Elisabeth Moss ran the emotional gamut as Peggy over seven stellar seasons of Mad Men, but from the very first frame of Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth, you’ll get to see the actress as you’ve never seen her before. We meet Moss’s character, Catherine, at what seems to be her lowest point — her boyfriend is breaking up with her, and her father recently died — and in claustrophobic close-up, Moss cries, pleads, and lashes out as mascara-stained tears run down her face. Embittered by the the breakup, Catherine takes a recuperative week off at her best frenemy Virginia’s (Katherine Waterston) lake house, but she comes to this seemingly idyllic vacation packed with put-downs, determined to make everyone else’s lives as fraught as her own. This week, Moss called up Vulture to talk about playing Catherine at her most unhinged, and reminisced about the thing she never expected to miss from Mad Men.
In Queen of Earth, we see a happier, sunnier version of Catherine in flashbacks. Was it more fun to play her like that, or to play the present-day Catherine, who has stopped giving any fucks?
Obviously the latter! [Laughs.] Maybe other actors would feel differently, but I don’t think so. It’s way more fun for any actor to play complex emotions. Feeling good and happy is just boring. I mean, in life, it’s awesome to be happy, but most actors enjoy getting a little messy.
The last time you worked with Alex Ross Perry, on Listen Up Philip, the New York Times critic Manohla Dargis wrote, “Ms. Moss is rapidly emerging as one of the most exciting actresses in American movies.” Did you see that quote?
Oh, of course I saw that! Usually I don’t read reviews because it can go really bad really fast, but when someone says something like that, inevitably, someone is gonna send it to you. There’s nothing that’s bad about that! She’s awesome, and obviously I was intensely flattered and want to, like, put that quote everywhere. The main thing about collaborating with Alex is that we just want to make cool films that we would want to see, so the fruits that have come out of it, like her saying that, have been a pleasant surprise.
Your character isn’t afraid to say the ballsiest, cruelest things in this movie.
First of all, you never get to do that in real life, and we all want to say things like that in life at some point or another. Second, you rarely see that coming from a woman in film. It’s awesome.
And it must be satisfying to play Catherine in her most unhinged, upset moments after working on something like Mad Men, where the characters are more repressed and often don’t say what they want to.
Absolutely, and they’re totally different styles. Mad Men was so controlled, with so much subtext, and it was so subtle. It was a very distinct style, so it’s great to be able to do something like Queen of Earth where it’s no holds barred — I can do whatever I want, I can ad-lib, I can do something crazy. That kind of freedom is very intoxicating.
As intense as your fights are in this movie, there’s still a comic undertone to them. I got the feeling that the meaner you had to be, the more you were cracking up afterwards.
Thank you, that’s a big compliment. That’s what I love about this film: You can take it seriously or you can totally not, and it’s up to you. Alex and I don’t care what you do. We like it when the audience is so uncomfortable that they start to laugh, or when it gets so weird that people giggle. It’s walking a fine line, but that, to me, is more interesting than just trying to make you feel one thing.
You produced this film, too. You started as a child actor at the whims of everybody else, so is it satisfying to reach the point where you’ve got that sort of control over your projects?
Well, it’s not really about controlling my output. I’ve worked with Jane Campion and Matt Weiner and Aaron Sorkin, and it’s cool, they can totally control my output! I’m happy to have my output controlled by Jane any day. But, yeah, I have been around for a while, and I’ve picked up a thing or two. I don’t consider myself in any way a writer or director — I know my place — but it was cool to take what I know about acting and a performance and try to use my knowledge to help the director.
So even when you’ve got to shoot those rock-bottom breakdown moments, the producer in you is able to watch those scenes and delight in how messed up you look?
Being a producer on this one allows me to have an objectivity that I never had before. I usually don’t like watching myself — and that doesn’t come from any highfalutin place of, “I can’t watch myself, it interferes with my process!” It’s just that it’s uncomfortable when you see yourself making weird faces, or you don’t like the way your hair looks or something. With Queen of Earth, though, I had to watch the first cut as a producer, and it was a very cool new experience for me. I was able to look at it in a different way.
You’ve got a ton of movies coming up. Is it a relief to take on this many projects without cramming them into your Mad Men hiatus?
That’s the coolest thing about it, honestly. For almost nine years, I was on a schedule where you have four or five months to go do something else, and in our business, there are so many other factors that come into play than whether it’s good material that fits into your schedule. Having that hurdle removed has been awesome, because I’ve never had that experience of thinking, I can do that film in three months, and I don’t have to worry about Mad Men starting again. And obviously, there are worse problems to have than having to go back to Mad Men! That was a fucking awesome day job, and it was always difficult to find material better than that show.
I was talking to Matt Weiner this summer, and the conversation turned to Peggy’s bangs — as all of my conversations do, I’m always talking about Peggy’s bangs, and it doesn’t really matter to whom — and Matt said you actually missed the bangs, and enjoyed having them in those early seasons! Is he telling the truth?
I got over the bangs at a certain point. But I will say that during the last season, for some reason, I saw an early episode with the bangs and I remember saying to Matt, “You know what? I know I didn’t like them at the time and they were annoying in real life, but they were such a great choice for the character. When I see that Peggy with the bangs, it’s just right for her and so perfect.” But, yeah, at the time, I was happy to see those go.
Are there any other things you wouldn’t have expected to miss from Mad Men but now find yourself having a pang for?
In all seriousness? I knew I was going to miss the character, but I forgot that I would miss Peggy with the other characters. I can play great characters again — and I have since, and it’s been fulfilling — but what I forgot is that I won’t get to play with Joan or Roger or Don or Pete again. That’s something I didn’t realize, that I really enjoyed working with those characters, and it’s something that won’t come back. As far as the bangs and the costumes and the pantyhose, though, no. [Laughs.]