It’s two years since Mad Men disappeared from our screens, but the artist formerly known as Peggy Olson is still everything we want to watch right now. Elisabeth Moss talks to Martha Hayes about feminism, finding her voice and, yes, getting over herself.
‘Oh my god, it’s way too dark and weird in here!’ shrieks Elisabeth Moss. And she’s right. It’s pitch black. We’ve met in the lounge of a central London hotel and, in an attempt to create the right ambience, Moss has managed, momentarily, to switch the lights out completely. It’s a fitting metaphor for The Handmaid’s Tale (which she’s about to start filming the second season of). It’s by far the darkest, scariest, thing I’ve ever seen on TV, I tell her. She’s delighted.
‘When people are like, “It’s so dark, I can’t watch it,” I’m like, “Thanks!”’ she beams, bounding over to me, lighting restored, in an all-black combo of skinny jeans and a leather jacket. ‘It’s no darker than what’s happening in real life.’ Well, quite. To say the recent critically acclaimed adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel struck a chord is an understatement. Set in a totalitarian society, where fertile women are captured and kept for reproductive purposes, its running themes of sexual slavery, human trafficking and religious persecution certainly don’t feel so fictional right now. ‘We didn’t know it was going to resonate quite in the way it has,’ nods Moss, reflecting on how Trump came into power in the US when they were halfway through filming and the atmosphere was ‘like a funeral’ on set. ‘I suppose it just got… very close to home.’
Blazing a trail
The Handmaid’s Tale protagonist, Offred, is the latest in a hat trick of roles played with such strength and conviction by Moss, 35, it’s little wonder New York Magazine crowned her the ‘Queen of Peak TV’. First came feminist trailblazer Peggy Olson in cult 60s-set drama Mad Men (2007-2015), followed by determined detective Robin Griffin in Jane Campion’s chillingly misogynistic thriller Top Of The Lake (2013). She won a Golden Globe for the latter, which has just returned for a second series on BBC Two.
There was never a moment after Mad Men called it a day that Moss paused for thought, licked her wounds or worried there weren’t enough decent roles for women. That’s just not her style. ‘I take my work very seriously, but I just don’t take myself very seriously. It wasn’t like, “What am I going to do? Who am I going to be?”’ she says, rolling her eyes. ‘The trap you can fall into when you finish a big show is taking yourself too seriously. I tend to think, get over yourself, there are 9 million TV shows, there are all these movies, continue to do good work and don’t worry about it so much.’
It was this no-nonsense attitude that led her to sign on the dotted line for The Handmaid’s Tale, not just as its star, but also as a producer – a role she relished for all it entailed. ‘I have a bit of a personal rule that, if I’m scared to say something – especially to a man – I should probably say it. Once you try it a couple of times and realise nobody hates you and that they actually have more respect for you, it becomes easier to have a voice and speak up for your opinions.’
Moss, who was born in LA and raised as a scientologist in a ‘very liberal, artistic environment’ by musician parents, has now been in the industry for nearly 30 years. She made her TV debut in US mini-series Lucky/Chances (1990) and rose to fame as the president’s daughter Zoey in hit political drama The West Wing (1999-2006). ‘When I started out at six years old, I never thought that my favourite thing to do in the world would be something that empowered women or made them feel stronger and able to see themselves in [my] characters.’
She is ‘so proud; so proud,’ that Peggy Olson’s badass fag-in-mouth exit scene from Mad Men has been forever immortalised as a feminist meme to end all others. ‘It’s something I never anticipated or intended, but I mean, I loved that. I remember one night on Instagram – I sound like such a loser! – I kept finding all these pictures of women dressed up as Peggy in that scene, for Halloween. It was so cool.’
Working with Planned Parenthood
As someone who has never shied away from talking about feminism, I’m wondering how her own definition of the F-word has changed in recent years. Does she think we need a more active approach now? ‘That’s what these times call for,’ she says. ‘I don’t think you can stand in the middle. You can’t be silent now. You have to make the choice. Maybe if we had done that a while ago, we wouldn’t be in this position.’
What was her personal wake-up call? ‘The possibility of Roe v Wade [the 1973 case that triggered women’s rights to abortions] being overturned. As a naive young woman, I never thought that could happen. I always thought, this is my right. That was a wake-up call for lots of women of my generation, and it made me realise we have to actually own the word, be vocal and active.’
Moss has worked with Planned Parenthood (a non-profit organisation providing sexual healthcare) for a number of years now, attending events, giving donations as Christmas presents and posting on social media. On Instagram, not on Twitter, she points out. Why? Because she’d be more susceptible to trolls? ‘No, it’s just literally too much work!’ she laughs. ‘Do you know how long it takes me to come up with a caption? For a fuckin’ photo? I can’t come up with a sentence. I’d end up trolling myself. I’d be like, “That sounds dumb. You sound like an asshole. That’s a lie!”’
Returning to Robin in Top Of The Lake
The key theme of the new series of Top Of The Lake, which also stars Nicole Kidman and Game Of Thrones’ Gwendoline Christie, is women’s choices in motherhood. The action follows Robin, four years on, returning to her old job as a Sydney-based detective tracking down her daughter. In preparation, Moss shadowed the female head detective of Newtown police station in Sydney, who answered her many questions: ‘How do you switch off when you’ve seen something so terrible; when you’ve seen the worst of humanity? What do you do with that?… Well, she does the right thing and leads a balanced life with love and family,’ says Moss. ‘But Robin drinks. She’s a fucking mess. It’s great!’
How does Moss, who is single after a brief marriage in 2009 to American comedian Fred Armisen, switch off? ‘I’m so boring, honestly. I’m quite the loner,’ she laughs. ‘I mean, I like people… I do have friends, but I enjoy spending my time alone. Part of the reason is because I spend 12-16 hours a day on set with 100 people and I’ve been doing that for years. When I’m done with work, I go home, shower and have a glass of wine and a little dinner by myself. I’m very content.’
I shouldn’t be surprised. As with so many of her pursuits in her career and life, Moss makes it sound so easy; so effortless. Before I leave, I ask her what she knows now, in her thirties, she wishes she had known a decade ago. Surely if anyone has wisdom to impart, it’s Elisabeth Moss.
‘Oh boy, we’re going to need another hour and some alcohol,’ she smiles before turning more serious. ‘A few years ago, my friend and I wrote letters to ourselves, pretending it was ten years in the future. It was really moving, because the letters were so loving, caring and generous in ways we weren’t to ourselves on an everyday basis. My path has been fulfilling, but not at all what I would have planned. So I guess you shouldn’t stress about the things you thought would happen that didn’t. It’s going to be OK. I’m still telling myself that, you know?’
Top Of The Lake, Series Two is on BBC Two now