If you’ve spent any time on the internet, you’ve seen that dangling-cigarette-and-sunglasses shot of Peggy Olsen, played to perfection by Elisabeth Moss, in Mad Men. This was her second major television role after The West Wing, one that cemented her stardom. Dubbed the queen of Peak TV (the age of more high-quality television than one can possibly watch), Moss has made consistently great, solid choices over the years, whether that is the horrifyingly relevant The Handmaid’s Tale or her latest offering, Shining Girls on Apple TV+.
“I’m most interested in the everywoman,” she says of her career choices. “I’m most interested in normal women, quote unquote. Women who are mothers, wives, daughters, who work and live normal lives and don’t necessarily have any special skills, or superhero skills, or magic skills. I’m much more interested in a woman who lives a normal life that you can identify with, but who has to find something extraordinary within herself to meet the challenge. I’m fascinated by that as an actor, and that’s the kind of material I like to watch.”
Elisabeth Moss in Shining Girls
Playing such intense characters and staying with them for months cannot be easy, but Moss doesn’t have any trouble leaving them behind because she doesn’t consider herself a method actor. “This is something that you can only really wrap your head around if you actually see it happen,” she laughs and says, “But I’ve had people who work with me say, ‘Oh, yeah, you really just completely drop it when we’re done.’ I don’t know why. I mean, I know that I’m acting. I’m not a method actor. I don’t believe that I am the character. I don’t believe that what’s happening around me is actually happening. So I am able to separate myself from it. I have no problem dropping it at the end of not only the day, but even at the end of the take, and going and doing whatever it is, having a laugh. I am never somebody who gets stuck in it. It’s just not the way I work.”
This is just as well, otherwise going from playing a woman stripped of all agency in a dystopian world in The Handmaid’s Tale to one whose reality is constantly shifting as a result of surviving an assault in Shining Girls can take some people to a dark place.
Because, within just a few minutes of watching the latter, one is struck by how Moss plays her character Kirby, how she constantly holds so much tension physically while also disappearing into her surroundings. She says this was a very conscious choice, one she made to distinguish Kirby from June in The Handmaid’s Tale. She explains, “Coming off of a character in The Handmaid’s Tale, who is really quite strong and holds herself with such strength and pride, not always at the beginning but now she does, I really wanted to find something different with Kirby. So, I quite consciously decided that she was going to basically just try to disappear when she was around people. She’s a person, at the beginning of the season, who doesn’t want to be seen. She doesn’t want to be noticed. She doesn’t want attention drawn to her. She tries to kind of keep herself quite small and contained and protected. But, at the same time, one of the things I spoke to Michelle MacLaren (executive producer, director) about was that, even though she has that, we didn’t want to have it be a scenario where she is always looking down or not making eye contact. It’s actually the opposite. Kirby’s always looking. She’s always watching. She’s always looking for a sign that something is going to change or shift in her world. So, it was this combination of sort of trying to disappear and not draw attention to oneself, but also always keeping an eye out. And it was a physicality that was very much intentional at the beginning of the season.”
It’s hard not to look back at Moss’s body of work when she talks about her characters in a way that’s almost protective, because, while there’s a strain of steely strength that runs through most of them, she grounds them in reality. It’s then that you realise just how long she’s spent in the industry – over three decades. When I ask her if there’s a piece of advice someone gave her that she is happy she did not take, she gives a surprised laugh. “That’s such a good question,” she says. While she thinks of an answer, her cat wanders in and rubs against her leg. Moss asks her, “What do you think, Lucy?” Lucy doesn’t care but Moss suddenly remembers. “When I was 18 and had just started on The West Wing, I wasn’t really that successful or anything yet. And there was a general conception that you should stay in LA. That was where the industry was and that was your best chance of succeeding. So I moved to New York! I went the other way. Everybody was going to LA, and I was like, ‘I’m going to New York and I’m going to do theatre.’ So, I got out of LA, moved to New York, did theatre and independent film. And I don’t know that I would have gotten Mad Men, which I auditioned for in New York, if I hadn’t moved. So, I’m happy with that choice,” she says.
You and the rest of Hollywood, Ms Moss!