Of all of the “Mad Men” stars, Elisabeth Moss has been the most interesting to watch grow off the show. Throughout the drama’s seven seasons (the final episodes of which begin airing in April), Moss has remained active on the film front, appearing memorably in “Get Him to the Greek,” “On the Road,” “The One I Love,” and Alex Ross Perry’s acclaimed literary comedy “Listen Up Philip.” She also nabbed a Golden Globe for her blistering performance in Jane Campion’s miniseries “Top of the Lake.”
The actress, who’s currently in rehearsals for a new Broadway production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play “The Heidi Chronicles,” stars in Perry’s new film “Queen of Earth,” which premieres this week at the Berlin International Film Festival. In the dark dramedy, Moss reunites with her “Listen Up Philip” director to play Catherine, an insecure young woman reeling from a sudden and unexpected breakup, plus the death of her father. “Inherent Vice” breakout Katherine Waterston plays her best friend, who has Catherine over to her family’s home to lend support. It’s there that Catherine spirals into a deep depression, one that threatens to ruin their already tenuous friendship.
Indiewire caught up with Moss to discuss the difficult project, her new role as producer and her working relationship with Perry.
This film marks your first producing credit. Is this something you’ve always wanted to do or was it happenstance that this film required you to step up and come on in this capacity?
It was very much happenstance, honestly. Producing can be a lot of work, so I wasn’t necessarily someone who was like, “Yes, I want to do this,” but I got on board this project so early and then because it was so small, ended up helping Alex with a lot of decisions and being consulted, and my opinion was valued. So it’s just something I fell into and eventually it was like, “Oh, well you are kind of producing it so you probably should get a credit,” kind of thing. I was happy to do that because I love the chance to get to put my foot into a different world. I hope to do more of that in the future, so it was a nice little baby step in that direction.
You’ve been acting since you were a child, so you’ve no doubt met your fair share of producers, but what surprised you about the process of actually being one?
I was probably most heavily involved in the casting, and it was interesting because you start to hear, and you start to say yourself, things that you’ve been told for the last 25 years [laughs]. Like the idea of someone maybe not having a big enough name, or someone not looking right for the part, or just maybe not having seen anything that they’ve done because you’re uneducated on their work. I started to say that stuff that I’ve heard for many years and that was really interesting. I kind of get it now — if you don’t know the person and you don’t know their work, it’s difficult to wrap your mind around whether or not they would be good in your project. It was an interesting perspective. I saw things from the other side, from a little bit more of the financial side of things, and it really helped balance me out.
Did you have a part in casting Katherine?
I did, I definitely did, being that it was such a big part, and it’s so much about our dynamic. I knew that we were also going to be really collaborating and coming up with things as we went along, so it was very much about the caliber of actress but also very much about working with somebody that was willing to play ball and was willing to roll with the punches. When Katherine Waterson’s name came up it was one of those things where we were all like, “Wait, can we get her? Yeah, that sounds amazing!” [laughs]
As onscreen friends you two are vile to each other. Is that dynamic one you’re familiar with, or was that totally foreign territory for you?
It was a little bit of foreign territory. I have good friends, so I haven’t necessarily been through that particular experience. But I do think that’s something we can all identify with as far as maybe a friend that you’ve had for a long time that you go in and out of touch with. Things happen in your life, and maybe you don’t see them for six months, and then you kind of fall back in with them; there’s history there, and there are things that you have gone through together. I think that that’s something that we can identify with, something that anyone can identify with, as far as some of the more caustic relationships that they have. But no, I haven’t personally had that and the thing is that Katherine and I got along so well. We became friends right away and she’s a really funny, bright, happy-seeming girl. We had fun with that kind of thing, though, because we got to be mean to each other and then laugh in between takes.
Did you also have fun performing Catherine’s downward spiral, or was that just grueling?
It was so fun, and it’s why I signed up.
Yeah, I love doing that, and as an actor you don’t want to play someone who’s just happy all the time and perfectly normal — that’s boring [laughs]. For me, it was the chance to dig my feet into something that was so challenging and I know that’s so passé but it’s true in this case. I had to figure out the mental breakdown of this girl in very little time, and it was kind of great to stretch like that. It was great to have the freedom within our format to do that. You could try anything, you could do anything, there was nothing that was too weird, nothing that was too crazy, nothing that was too bizarre, and that was something that you don’t really get anywhere.
How did you map out her descent? I’m guessing you guys didn’t shoot chronologically, or did you? ‘Cause that would have helped.
We did shoot chronologically.
Yes, which was amazing and honestly so instrumental for me. I don’t know, I probably could have done it without that but I’m certainly glad we did it chronologically, because it enabled me to really know exactly where I was the whole time. To go, “OK, I was this crazy yesterday, now I have to be this crazy today.” Even physically, I stopped washing my hair by the last week and was wearing absolutely no make-up. The degradation of the character physically was something that was much easier when we did it chronologically, especially since we didn’t have a script supervisor, we didn’t have on-set wardrobe, we didn’t have a first AD. So it was all under your control, so going chronologically definitely helped in that sense.
In many ways this project seems to have a lot in common with the play you’re rehearsing doing, given how it was shot, the fact it all takes place in one location and only involves a small number of characters; it could ostensibly be a play.
What about that aspect of the project appealed to you, and did you see it in those terms at all?
Yeah, I mean that’s one of my favorite things about theater, the fact that you get to tell a story from beginning to end, and you get to have that journey as an actor every performance; what you do at the beginning affects what happens at the end in that two and a half hour span of time. And so it’s very organic, and it’s very fluid, and so there was definitely a theatrical aspect to this and it would actually make a cool play. It would be an amazing role on stage. It definitely helped me to be able to form her in a realistic way as well and not go too far too fast. By the time we got to those end scenes, we all knew what had happened so we knew exactly how far we had to go.
Now, this marks your second film with Alex Ross Perry. What is it about you two that makes you gel together so well as collaborators?
We get along as friends. He makes me laugh, he has a great sense of humor and that’s important. I think as artists we are very yin and yang; we balance each other out in a really good way. We’re not exactly the same, we’re not of the same opinions on everything but somehow that actually works really well for us because he is obviously very skilled at his area, and I know a little bit about my area and so it enables us to trust each other to take care of our roles.
I think in this film in particular, he knew that if he handed me a scene where at the end there was just some sort of description about how my character was supposed to go slightly insane or act in a crazy way, he knew that I would go and I would figure that out and I would do it. He didn’t have to hold my hand through that. And I knew that he would figure out how to shoot it and how to make sure that it was telling the story in the right way.
I think everyone kind of knows this so I don’t think I’m speaking out of turn when I say this but he’s a much more pessimistic kind of person, and I’m a very positive — I mean, he is literally the definition of glass half empty and I’m the definition of glass half full. So we balance each other out. I’m able to keep his spirits up and reassure him when I need to and he’s able to be pragmatic and practical and take care of the other side of things. It’s a very yin and yang relationship, it’s the definition of opposites attracting; it works really well. And we both are interested in making good, groundbreaking, new films and interested in taking those risks.