Actress Elisabeth Moss

Originally aired on March 14, 2013

The versatile actress describes her lead role in the BBC and Sundance Channel miniseries, Top of the Lake.

Notable for her Emmy-nominated performance in AMC's award-winning drama, Mad Men, Elisabeth Moss has appeared in over 40 movies and television shows. The versatile actress is as comfortable in comedies as in dramas and thrillers and has made her mark in such projects as the small screen's The West Wing and the feature, Girl Interrupted. Moss began auditioning for various film and TV roles at a very early age and made her professional debut in 1990, catching Hollywood's eye in the miniseries, Lucky Chances. She returns to that format as the lead in the highly anticipated Top of the Lake on the BBC and the Sundance Channel.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Elisabeth Moss left Madison Avenue temporarily and ventured to New Zealand, where she stars as a police detective in a new crime thriller. It’s a series for the Sundance Channel. It’s called “Top of the Lake.” It’s from writer-director Jane Campion, who won an Oscar for “The Piano.”

This new series, which starts this Sunday, has been compared to the cult favorite, “Twin Peaks” in its almost surreal depiction of an insular and unsettling community.

So before we start our conversation with Ms. Moss, let’s take a look.

[Clip]

Tavis: So I mentioned this is a series for the Sundance Channel, and the other series that you’re a part of is doing pretty well itself.

Elisabeth Moss: It’s doing okay.

Tavis: It’s doing okay.

Moss: It’s okay.

Tavis: After what, five, six seasons now.

Moss: It’s boring.

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)

Tavis: So what was it about this that was calling you to it?

Moss: I think the first thing was before I even read the scripts was obviously Jane Campion’s involvement. She not only is such a prolific director, but is sort of known for her female performances that she gets out of actresses. There’s sort of a long list of these kind of amazing roles.

So to get the chance to work with her and see what that was all about and how she did that, I was really excited about it. Then I read the episodes and they were obviously so good and interesting and weird, and it wasn’t a formulaic detective story.

It had that sort of “Twin Peaks” kind of vibe, and the character is very different from my day job as Peggy. It was something that was going to really challenge me, and so that kind of one-two-three punch, I really wanted to be involved. Then I was sort of like, well, I look forward to congratulating the actress that ends up doing this role.

I sort of didn’t think it was going to be me. But luckily, Jane kind of saw something in me and took a little bit of a risk, I think, and it turned out okay.

Tavis: You’ve said a couple of things I want to go back and have you kind of unpack for me. In no particular order, number one, this notion that it was dramatically different from the character that you play, of course, on “Mad Men.” How important was it, particularly at this point in your career, is it to distinguish yourself by doing things that are dramatically different.

No pun intended, from the role you play on “Mad Men.”

Moss: Yeah. It’s something that I don’t really – it’s not the first thing on my mind, because often there’ll be – there might be a really good role that maybe has similar elements to Peggy, and you don’t want to not do it, because it’s really good.

But it’s obviously something that when it comes along and I get to be kind of badass and look cool and shoot guns and be tough and angry, it’s appealing as an actor.

It’s not so much about career, it’s more about me getting the chance to try something different, me getting the chance to stretch and show that I can, show myself that I can do something different.

Obviously, as a career move, of course, like, it’s nice to be able to show you can do different parts. But for me, I think the most important thing is just how good the project is and how good the people are that you’re working with. I would just keep playing Peggy over and over if the projects were really good. (Laughter) I’m like, that’s fine, I’ll just do Peggy for the rest of my life.

Tavis: Not bad work if you can get it.

Moss: Yeah, right?

Tavis: Yeah, yeah. So the other thing you said I want to go back to is this notion that you were going to – you said it somewhat tongue-in-cheek – that you were going to congratulate the actress who got the part. You didn’t think it would be you.

I want to pick that apart a little bit, in part because I want to get at what it is that allows that kind of – it’s my word, not yours – that kind of doubt or trepidation, maybe angst is a better word, that kind of angst to even invades your being when you know how good you are (laughter) and you know the success that you’re having on “Mad Men,” and people love the work that you do.

Yet you thought that someone else might get the part. What’s that about? Tell me more about that.

