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Watching Elisabeth Moss as Mad Men’s sec-turned-exec Peggy Olson (as millions did for 88 addictive episodes) and in recent projects like Top of the Lake, High Rise and Queen of Earth, you’d be forgiven for assuming she’s a capital-S Serious or capital-M Method artist. Even director Jane Campion might’ve drawn the same conclusion from Moss’ Top of Lake audition tape. “It was remarkable…I just found myself really interested in watching this gentle, quiet, obviously interior performance. At the end of about six hours, I was still really interested. She’s a little bit like a Mona Lisa. There’s a lot that she’s not showing you.”
It’s an impression Moss sometimes wishes were true, but acknowledges that capital-C Class Clown is more apt. (That was, in fact, the title unanimously bestowed by her Mad Men cast mates). So much for our illusions. As she told The Guardian in 2016, “I wish I was super-serious, anguished. I see those actors and think, God, they are so cool and seem so interesting. I don’t take acting that seriously.” But she does it seriously. Tales from several sets support her seeming ability to perform the acting equivalent of doing zero to 60 for a scene without ever appearing to bear down on the gas. “I was shocked at how quickly she metabolized the material,” Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner once marveled. “She is that kind of actress where we don’t ever intellectually delve into what is going on with her character. It’s almost like it doesn’t pass through Elisabeth’s brain. It’s completely instinctive. She works hard, but I think she also works hard to hide it. Either that, or she’s an alien.” Weiner may deal in alternative facts, but we’re going with the former, which begs the unanswerable question, what is instinct anyway?
That’s probably not something an eight-year-old thinks much about. Moss just liked playing the TV roles she started getting at that age. But she also liked dancing, studying ballet seriously while being homeschooled as she pursued both. She earned her GED at 16 and decided acting offered the more physically enduring career option. She worked steadily in supporting film and TV parts like Girl, Interrupted and Picket Fences before being cast as first daughter Zoey Bartlet on West Wing. That led to Weiner’s casting her in Mad Men, which subsequently led to six Emmy nods and fame as an unintentional feminist icon.
As Peggy Olson grew in confidence and complexity, her character’s storyline grew more compelling, rivaling Don Draper’s for our interest. If making us believe and champion Peggy’s huge personal and professional transformation is an accomplishment, an even bigger one is emerging from a seven-season national TV phenomenon without being forever identified with or pigeonholed by it. But even before the show ended, Moss told The Telegraph UK, “I think it’s up to you as an actor to make choices that are different, to stretch your ability, to not get too comfortable doing something you know you can do. Of course, if you play one character for five years, people are going to think of you as that character. But you can break out of that.”
Can, and did. If viewers weren’t quite ready to move on, Moss was. She’s since chosen a string of largely independent projects that allow her to tell stories as diverse and interesting as the women in them. You’ll find virtually enslaved housewives (High Rise) single-minded detectives (Top Of Lake) and mourning, possibly unhinged vacationers (Queen Of Earth). Harder to find is a bad review. Just one of way too many to list is The New York Times’ take on the latter. “It is Ms. Moss, with her intimate expressivity, who annihilates you from first tear to last crushing laugh.” In addition to landing an emotional punch, she has a talent for landing herself in stories that regardless of time period or milieu are strikingly relevant to current times. None more so, unfortunately, than The Handmaid’s Tail, Hulu’s excellent and much buzzed-about adaptation of the Margaret Atwood novel.
On the off chance you’re not convinced of her versatility – or guts – know that when Moss decided to try the stage for the first time in 18 years of acting, she did it on Broadway, in Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow, no less. And there was The Heidi Chronicles. While you could argue there’s no one better suited to play its evolving, wisecracking proto-feminist lead, taking on an iconic 1989 role and making it resonate in 2015 is a gamble. It paid off with a Tony nod and raves from noted theater critic Charles Isherwood, who called Moss “a superb actor who possesses the unusual ability to project innocence and smarts at the same time.”
High praise, but as far as Moss is concerned, Get Him to the Greek is as valid a choice as the largely improvised indie The One I Love, if it makes her a better actor. Whether that’s possible is debatable, but what’s not is this: More than ever, we need stories about heroic, flawed and completely believable women, and few actors play them better.