Elisabeth Moss is keeping a lot of secrets these days.
There’s the mystery of what befalls her character Peggy in the final seven episodes of Mad Men, the beloved AMC drama that has earned her fame, Emmy nods, and endless Tumblr GIF adoration. There are the rumors surrounding her casting as a lead in Season 2 of HBO’s modern crime noir, True Detective. And then there’s her newest project, Charlie McDowell’s indie romance The One I Love, in which a crucial plot element is being kept so tightly under wraps that it wasn’t even allowed in the trailer.
In the film, Moss plays Sophie, one half of a rapidly disintegrating marriage. Her husband, Ethan (Mark Duplass), books them a vacation retreat in a last-ditch effort to repair their relationship. But not long after they arrive, strange, supernatural happenings begin at the guesthouse, sparking an exploration of Sophie and Ethan’s marriage and boiling it all down to one essential question: How long should you stick it out before giving up on an unhappy relationship?
Moss, a disciple of the Matt Weiner school of spoiler-squashing, is tight-lipped about what’s inside that guesthouse. “I will get in hot fucking water,” she says, both laughing and sounding truly terrified. “I’m sorry, I know it sucks! When the movie comes out and people start talking about it, then we can totally talk about it, but we’re trying our best to preserve the spoiler.”
The One I Love is obviously special to Moss, who is sitting across from me in a room at Manhattan’s Mondrian SoHo. It’s her first lead role in sometime where she plays an everyday, modern American woman, allowing her to draw, she says, from “experiences I might have actually really had.” Moss was famously married to comedian Fred Armisen for a few whirlwind months in 2011, a time she has since described as “extremely traumatic and awful and horrible.” With both this film and her next release, Listen Up Philip opposite Jason Schwartzman, revolving around romantic breakdowns, Moss has experience in spades.
It’s a welcome change of pace from imagining, for example, what it’s like to be a female copywriter in the ’60s or a Kiwi detective investigating the death of a young girl within the heightened reality of Jane Campion’s masterful Top of the Lake. (Not that latter venture ended badly; Top of the Lake earned Moss a Golden Globe, among other awards.) But Moss, who prefers being called “Lizzie,” is not really Robin the detective or Peggy Olson. She sat down with The Daily Beast to discuss her new roles, the end of Mad Men, and those True Detective casting rumors.
I heard writer Justin Lader wrote 50 pages of suggested script for The One I Love and let the actors improvise the rest.
Yeah, he wrote a scriptment and the last 30 pages, I think, a huge chunk of it, was actually scripted. That’s what made me want to do the project, was I read that. And then he would write every day and every night the next day’s scenes. It was suggested lines, but I was always the one that was like [gestures toward invisible script], “That’s great, why can’t I—I’m just gonna say that.” Like, why wouldn’t I say that? They were like, “It’s just a suggestion,” and I was like, “No, that’s fine, I’m gonna say that.” [Laughs]
If you were faced with a mystery phenomenon like the one Sophie and Ethan face, would you react like Sophie and get swept away in the mystery of it, or would you react like Ethan, who just wants everything to go back to normal? I feel like I’d be a Sophie.
Me too. I think I would too, for sure. How could you not have that happen and be like, “I would like to know more about this.”? How could you just turn your back on that and go home? No, you’d have to investigate.
One thing that struck me is how, when you see a couple having problems, you tend to want to see them resolve their issues and end up together—even if they’re clearly unhappy, like Sophie and Ethan.
Did you want them to end up together?
Yeah, I kind of did.
That’s good. We talked about it and we tried to make sure you knew that they were unhappy but we also wanted you to want them to end up together. So they have to have some kind of magic. That’s why there’s scenes in there where they obviously have the same sense of humor and they’re laughing and they get along. We wanted to make sure that the audience knew that this was once a great thing. Even though mistakes have been made and things have changed, it was important for us to want you to root for them.
Both this and your next film, Listen Up Philip, are breakup stories—is it cathartic to act through stories like these?
Yeah. One of the things that attracted me to both these movies was I felt like it was something that I could finally really identify with. Like, they were experiences I might have actually really had—as opposed to playing an Australian detective, or playing a ’60s copywriter. These were things where I could actually really draw on my own life and my own relationship experiences. So for me, that was fun, being able to do something that was so based in reality. Like in Listen Up Philip, I have had that [same experience]. I have broken up with people and then spent the summer in New York. I’ve lived in New York for like 13 years, so I’ve had that experience. That’s what attracted me to that one. I was like, “I’ve done this.” I know this girl, I know what happens.