Moss: Oh, this is very interesting. This is getting very therapeutic. I like it.

Tavis: No, I just want – (laughter).

Moss: Yes, let’s look into that.

Tavis: I’m not going to charge you for this session. This is a free session.

Moss: Wow.

Tavis: There’s no charge to this, yeah.

Moss: Oh my God, this is great. I think it’s just a matter of being almost more realistic than I think doubtful about yourself. I’ve played a part for six years that has become kind of well-known, and that’s amazing. I can see that people would not necessarily see me in something different.

I do the same thing when I watch TV shows. I identify with the character that that actor is playing and I think that’s them. So I totally get it, and I think that I kind of felt like Jane was sort of like feeling a bit of the same thing.

She’s told this story, so I can say it. When she heard me, she was like,” Oh, yeah, she’s great. I love her, and I love ‘Mad Men,’ but I just can’t see her, necessarily in this role.”

So I think it comes more from a place of just being realistic, being in the business for a long time, knowing that it’s hard for people to change their minds, and it’s hard for people to take that risk. You just need one person to do it, and then be able to prove yourself and be able to prove that you can do something different, and then you’re in. But it takes that one person, and for me, that was Jane.

Tavis: A year ago, I guess it was a year ago now when your friend Matthew was here. We had a conversation on this set, and I wasn’t sure if I was ever going to see him again as the EP and writer of this particular show.

Moss: Oh, sure, yeah.

Tavis: Because as you know, you were there, of course, a year ago we didn’t know whether “Mad Men” was going to come back or not, this big debate about whether or not we were going to lose a minute. You remember the whole controversy.

Moss: Oh, yeah.

Tavis: So I didn’t know what the future of “Mad Men” was going to be. But thankfully it’s on and coming back now for a sixth season, but I raise that because to your point about people being used to seeing you as Peggy now, I guess a counterintuitive question. Earlier, you suggested that if you could keep playing Peggy forever, you would.

Moss: Yeah.

Tavis: The flip side of that, obviously, is, as you drill down on this, is that if you played Peggy forever, then we could never imagine you playing anything other than Peggy.

Moss: Right.

Tavis: So you see what I’m getting at here.

When you’re in the zone and you’re on a show that’s working, and all the accolade and all the awards – this is a tough business. Again, if you can get the work, you want the work.

Moss: Yeah.

Tavis: But does it ever, do you ever stay up at night thinking about when the time is to leave a particular character so that you don’t get so etched in our minds as Peggy that we won’t let you -

Moss: Right, right.

Tavis: – that we won’t let you do anything else.

Moss: Right. For me, I think I’ve been doing it for so long that I kind of feel I do have that sense as an actor of it’s amazing to have a job. You never lose that. I talk to so many actors who no matter how successful they are are just like nervous about when they’re going to get the next job, so happy when they do, and then are already worried about when they’re going to get the next one when they’re working on that one. I think you kind of never lose that.

So I think it’s a combination of things. I don’t think it’s any one thing. I think there’s a sense of being, like, I will stay here as long as anyone wants me to be here, because I have a job, and it’s not only a job, but it’s an amazing job. People often leave TV to go do their serious, artistic work.

That’s what we’re doing on the show, so we’re very fulfilled in that way. But yeah, of course, at the same time you go oh, well, I hope that I am given the opportunity to do other things, but I wouldn’t have that opportunity without playing Peggy on “Mad Men,” necessarily. People wouldn’t necessarily want to give me that chance.

So I think it’s a combination of things, rather than being any one thing. But it’s not really something I sit up, like, worrying about. (Laughter)

Tavis: Yeah, I guess I wouldn’t either.

Moss: Yeah.

Tavis: You’ve got to find a way to be in the zone and to be at peace with where you are.

Moss: Yeah. And honestly, if “Mad Men” was like, “We’re going for another five years,” how could I say no to that? It’s an amazing show, and it’s an amazing job, and we’re really lucky in the sense that we get eight months off to go do something else, to go to New Zealand and work on something completely different. We only shoot for four or five months. So it’s kind of a great deal.

