Emmys 2012: Elisabeth Moss Wasn't Told About Peggy's 'Mad Men' Walkout

2012-10 REV Mad Men Peggy Olson H
Courtesy of AMC

How Authentic is Peggy Olson, the young secretary-turned-copywriter on "Mad Men?" Very real, judging from the fun memoir "Mad Women" by Jane Maas, a real-life Olson.

The nominated actress, moving from lead to supporting, says she didn't get a head's up about her character quitting the agency in the episode she ended up submitting this year.

Elisabeth Moss was Emmy winner Julianna Margulies' (The Good Wife) toughest competition in the 2011 drama actress race. And this year's contest is even more intense, with Moss, Margulies and Homeland newcomer Claire Danes emerging as early front-runners. But a Moss win would carry a more dramatic consequence as four-time drama series winner Mad Men hasn't netted an acting award. This could be the year Moss breaks the Mad acting curse: Having cannily chosen the spectacular episode "The Suitcase" for her 2011 submission, Moss chose for 2012 consideration another heartstring-fiddling installment, "The Other Woman," in which her character, Peggy Olson, shockingly resigns from Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.

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The Hollywood Reporter: Did show creator Matthew Weiner tell you in advance that Peggy would be quitting in your Emmy-submitted episode?

Elisabeth Moss: Not until we were shooting episode 10, the one right before it. It was unusual that he didn't tell me. He usually tells me what's happening, pitches me things to ask me how they sound.

THR: Did he keep you in the dark to manipulate you into a spontaneous performance, as Howard Hawks did by not telling Rita Hayworth that Cary Grant was going to dump ice water on her in Only Angels Have Wings?

Moss: I will thank him forever for not telling me. It would have made my life harder. I knew about Peggy's baby in season one. I fought against it, to play it as she was living it, feeling it, and not be in my head. Not knowing Peggy would quit allowed me to find it for myself, to really feel Peggy's growing frustration with Don [Jon Hamm] all season.

THR: Peggy and Don used to coexist in such harmony, but when they acted out a potential commercial for a client this season, they were awkwardly out of sync. How difficult was it to play a scene where you were both acting badly on purpose?

Moss: It was hard to navigate doing a bad job but not too bad a job. But I defend Peggy -- she was under-rehearsed. Don didn't commit.

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THR: Did five years of acting together fuse you into a smooth acting unit?

Moss: Yes. There's a bleed that happens between knowing a person in real life and acting with them.

THR: What was your favorite scene this year?

Moss: The quitting scene. It would've been so easy to have it be tears and trauma and music, but it's so simple, almost over before you know it. It brings you to a dark, sad place then gives you this slap in the face when she turns to the elevator and smiles. Matt and I didn't feel it was a sad thing. It says to the audience, "No, you don't get to cry all night about this."

THR: You submitted yourself as lead actress in 2009, then supporting in 2010, then lead again in 2011 and this year. How much do you discuss Emmy strategy with Matt?

Moss: I definitely turn to Matt a lot. He helps because he's very discreet, and it's not about ego. It's tough because my story was spread out over the whole season, as opposed to season four, where "The Suitcase" was a pretty obvious choice. In season three, I felt like I was more in that supporting area. It's impossible to analyze this year because there are so many performances with such different levels of time on their shows. I feel that Michelle Dockery of Downton Abbey and I are members of an ensemble, but we're in the lead actress category. And you've got shows where the woman is the main character [Margulies, Glenn Close on Damages, Kathy Bates on Harry's Law], so who knows?

THR: The Emmys often honor moments, more so than long arcs, and characters that stay the same. But Mad Men is all about change. And who changes more than Peggy?

Moss: I'm really lucky to have been allowed a massive arc. It's a gold mine, just rife with possibilities.

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THR: Peggy's new salary is $19,000, which is $130,000 by today's standards. Who got the bigger percentage raise this year, Peggy or you?

Moss: I like that question! However, I have to plead the Fifth on that one.