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Elisabeth Moss.

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Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss on Peggy As the New Don, Top of the Lake, and Orgasm Acting

Is Peggy coming back? That was one of the lingering questions looming at the end of Mad Men’s fifth season after Elisabeth Moss's character, Peggy Olson, left Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (and Don's shadow) for a new job at Ted Chaough's rival agency. Well, as the world will know when Mad Men returns for season six this Sunday, Peggy isn't just back, but she's back with a fierce new attitude. (Believe us, this is the least spoiler-y thing we could tell you about the episode.) Moss, meanwhile, is doing double duty on Jane Campion’s seven-part Sundance Channel miniseries Top of the Lake (airing now) as a detective investigating the disappearance of a 12-year-old girl in New Zealand. Jada Yuan spoke to Moss for New York a few weeks ago. Here are the actress's additional thoughts on Mad Men, Australian accents, and fancy Japanese toilets.

Elisabeth Moss: How are you? Sorry I’m late. I was in the shower.

Oh, I was going to ask you where you were calling me from, but I guess from home.
Nah, I was just out using the public showers. [Laughs.]

They’re everywhere in New York City. It’s a new Bloomberg initiative.
Yeah, I just like to shower in public. I think it’s important.

Can you imagine!? What would they be like?
They’d just have community showers in parks, in Times Square, in the subway. Honestly, there are times when it’s summer in New York and it’s so fucking hot that I would literally … I would be very excited just for a little quick rinse off. [Laughs.]

You know, in Parisian street bathrooms, you can have an accidental shower, where the doors lock and they spray down the whole thing to clean it. You have to make sure you get out before it starts.
That’s a little bit much. I would feel like the French would not be, like, the first people to be like, you know, up for cleanliness. [Laughs.] You know what I mean? They’re like, “Whatever.” That’s so weird. That’s a little bit over the top. I don’t even know how to operate those toilets that, like, do all the stuff, like, heat up and turn into, like, a car. You know what I’m talking about? Those crazy toilets and they’re usually in Japanese restaurants?

I think they also have them backstage at the Lincoln Center theater. I’ve heard actors talk about their crazy toilets.
Oh, really!? Oh, nice! I gotta get a play at Lincoln Center, apparently. That’s where it’s at.

You're in New Orleans a lot with your boyfriend, Adam Arkapaw, who's doing the cinematography on HBO's True Detective there and did the cinematography for Top of the Lake. How have you been spending your time?
Just hanging out in the house and going to Whole Foods, which takes, like, an entire day. 

Ha, how does it take a whole day to go to Whole Foods?
[Laughs.] You know that thing where you’ve got nothing to do and you can make one activity, like, really stressful and take an entire day? Like, when you’re really busy, you can get 25 things in a day. But I just find if I’ve got nothing to do I find one or two activities really stressful, you know? [Pretend sighs.] And I’ve got to drive there! I’ve got to get in the car and drive there. So that takes a little bit. And then I’ve got to, you know, PARK. And it takes, like, about an hour to get everything you need. And I’m a very kind of … I’m telling you, like, the most boring stuff about me. I’m sorry. But I will go into ANYWHERE. Like a roadside gas station and find things to buy. So for me, a big Whole Foods is, like, amazing. You know, and then I’ve got to get it home. And then I’ve got to get the bags out of the car. Put everything away. It’s an entire day. It’s stressful!

Ha. I feel you. Okay, let's get to Mad Men. When did you find out that Peggy was coming back? Did Matt Weiner make you sweat it out?
No! No! I would not have allowed him to. I would have hounded him until he told me. I would have been like, “You’re so mean!” No, no. He called me right before episode eleven of season five came out and told me what was gonna happen, and my first question to him was “That sounds awesome … am I coming back? Am I going to be on the show?” And he was actually a little bit offended, I think. He was like, “Of course you are. How could you ask me that?” And I was like, “Well, you know, it’s a logical question.” And he assured me that, obviously, it was going to be fine. And then he told me everything that was going to happen. You know, great actors who are amazing on the show have left. So I would never consider myself above that.

