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Being Peggy Olson: Elisabeth Moss Analyzes Her Character’s Humor, Body Language, and Worldview

Photo: Monica Schipper/Getty Images

Elisabeth Moss and Peggy Olson both lived through their twenties on Mad Men. At the beginning of each season, Moss paused to reevaluate how she would perform Peggy differently that year, taking stock of the changes a person goes through as she fumbles her way into adulthood. Ahead of Sunday night’s premiere, Moss spoke with Vulture about the traits that define Peggy — her body language and humor, her optimism and larger motivations. Moss is currently playing a slightly updated “woman in a man’s world” on Broadway in Pam MacKinnon’s production of Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles. Her role as Heidi Holland dovetails nicely with her arc on Mad Men, picking up the women’s struggle just after Peggy’s time, as feminism matured into a full-fledged crusade — a movement Moss says Peggy would have been too exhausted to join.

Playing Heidi, did anything strike you as similar to how things are for women today? In what ways do you think we’ve progressed, and in what ways are we still the same, or maybe even worse?
It’s definitely better. I think the way it’s improved is that the definition of what it means to “have it all” has loosened up a bit. There’s a lot of talk in the play about this idea of the superwoman, and having it all, being a mother and a wife and having a job. Everybody fought so hard for you to have it all, now you should go ahead and have it all. I think what’s happening now is women are allowed to be a mom, and that’s what they are; they’re allowed to be a wife, and that’s what they are; or they’re allowed to be a girlfriend and not get married, and that’s great. You can have kids, you can not have kids, or you can focus on your work. The idea of “having it all” has changed. Where we haven’t obviously made all the strides that we want to make is in equal pay for women, and women having all of the same opportunities in the workplace as a man, and the idea that an actress has a harder time getting huge lead roles, especially when you pass the forbidden age of 30. That hasn’t changed. So there’s still work to be done.

You make an emotional speech toward the end of the play on how you feel abandoned by the women’s movement. Do you think that kind of public meltdown would have spelled the end of Heidi’s career if it had happened today and been put on Twitter and YouTube?
That’s an interesting idea, I’d never thought about that. Yeah, that’s kind of true. I agree, it’s very difficult to have a private moment these days. And it probably would been tweeted out and become a YouTube video. But at the same time, the way that Wendy wrote it, she has this meltdown, but in a really intelligent way. She’s not, like, going crazy and slurring and drunk and saying things that are inappropriate. She’s commenting upon something; she’s very emotional, but she’s also very articulate and very clear about what she needs. And she says, ‘I’m not blaming those women, I’m not saying it’s their fault, I think that we’re all intelligent, good women.’ She’s just like, this is how I feel. I thought that this was going to go in this direction, and it didn’t. And I think that is a very relevant idea for women.

Do you think Peggy is the type to take up with the women’s movement once the ‘70s roll around?
Noooo, absolutely not. I think she probably had one eye out on those women, but I think that she’s busy, she’s tired, and she’s focused on her work. She’s a child of the ‘50s. She’s not that woman, so I think she would be embarrassed to protest. She wouldn’t have time to join a women’s collective because she’s at work all the time. She’s a different kind of feminist. No less powerful, no less interesting, but different.

Humor plays an interesting role on Mad Men, and I’m curious if you think Peggy is funny? I find her funny, but is she funny to herself?
I think she’s hilarious. I don’t think she has any idea that she’s funny, which is why I think she’s funny. I find that part of playing her, the humor of her, was so much fun for me. But I don’t think she is at all aware, and I think if she found out that people thought that she was funny, then she’d be furious. And that’s what’s funny!

Do you put any thought into your body language as Peggy?
Yeah, actually. I realized a couple seasons in, she’s very still. She stands up very straight, she’s very deliberate in her movements. She’s is kind of stiff and rigid. She’s proper. She doesn’t sit with her legs uncrossed, she doesn’t really wear pants very much. She’s definitely old-fashioned, and I think it plays into her body language. It’s almost not a conscious choice for me, that’s just who she is. It wasn’t like, I’m going to play her like this. It just kind of happened. I also think she doesn’t use her sexuality very often to get what she wants. She doesn’t have a swagger in her walk, she doesn’t push her boobs out. She doesn’t deny her femininity, at least not anymore — I think she used to. But she is professional, and I think that you have to be if you want to be taken seriously.