Tavis: I want to come back to this, and I will in just a second, back to this New Zealand Sundance project in just a second here.

Since you raised it, one last question about this, and that is whether or not – and I’m answering my question as I’m asking it, which I shouldn’t do. (Laughter)

Moss: Well, I can just go home, then.

Tavis: No, no, no. (Laughter) No, I’m doing that because I’m trying to think – anyway. I’m thinking about the way Matthew writes this stuff, and I know from having talked to him so many times on this show that the way he writes this stuff, you guys don’t know half the time what he’s working on until he -

Moss: Sure.

Tavis: – until he gives it to you.

Moss: Yeah.

Tavis: So you did not know that your character was going to be this empowering woman in the way that she has become, so I’m not going to ask how important that is to you, because you didn’t know it was going to happen anyway at this level.

But what do you make of the fact that you are playing this character on television, and I’m thinking now about the backdrop of this conversation today, the whole Sheryl Sandberg book is out, and you’ve got Anne-Marie Slaughter at Princeton taking the other side.

You’ve got these women going at it. We’re talking to Arianna Huffington this week about this.

Moss: Oh wow.

Tavis: So this whole women conversation in the workplace is a really, really big deal now, thanks to Ms. Sandberg from Facebook and this book. So what do you make of the fact that in this moment, of course set back in the day, you’re playing this character, this woman, who really is a very empowering kind of being?

Moss: It’s an honor. In a way, I don’t think it’s necessarily – it wasn’t my idea, so I can’t take a whole lot of responsibility for it.

Tavis: That’s why I backed myself up. I’m like, how can I ask you?

Moss: But at the same time, I think that Matt knew. I think that he knew that it was going in that direction. He knew that she was going to tell that story. Perhaps my own naïveté brought something to Peggy in the beginning of feeling that that kind of feeling like she didn’t know she was going to end up there.

Maybe that’s what Matt wanted in his sort of grand scheme. But for me, it’s a great story to tell. Not only is it obviously such an important story, but it’s so interesting.

What I love about Peggy’s sort of unique brand of feminism is for me, I feel like that’s how most women feel they’re feminists. She didn’t know the term “glass ceiling,” Peggy. There was nothing. She just kind of kept bumping her head up against it until it broke.

That, I feel, is like what women actually did. There were those that were out there burning their bras, and there were those that were out there making big, vocal stands, and then there were the women like Peggy, who just were like hey, I’m really good at what I do. I’m amazing at it, and I should be given the chance to do it, just like you, whether I’m a woman or not.

I think that that is still sort of happening, and it’s definitely still going on, that fight. It’s obviously gotten so much better, but it’s still an important story. So for me, it obviously makes it so much more interesting. It makes it so much more complex, the fact that she’s grown so much after the past five seasons.

It’s something that I never could have dreamed of. I probably would have been fine just playing Don’s secretary for five years. Might have gotten a little boring, but. (Laughter)

Tavis: Well, we’ll see what happens in the coming season, now that you have left the firm – and moved on to something else.

Moss: Yeah.

Tavis: So we will see. I’m not even going to ask you what happens, because I know you’re not going to tell me, so I won’t waste my time with that question. But I do want to circle back to this wonderful Sundance project, because Jane Campion, obviously, is a great writer. We know her from, of course, as I mentioned, from “The Piano.”

You have had this – I was just kind of looking at – and I think I knew this intuitively, but when I read it, it kind of came back to me. The high caliber, the high quality of people that you’ve worked with over your career, you’ve got David E. Kelley, you’ve got Martin Sheen, you’ve got, of course, Matt on this project, Jane Campion on this project.

That’s got to be – my word, not yours – a blessing, to be able to work with that level, and there are others, of course, on that list, but that level of talent. That’s like an actor’s dream, to work at that level consistently.

Moss: Yeah. I’ve been really lucky, or whatever you want to call it, to have worked with not only amazing people, but they’re all so different, you know? David E. Kelley, I was really young, so I don’t really remember him, but that’s such a unique style of writing in itself.

Aaron Sorkin was a huge influence in my life and in my career and in my learning how to act and that. I don’t know if there is a more unique brand or style of writing than Aaron Sorkin, and I was 17 when I started on “The West Wing,” and then all those actors, obviously, getting to work with them.

