Elisabeth Moss On Her Post-Mad Men Balancing Act at Sundance
"Any good director will ask you before you start—what do you want, what do you need, what do you not like? And you get that out of the way."
Though she’s too experienced and celebrated to be considered a Sundance discovery, Elisabeth Moss is nevertheless turning heads at this year’s Festival. Best known for her work on television—she currently stars as Peggy Olson on AMC’s Mad Men (for which she’s received 5 Emmy nominations since 2009), played Zoey, the President’s daughter on The West Wing, and recently took home a Golden Globe for her work on Jane Campion’s The Top of The Lake—Moss has slowly built up an impressive film resume. After working with the likes of Lawrence Kasdan and Walter Salles in recent years, she arrived in Park City this week with two features that reveal very different, and previously unseen sides of the 31-year-old actress. In Charlie McDowell’s The One I Love, she and Mark Duplass play a couple whose attempts to fix a marriage on the rocks turns surprisingly—and meaningfully—surreal. And in Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip, she plays a New York photographer whose impatience with her misanthropic boyfriend leads her to forge a life on her own. Both roles are a far cry from the steely professionalism and vintage coiffure of Peggy Olson, exposing an impressive physical and emotional range—in one particularly devastating 45-second shot in Listen Up Philip, she registers at least half a dozen distinct emotions—and establishing Moss as a performer who’s not only adept at exhuming the nascent feminism of Madison Avenue in the 60s, but also at assuming any number of faces of today. In advance of her visit to Park City, we talked to Elisabeth Moss about working with directors of different styles, the importance of costuming, and getting into the nitty-gritty of contemporary relationships.
Was last year your first visit to Sundance?
Moss: Last year was my first time at the Festival, with Top of the Lake. But when I was 18, I was actor in the Sundance Directors Lab, and then when I did the Larry Kasdan film [Darling Companion], it filmed in Park City. I got to know Park city without the Festival being there, which was very cool. I got to know the bars and restaurants, and where to buy toothpaste—I know where the Starbucks is. I had a car, and no one was there, it was winter. Last year we did press in the hotel that I lived in when I was making the movie, and I was like, “Where are all these people coming from? Why are all these people here in my hotel?” But it’s just a different experience. I do feel grateful that I got to see not only Park City without all of the hoopla, but that my first introduction to Sundance was actually staying there [at the resort], seeing movies in a screening room and eating in a cafeteria, which is how it was started—curating films and supporting filmmakers.
Who did you work with when you were at the Labs?
I was actually with Vincent Kartheiser. That’s how I met Vinnie. I can’t remember if we played brother and sister or boyfriend and girlfriend—which is very fitting.
Since you’re always working with new directors in television, are you more adept than others at adapting to different directors on film projects?
I would say that’s actually a very astute observation. Now, on Mad Men we have a smaller group of directors that we rotate among, but it can still be 10 different directors for a season. In the beginning we would have 13 different directors, and people would come in and we’d never have met them before, and we would have to work with them. Then on The West Wing I had 7 years of that. I like directors so I tend to get along with them pretty much 99% of the time. I think that definitely comes from having the opportunity to work with different people. Directors are different—they can be wildly different. You develop this skill at being able to listen to a director and also retain your own sense of what you want to do, and to communicate that to the director.
Has it made you more self-reliant?
I suppose yes, but for me that kind of self-awareness comes from working more, and working with different people. You do have a self-awareness that grows, of what you need and what doesn’t works for you. But any good director will ask you before you start—what do you want, what do you need, what do you not like? And you get that out of the way. Just try not to insult me, you know? Don’t be mean. But I like working with different people. And I don’t have a preference necessarily for a director who meddles too much or not enough. I like when a director is extremely collaborative and helps you on every scene and gives you notes, and I also like when they just let you do your thing.
Let’s talk about your two Sundance directors, Alex Ross Perry and Charlie McDowell. Judging from their films and reputations, it’s hard to imagine that they’re anything alike.
You are 100% correct. In fact, I knew that they were going to meet at a Sundance directors mixer, and I really can’t wait for that to happen. To just be there and document it in some way. Because they are very different.
How do their personalities come through in terms of working with them?