That kind of gets to the tension between Peggy and Joan, which has played out throughout the seasons. How would you characterize their relationship?
They were never really friends. They become colleagues and co-workers. I think there’s a respect there for each other. They’ve taken very different paths. Joan is someone who’s very comfortable with her sexuality and how sexy she is. I don’t think she uses that, but she’s very comfortable with it. Peggy has had to kind of be professional and be taken seriously, and it’s put them on very different paths. Joan has come up in the world in her own way, and Peggy has in her own way. They’re equal in their confidence and power, but they come about it from very different directions.

Would you call Peggy an optimist or a pessimist?
I think she’s definitely an optimist. Despite everything that’s happened to her, despite the challenges, despite the opposition, she can’t get rid of that, and that’s what makes her so great. She’s a good person. She’s kind of like us — she’s an every woman. She’s trying to do her job, make her boss happy, trying to have some fun in her personal life, trying to get some sleep. She’s very much like us. She’s basically a good person, trying to do her best. She doesn’t always succeed at that, but she’s trying.

Your character changes so much from season one until now. I was going back to watch earlier episodes, and it almost felt like I was watching someone else. What was it like having to change your behavior so subtly over time? Do you feel like you’re playing a different character in some ways?
I do feel like she changes so much. But also, nine years passed, and I grew up. I was 23 when we shot the pilot, and when we wrapped I was 31, and I grew up a lot during that time, and I’m sure I changed a little bit. That’s what I love about television: It’s almost in real time. We could have had her be the same for seven seasons, but we probably wouldn’t have been as a good of a show, or we wouldn’t have lasted seven seasons. The writing definitely took advantage of the fact that you can have somebody who has a tremendous arc.

A lot of it was conscious. At the beginning of every season, I battled and tackled the idea of “How has she changed?” And “How is this season going to be different?” I never wanted to play her the same every year. I never wanted her to remain in the same place, and a lot of that is because of the writing, and a lot of it was me going, ‘Okay, what happened? How is she going to be different, and how is she going to grow? Grow sometimes in the right direction, grow sometimes in the wrong direction, but how is she going to change?’

You mentioned you started doing the show at 23. As a viewer, Mad Men can affect my mood, and I’m curious if, acting on it for nine years, it ever came to color your worldview?
It’s funny ‘cause I suppose it’s like any job. What happens at your job definitely affects your life. It would be like having the same job for nine years. Of course what happens in the show, what happens to the character, and the story lines you get are going to affect your life. It’s different because you’re playing someone else, and I assume that at your job, you’re playing yourself. But it does have a huge affect. It becomes a very, very integral part of your life. That show is very much woven into my own experience of life. Because it’s not like going and doing something for three months and then being done. It’s nine years.

Do you have a favorite thing about Peggy’s personality?
There’s something I admire and something I just love playing. What I admire is her stubbornness, is her ability to bang her head up against something until she gets what she wants. Her drive. That’s what I admire. What I love to play is what we talked about earlier, which is her sometimes bumbling naïveté and very, very human flaw of stumbling around, trying to figure out what you want. When she’s funny, and she doesn’t realize that she’s being funny. That’s what I love.

I can’t imagine a show that could take its place. Can you?
I agree, I think you’re right. And that’s true of other great shows. There’ll never be another show like The Sopranos, there will never be another show like Friday Night Lights. The mistake is trying to replicate them, it’s trying to be like them. I think it’s fine to just have that be what it is. Nothing will ever be like it again, and there will be something else that’s great, I hope. TV’s so amazing right now, there’ll be something else that’s great, for different reasons.

In the mid-season premiere episode, you have a great date with a guy played by Devon Gummersall, who’s known for his role on My So-Called Life. Were you a fan of that show?
Yes! Oh my God. I was maybe 12 or 13, and that show was huge for us. It was the first time — besides maybe The Wonder Years, which was younger, it was kids and stuff, and that was very influential for me. But My So-Called Life was the first time there was a serious show about teenagers that wasn’t stupid and wasn’t a comedy, and attacked what would be mundane to anyone else — but it’s super serious when you’re 14. [Laughs.] Claire Danes, I just thought she was so incredible, and I loved her hair. I dyed my hair like hers, that kind of red color. I always wanted her to end up with him, what was his name …

Brian. Brian! Brian, right? I never wanted her to be with Jordan Catalano, I always wanted her to be with him. Then they had that last episode where they almost got together, and then they canceled the show! It was devastating. So anyways, when I found out it was him, I fucking flipped out, I was so excited. I don’t remember if I ever told him that, but I was thrilled, and very, very excited I was able to play with him. He’s so great on the show, he’s perfect.

Elisabeth Moss on Being Peggy Olson