was brave and she did it. So I was kind of thinking that as well. I wanted to show that she was sort of proud. So I was just kind of trying to show all of the emotions and, I didn’t have a plan for it or anything. But luckily it kind of came across like that.
Watching that scene for me you got a sense of the history of that relationship on her face. Was there a larger backstory that you guys talked about, about that relationship or Ashley in general?
Who knows how much the audience would pick up on it or was in the film that you know you can see, but at one point [Philip’s] attitude, bitterness, negativity…all of those things were charming to Ashley, and she perhaps identified with a lot of things that he felt. And it’s also wrapped up in wittiness and intelligence and humor, and it was all very charming, until it’s turned around on you, then it’s not so charming anymore. Our idea was that at some point she found Philip just so smart and funny and brilliant and then at same point his success got to him and he started turning around on her and she was like, “Oh I don’t like that so much anymore.” And, I think that that’s pretty much every relationship. At some point the things you thought were so great in the beginning, it’s like those are the things I hate the most now. [Laughs]
For a movie that has a major break up, there isn’t like a big blow up moment.
That’s true. It’s certainly a choice in the writing I suppose, but you know I think that’s just not the way they fight, you know? It’s like every couple has this sort of style of fighting. [Ashley and Philip] fight kind of dirty, know what I mean? A little bit below the belt, passive aggressive, they fight in a very unhealthy way you could say, and in a way that I think can be even more toxic and harsh because at least when you’re yelling you can tell when someone’s mad at you. You can tell when they mean what they’re saying, but the way that Ashley and Philip are, it’s very difficult to sort of tell when something has crossed the line into, “Oh you can’t come back from that comment” kind of territory. I think it would be a bit boring with us yelling at each other the whole time. I think it’d be a bit much. But it wasn’t a conscious thing on the part of the actors, it was in the writing.
Was it hard to play the character that’s kind of on the receiving end of a lot of verbal abuse? That must be hard to deal with.
Well, not really just because I love Jason so much and I think he’s the funniest, sweetest, smartest guy, and so I just thought he was hilarious, you know what I mean? I didn’t take it personally, I was just watching him going like, “Oh my god he’s so great, look at how great he’s doing.“ I would venture to say this is at least one of his best performances, if not his best. He’s so good in the movie, and so I know I didn’t really take it too personally. I feel like Ashley ends up okay in the end, and she kind of has the last word a little bit. That comforted me.
Now you’re working with Alex again on “Queen of Earth.” It must have been a really rewarding experience with “Listen Up, Philip” if you’re making another movie with him now.
It must have been! [Laughs] It’s the first-time I’ve gone back and made another film with the same person, and it was largely due to my friendship with Alex and how we’d gotten along and bonded and my respect for him as a filmmaker. He texted me, and he was like, “I have this thing, can I send it to you?” and I said, “Absolutely, please do, I’m flattered,” and he sent it to me and it was just a great script. I texted him back the next day I think it was, and I was like, “I’m in.” I mean, you read something good, you go do it, and obviously we got along and we were friends, so I didn’t mind going back and working with him again. But it was also largely due to this kind of great script that he wrote that was so different from “Listen Up, Philip,” much darker, much more dramatic, very strange, very Polanski, very “Repulsion” and “Rosemary’s Baby,” and Robert Altman‘s “Images” was a huge inspiration.
It’s fun to go back and work with somebody that you’ve worked with because you have this shorthand so everything is just so easy. You’re used to working with each other so you know how to talk to the person, you know what their strengths and weaknesses are, and they know what my strengths and weaknesses are, and it just makes everything very collaborative and easy.
It seems you’re going to a good place right now with the projects you’re choosing. You’ve done “Top of the Lake” which was amazing, you got to work with Walter Salles in “On The Road,” and now you have “High Rise” with Ben Wheatly, which also sounds intriguing. What can you say about that one?
I’m glad you ask, I’m really excited about that one. I love it because people who really know about film are excited about that one, because people familiar with Ben Wheatley’s work know what an unusual filmmaker he is. I signed on purely upon the fact that I was a fan of Ben’s, and in particular “Sightseers,” and the script is obviously based on the book [by J.G. Ballard] and it is very strange, and I have no idea what it’s going to look like, but I just love his style of filmmaking. I just think he’s so interesting and unique and I don’t know anyone who makes movies like he does. Maybe there’s a couple but I don’t know, I think he’s so unusual and I just wanted to get a chance to work with him and be part of that world and, it was so fun to make and he got all these great actors because good actors recognize, “There’s a great filmmaker, I should work with him.” So he’s got Jeremy Irons and Tom Hiddleston and all these great people to do this movie. I think it’s it’s going to be really cool; it’s going to be highly unusual.
Is it a different vibe from his other stuff that you’ve seen of his?
I would say it’s bigger than anything he’s ever done. It’s totally his style, his sense of humor and his sense of drama. Everything is totally his style of filmmaking but on a bigger scale.
That sounds cool.
Yeah, like if you gave him a bigger crew, a little bit more money, costumes and hair and makeup, all of that stuff that maybe he hasn’t had before. It was so fun, he is just a fucking genius and he’s so funny.
Awesome. It’s still coming together but I’d heard your name floated around for “True Detective” but has that actually crossed your path?
That is a extremely flattering news-to-me rumor that started a couple of months ago, and literally someone turned to me and was like, “Are you doing ‘True Detective’?” And I was like, “I don’t think so.” [Laughs] I’d not heard anything about it. I’m doing “The Heidi Chronicles” next year on Broadway, I don’t know when “True Detective” is shooting, but as far as I know I don’t know anything about it. It’s one of those really flattering things. If the names being pushed around are Jessica Chastain and Rachel McAdams and these actors that I personally look up to and admire, to be put in the same sentence as them…I’m very flattered.
I know you can’t tell me anything about “Mad Men,” but would you be open to a Peggy Olsen spinoff show?
Absolutely. [Laughs] 100% but only if it’s written by Matt Weiner. That would be my one condition. Although, I do think we should get Joan in there. I feel like if there’s going to be a spinoff, I’d really rather not carry that by myself, I think it should be Peggy and Joan. [Laughs]