The Listen Up Philip actress discusses Mad Men, breaking up, and getting career advice from Bryan Cranston
Elisabeth Moss stars in two films this year that grapple with rocky romantic relationships, each reaching a different conclusion about when it might be right to call it quits. The One I Love, released earlier this year, was a romantic comedy with a strange and unexpected sci-fi twist, but her new movie Listen Up Philip is deeply rooted in reality. In the film, Moss plays a photographer named Ashley who is tumultuously ending things with her writer boyfriend Philip (Jason Schwartzman).
For Moss, the roles weren’t necessarily connected, but there’s certainky a correlation between them. The actress, who wrapped the final season of Mad Men earlier this year and is currently shooting a new movie in Australia, has some experience with rocky breakups — she once referred to her short-lived marriage with comedian Fred Armisen as “traumatic.” Fortunately, Moss found some new companions on the set of Listen Up Philip and they don’t seem like the type to cause a fight. (They’re cats. Famous cats.)
TIME spoke with the actress about relationships, kittens and Bryan Cranston.
TIME: You two most recent films are about relationships. Was that a conscious choice on your part?
Elisabeth Moss: No, not at all. I don’t really make those kinds of choices. I just base things on what is a good script. It was totally circumstantial. And they were obviously very separate – they were months apart – and it was just a coincidence. I liked that they were so similar in the sense that they are about relationships, but that they have these different take on them and different endings. The female characters make very different choices in both movies. I thought that was interesting.
What interested you in Listen Up Philip specifically?
I just loved the script. Sometimes you do things based on character, sometimes you do it based on the overall script. This was a bit of both, but I loved the story and I wanted to be a part of it. I like the idea of telling a real story. So often I do things that are different than me and a stretch, or something that’s very foreign to my life and my experience. I thought this was interesting for me to do because it’s actually a real story that might have been true, that I might have experienced. Not necessarily being with such an asshole – but going through a breakup in your twenties in the summer in New York. That’s a very real thing because I’ve lived in New York for years now.
So are you channeling your own experiences with breakups?
I mean, in every role you channel the experiences that you’ve had. Even with something like Mad Men, you’ve been out of your element or you’ve been intimated or you’ve tried to do something that was scary for you. In everything you’re channeling experiences you’ve had. For me this was so much about the telling of the story of the breakup in New York, which is a very specific thing. The summer in the city is so great and so alive and there’s the heat and people and hanging outside and sitting in the park. That’s a very specific experience.
Do you think the film takes a stance on whether two artists can successfully be together?
That would be more of a question for [the director]. But I think people totally can. I don’t like the idea that two artists can’t exist in a relationship. I have seen so many great relationships that have two artists. The key is having respect for the other person’s art as well and there not being a competitive element to it. There being a sense of dependence in your partner’s art and there being a mutual respect for one another. But that’s true in any relationship. For me this movie was all about the relationship and [my character] finding her feet again. Her making the brave choice to develop her life again without Philip and recognizing that this person isn’t making her happy. It’s a hard decision to make.
You’ve been through a hard breakup publicly. Do you have any advice on how to move on with your life after that?
I don’t know that I have any good advice for anyone! People know what to do. I’m not a relationship guru or anything like that.
Speaking of relationships, is it true you adopted two kittens from the set of Listen Up Philip?
Yeah, I did. I took them home. We wanted this kitten for this one scene and our producer happened to find them on the street. She already had three cats, so I was like, “Well, I’ll take them and look after them, and I’ll either keep them or find a home for them.” And of course I ended up falling in love with them. It was a stupid thing to think I was going to take them home and not keep them.
There’s no way you weren’t going to keep those cats.
I know. I think I knew that, too. I just had to do it slowly and gradually. I had to trick myself into taking them.
Basically the only thing the press is saying about you right now is that you adopted these kittens.
I’m so thrilled. Every time someone writes about it, me and my mom and my brother, we send them to each other. I send the write ups to my publicist. We talk about popular the cats are and how difficult they’re going to be to deal with now that they’re so famous. You know they have IMDB pages?
I swear to God. They have individual IMDB pages. It’s hilarious. I’m very obsessed with them.
So do you actually pay attention to what’s being written about you in the press?
No. I get sent stuff, like official stuff. For instance, this article will be sent to me. Sometimes I read them and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I read them if I’m like, “Oh, what was that?” They always pick a headline that was one tiny thing that you said. And then that’s the headline, and the story is about something else. Sometimes if I see an interesting headline I’m like, “What did I say?” It’s one of those things where I tend to not read them because it’s hard for me. Hearing yourself talk about things is weird.
Do you feel like there are any misconceptions about you out there?
I don’t know. I know this is going to sound really Pollyanna, but I feel really fortunate. I feel that so far the work that I’ve done has been respected and liked. That’s all I really care about. For me, as long as people are liking the acting that I do, which is why I do this, that is the only thing that matters. People have been pretty nice.
Has your experience on Mad Men been limiting in any way as an actress?
It’s been nothing but great. It’s done nothing but open me up to new possibilities. People would kill to be on a show that good, and have a role like that. It’s given me so many opportunities throughout the years. It gave me my first Broadway play. I don’t know if I would have been considered for that if I didn’t have Mad Men. It’s opened so many doors for me. And it’s one those things where, if that’s all I did for seven seasons, that would have been great too. That’s more than a lot of people get. The great thing about television these days is it’s not a limiting thing anymore. We used to joke in the early days when it was more limited – now there’s so many great shows – that people would do television and then go to do something artistic during their hiatus. On Mad Men, we felt that this was the artistic thing we were doing. You don’t have to go outside and search for something else.
Was there a certain moment when you realized you were famous and there was no going back from that?
It’s been so gradual over the years, honestly. I still get surprised when I walk around and people recognize me. There wasn’t really any specific moment. The only thing I’ve noticed is that after every Mad Men season going back to New York, which is a place where you’re much more amongst the people and you’re more accessible, my visibility seemed to be a little higher every time. That was my gauge over the years.
Has any TV actors given you a good piece of advice on how to let go of playing Peggy for so long?
Actually, I went to see Bryan Cranston in his play that he won the Tony for last year. It was before we started filming season seven. I went backstage and spoke to him and he talked about how great it was to go through theater after leaving Breaking Bad. He said just challenge yourself and expand yourself as an actor. Do something completely different in a completely different medium. He said that was so helpful to him as an actor and it put that thought in my head. It’s part of the reason why I’m going and doing The Heidi Chronicles on Broadway next year. It’s because of speaking to him and seeing that was a great thing for him to do.
That’s a pretty good person to get advice from.
Yeah, it’s not bad. Basically I would do anything Bryan Cranston does.