Elisabeth Moss Told BUST In ’09 That Mad Men’s Peggy Was “The Utmost Feminist”

by BUST Magazine

Here at BUST HQ, we’ve been chatting a lot about actor Elisabeth Moss lately. First, we jubilantly extolled the many feminist virtues of her new Hulu series, The Handmaid’s Tale, on this week’s episode of our Poptarts podcast. But we were subsequently startled and dismayed when we heard about the show’s panel discussion at the Tribeca Film Fest, in which Moss seemed to cavalierly dismiss the show’s feminist thesis despite the fact that at its core, The Handmaid’s Tale is a cautionary fable about what happens to a society when women are stripped of their civil rights.

Moss said, of comparisons between her Mad Men character Peggy and her Handmaid’s Tale character Offred: “They’re both human beings. They’re the same height. For me, [The Handmaid’s Tale] is not a feminist story. It’s a human story. And women’s rights are human rights. I never intended to portray Peggy as a feminist. I never intended to play Offred as a feminist. They’re women, and they’re humans.”

Understandably, there was a bit of an uproar online. Enough of one, in fact, that Moss backtracked on Tuesday in an interview with The Huffington Post, stating, “I wanted to say—and I’ll just say it right here, right now—OBVIOUSLY, all caps, it is a feminist work. It is a feminist show.”

We found the whole kerfuffle a bit puzzling, since in BUST’s interview with Moss in 2009, she called Peggy “the utmost feminist,” and didn’t seem to have any discomfort with the term at all. Check out the interview for yourself in this Flashback Friday reprint and let us know: Do you think Moss’ ideas about feminism have really changed? Or do you think some freaked out publicist somewhere is urging her to avoid the “F” word?

Moss Appeal

By Debbie Stoller
Photos by Danielle Levitt
Styling by Tammy Eckenswiller
Hair and makeup by Jim Crawford for Tresemmé

Engaging in a little rainy-day repartee with our Editor-in-Chief, Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss opens up about Broadway, Scientology, and most of all — Peggy

As the mousy secretary-cum-copywriter Peggy Olson on AMC’s award-winning show Mad Men, Elisabeth Moss expresses the uncomfortable combination of ambition and shyness that drives her character with frequent nonconfrontational downward glances, tentative yet firm gestures, and yes, those awful bangs. She even changes her speaking pattern to fit the character, a fact that becomes clear when I talk to her by phone. In contrast to Peggy’s soft, slow, measured speech (she’s the quintessential low-talker), Moss’ real-life speaking voice is louder, faster, and much more confident.

But Moss’ ability to speak loudly and clearly should come as no surprise. After all, she needs to be able to project in Broadway’s Speed-the-Plow, David Mamet’s classic play in which she’s currently performing. It’s a grueling schedule, with eight shows a week, but the talented Ms. Moss is up to the challenge and has already received accolades for her performance by such hard-ass critics as The New York Times.

While today she is best known for her role on Mad Men, the 26-year-old Moss is no newcomer to the entertainment industry. She was landing and performing small parts in television and film from the time she was 8 years old, culminating, at the age of 17, in her first large role, as the president’s daughter on The West Wing. That show received four Emmy awards for Best Drama Series in its first four seasons, and the case could be made that Moss is some kind of an Emmy magnet, as Mad Men also recently won the Emmy for Best Drama Series. (Moss herself was on the short list to be nominated for a Best Actress Emmy but unfortunately, did not get the nomination this year.)

Mad Men’s Peggy Olson is the character we’d all probably be if we were suddenly transported back to 1962—the smart girl with ambitions beyond being “just a housewife” or a low-level secretary, the two main options for women at the time. While we might find the Sex and the Single Girl life of the character Joan to be more appealing (her outfits definitely are), Peggy, despite her sexual innocence, her bizarre inability to realize she was pregnant until she gave birth, and her bad haircut, is nevertheless the character that’s closest to what women have become. We are glued to her storyline and are right there with her during her ad pitches in a roomful of men, thinking about how we would have done in that sort of situation, fighting for respect at a time when most men held women in such low regard.

A native of California, Moss has been living in N.Y.C.’s East Village for the past few years, which is where she spoke to me by phone.

How does it feel to take over a role that Madonna once played?

[laughs] Everyone asks that! I don’t know; I was six when she did Speed-the-Plow. The only funny thing is, I never thought that I would be in the same sentence as Madonna! So that’s cool.

What’s your take on the character Peggy? Are you anything like her?

Oh, yes, for sure. Matt [Weiner, Mad Men’s creator and executive producer] and I have talked about how the actors on the show bring a huge part of themselves to their characters, and that inspires the writers—it’s a back-and-forth kind of relationship. Peggy is a modest person; she’s very optimistic, and she’s not a very cynical person, and that’s very similar to me. But then there are parts of me that are not like her as well.

Like what?

I think I’m much more fun than Peggy is! [laughs]

A number of people have called your character the great feminist hope of Mad Men. Do you think Peggy is a feminist?

She’s the utmost feminist. She represents the women who had no predecessors and nobody to follow. They were the first women to ever sit in the conference room with the men, the first to be allowed to present their ideas. I feel very proud and happy that I get to play that part of that era.      

Have you ever faced the kind of sexism that Peggy faces in pursuit of your own career?

Not really, but that’s not to say that sexism doesn’t exist in the industry. I mean, you can have a 60-year-old male actor playing the romantic lead, but you’re never, ever going to have a 60-year-old woman opposite him.

Your character seems like such a smart girl. Doesn’t she realize how creepy Pete is?

