Elisabeth Moss has been acting for more than two decades, and as she's grown up on screen, she's been very careful about the women she's chosen to portray. "I have no interest in playing just the girlfriend or just the wife or anything like that," she told BuzzFeed News in a recent phone interview. "I'm very much interested in telling stories of complex human beings."
The latest complex human being she's taken on is Ashley in Alex Ross Perry's third feature film, Listen Up Philip, a photographer who's dealing with the dissolution of her relationship with incredibly narcissistic novelist Philip (Jason Schwartzman). "I felt like she was an interesting, complex, flawed, well-rounded character in her own right," Moss said of Ashley. "I loved the idea that you saw her relationship with Philip and that part of her life, but then you got to go see what effect that had on her life. And I loved the conceit, if you will, of showing the title character for the first 30, 40 pages or whatever, and then abandoning him and going off and showing this other character and then following her story."
Moss said she learned a lot from Ashley's story, so BuzzFeed News asked the actor to share the valuable lessons she's taken away from playing female characters who aren't defined by the men around them.
Ashley, Listen Up Philip
"In a way, what I was trying to portray was something I learned in my life from my own relationships," Moss said, noting that "it's very difficult to tell what you're learning from these characters and what you're putting into them."
"The thing that interested me about Ashley in that relationship and the consequent breakup was that idea that sometimes you have to get away from somebody before you realize how unhappy they make you," she said with a laugh. "And then, you get a break from them and you're like, Oh, wait. I'm actually pretty happy without you. This is actually better. I like it better when you're not here. You get so wrapped up in the drama of it and who's right and who's wrong and all of that kind of thing that you forget... One of my best friends has a great thing that she's said to me, which is, 'In a relationship, are you happy?' Because really, that's what it all comes down to. Does this person make you happy?"
In the end, Philip didn't do that for Ashley. "Regardless of whether they're a good person or a bad person or whatever, they're not good for each other. And that's, in the end, what matters," Moss said. "And I feel like that's something I learned from Ashley, honestly. For sure. And it's something that I kind of knew and I had experienced, but it was really sent home playing that character and having to analyze it in that way. And I think what's great is that, by the end of Ashley's story, she doesn't hate Philip. She's not even angry at him anymore. And I think that was one of the most interesting things for me — [it] is this idea of when you're truly over somebody, you're not even mad anymore. You don't even care. You're just like, You're just the way that you are, and I don't even care anymore. That's truly the sign that you're done," she said with a laugh.
Sophie, The One I Love
"It's funny because The One I Love is what happens if you choose to stay, and Listen Up Philip is what happens if you choose to go. And I think that with The One I Love, that was really about looking at a relationship and going, Is there something here that's worth fighting for? Maybe it's flawed, maybe it needs work, but is it worth that work?" Moss said, noting that she's learned to ask that question in her own life. "And I think in Ashley's case, she did not feel like it was worth the work, but with Sophie and Ethan [Mark Duplass] in The One I Love, they decide it is."
Det. Robin Griffin, Top of the Lake
"The focus of that was so much, for [writer and director] Jane [Campion] and I, that Robin's search for Tui and her search for the truth of the Tui story was her quest in life," Moss said. "She just had such a knack for finding the truth and knowing when somebody was lying, and I think that was something I took away from that: Trusting your instincts, trusting when you know that you haven't gotten the truth, when you don't know the full story, and trusting that feeling that you get when you know that someone's not being honest with you and you just have that nagging feeling. And I think that Robin's quest for that definitely taught me something."
Peggy Olson, Mad Men
"In a way this one's easiest because I did play her for so long so I know her the best out of all of them, I suppose," Moss said without hesitating. "Being true to yourself and being who you are, which is so cheesy, but it's the truth. It's such a good lesson and one that's often forgotten. Because who Peggy is eventually is what gets her to where she is. She doesn't change who she is. And even though she gets knocked around a lot and criticized and made fun of and money thrown in her face and all kinds of indignities, she keeps going and she believes in herself, and I think that that's something I will definitely take away from playing her."
Zoey Bartlet, The West Wing
"The most important relationship for me personally, and for Zoey, was with her father. Obviously, I was involved in the part of the story that was about his family, so I think probably what I took away from that is how important family is. And how, regardless of what's happening on a much larger scale in the world, especially on a show like that, whatever happens, if something happens with your family, you drop everything and that is the most important thing."
Polly "Torch" Clark, Girl, Interrupted
"Well, I do not have the authority to speak about mental illness, but I do know that in that character's case, she didn't feel like she had anyone. Obviously, she didn't feel like she could talk to anybody about what's going on in her head or what made her do that to herself or whatever made her decide to injure herself like that. She obviously felt like she couldn't talk to anybody about it. And so I think that's something that I took away from that: When you don't reach out for help, that's a very dark road to go down."