Didn’t Jared Harris say something that made people think you were gone from the show?
Yeah, he did. He did. Sweet, sweet man. I love him so much. He’s the coolest guy, and he did say something that, you know — he says it was maybe taken out of context or he didn’t exactly say it that way, who knows? But he was at the read-throughs, so he knew I was in episode thirteen, because he came to the read-through for it. So he obviously knew that I was coming back, and that’s not what he meant to say. He wrote me an e-mail apologizing saying that’s not what he meant. And I just said to him, I was like, “Dude, that was the greatest thing you ever could have said. People are now showing that they want Peggy to come back, and for me that is just so incredibly flattering.” I was so flattered and honored that people cared and people wanted me back, so I wasn’t angry at all. I was like, “Thanks, Jared! That was great!”

Do you think Peggy is the new Don?
You know, I think that it’s a very interesting story for her this year, which we’ll try to talk around a little bit. She, I think, is trying her hand at being Don. I think that’s all she knows. That has been her image of leadership. That’s been how she thinks you’re supposed to act as a boss. It’s all she’s ever known. That was her first job, at Sterling Cooper. That was her first boss, and only boss. So that’s what she knows. And I think it’s going to be interesting to see how that works out for her and how she — I think that her journey is about discovering how to be her own style of leadership, her own style of management. And I think that she as herself, as Peggy, if she can find that, she will be a much better boss than Don. Because she has a positivity, she has a sensitivity; she’s a woman, and I think that that makes a difference in a boss.  There’s just a sensitivity there that I think that obviously Don doesn’t have. [Laughs.] So I think that if she can find her own way and her own style, it’s gonna better for her. But we’re just going to have to watch and see if she finds it.

Do you think that Don has lost his mojo?
Um, yeah, I do. I think that was his story at the end of — I guess it was season four, when he gets engaged to Megan and everyone is kind of like, “What the fuck?” and there’s that great scene with [Peggy] and Joan and they’re both like, “Oh my God, what’s happening?” And he’s so happy and smiling, it’s weird! And it’s like, I’m a viewer as much as anyone else is, and I want to see Don be Don. And that was his story: This guy falls in love and is happy, and how does that affect his work and who he is? But, you gotta kind of take it away to give it back, you know? And I think that Don is very good, he’s very good at his job, and, um … I can’t say anything else. [Laughs.] That’s the end of my sentence. [Laughs.]

Images did leak of Peggy on set. People who haven’t seen the episode would know that she’s rocking a bouffant. How do you feel about the hair? Is she with the times? Behind the times?
I love it. I love it this year. You know, I think it’s still very old-fashioned … which is good. I think that what’s interesting is that Peggy used to kind of be the progressive one. She used to be the kind of young one. And I think that now as we’re getting later in the sixties she’s actually becoming the old-fashioned one of her age group. She’s still wearing suits and she’s still flipping her hair and still has the teased bump, and at that time, women were growing their hair out and it was straight and long. I think that Peggy is becoming the woman that she always will be. She’s going to be like your grandma, you know, who always wore the same thing that she wore in the sixties but, like, in better fabric. I mean, my grandmother would go to the salon and get her hair done and that’s how her hair would be for the next few weeks.

Mine, too!

She would, like — you’d be like, "What are you doing today?" and she would be like, "I'm washing my hair." And that's what she would be doing that day. And that's Peggy, you know?

But what does that say about her, that she's now picked a look and it might not be the most progressive one and it's going to be what stays with her for the rest of her life?
Well, I think it's who she is. She's not going to be a hippie, she's not gonna start burning bras. She's a different kind of feminist. She's the one who works really hard, and concentrates on her job, and wants to move up in the world of her business. And her progressiveness and her brand of feminism — it comes in probably a bit of a more realistic way, you know? Those were the women — there were more of those women than were the hippies who burned bras and picketed. Those women were the ones who were actually, you know, going in and asking for equal pay, and asking for equal rights, and demanding to be treated better in the workplace. That's who she is, you know what I mean?

Yeah, and let's talk about Top of the Lake? We already talked at Sundance about getting naked on the show. Did you go into the lake a lot, into the actual water? There’s at least that point in the second episode when your character, Robin, walks into the lake just like the little girl Tui did.
Yeah, I went into it quite a bit. The first time I went into it, I was stupid and went into it without a wetsuit under my clothes, and that was the first time. It’s so cold all the air gets sucked out of you. You actually can’t breathe. Like, you’re trying to breathe in and breathe out, but your body just goes into shock and you just literally can’t. So I went in and I was, like, trying to be the professional and I was like, “I’m not gonna stop. I’m gonna keep going,” even though I really was like [dread-filled gasp], “Uhhheeeeeee.” Making this horrible sound. And the stunt guy was there, and he just kept telling me to breathe out. And I was like, “That’s the point, dude, I can’t!” And I was trying to be brave, but I’m sure it was just unusable. And then from that point on, in subsequent scenes, I always wore a wetsuit under my clothes.

