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Elisabeth Moss on taking work but not herself too seriously

The former "Mad Men" actress talks about her new indie "The Free World" and being called a Class Clown.

Elisabeth Moss is doing fine post-“Mad Men,” thank you very much. She’s done a bit of TV; she’s about to return as Detective Robin Griffin in the show “Top of the Lake.” But the actress has mostly been doing lots and lots of movies: “Listen Up Philip” and “Queen of Earth”; “Truth” and “High-Rise.” In the indie drama “The Free World,” she plays a woman who has just escaped her abusive husband and winds up bonding with an ex-con ("Narcos"' Boyd Holbrook). The role requires her to be more hysterical than she’s ever been on-screen before. But the Golden Globe-winner, 34, took such scenes in stride.

Your first scenes here are really intense: you scream, you cry, you throw fits. But I’ve read you’re not the type of actor who has to be the character to play the character.
I’m not a Method actor or anything. It’s all pretend for me. I don’t take it seriously. I’m a big believer in leaving it all behind.

How do you get to those intense places then?
For me, I need to get into a quiet headspace. It’s more about preserving my energy and not getting distracted. I listen to a lot of music and I have my headphones in a lot. That’s my way of getting away from the 50 or 100 people that are there, and making sure I’m in whatever place I need to be in — even if that just means not chit-chatting.

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The character you escaped an emotionally and physically abusive relationship. It’s surprising there aren’t the usual monologues where you explain your past in detail.
It was a role that was almost in an older style, where you don’t necessarily explain everything the character has gone through. We really wanted to get away from that and make sure we didn’t have that long monologue about her husband and how he beat her. That can sometimes happen in narrative features, where we feel we have to explain everything to the audience. We wanted to do something that was more vague, and really let the character speak for itself. We wanted to not be super literal, honestly.

Sometimes we forget the power of close-ups and just watching actors. That can say more than any soliloquy.
Exactly. Jason wrote a beautiful script, and none of that bulls—t was in there. It was just showing someone in the aftermath of an abusive relationship, and showing that through film. That’s sort of an older idea, sometimes: You let the pictures speak for themselves.

Independent films aren’t always easy. Were there things about the film that were hard?
We shot in New Orleans in August. I don’t even need to say anything beyond that. [Laughs] It was unbelievably hot. I have never been in weather like that. It was sort of miserable, honestly. [Laughs]

How on earth do you act in extreme heat, as well as extreme humidity?
We had a lot of ice packs that we would put on our wrists and neck, and little fans. And of course, everywhere you go on an independent film, nothing has air conditioning. [My character] wears this beautiful blue dress, and there were two of them. Halfway through the day, the first one would be a different, darker shade of blue, because I had sweated through it. I would have to change into a new dress. [Laughs] I’d never experienced anything it. It’s a beautiful and wonderful place. It was just like, “Oooh, hot in August.”

I’ve read you’ve been often deemed the Class Clown on your sets.
[Laughs] I’m very happy with this impression people are getting, honestly. Yes, Vinny [Kartheiser] and I share Class Clown for “Mad Men.” I was super proud of that distinction. You couldn’t say anything more flattering about me. I love being on set and I love working; I love the camaraderie of the crew. I’m a firm believer in not taking pretty much anything seriously, and certainly not myself. I take my work seriously, but not myself. So I like to laugh. I like to f—k around, I like to make jokes. It’s a way for me to get through the day.

Do you have a pick for funniest person you’ve worked with?
Pretty much every man on “Mad Men” would vie for that title. I should say [John] Slattery is one of the funniest people I know. And again, a classic example of the consummate professional: so kind to the crew, so generous and an amazing actor.

He’s very funny and the best at killing those quips.
Hands down, hands down. We all knew that as well. We all knew Slattery gets the best lines because Slattery delivers them the best way. Sometimes there would be a scene where he didn’t say anything. Then he would come in with the last line and it’s like, “Oh, f—k, he stole the scene once again!”

What a bastard.
I know. Such a dick. [Laughs]

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
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