No matter what happens during the premiere of Mad Men’s fifth season on March 25, one thing won’t change. Don Draper and Peggy Olson will remain the show’s dark, beating heart — and its yin and yang, kindred spirits on opposite sides of a generational and sexual divide. Like their characters, Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss share a close professional bond and use their stints away from the office (the seventeen-month break between Mad Men’s fourth and fifth seasons was caused by creator Matthew Weiner’s protracted contract negotiations) to advance their own ambitions. (Hamm stars in the just-released Friends With Kids, directed by his longtime partner, Jennifer Westfeldt; Moss is shooting a starring role in a Sundance Channel miniseries directed by Jane Campion.) On a conference call between New York, L.A., and the south island of New Zealand, the odd couple teased us about season five and beyond.
What can you tell me about the character you’re playing in New Zealand?
Elisabeth Moss: She’s different from anyone I’ve ever played. She’s a detective and has a wall up around her emotions. I usually play vulnerable characters.
Were you longing to stretch?
EM: No. I’ve been really lucky that Peggy has changed so much since the pilot. It doesn’t get old.
Jon Hamm: [Breaking in] I have to say, that’s bullshit. Sorry to be late!
EM: Who is that?!
JH: It’s Jon Hamm. I play Don Draper!
EM: Jon, I’m really sorry. You’re not actually doing this interview anymore! It’s so awkward …
JH: I’ll just listen in.
No, I still need both of you. I’m hoping one of you will spoil season five for us. Any surprises?
JH: There are a lot of things where all of us as a cast were like, Whoa, okay. Uh, all right, so this is happening. It’s a world that’s consistently in a state of flux. There are things done that can’t be undone.
Can you be more specific?
EM: There’s something that Matt said, that these characters have to figure out what they want and how to go after it. That summed up my character.
JH: Matt has also said it’s every man for himself—that’s obviously not gender specific. Everybody is acting in their own self-interest, and that creates some pretty good dramatic tension.
Jon, you directed an episode this season. Did you ask to do that?
JH: Actually, it was asked of me last season, and I didn’t feel like I was ready. But by this season, I’d seen John Slattery [who plays Roger Sterling] and Jennifer [Westfeldt] direct. So I felt confident enough.
Some of the best moments of the series are duets between you two, as in “The Suitcase.” What is it about Don and Peggy?
JH: It’s not a mistake that the show starts on Peggy’s first day at work. In many ways, the story of Mad Men is the story of Peggy Olson: a young, ambitious, talented girl finding her way in this crazy world. I think Don and Peggy have a special relationship. They’re unsatisfied with who they are and are willing to do what it takes to become something else.
EM: People are constantly asking if they’re gonna sleep together. I always get annoyed, because their relationship is more than that. And to keep that going over five years without selling out and having something else happen—that to me is really interesting and rarely done well.
JH: People want to put us in a “Sam and Diane” box, but it’s about their mutual appreciation for the work. That’s where the material strikes its resonant chord, when it’s ostensibly about one thing and then it becomes about so much more. That’s the fun thing about Don and Peggy, and that’s the deeper thing about Mad Men.
Not all of Mad Men shows that restraint. The season-four finale, when Don proposed to his secretary, left a lot of people puzzled. Have you ever read a script and said to yourself, “Really?”
EM: Matt has never led Peggy in the wrong direction. I’ve never had a problem with anything he’s done with her. Jon’s in more of a position to be able to speak up with things like that to Matt.
JH: I don’t want to get into a bragging contest about who has more influence with Matt. I made a decision early on that I was just gonna put myself in this guy’s hands and say, “Okay, man, what’s it gonna be?”
We’ve waited so long between seasons. How did you feel about the unusual delay?
EM: It’s been a lot longer for the audience than it has for us. We usually take about eight months off, and I guess this was just about a year.
JH: It was a bummer, but at a certain point you’re like, “Well, we have some time off, so let’s not just sit on our hands.” That’s an incredible opportunity as an actor, and I certainly haven’t had it through much of my career.
Were you worried, during Weiner’s negotiations with AMC, that it might not all come together?
JH: I was never really worried. Too many people stood to lose too much money.
With two seasons left to shoot, do you have a sense of where your characters will end up?
JH: I think Matt has a very clear, very beautiful ending for this story, and I look forward to telling that story and arriving at that ending.
So, you know the ending?
JH: I know exactly what it is.
Elisabeth, do you know?
EM: I’ll plead the Fifth on that one.
Doesn’t that remove some of the suspense and excitement of reading new scripts?
EM: You might have an idea of where something might be going, but the way that it gets there is always surprising.
JH: He’s consistently shown that whatever we think is often wrong. And I think that’s been surprising not only to the audience but to us as actors.
Elisabeth, just like Peggy, you’ve been through some personal complications in your twenties — most recently a divorce. Do you use that real-life experience to navigate Peggy’s coming-of-age?
EM: When I made the pilot, I was 23. I’m 29 now. You change and grow and become an adult, and I’ve learned a lot in the past six years, professionally and personally. It’s definitely informed who Peggy is.
Peggy’s grown more cynical. Have you?
EM: I hope not. I think I’ve gotten smarter. I was a kid when I started this show.
JH: No, Kiernan [Shipka, who plays Sally] was a kid. You were a young lady. Kiernan’s been on the show longer than she hasn’t been on the show.
So maybe Kiernan’s not quite ready to direct any episodes. What about Elisabeth?
EM: [Laughing] It would be pretty funny. I’ve not been asked, so I haven’t thought about it. It would be pretty intimidating. I hope they would listen to me.
Why not? On the show, they listen to Peggy — well, eventually they do.
EM: My point exactly.