In the beginning, she doesn’t really know him; she just knows that she wants to be part of that world. I don’t think she’s really ever had the attention of a man before, and he comes to her apartment, and it’s very intoxicating. I defy anyone who has ever questioned that to look at their own life and say that they never picked the wrong person. We’ve all been there! [laughs]

In the episode with the “exerciser,” your character had to basically try out a vibrator, and simulate the big O. Was that difficult to do?

No. It wasn’t really like I had to do the whole thing; all I had to do was give a little yelp. I think if I had had to really invest myself in it, I would have been embarrassed. I mean, I’m an extremely modest person—just talking about this embarrasses me.

moss2Elisabeth Moss in her dressing room at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre

How much time do you get to have the scripts before you go to shoot an episode?

Only about a week, max; usually it’s only about four or five days. But it’s not that hard, it’s almost like filming a movie in 13 parts; you just kind of get the next part of the film, and then the next part of the film. It’s not like preparing for a play. It’s little bits, little scenes, and it all gets pieced together.

Your looks are really toned down to play this role. In the first season, you even had to wear a fat suit. Is that difficult on your self-esteem? Most people want the miracle of film to make them look better than they really do.

It actually doesn’t bother me. I would be happy to put on a fat suit and play that part any day over anything else. Of course, I would love to wear the gorgeous, tight clothes that Christina [Hendricks, who plays Joan] wears, or the petticoats and ball gowns that January [Jones, who plays Betty] wears, but would I give up playing this incredible storyline for that? No. I mean, if I was walking around and people were saying, “Oh, my God, she’s so dowdy!” then I would feel offended. But it’s on purpose; I was wearing padding, they cut my hair into bangs, and Peggy wears barely any makeup at all, she only wears mascara and a little bit of concealer, and that’s it. It’s part of the role, so I don’t care.

Do people recognize you on the street despite the fact that your looks are so played down on the show?

Yeah, they do. Usually I’ll get a lot of staring until people figure it out, because I do look kind of different. I’ll ride an entire 20-minute subway ride with somebody staring at me. I’ve lived in New York for six years, and I get a little attitudey, like, “What are you looking at?” You get that little protective, New York thing. And then when I get off the train they’ll be like, “I love your show!” and then I feel all bad that I was throwing looks at them.

On Mad Men, you’re the only female copywriter working in a field of men, and in Speed-the-Plow you’re working with two men. Do you prefer working with men?

On The West Wing I worked with mostly men too. I don’t choose it consciously, but I do kind of like it. I’ve never been really inspired by the wife or the girlfriend role; I’d rather play the girl who is the man’s competition. That’s more exciting to me. I love being a part of the boys’ club. The Mad Men guys are awesome; it’s like I have five big brothers. They’re so funny and adorable. I’ve been really lucky.

How do you keep from getting crushed out on Jon Hamm?

[laughs] It is difficult. But at some point, you cross over—I’m really good friends with him, and I adore him; he’s like a big brother to me, more than anyone else in my life. So I can’t really go there.

The Scientology Celebrity Center’s Web site lists you as a member. How did you get into it?

Oh, my parents are Scientologists.

Is there’s any way to explain in a nutshell what Scientology is and what it does for you?

I think the best way to describe it is that it’s an applied religion. It is religious in the sense that you believe in something bigger than yourself; there is a faith that is involved. But it also gives you things you can use in your everyday life. I think what it’s done for me is, it’s given me stability and this sort of knowledge of myself. And not only myself but my relationships with other people. The thing that people most find after they get into Scientology is how practical it is. I mean, there are a lot of things that deal with faith and morality and relationships, things that people can use every day to help them get along in life. That’s basically all it is.

You always hear about so many actors being involved in it; is there something in Scientology that’s particularly helpful if you’re involved in the performing arts?

Well, Scientologists believe that the artist injects life into the culture, and that art and artists are a huge part of the planet, and they give it a sort of beauty and life, and that without them we would be lost. So there’s a huge respect for artists in Scientology. But also, artists tend to be more in the spotlight, so you hear more about them being Scientologists, but there are thousands and thousands of people who aren’t actors who are Scientologists—you just don’t hear about them.

I appreciate your talking about it.

Yeah, there are a lot of misperceptions out there, and I’m happy to give the truth about it.

You’ve got a background in dance, you’ve been a voice actor, appeared in film and on television, and now you’re on stage—what is there left that you still want to do that you haven’t done? Are you gonna come out with a record anytime soon?

I know, my friend keeps asking me when my clothing line is coming out [laughs]. I think I’m sticking to film and television and theater for now. No perfume line.

But it would be so nice for there to be a Peggy Olson line of skirts or bags.

Oh—that would be great!

People spend so much time watching the fashion on the show. It’s really a pleasurable part of the whole experience, and your poor character does not get the most exciting outfits to wear—although they’re getting cuter and cuter as time goes on. Are you interested in fashion? Not to sound like a perv, but what are you wearing right now?

[laughs] I’m wearing my pajamas right now. That’s not very exciting. It’s all rainy out, and I’m inside, and I’m wearing my pajamas. I love dressing up and wearing pretty dresses to go out, but other than that, I like my flip-flops, jeans, and a T-shirt. I like to be comfortable. But the clothes on Peggy have thankfully evolved a little bit. I finally told [costume designer] Janie [Bryant] that she’s not allowed to put anything mustard-colored on me anymore; that I was done. So, things are getting a little bit better. 

Top photo: Dress: Catherine Malandrino; Bracelet: Stephen Dweck; Tank: Rebecca Taylor; Skirt: Jean Paul Gaultier

55 am tam

This story was originally published in BUST Magazine, February/March 2009
To purchase this back issue, click here.
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