Fast chat with Elisabeth Moss of 'Mad Men'

by Joseph V. Amodio

Newsday (MCT)

5 November 2008


Elisabeth Moss stars in David Mamet’s satire, “Speed-the-Plow,” at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York. (Ari Mintz/Newsday/MCT)

Elisabeth Moss floats into the Ethel Barrymore Theatre a day after “Speed-the-Plow’s” opening night. She was at the cast party till dawn and slept till 4 p.m., she admits. In her dressing room, every surface is covered with flowers. Vase after vase, including one packed with a remarkably fragrant bundle of several dozen white roses.

Moss is having a good year. There’s this gig, co-starring with “Entourage” bad boy Jeremy Piven and Tony winner Raul Esparza in the David Mamet revival about two fast-talking Hollywood execs and the sweet, eager temp (a role Madonna blandly played in 1988) who stumbles into their midst. Then there’s “Mad Men,” AMC’s Emmy-winning drama, which just ended its second season, featuring Moss as another tender young thing trying to make it in a boozy, smoke-choked boys’ club, the 1960s ad industry.

Moss started acting as a child, raised in Los Angeles in an artistic family (Dad’s a British jazz musician/manager, Mom’s a blues harmonica player from Chicago who’s performed with pros like B.B. King, and younger bro is an aspiring director). She got noticed as a burn victim in “Girl, Interrupted,” and earned an Independent Spirit Award nomination for the indie film “Virgin,” but Moss, now 26, is best known for playing President Bartlet’s daughter, Zoey, on “The West Wing.”

Joseph V. Amodio sat down with Moss in her dressing room to chat about “Plow,” “Mad” and a secret “passion” that makes her cringe.

Q. What’s the hardest thing about “Speed-the-Plow?” The language? The Madonna comparisons?

A. I never thought there’d come a day when I’d be compared to Madonna. (She smiles.) The dialogue was hard at first. Just learning the lines. But now the hardest thing is - my character. Being completely honest each performance as if I’ve never done it before. I have to be careful not to play the ending; the payoff (is) in that last scene ... (and) it’s not gonna work unless you really don’t see it coming.

Q. Why do you think you play naive so well?

A. (Laughing) I don’t know. I’ve been in this business 20 years - I’m by no means naive. Both Peggy (in “Mad Men”) and Karen (in “Plow”) have this thing that’s mistaken for naivete, but it’s not. (They’re) honest, willing to learn, not cynical. We’re used to people being jaded, so when you see somebody who’s not, you think, “Who is this creature? What’s wrong with her?” I guess I’m sort of attracted to those characters.

Q. Do you have a favorite scene in “Mad Men?”

A. A couple. One was the (season one) scene when Don comes to visit Peggy in the hospital. It was a big moment for our characters. But also for us personally - to have come this far with the show. It was very emotional. My other favorite is (in season two) when Peggy gets her own office. I know it’s fake, it’s not really my office ... but it felt like a big moment. I mean, I remember shooting Joan teaches Peggy how to use the typewriter, and now - she has her own office! (She laughs.) I took pictures of the office door with my name on it.

Q. I’ve gotta admit - last season, when Peggy started gaining weight, I figured you were pregnant for real.

A. So many people thought I was pregnant, or gaining weight. I had a friend text and ask very diplomatically if they were doing anything different with my makeup. She didn’t want to offend me. We worked hard to make it look realistic.

Q. I heard you were pretty serious about ballet. What did that teach you?

A. Discipline. That getting good requires hard work. As opposed to thinking all I have to do is sit around on a set all day and somebody will bring me, like, soda. I studied ballet from age 5 to 15. I had to apply myself ... focus. I’ve carried that into acting.

Q. Are you more political because of “West Wing?”

A. When I started on that show I was 17, thrown into this world of knowing what the chief of staff or the Secret Service does. Weird facts most teenagers don’t know. But for me what I took away from it was the people I worked with. Martin Sheen’s a legend. I consider myself very lucky.

Q. OK, I hate to get all tabloid on you, but somebody has to blow the lid off your big Internet secret. An odd fact kept cropping up on Web sites, even IMDB.com. It’s never attributed to any source. So tell me - what’s the deal with you and French Revolutionary cookware?

A. Oh, no ...

Q. I read you’re a collector. Is this something you’d rather not talk about?

A. No, it’s fine. A friend of mine thought it’d be funny to put something silly on my IMDB page. You’d be surprised how many people ask, “What’s with the French Revolutionary cookware?” And I’m like, “I don’t like it. I don’t even know what it is.”

Q. So your kitchen shelves aren’t buckling under the weight of antique plates and bowls?

A. Not at all, no. It’s a lot of Crate & Barrel. (She laughs.) I have got to get that taken off.

//Mixed media