Just like that girl on The Bachelor. Did you see that? No, you probably don’t watch The Bachelor.
No, I haven’t, but not because of any sort of moral high ground. I would love to watch it. I just haven’t caught it. Why, what happens?

Oh, there’s this stupid scene where they do a polar bear plunge in Alaska and the girl that everyone hates starts complaining of hypothermia and is obviously faking it.
Hahaha. That’s awesome. 

Anyway, was it hard to nail the Australian–New Zealand accent?
It was. It was very difficult. And I will not pretend that it wasn’t. It was really hard, and I had to work on it every day. It’s not natural, and I never felt like I could just let it go. Every night, my dialect coach would send me the scenes and she would have recorded them in the accent, just my dialogue. And I would put it on my iPod and have the headphones in all the time and just listen to it over and over.

Is it a Kiwi accent?
It really is Jane's accent, which is a mix of Australian, Kiwi, and a bit British. And it’s actually very much Alice, her daughter’s, accent as well. When Alice showed up on set, like, way late in the game, she started talking and I was like, “Where the fuck have you been?” Like, “I need to do your accent! Why haven’t you been here?” 

Do you ever slip into it now?
Oh yeah, totally. But, like, in a really bastardized way. Like, it’ll be just one word, you know. Just, especially if I’m speaking to somebody from Australia it’s very easy for me to kind of slip a little bit back into it. But it sounds awful.

Robin spends a lot of time in the local bar beating the guys at darts. You’re awesome at playing darts ... Or is that fake?
Thank you! No. I practiced a lot. I had a dartboard at home and I would practice a lot, usually after a couple of glasses of wine, which resulted in a lot of holes in the furniture. But I practiced because I knew I was never going to become amazing, but I just wanted to feel comfortable with it. The odd thing was, I actually was way better when the camera was rolling and I was playing as Robin. When I was in character and being strong and being tough, being her, I was way better at it. [Laughs.]

Robin stabs a guy with a broken beer bottle. Did you like getting to act so un-Peggy-like?
I fucking loved it. It was so fun, I have to be honest. It was SO fun. Just, you know, in life you try not to glass people, you try not to scream and yell and fight. And so it’s really fun and cathartic to be able to do that, you know, and then not hurt anybody.

In the previous interview we talked about how “safe” you felt about doing nudity with Jane Campion. But was it also kind of thrilling to get to do these sex scenes and show that other side?
I mean, it’ll never be my favorite thing to do. I suppose the good thing was that I felt like it looked good and I felt like I was happy with it and proud of it and not embarrassed. The weirdest thing is having to make, like, sex noises. And I remember one scene that’s actually not in the series that was cut. There were, like, three love scenes that were cut. And I was doing one, and I did it and then Jane said that I was being too loud! And I was so embarrassed, ‘cause you just think, Oh, God, is this what people think I do? You know? It’s very private! And so, you know, it was just embarrassing that like I was — I thought that that was what she wanted, so I was like really kinda going for it, and then she was like, “It’s too much.” I was just mortified.

In terms of being a showrunner, who’s more exacting and dictatorial about their vision? Jane or Matt?
I felt a lot of similarities in them. Very much so. They’re both exacting, and they both really believe in their vision. And they can be very opinionated about it. I would say that Jane is perhaps a little bit more — I’m not saying anything against Matt, because obviously he’s one of my closest friends and I believe in him so much — but I would say that Jane is a little bit more into rehearsals, she’s a little bit more into playing. She kind of likes to try different things. We’re not creating anything from scratch on Mad Men, whereas on Top of the Lake we were creating this character from nothing, you know? So on Mad Men it’s much more of a feeling of “We know what we’re doing; we know what this is.” I know when he writes “Peggy shakes her head,” I know exactly what he wants, and he knows that I know what he wants. And also the dialogue on Mad Men is so specific and you can’t change a word. Whereas with Top of the Lake it would be very much like, “Well, do you want to say this line?” And you’d be like, “Not really.” And they’d be like, “Okay.” [Laughs.] Which was great. I mean, I like structure, I like kind of feeling like I know what I’m doing. So, I don’t mind that on Mad Men. But it was thrilling and challenging to do something else.

Photo: Jason Merritt/2013 Getty Images