Then David Mamet, I got to do a play of his on Broadway, a whole other style of writing, and then Matt Weiner, and then Jane. I feel very – for me, I have such a huge respect for writing; it’s something that I cannot do. (Laughter) At all.

I can text. Very good at texting, but cannot write. So I have such a respect for it. People love to do improv and love to do that kind of thing, and I’m like, mm-mmm, you write it down. It looks so great. You write it down and I’ll say it.

So to get to work with so many different, talented people with different styles, and get to try different things for me has been, I think has helped me so much as an actor to have sort of a scope to what I can do, if I can do anything.

I have such respect for each and every one of them, for different reasons. They’re all so different.

Tavis: Yeah. So tell me, I want to get back to this, the new project, about the character that you play in the series.

Moss: Yeah. I play Robin Griffin, Detective Robin Griffin, which I was – that’s another reason why I was like I don’t know if I’m going to get cast in this. I was like, I’m 5’3″. (Laughter) It’s like, I don’t look like I can take down a perp. (Laughter) I was like, this is ridiculous.

Tavis: Just a quick aside which just came to me, and we’ll come back to your story.

Moss: Yes.

Tavis: So speaking of that, I was literally just in a conversation yesterday on my radio show with a biographer of Harriet Tubman, the great freedom fighter who took so many Black people to freedom during slavery. She was barely five feet tall.

Moss: Really?

Tavis: It wasn’t until I got really into this conversation and started doing the research, I saw she was like barely, just barely five feet.

Moss: Is that so?

Tavis: Here she is, taking all those people out of slavery, and she’s, like, diminutive.

Moss: Yeah, yeah.

Tavis: But the courage in her little, small stature was – that’s an aside, but anyway, if Harriet Tubman can take Black folk to freedom, you can take on a perp.

Moss: Yeah, I’d like to compare myself to Harriet Tubman.

Tavis: That’s all I’m saying. That’s all I’m saying.

Moss: That’s what I like to do. (Laughter) We’re very similar in our work for humanity.

Tavis: Okay, ba-dum-bump. (Laughter)

Moss: Well good, so I guess height has nothing to do with it.

Tavis: Right.

Moss: Which eventually I did kind of come to that realization. That didn’t stop me from doing my – lifting some weights and running and trying to, like, beef up a little bit.

But anyways, I play Detective Robin Griffin, and she is more of a detective that works in social services and works with children and rape cases and more of that kind of person than robberies.

She’s very tough and strong and has a big wall down, especially in the first couple of episodes, and then just starts to unravel, and really falls down the rabbit hole in episode three, and everything kind of falls apart and she gets way too involved in this case and becomes way too close to it.

You find out why she feels so close to it and why it gets too personal – it has to do with her past. She ends up kind of finding – sounds so cheesy, but finding herself with this search for the little girl, having to face everything that she’s been running away from.

Tavis: Why set in New Zealand?

Moss: Well, Jane has a big, obviously -

Tavis: Yeah.

Moss: – you know, link with New Zealand. She’s from there, and she’s got a couple places there. She’s a real New Zealand girl, and I think that was just the story that she was telling.

She’s actually said that this is her best work, and I agree. She has so much amazing work, so I don’t know how you can say that, but I think it is some of her best work for sure, and I think part of that is there’s a very personal connection to that landscape for her.

She’s so in love with that country and she’s so in love with that world, and you can see it. You just feel it. It feels very personal; it feels like a personal story, even though it’s completely fiction. It’s obviously totally made up. The story in itself doesn’t really have anything to do particularly with New Zealand.

Tavis: That’s why I was asking, because it is fiction.

Moss: Yeah.

Tavis: It could have been here (crosstalk).

Moss: It could have been anywhere, absolutely, but I think she wanted to tell this story, and I think she wanted to tell it in her land, and in her landscape.

Tavis: Speaking of her corpus, “The Piano,” of course, being some of the best stuff she’s done, Holly Hunter is in this project.

Moss: Yeah, yeah, it’s their sort of reunion.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah.

