How Elisabeth Moss Got To 'The Top'

Sundance Channel

I recently filled in an embarrassing hole in my TV knowledge by watching, for the first time, Aaron Sorkin's amazing series, The West Wing. So upon recently sitting down with Elisabeth Moss, a lot of time was dedicated to me gushing about a show she appeared on almost 10 years ago.

After inspiring the Emmy-nominee to also give the series a rewatch, talk turned to her more current, yet equally gush-worthy, projects: the sixth season of AMC's Mad Men and the premiere of Sundance's mold-breaking miniseries Top of the Lake. Turns out Moss' sensational performances and dynamic explorations of misogyny are not the only qualities both projects share.

ETonline: How did you come to hear about Top of the Lake?

Elisabeth Moss: Halfway through filming Mad Men season five, my agent told me about this project that Jane Campion was directing and shot in New Zealand. I mean, I was on board from the word "Jane," but then I read it and was blown away. Not only is this part like nothing I've ever done before, but the scripts were amazing and strange and dark and exciting. For me, it was a no-brainer, but I assumed they would never cast me.

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ETonline: What was the casting process like?

Moss: I met with the casting director way before anyone was talking about me doing this and then I talked to Jane for 45 terrifying minutes. I mean, she's this genius auteur and suddenly I'm talking to her on the phone. I didn't know what to say that wouldn't make me sound stupid [laughs]. But she was so nice and generous. She asked me to put some scenes on tape and said "Don't try to hit the bulls-eye -- just get the dart on the board." For an actor going into a high pressure audition, that's the greatest thing you can hear, so I should have known right then and there this was going to be a great experience. Knowing I didn't have to be perfect or predict some crazy character thing she was looking for gave me so much freedom from the absolute first step. It was such a gift from her to say that. So I attempted to get the dart on the board and I guess I did. Then it became about testing out the accent, making sure I could do it. Then they offered me the role. I was floored.

ETonline: Although Top of the Lake is about a missing persons investigation, it's far from being a procedural. Was that important to you?

Moss: Absolutely. It was very, very important to Jane and Gerard [Lee], her co-writer, that we didn't make a crime drama. I love those shows, but it's not what we were trying to do. We wanted to make a film. So, yes, there are elements of it that have to adhere to the procedural format -- it was really important to maintain the authenticity of the search for this missing child -- but what I love is that those scenes feel like they further ground the world. The first two episodes are the most straight of them all, but in episode 3, the bottom drops out and episode four just explodes into this journey that you didn't think you signed up for.

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ETonline: You play Robin and there's a great piece of dialogue in the first episode where her says "There's a difference between being strong and being hard." Am I right to see that as a very big theme for your character?

Moss: Yes, that line is a very big clue to my character. It's very observant of her mother to say that and very soon you'll see into Robin's past, which reveals a lot about why she is the way she is. That was a big clue for me into this person who thinks she's so tough and wants to project that image while it's absolutely true that she's a mess inside. She's so vulnerable but covered it up with all this stuff. I will say that by the end of the series she understands the difference and becomes strong, not just hard.

ETonline: Obviously the writing comes first, but what is it you're looking for in the characters you play?

Moss: I really seem to be attracted to the idea of strength on the outside and vulnerability on the inside. I think that's true for a lot of actors though because you always want to play two different things. You want to have layers. Especially with women. I love the idea of the person you have to project to the outside world versus the person you are on the inside. Top of The Lake is the most extreme example, while I feel like Zoey [her character on The West Wing] might have been the most straight-forward in that regard since I was only recurring on that show. She wasn't as developed as Peggy. There, I really am able to get into that material and, to me, she's the greatest example of that duality because throughout the pilot you assume she's this person and then she sleeps with Pete at the end. That really makes you think, "Who is this gal?"

ETonline: The last time we spoke, you said that your only wish for the final season of Mad Men is that you get to be a part of it. Was it a relief when you got that call?

Moss: Yes. I would definitely say relief is the word. Obviously I knew Peggy was quitting before the audience did, and the logical question at that moment was, "Do I still have a job?" I was assured I did, but couldn't say anything to anyone, which was kind of fun. It's fun to have a secret from the fans, which is part of the joy of this show.

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ETonline: There was major fan uproar when it looked like Peggy wasn't coming back after she quit Sterling Cooper and then Jared Harris implied you had left the show. What was it like to have that outpouring of love and the knowledge you'd be coming back.

Moss: Honestly, that was the craziest thing because people just assumed I would be back despite quitting Sterling Cooper. And then Jared Harris said that and everyone kind of freaked out. It was not what he meant, but it's totally fine that he said it because what more could you ask for then people being upset about you not being a part of a show? It would have been terrible if he said that and nobody cared. You know, if everyone was like, "I'm so glad they're finally getting rid of her!" [laughs] The fact that people gave a sh*t was one of the greatest compliments I've ever gotten.

ETonline: Is it strange to be consciously wrapping up your time playing this character?

Moss: Yeah. Literally hearing you say those words make me emotional. This is our Oprah moment [laughs]. I can't imagine not having that show, not having that family and not having that character. I was 23 when it started, I'm 30 now and it's such a huge part of my life that's coming to a close. I still feel the same way in that I still want to be in the show at the end, but there's a bit more of a sense of just wanting to enjoy it now. We got more than anyone could have possibly wanted in terms of accolades and praise and attention. Mad Men has been a dream job, so I just want to embrace every moment knowing I won't be there one day soon. I love playing Peggy more than any character I've ever played and one day it'll just be gone, so I really want to make sure to appreciate every moment as we work towards the end. And I know I speak for everyone when I say that we just want to go out great and strong.

Top of the Lake
premieres March 18 at 9 p.m. on Sundance and Mad Men returns to AMC on April 7 at 9 p.m.