And then with The One I Love, it was fun for me to explore a real relationship and a real person who was struggling with something and then also dealing with this extra sort of supernatural element. It was really important to us to make sure that even though there was this magical element, if you weren’t gonna believe that and you weren’t gonna follow it, the relationship wasn’t real. It’s way more interesting to put two real people that you can actually see and understand in a crazy situation.
Transitioning to Mad Men—I heard the wrap was a cry fest.
Yeah, yeah, it really was. It was a total cry fest. It was just all day long, everyone crying. [Laughs] I think it hit us all really a lot harder than we thought it was going to. It’s a long time to be working with a bunch of people, coming to an end. But I think it was good, it was cathartic. I don’t know, I can’t speak for everybody but I feel like I got it all out, cried it all out, and then was able to move on. Like, I was fine the next day. I needed to get it all out.
Peggy means so much to so many people and she’s grown so much, but it still seems like her fundamental problem is that she can’t stay happy, despite being where she wants to be professionally—which I think a lot of people can relate to.
It was interesting because that scene in 7A where she talks about that, I responded to that and thought it was beautiful and a beautiful moment. But I had no idea how much everyone else was going to respond to it. Like, I got texts and emails from people being like, “Oh my god, that line and that moment, it made me cry!” You do these things and you connect to them and you like them, but then you move on and you do another scene afterwards, then you go home and you go to sleep and you don’t think about it for a few months.
Then after that scene aired, I was like really genuinely surprised—almost more than I’ve ever been in the entire run of the show, insofar as the amount of people that identified and connected with what she was going through. I think it’s such a universal thing for people, like, “I’ve made it, I have this, everything’s going so well—what am I doing wrong? Why don’t I feel happy?” It’s something that so many people can connect to, whether you’re a man or a woman or whatever age or whatever job you do. I was really surprised by the outflow of people who emailed and texted and stuff. It was very cool, it was moving. I feel like everyone had this moving experience.
I obviously can’t ask you what happens exactly, but what were your feelings about where Peggy ends up at the end of the series?
The only thing I can say about it is I’m very happy with it. That’s it. I’ve always been happy with everything they’ve done with the character, so it’s not unusual. And I’ve said this to Matt [Weiner], like, he’s never led me in the wrong direction. He’s never done something with Peggy where I was like, “Really? I don’t know, I don’t feel like that’s right.” Never. Even if there was a moment or a scene early on in the season where I was like, [cocks head] “Really?” It explains itself at some point, you know what I mean? Three episodes later, four episodes later, you’re like, “Ohhhh, I get why she did that.” So I’ve never felt like I’ve been led wrong by that man. I sure can’t imagine a better ending for her.
Did the ending surprise you at all?
Uh, yes and no, I suppose. The general idea didn’t surprise me, but no matter how much you know about what’s gonna happen to your character, the way that it happens is always interesting and unusual, you know? So yeah, it did in a way, even though I knew that that was gonna happen.
Do you ever read fan theories or comments about what’s happening on the show?
Not really. Sometimes I get wind of something, if someone mentions it to me. The one thing that made its way to me—I think it was Season 7—was everyone hated Lou so much and everyone thought Lou was being so mean to me. And I was like, first of all, I didn’t think Lou was that bad. And Allan Havey, who plays him, is a sweetheart. I mean, he’s like a teddy bear, he’s so sweet and funny, I love him. And so when everyone’s like, “We hate Lou, he’s the worst,” I was like, “Woah! What is everyone’s problem?” And then they were like, “He was so mean to Peggy!” Like, Peggy has had cash money thrown in her fucking face. Are you kidding? She got pregnant and then had to give the baby away. Lou being snippy is not the worst thing that’s ever happened to her.
And then the other thing I was really surprised by was someone told me that people were upset that I was mean to Don. Like, are you fucking serious? Really? What show are you watching? After all of these years, I say one mean thing to Don and I’m the bad guy? I was shocked. That kind of made its way to me and I was like, ugh, you people are ridiculous. [Laughs]
A story recently broke out saying that you’re being considered for the lead role in Season 2 of True Detective. Is there anything you can tell me about that?
No, no, it’s always flattering—I’m obviously a fan of the show, I think it’s brilliant and it was done so well. It’s always flattering to be mentioned for a job…
Was that the first you’d heard of it?
Kind of! [Laughs] So there’s no hard truth to it, necessarily, but it’s always flattering.