Watching AMC’s Mad Men, it’s tempting to feel sorry for Elisabeth Moss. As a star on one of television’s sexiest shows, her character, the quietly ambitious Peggy Olson, often appears in some of the frumpiest outfits seen on TV since Father Knows Best went off the air. But as Season 3 of the Emmy award-winning series is about to unfold, we caught up with Moss and got a chance to talk with her about this dowdy but secretive character, life on the set of Mad Men and Season 3 — and found that she’s more than happy with her lot, both on the show and off.
“I truly, truly love playing her,” Moss says of Peggy. “Every scene. Even if I don’t say anything. I just like being her.” For Moss, a large part of the role is sex appeal — but more in the gender sense, of what Peggy’s progress in the office at Sterling Cooper represents for women in the workplace at large at the time. As the series began, Peggy was simply a secretary, but over time, she’s smartly maneuvered her way into the conference room, contributed her valuable insight to numerous ad campaigns and, at the end of last season, secured the Popsicle account, earning her a promotion and an office of her own.
“I like how we do it,” she says of the underplayed portrayal of Peggy’s climb up the ladder. “She’s not trying to break through some glass ceiling. She’s not trying to make a feminist statement. She doesn’t even know what the word ‘feminist’ means. But she’s just trying to do her job, and trying to do what she loves.”
Gender is front and center in Mad Men and has been since the beginning, when Don Draper, Roger Sterling and the others first blew smoke all over any notion of politically correct revisionism where the battle of the sexes was concerned. “Season 1 set up the world of Mad Men. It was very male-oriented, and it kind of had to be that way,” she says. Compared to the testosterone-heavy first season of Mad Men, Moss agrees that Season 2 brought the women of the series and their struggles into greater focus. “We have a lot of female writers, as well as Matt [Weiner, series creator] and a couple of male writers, so we do tend to write really well for women.” But she’s quick to point out that Season 3 strikes a definite balance to the proceedings. “It seems to be bringing those elements together. Whereas Season 1 was very male, Season 2 was very female — now it kind of feels like it’s really showing everything, and just being really comprehensive, and how everything ties together, and it’s very equal. … Now I feel like everybody kind of knows the deal with each of the characters. So now it’s time to really just put the pedal to the metal and show how everything interacts and everything is linked.”
In other words, Season 3 should be the richest banquet for Mad Men fans yet. Moss counts herself one of the show’s most ardent fans — an admission she knows is relatively rare, as most actors shun watching their own work, or at least saying they do. “I have a certain objectiveness to it,” she qualifies. “It feels like I’m watching somebody else.” Like most fans, she’s drawn in by the depth of the characters, their development and to some extent the — albeit amplified — struggles they endure on a daily basis. “I think each of the characters is carrying a lot of baggage,” she offers. “Everyone has problems, and you might be dealing with a really dramatic situation in your life, but you still get up and go to work. You still have a meeting — you don’t sit there and mope and make long speeches about your personal life all day. You deal with your life, and you go to work. I think the show really represents that.”
Whatever Moss is dealing with herself on any given day, she’s obviously thankful on the days that she does go in to work on the set of Mad Men. “It’s been, for sure, the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me in my career,” she professes. And even though she insists that the critical accolades and Emmy wins the series has accrued — as well as her recent nomination for this year’s Emmys — continue to astound everyone who works on it, for her, it’s all about the show itself. “I think the most important and rewarding part for me is being part of something that I’m really proud of, and that I really want people to see, and that I actually really like. If I would have watched the show — if I wasn’t on it — I would have been really jealous of anyone else who was on it. And I would have tried to get on the show somehow.”
Having her profile upped by Mad Men hasn’t hurt her career opportunities, either. As of this writing, Moss has numerous big-screen projects in the works, including Get Him to the Greek, an off-the-hook comedy costarring Jonah Hill and a bevy of others, and Did You Hear About the Morgans? with Hugh Grant and Sarah Jessica Parker. “That was a wonderful experience,” she says. “Most of my stuff was with S.J. — I played her assistant — and I’ve been a huge, tremendous, fanatical fan of hers and Sex and the City for many years, and it was a really big deal for me to get to work with her. She’s such a lovely person. It’s a really, really sweet — and very funny, actually — romantic comedy.”
And, of course, she has a romantic comedy playing out in her own life as she plans her wedding to Saturday Night Live funnyman Fred Armisen, which she says is going well, despite their harried work schedules. “For me, it’s a joy reading my wedding magazines, picking out flowers and the cake — it is a wonderful escape,” she explains. “We have our date set — we’re keeping that part private, but it’s going really well. People say that it’s really stressful, but we find it a blast, and it’s really fun to sort of plan this day that’s all about the two of you and how much you love each other. … I’m looking forward to spending time with my fiance and building our life together. The thing that brings me the most happiness in my life is being with him, so I’m looking forward to that, and if I could work on Mad Men for the rest of my life, that would be great.”
Mad Men Season 3 premieres on AMC Aug. 16.