Moss: After 20 years.

Tavis: Right.

Moss: It’s just crazy. It was very cool, actually, because we started, my first scene was with Holly, my first scene on the whole thing. It was a really great way to start, because it really felt like a sort of passing of the torch.

She’s got such a personal relationship with Jane. They’re very close, and I was just embarking on my own relationship and journey with Jane, and now we’re really close. It definitely felt a little bit – Holly was the only American in the entire production, and so it felt a little bit like, okay, someone from home is sort of passing me off to our wonderful Jane.

Tavis: You have been doing this for so long, to your earlier point of how your career got started, what would you be doing if you weren’t doing this?

Moss: I’d be a dancer.

Tavis: Yeah?

Moss: Yeah. That’s a very easy answer. I trained in ballet for 10 years seriously and then still did it for a few years afterwards. But from about five to 15, so I definitely would have been a ballet dancer somewhere.

Tavis: Yeah, and how was the switch made from ballet to being a thespian?

Moss: Yeah. It was interesting. It was kind of a slow burn, and then -

Tavis: Ballet usually is.

Moss: Yeah, right?

Tavis: Ba-dum-bump, yeah. (Laughter)

Moss: Exactly. No, it was kind of just something that I was always acting while I was dancing, and I kind of kept both going, kept both balls in the air. Then there was a period where I really had to concentrate intensively on ballet from 12, 13, 14 is really a formative time, and then I did this film with Martin Landau, this tiny little film, and it was the first time I got the chance to actually play someone, not someone’s daughter – have, like, a role.

Tavis: With another major player.

Moss: Yeah.

Tavis: Landau’s a great actor.

Moss: So wonderful, and such a great man, and he’d tell me these amazing stories about James Dean and he was the coolest. So it wasn’t just the acting part. It was the whole experience, it was being on set. I was 15 and I had a guardian there, but it was being part of this family for six weeks, and getting to do something that I loved and being so rewarded by that.

So I talked to my mom and we kind of just agreed that that was maybe the way to go, that that was really where my heart lay, and that it was going to be a better life, too. It’s hard to say that acting is the more practical choice, but. (Laughs)

Tavis: What did you take from – I’m thinking about the discipline that it takes to be a great ballet dancer, but what did you personally take from ballet that’s helped you in your acting?

Moss: I just grew up working really hard. I grew up being self-motivated, judging myself more than worrying about others judging me. It also is a really kind of hard life. It gives me so much perspective on acting.

People say acting can be a tough life, and I’m like, come on, try being a dancer. That’s hard. It’s a short career, and you’re lucky if you don’t get injured and it’s even shorter. There’s no money and it’s a beautiful, beautiful art form, but it’s a hard life.

So for me, I’m just like when people complain about acting, I’m like, oh, this is fantastic. This is (laughter) great. This is a wonderful life.

Tavis: Well, she is living a wonderful life, and her work on “Mad Men” underscores that. But the new project you might not know about is called “Top of the Lake.” It’s the new series that will air on the Sundance Channel.

So you’ll want to check that out, starring one Elisabeth Moss. Speaking of having a good life, you know whose birthday it is today?

Moss: Who?

Tavis: Eighty years old today – Quincy Delight Jones.

Moss: No way.

Tavis: That’s his real name, Quincy – isn’t that a great little name?

Moss: (Laughs) That’s an amazing middle name.

Tavis: Quincy Delight Jones.

Moss: That’s his real middle name?

Tavis: That’s it.

Moss: That’s amazing.

Tavis: Isn’t that great?

Moss: Because Quincy Jones is cool on its own.

Tavis: Exactly, but Quincy Delight -

Moss: Quincy Delight, like, that’s awesome. (Laughter)

Tavis: So Quincy Delight Jones, happy 80th birthday. I didn’t want to close the show without – look at that great picture. There he is.

Moss: Aw, looking good.

Tavis: Didn’t want to close the show without a great picture of Q, and an opportunity to say happy birthday Q, we love you like a fat kid loves cake. (Laughter) Happy birthday, Quincy.

That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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Last modified: June 1, 2013 at 1:42 pm