There are three topics every journalist wants to talk about with Elisabeth Moss right now: What audiences can expect from the final season of Mad Men. Whether or not the rumors are true that she'll be starring in the next season of True Detective. And the challenges of pulling off the uniquely nuanced and complex character of Sophie in her newest film, The One I Love, which hits theaters on August 22nd (that'd be today). For her part, Moss can't talk about any of these things. At least not in any real detail. Though it's not by choice.
"Basically, I live the life of a CIA spy who cannot talk about anything that she is involved in. Ever. I'm definitely going to go work with British intelligence," jokes the 32-year-old California native. Her professional obligation for keeping secrets is certainly nothing new. For the past seven years, she's had to keep mum on essentially any and all details relating to Peggy Olson, the secretary-turned-copy chief (and occasional ball-buster) she has played to perfection on AMC's blockbuster series. But much like the characters she has played, Moss is a master of expressing a full range of emotions with something as subtle as an arched eyebrow. And now that Matthew Weiner's critically-acclaimed show is coming to an end, Moss is shedding her '60s-style pantsuits and embracing the many new opportunities coming her way.
First up, however, is the aforementioned The One I Love, a partially improvised tale of a couple on the rocks that makes a last-ditch effort to save their relationship with a weekend getaway. Mixing elements of drama, comedy, romance, and sci-fi, the film—directed by first-timer Charlie McDowell (son of Malcolm McDowell and Mary Steenburgen), written by Justin Lader, and executive produced by co-star Mark Duplass—is the kind that defies easy description, and for which any explanation would ruin the fun. Next up is an adaptation of J.G. Ballard's High-Rise, set for release in 2015, about which Moss can talk a little: "It's directed by Ben Wheatley, a fantastic British director who I adore, and it's got this amazing cast. It's going to be a very unique, very interesting film."
In the meantime, we pressed Moss for details about her upcoming slate of projects, her one relationship deal-breaker, and the recent male phenomenon she has dubbed "Ryan Gosling Syndrome."
DETAILS: How did you get involved with The One I Love?
ELISABETH MOSS: I've been friends with Mark Duplass for a while; we'd done a Lawrence Kasdan film, Darling Companion, together two years ago. I saw a film of his and texted him and said, 'Hey, we should do something together.' He texted me a few months later telling me that he had something and he sent me the 10-page treatment for The One I Love, written by Justin Lader. I fell in love with it immediately and said yes right away. I thought it was a really cool idea for a film. And then I met Justin and Charlie McDowell, who seemed like really smart, creative guys.
DETAILS: I understand that there wasn't really a script for The One I Love; that it was more a 50-page outline and the bulk of the film was improvised. Was that part of what attracted you to the project?
ELISABETH MOSS: It started as a very detailed 10-page outline actually. Then it turned into a 50-page treatment that was partially scripted. The last 30 pages, because of this twist that we're trying to keep under wraps, had to be scripted because there were some special effects involved. So Justin would write every night and have new pages with dialogue every morning. We would all go over the scenes and maybe change a few things here and there—we might come up with some new ideas or switch things around. But having come from a background that is heavily reliant on great writing, I was always the one asking, "Can I please say this line? 'Cause this line's great!" I wanted to say the written lines. But where we did improv, it was very important that it not sound like improv; we wanted it to be a really well thought out film. With improv, you tend to make jokes and be funny, and that's not really what this movie was about. So before every scene, we would just sit down, talk it out, and work out what we were going to do. Sometimes that took 10 minutes, other times it might be an hour. Sometimes it would be exactly as Justin wrote it, sometimes we would change a line or two, and on occasion we would decide to come up with something completely new.
DETAILS: The One I Love deals with a number of themes that are universal to any romantic relationship, including what happens when the initial excitement of dating someone new fades away, what we want from our partner, and how we recover—if we recover—from the inevitable ups and downs of a relationship. In a film like this, is it necessary to delve into your own romantic relationships to really offer up an authentic response?
