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Elisabeth Moss puts 'Mad Men's' Peggy Olson on the career track

The actress sees her character's generation on the way up and Don Draper's on the way down.

June 16, 2011|By Glenn Whipp, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • "I remember waking up in the middle of the night and thinking, 'Oh, God. What if I hadn't cast her?'" "Mad Men" creator Matt Weiner says of Elisabeth Moss.
"I remember waking up in the middle of the night and thinking, 'Oh,… (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles…)

Sitting poolside with Elisabeth Moss, who's wearing a white summer dress, her brown hair wet and combed back and looking "cute as hell" (as Don Draper memorably described her character, Peggy Olson, on "Mad Men"), it's pretty easy to picture the day Moss walked into show creator Matt Weiner's office five years ago to read for the show.

"It was the very first day of auditions," Weiner remembers, "and she was the second person to read. Not just for Peggy, but for the show, period. Someone came in to read for Don. I did not like him. And then she came in, and she was so young, wearing this ingénue dress, with her hair long and straight. And all of a sudden, I just saw Peggy. She was just complete in every way."

"After Elisabeth walked out, I said, 'So, we need to get two or three people like that and I'll pick the best one,' not realizing there wasn't going to be anyone else like her," Weiner continues. "And, later, I remember waking up in the middle of the night during the first season thinking, 'Oh, God. What if I hadn't cast her?'"

It's a question Moss herself can't even begin to answer. She was 23 when she shot the "Mad Men" pilot and, with AMC and Weiner agreeing to extend the show at least two more seasons, she could be in her 30s when it ends. She has taken Peggy from a green, 20-year-old secretary to fledgling copywriter to confident career woman, a character arc more dramatic than the story lines of any other employee of the advertisement agency Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.

You could plot that journey any number of ways, starting with the way Peggy navigates the office's rampant sexism (most of her co-workers believe she slept with Don to land the copywriting job), coping with and, increasingly, conquering the feelings of alienation inherent in being a '60s woman working in a traditionally male-dominated industry.

But Moss says for a quick snapshot of Peggy's progression, look to her hairstyle. Beginning with last season, Peggy's bangs, previously worn split down the middle, were swept to the side — a change that nearly made Moss weep for joy.

"It wasn't even the way they looked, which … uh … I didn't like," Moss says, laughing. "They were just so difficult to deal with. So when I showed up in hair and makeup and they told me they were going to sweep them to the side, it was like a victory for me and for Peggy."

The entire fourth "Mad Men" season felt like a triumph for Moss too, with the series shifting its focus away from the Drapers' domestic drama and back to the office. Peggy's relationship with Don deepened emotionally in the season's seventh episode, "The Suitcase," which, for many, ranks as the best "Mad Men" episode. (See sidebar.) She solidified her place at work, deep-sixed an unsatisfying romantic relationship, hooked up with Brooklyn hipster Abe and shed some of the squareness that earlier defined her. She has friends her age now. She's not going to turn into a hippie, but by next season, she might actually be cooler than Don.

"There's no way Don's generation can last, and he knows it and Peggy knows it," Moss says. "It's interesting to see these characters meeting in the middle as one goes up and one goes down and they're kind of hovering in the same place at this particular moment."

Not that Moss has some kind of pipeline into what Weiner is planning for the show's fifth season, which, because of protracted renewal negotiations, won't begin airing until March. In fact, what Moss likes most about Peggy is that this pioneering woman isn't defined. She could go anywhere, which, Weiner says, speaks well of the actress playing her.

"I feel very close to the character and I feel very close to Elisabeth," Weiner says. "I love the fact that Elisabeth imbues Peggy with a little earnest self-righteousness. Peggy's not a political person. She just wants to be measured for her work. And you really feel with Elisabeth that it's coming from a place that's both virtuous and selfish. She's not a symbol. She's just a person who's doing what she wants to do and it just happens that a lot of what she's doing is groundbreaking."

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