EXCLUSIVE: Nobody plays ambiguous like Elisabeth Moss. Consider Peggy Olson, the ugly duckling fish out of water deer in the headlights secretary who gets knocked up by junior executive Vincent Kartheiser’s mendacious slimebucket Pete Campbell in the first season of Mad Men in 2007. Before long, she’s amanuensis to Don Draper’s brilliant writer cum advertising theorist, then his protégé, soon his competitor and, finally, his colleague as they thrust-and-parry (fully clothed) all the way to the series finale, which begins April 5 and fades to black on May 17. Along the way she has slept with Don’s enemies, forged an on-again, off-again alliance with Christina Hendricks’ office manager-turned-partner Joan Holloway, and blossomed as a copywriter who will continue to climb the ranks.
So: Is she a case of talent that will not be denied, Machiavellian manipulator or the ultimate case of Stockholm Syndrome, an innocent remade in the image of her captors? The answer is, maybe only Elisabeth Moss knows, because Peggy, alone among all the Mad men and women, is the one character we never can pin down. Like Julianna Margulies’ Alicia Florrick on The Good Wife, Moss keeps us coming back for more precisely because we know we’ll be surprised, exasperated, infuriated or delighted by Peggy’s choices.
And this is not virgin territory for the Los Angeles-born actress. She made her Broadway debut in a 2008 revival of David Mamet’s Speed-The-Plow, playing Karen, temporary secretary to the newly anointed head of production at a Hollywood studio played by Jeremy Piven. Raul Esparza completed the trio as a producer with a schlocky surefire hit destined for greenlighting until Karen mysteriously pushes a nobler project on her boss.
The show proved to be a baptism by fire, as Piven famously disappeared shortly after the opening (the reviews were raves), successfully claiming in arbitration that he was a victim of mercury poisoning from a diet of too much fish. Three more actors followed in quick succession, including William H. Macy, before the show closed the following February; they were constantly being sent back to the rehearsal studio.
And now Moss returns to Broadway in the title role of Wendy Wasserstein’s Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning 1988 play The Heidi Chronicles. Heidi’s story unfolds against the broad tapestry of changes in Eastern college-educated women’s lives in the two decades from the mid-1960’s through the fall of the Berlin Wall.
An art historian, Heidi (originally played by Joan Allen) makes career- and life-choices that are funny, poignant, infuriating and always surprising, in a play that provoked endless debates and will likely be seen as visionary. A TNT film of the play, in 1995, starred Jamie Lee Curtis, Tom Hulce and Peter Friedman. Moss’s co-stars are Jason Biggs (Orange Is The New Black, American Pie) and Bryce Pinkham (A Gentleman’s Guide To Love And Murder); the director is Pam MacKinnon (A Delicate Balance). It begins previews at the Music Box Theatre next Monday, February 23, and opens March 19.
JEREMY GERARD: Your producer, Jeffrey Richards, told me he was determined to revive The Heidi Chronicles and with you in the lead because he owed you one, for the trauma of Speed-The-Plow.
ELISABETH MOSS: Yeah, he brought it to me. I was very unfamiliar with Wendy. I don’t come from the theater world. But I practically said yes right away, because I knew what it was and I knew how big a deal it was that he was asking me to do.
JEREMY GERARD: Wendy Wasserstein went on to write more plays before dying way too young, in 2006. But it was The Heidi Chronicles that turned the world upside down for a lot of women.
ELISABETH MOSS: We’ve been talking a lot about how these concepts and these themes at the time would have been brand new and how frickin’ ahead of our time she was.
JEREMY GERARD: The final scene, which I won’t give away but concerns a huge decision Heidi makes about the rest of her life, angered a lot of women and still is talked about today.
ELISABETH MOSS: This is something we’re aware of and it’s funny, because she wasn’t saying that everything is going to be okay now, that what happens in the last scene was going to fix everything. We do think that now her decision will actually be more understood because it’s so much more common now, another reason Heidi’s very ahead of her time. It was new.
“A woman is asked to define herself over and over. Are you a feminist? Are you a career woman? Are you a wife or a girlfriend? Are you a mother? Are you a pacifist? Are you a superwoman? Heidi, just sort of by accident, sometimes refuses to.”
JEREMY GERARD: How did you find your own connection to Heidi?
ELISABETH MOSS: I would say a huge help was reading [Julie Salamon’s biography] Wendy And The Lost Boys. That really helped me in understanding her life and her challenges and what bothered her and what she was trying to overcome, the relationships she had with men and women in her life.
And the play! It’s so well written that you can kind of get on the train and just follow the steps and it will get you where you need to go. I identify with Heidi a lot. I can’t believe that any woman—in her 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s and up—wouldn’t identify with Heidi. That’s why everyone loves this play so much. She is a real woman up there dealing with the real things that women deal with, dealt with, deal with, and as a 32-year-old woman I see myself with my problems and my challenges in Heidi. And yet it’s extremely specific to specific time periods.
JEREMY GERARD: Something you know a little bit about, women in specific time periods…
ELISABETH MOSS: Yeah, exactly, a little bit! A woman is asked to define herself over and over. She is asked to put a label on herself. Are you a feminist? Are you a career woman? Are you a wife or a girlfriend? Are you a mother? Are you a pacifist? Are you a superwoman? Heidi, just sort of by accident, sometimes refuses to. And it lands her in this place in that second act of being stranded and a feeling like she didn’t make the choices that everyone else seemed to make so easily.
JEREMY GERARD: And wanted her to.
ELISABETH MOSS: I had a drink with my girlfriend, one of my best friends, here last night, and I swear you could’ve put our conversation in the play. What am I supposed to do now, and when am I supposed to have kids, and when am I supposed to get married and is it okay if I don’t, and all of that. Nothing’s changed. We’re just more used to talking about it now.
JEREMY GERARD: Do you think she’s disappointed?
ELISABETH MOSS: In the end? No. I don’t—but I think it’s a positive ending. It says the future will be better and as a woman of the 21st Century, I know that it did get better so for me it feels like a happy ending. As an actress I also avoided making choices, like I’m going to be this kind of actress now. I never went to drama school. I never decided I was going to do a television show. I never was like I’m not going to do a television show, I’m only going to do film. I never was like I’m going to now just do theater. I’ve always just followed my heart.
JEREMY GERARD: Is that how you’ve made all your choices?
ELISABETH MOSS: Oh, sure. I never really would have thought of working with Jane Campion [on the Sundance miniseries Top Of The Lake] and then I got to do that and that was amazing, so I like to be surprised a little bit. Who would have thought of doing The Heidi Chronicles, and yet here I am. Same thing with Mad Men. I liked the script. It was good. There was no reason to go do that, signing up for five years on a network that no one’s ever heard of. It was a horrible idea.
JEREMY GERARD: And yet?
ELISABETH MOSS: It turned out okay.