Well they’re both very collaborative. Both are willing to listen. For me it’s the mark of a good director. You can work with first-time directors that are extremely specific and they know exactly what they want, and then you go work with a very seasoned filmmaker like Jane Campion, and those kinds of people are the first to admit that they don’t know—they’re willing to say I’m not sure, let’s try that, I don’t necessarily know the answer to your question. I got that from both of them, which was really good. Charlie had that kind of confidence, which was really surprising for a first-time filmmaker—and I don’t mean confidence in knowing exactly what I want and how I want you to do it, I mean collaborative confidence. And as different as Alex is, personality-wise and personally, he was also really willing to collaborate, really willing to try it this way or that way. He was a really big fan of letting the camera roll and seeing what happened. And of being very supportive. It felt that he really liked this movie and really liked the actors in it, and that’s important for an actor. What I liked about Alex is that he’s really specific visually—he’s very well-versed in film. Even if he was willing to let the actors play, he definitely knew what he wanted visually. As an actor you don’t want to sit around waiting for the director to figure out what he wants to shoot.
Both films involve you being in pretty intense relationships. Was it emotionally or psychologically taxing for you to go from one intensely emotional role to another?
What I like about exploring relationships in film is that I don’t really get to do that. With Mad Men it’s so stylistic, you don’t get to sit down and have relationship conversations. And in Top of the Lake I’m shooting people and getting raped, so it’s not that either. So it was cool to do two very different films with two very different relationships and explore them in different ways cinematically. The One I Love is a very realistic examining of a marriage that isn’t going so well. What I loved about The One I Love is the concept of examining the person you are at the beginning of the relationship [versus] the person you are a few years later. Anyone that’s ever been in a relationship can identify with that, but then cinematically we approached it with a little bit of a twist, which has a bit of a Charlie Kaufman feel. Then with Listen Up Philip, their relationship is so kind of fucked, they’re so not getting along—they’re in a different phase in their relationship than the two in The One I Love. So I got to explore what that relationship is. Where as in The One I Love they’re trying to make it work, to fix it, I felt that in Listen Up Philip it was more about Ashley’s journey away from the relationship, and about when you decide that you’re maybe not going to make it work. When you decide that it’s not worth it. It was very different for me to get into the everyday nitty-gritty of relationships.
I’m interested in the way POV shifts in Listen Up Phillip. Is where you are in the script affect at all how you approach your character? Or are you always in the POV of your character?
As a viewer and a fan of movies, I really liked that, that angle, that it was a triptych. You think it’s going to be all from Philip’s POV and then it veers off into a different track and you get her POV, then it goes back to Philip, and I thought that was a nice move there by Alex. But yeah, I always approach it from my character’s POV. We did a lot of talking before we started filming—just me, Jason and Alex. And most of that talking had nothing to do with Ashley and Philip, and was just us sharing our personal relationship stories. It was really cool, because we didn’t sit down necessarily and go, that’s what this scene is about—we talked about our own stories, we just got to know each other, and it did inform the story of their relationship.
Both of these films are set in the present days, and you’re a blonde in both of them, you’re wearing tank tops and jeans. Which is very different from the dresses and coiffures of Mad Men. Does costuming help you get into your characters?
Absolutely. We finished Mad Men, and I started The One I Love two days later, and in that time I died my hair blonde from brunette. I just wanted it to be different from Peggy for the viewer. I wanted to be able to help them a little bit in imagining that I might be a different person. I don’t know if it has to do with being a girl or not, but to me costuming is really important. It was important to have the two films be different in the way I looked, even though I was still blonde and they’re both contemporary. You have just a few minutes really to create a new character and convince an audience that you’re this different person, and hopefully you do that 75 or 80% with your acting, but it certainly helps if you can also create it with the costumes and hair and makeup. Especially for The One I Love, the costumes were really instrumental in creating a big part of that story. And for Listen Up Philip it was interesting to explore it in the sense that you’re sort of normal in a relationship—you dress as you dress—but then when Ashley and Philip break up she kind of goes out and dresses all sexy and tries that on for a second, and that doesn’t work, and then there’s a softening of the character, maybe she dresses a little more pretty, maybe she puts a little more effort into it. It was instrumental for telling that story.
Instrumental especially in contrast to Peggy, who’s central to a show where costuming is almost another character. Costuming always matters, but I can imagine that it might matter to you even more than it matters to us, because it’s almost like anti-costuming after Mad Men.
Top of the Lake was my first really big experience of stylistically and costume-wise leaving Mad Men. It was the first time that I did something on a bigger scale that was modern. In a more superficial sense, it’s really awesome to wear jeans and t-shirts and not have to wear panty hose and dresses. But then also, with Mad Men, our costume designer is an incredible visionary, and [costuming] is very much also under the direction of Matt [Weiner]. You don’t get a whole lot of input. So it was cool to go into these movies and have so much say not only about the costumes, but everything. To have this collaborative experience where I could change lines and improvise, especially on The One I Love. To flex some different muscles.