ELISABETH MOSS: Yeah, we had a lot of discussions about our own relationships and past relationships. And a lot of it was about what was important in a relationship, what was important to a man, what was important to a woman, and just what was important to a partner. It was interesting discovering what people thought was important, because everyone kind of ended up saying the same thing. Whether you're a man or a woman, we're all looking for the same things like trust and communication and honesty and a sense of humor. And that's what the movie's really about. There might be little things that annoy you about your partner or maybe the spark is gone or the magic has sort of changed over the years, but what is it that made you originally fall in love with that person in the first place? If that's still there, then maybe it's worth fighting for.
DETAILS: Being that it was a largely male team you were working with, was there anything that surprised you about their revelations of what men do—or do not—want in a relationship? And was there anything you said that surprised them about what women are looking for in a guy?
ELISABETH MOSS: The one thing that was pretty funny is that some men have the wrong idea about what women want in a man. I like to call it "Ryan Gosling Syndrome." They think that Ryan Gosling is the be-all and end-all for all women. And, sure, no one's going to kick him out of bed for eating crackers. And the six-pack abs certainly help things. And obviously I'm speaking about the persona of Ryan Gosling; I don't mean him personally, but his Internet persona that's been created with that whole "Hey girl" thing that they've got going. I feel like men think that women want this super smooth, super confident, always-says-the-right-thing kind of guy. And this sort of idolization of Ryan Gosling was kind of universal across all three of the men. [laughs] I had to sort of step in and say, yeah, He's great. But honestly what women want is someone who makes us laugh. And somebody who makes us feel like we're being listened to and that what we say is important.
DETAILS: Do you have any non-negotiables when it comes to relationships? Some personality quirk or rule about someone you would not date?
ELISABETH MOSS: For sure! Honestly, for me, it's all about having a sense of humor. There are so many things that you can get past or compromise on, but for me, if someone doesn't have a similar sense of humor—if he doesn't make me laugh—I will never, ever be attracted to that person. If that's not there, I just can't do it. And they don't have to be a stand-up comic. It's just that that ability to laugh together is everything. And after 30 or 40 years together, that's what's left. So for me that's a deal-breaker.
DETAILS: You seem to have a tendency toward playing strong, female characters, which we see in this film, but also—obviously—with Mad Men and other projects like Top of the Lake. Is that something that you look for in a character, or is it a coincidence?
ELISABETH MOSS: I feel like it's a lot of coincidence. I don't seek it out really. But with Peggy, who I've spent a lot more time with, and Top of the Lake, what was interesting to me was that their strength had this opposite side—this yin and yang of vulnerability and weakness—and I think that's what I find attractive. It's the strong woman who is either trying to be strong or expected to be strong—who is expected to be like a man or expected to be tough—and that struggle to be that as a woman and what that means and how most men and women can be vulnerable and weak. For me, it's that juxtaposition that's interesting.
DETAILS: Going back to Mad Men for a moment: You've been playing Peggy for seven seasons and officially wrapped shooting the final season in July. How does it feel to close that chapter of your life?
ELISABETH MOSS: It's kind of weird. It obviously was very sad, but then you kind of move on, because you have to. And then you start speaking about it in the past tense, which is weird. You catch yourself in interviews speaking about it in the past tense or you come across a photo from the show and have a moment of sadness where you think, Oh, wow! That's gone. But I think the saving grace for all of us is that we'll all get back together next year to promote the final season. So that true feeling of it being "complete" hasn't really happened yet, because we have this carrot in front of us. It doesn't quite feel done yet; it's going to be a gradual, slow separation.
DETAILS: I know that you've got a couple new films in the pipeline. And, of course, there are rumors swirling that you're in talks for the next season of True Detective. I hate to be the 302nd person to ask this, but I have to: Is there anything you can say about the True Detective rumors?
ELISABETH MOSS: Honestly, I was as blindsided as anyone else. Obviously I was aware that they were doing a second season, because I'm not an idiot. And I'm a fan of the show; I know [creator] Nic [Pizzolatto] a little bit just in passing, so I'm not unaware of the situation. But honestly I've never had anything like that happen to me, where people are talking about you doing something that you don't even know that you're doing. It was extremely flattering. It's nice for people to think you're part of the cool crowd, even if you're not. [laughs]
• • •