Elisabeth Moss: I don’t ever want to feel I’ve made it

The Top of the Lake and Mad Men star talks nudity, relationships and playing a woman in a man's world

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Elisabeth Moss has never let fear – or vanity – come between her and a juicy role. Best known for her Emmy-nominated portrayal of Peggy Olson, Mad Men’s ambitious 1960s copywriter with questionable choices in men and fashion, she began her career playing a child who accuses her father of rape, only to see her mother charged with his murder. Moss was eight at the time. In her teens, she played pregnant girls and endured three hours of prosthetic make-up every day to act alongside Angelina Jolie and Winona Ryder as Polly “Torch” Clark, a psychiatric patient who set herself on fire in 1999’s Girl, Interrupted. As Anne in Ron Howard’s 2003 western, The Missing, Moss put a bullet through her head.

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Moss displayed her versatility playing sweetheart small-screen roles including a recurring part as Martin Sheen’s adored youngest daughter, Zoey, for the entire run of The West Wing. A year after that series ended, she became Peggy Olson.

But with Mad Men’s sixth series ending on a professional high for the ad woman, viewers now have a chance to see Moss as a modern leading lady. The 30-year-old is the star of Top of the Lake, a six-part series written and directed by Jane Campion, an Academy Award winner for 1993’s The Piano. Once again, Moss plays a character she has come to embody: a woman she describes as “not one of the girls and not a part of the boys’ club, either”. Set in a picturesque, yet eerie, part of New Zealand, the contemporary missing-person story sees Moss play Robin Griffin, a detective who knows her way around weapons and men. “I worked out and got some muscle, lowered my voice, learnt an accent and trained with guns,” says Moss of her preparation for the role. “Robin is very much an ass-kicker.”

On a warm evening in Los Angeles, Moss has made reservations at a downtown rooftop restaurant near the studios where she is filming Mad Men. She arrives, a half-hour past our appointed time, profusely apologetic. “I had to park in a lot that wouldn’t take a credit card, so I had to activate my new ATM card, find a bank and then park,” she says. “I’m so sorry!” A waiter appears. “I think I need a drink after all of that excitement,” Moss says, ordering a glass of red wine.

Born and raised in Los Angeles, Moss has the bubbliness and classic cadence of a California girl who also happens to be a fan of hip-hop, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift and Mumford & Sons. Out of her 1960s wardrobe, Moss is rocking a very up-to-date look. She’s wearing a rose-gold Tacori bauble on her ight ring finger: “I’m a huge believer in buying your own jewellery because you never have to stop wearing it if things don’t work out,” Moss says, discreetly acknowledging her 2011 divorce from Saturday Night Live star Fred Armisen.

Moss is sworn to secrecy about the new series of Mad Men she is filming, which has two more series left. “We’re so whipped,” she says, giggling. “Obviously, I am sitting here with this short hair, and I’m frightened to tell you Peggy cut hers.”

Moss came into what has become her signature role without doing much research. “The first scene was Peggy’s first day on the job and not having knowledge about advertising is what helped get me the part.” She also saw the character as a timeless symbol of female empowerment. “It’s kind of become my thing to play women asserting their independence in a man’s world.”

Just like Peggy, Moss is rising to new challenges. Shooting 65 out of 82 days straight, she calls the Top of the Lake shoot “an acting Olympics”. The role was physically gruelling. “I run all the time and I don’t like to run, I shoot guns, throw darts, chop wood and fish,” Moss recalls with a shiver. “It was shot at Lake Wakatipu, which is freezing, and I went in and I’m scared of the water. I don’t go in anything where I can’t see the bottom.”

The story revolves around detective Griffin, who returns from Australia to her hometown in New Zealand and, with policeman Al Parker (David Wenham), investigates the disappearance of a pregnant 12-year-old. “She loses herself in the case to a dangerous degree,” says Moss, “and has to confront a lot of her own past.”

Moss, who in Mad Men usually has fumbling affairs and, in 2010, shared a comic ménage à trois with Jonah Hill and Russell Brand in Get Him to the Greek, has some serious love affairs in Top of the Lake. “There may be a couple of nipple slips,” she says of her decision to do nude scenes. “I’m a shy person, but Jane Campion is the last person who is about to make me feel uncomfortable or exploit me. She’s the ultimate feminist.” Moss’s nerves clearly dissipated. “You go through all this negotiation about what you’ll show,” she says, smiling, “and then you get there, three months in and tired, and you’re just, ‘Whatever, let’s just do it’.”

Moss was born on 24 July 1982, the eldest daughter of musical parents in Laurel Canyon in the Hollywood Hills, who introduced her to Scientology at a young age. Her dad, Ron, managed jazz musicians and exposed his daughter to old-school singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. Her mother, Linda, from Chicago, is an accomplished blues harmonica player. Derek, her brother, is a drummer, DJ and composer.

Moss marched to a different beat, starting dance lessons at five and later studying with top ballerina Suzanne Farrell at the John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington. “I trained for a long time and I was focused and good,” she says, without any false modesty.

Performing came naturally to the young Moss, who got commercials and small parts in films. For most of her childhood, she was home-schooled or tutored on the set. “I wasn’t that interested in school because I knew what I wanted to do with my life,” she says. “The ballet academy I went to was my high school. There was gossip, cliques and hook-ups. There were only three boys for 30 girls,” she adds with a smile, “so we shared them.”

At 15, Moss made “this weirdly educated decision”, choosing acting over dance. “I didn’t want to be done when I was 30. When you’re 15, that seems like a long way away, but now that I’m 30 I think, ‘Thank God’.”

In 2008, while making a cameo appearance as Peggy Olson on a Saturday Night Live broadcast hosted by Jon Hamm, Moss met Armisen. After a whirlwind romance and engagement, they were married for eight months. Though the actor recently admitted he was a “terrible husband”, Moss doesn’t dwell on it. “It wasn’t working,” she says diplomatically. “There was not a lot of wasted time, which was good. I learnt what’s important – having a good relationship. I want to have a family and that comes to mind big-time when you’re 30, but I’m not in a rush.”

Following Top of the Lake, Moss did something unusual. “Last summer, I didn’t work at all for five months, which was weird,” she admits. But it was wonderful. While filming the series, she became involved with Australian cinematographer Adam Arkapaw, and they toured his homeland before jetting off to spend her 30th birthday in Rome. “We stayed in Casa Manni and it was a blur of food,” she says, “which Italy usually is.” Having a boyfriend on the other side of the camera is a bonus, she adds. “They’re artists, but not actors. It’s a better balance. And it worked out for Julia Roberts [who married cinematographer Daniel Moder in 2002].”

Though Moss is considering her future options, these days she has the luxury of working on a successful show, spending her free time reading or just curling up in front of the TV. “I love Parenthood, Nashville, The Voice and Project Runway and watch all of Real Housewives, every single one,” she says. “There is still that part of me that’s stressed about the next job. I hope that doesn’t change. I don’t ever want to feel, ‘Ah, I’ve made it,’” she says, and continues with mock grandeur: ‘Let’s have some more champagne.’”

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Top of the Lake starts on Saturday at 9:10pm on BBC2