THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN OUR APRIL 2014 ISSUE.
This isn’t an article about how Elisabeth Moss is a “real” person. Even though that’s usually what these kind of profiles amount to, isn’t it? And that makes sense. The people you know—your neighbours, co-workers, family—they’re real people because you know them. You can’t truly like people you don’t know.
So it follows that if you get to know celebrities, in this case the lovely Elisabeth Moss, most famous for playing Peggy Olsen on Mad Men and who won a Golden Globe this year for the Kiwi procedural Top of the Lake, you’ll come to like her in a fuller, truer, more authentic manner. We assume.
But, no, dammit. That’s not the thesis of this particular article. It could be. It easily could be. Take, for instance, her cats. She’s one or two feline friends away from becoming a spinster cliché. At the moment, she is hovering near a hipster level of devotion to her two cats, Lucy and Ethel. “I was actually just thinking that it was sad that I was on my phone right now, because they are doing something really cute and I wanted to take their picture,” she tells me, over the phone. “I’ve become the cat lady that I always knew I would.”
And this is not the first interview she has done that has been preempted by adorable cat behaviour in need of documentation. Wanting to take a break from an interview to take an Instagram photo of a cat is about as real as you can get. It’s like, talking about your pets is humanizing, but begrudging the fact that you can’t, at that moment when you’re talking to the media, take a picture of them? That’s some anti-media-training shit.
So, yes. Aside from the point of this particular story about Elisabeth Moss, she is indeed as real as they come.
But here’s the problem: was there ever any doubt? Isn’t that one of the main reasons Elisabeth Moss is attractive? There’s an obvious and undisturbed realness about her that no amount of golden-trophy acclaim or photo-shoot sexiness could ever disturb. “I’m not a model and I don’t necessarily think it’s really fun,” she says of the latter. “I have to treat it like a character that I’m playing for the day. And whether it’s a fashion shoot and I have to pretend to be all serious, or it’s something sexy and fun and obviously for men, it’s fun to get to do that for a day. I don’t wake up looking like that, I don’t walk around like that. I don’t look like that right now. And I get surprised when I look at photos and I’m like, “Oh my god, look at my boobs, they look awesome!”
It’s also why she’s so great on Mad Men (and in everything else she does). Sure, her character is great, and the writing is superb, but would Peggy Olson be the Girl You Want to Be Friends With/Office Crush/Feminist Icon that she is if she were somehow divorced from Elisabeth Moss? My thinking: probably not.
Which brings up another aspect of Moss’s allure: that it’s a very different kind of allure. No, she’s not a sex symbol. Mad Men has enough of those already. You just like her, you know? And, while it’s difficult to decipher exactly in which direction that likeability flows—do we like Peggy because of Elisabeth, or vice versa—it’s impossible to not be charmed by the real person.
Maybe that comes from being raised by artists. “I didn’t have a more sensible career plan. My whole family is in the music business and I think it would have been odd for me to become a doctor or be in communications,” she says. “Being anything but an artist would have been the odd thing. The fact that I didn’t play an instrument was already weird. That was just the sensibility of my family, so of course the sensibility of me.” There’s a naturalness, a self-composedness, that comes from doing what you always figured you’d do, and succeeding at it. Yes, it’s a privileged position, but maybe that doesn’t matter, since she’s so good at what she does.
It’s happened again, hasn’t it? You set out specifically to not write the kind of piece that is all about humanizing a famous person, and then that’s all you do. Maybe it’s an impossible task: maybe an unavoidable result of conversation is that the participants in that conversation will become real to each other. That’s the difference between, say, a conversation and an interview, or a debate or a politically charged screaming match. Conversation reifies.
Or maybe Elisabeth Moss is as good an actor over the phone, inhabiting the role of Real Person Named Elisabeth Moss Who Happens to Act on a Hit Show, as she is in any other role. Because it could all be an act of persuasion on par with any campaign they come up with at Sterling Cooper & Partners.
But I don’t buy it. She’s real. Just think of those cats.