Photograph by Andrew Southam
The lounge of the Sunset Tower Hotel is dim, the gray afternoon light filtering in through the windows. Seated on a couch, the actress Elisabeth Moss is surveying the room. “If I could design a house, I would want it to look like this place,” she says. “It’s beautiful—the furniture, the dark wood. It doesn’t feel like you’re in L.A., which I really like.”
Actors often talk about how strange it is when fans confuse their characters with real life. In the case of Moss, who plays Peggy Olson on AMC’s Mad Men, it’s no less strange trying to match the actress with the role she inhabits on television. She looks like Peggy. Sort of. But those fathomless blue eyes that have sized up the priapic men of the show’s fictitious 1960s advertising firm have a happy shimmer. Her Cupid’s bow mouth, often so taut and pensive, is all smiles as it bounces along in a California cadence. Wearing a summery sleeveless dress and brunet bangs, Moss is as effervescent and friendly as her copywriting character is buttoned-down.
Beside Moss is her fiancé, Fred Armisen, the Saturday Night Live cast member whose impersonation of President Obama raised such a ruckus. He’s feeling self-conscious about intruding, but then again Armisen is why Moss chose this venue for the interview. “This is his place,” she says. “The only reason I discovered it is because he used to come here.”
The 14-story building, a masterpiece of zigzag moderne, was one of the city’s tallest apartment houses when it opened in 1931. Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, John Wayne, Howard Hughes, and a slew of other long-gone celebrities resided here. “I’m a total old-movie fan,” Moss says after stowing a bottle of vitamin water in her purse. “I prefer Old Hollywood to New Hollywood. For me the place is very Old Hollywood.”
“I think it’s honest about it, too,” says Armisen, nodding at the black-and-white head shots on the walls. “These pictures are very honest about being in Los Angeles and being part of entertainment.”
“Yeah! It kind of embraces it a little bit,” she adds. “It’s not trying to be modern.” Every inch the new couple, the two often tag-team like this when they talk. They met last year, when Moss, who is 26, had a cameo on Saturday Night Live. Three months later she and Armisen, who is 42, were engaged and living together on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. They’re in L.A. for the summer while Moss works on the third season of Mad Men, which premieres on August 16.
“We have a temporary apartment near the Grove while I’m shooting the show,” she explains as the hotel’s general manager, Patrick O’Shea, takes us on a tour. “But we still came to stay at the Sunset Tower for a week for absolutely no reason. It was supposed to be for two days, but we were, like, ‘Wednesday, maybe Wednesday we’ll leave.’ We would not leave!”
After almost being demolished in the 1980s, the building underwent a massive renovation and eventually became the Argyle hotel. New York hotelier Jeff Klein bought the property in 2004, restored its original name, and pumped $30 million into another renovation. O’Shea recounts the history as he leads us to a tasteful suite done in earth tones, with a narrow floor-to-ceiling window occupying the corner of the main room.
“Are these stills from movies?” asks Moss, pointing to a photo near the bedroom. “They must be. They’re so great.”
“It’s great,” Armisen agrees.
Soon Moss is pulling a robe from the bathroom. “We have these at home in New York,” she says. “They are the greatest robes in the world.” Then Moss gestures to a light brown comforter that echoes the arabesque wallpaper. “And just to show you how obsessed we are,” she says, her eyes now hidden behind Jackie O sunglasses, “we bought a comforter yesterday for our L.A. apartment, and we tried to base it on what the Sunset Tower has.” Peggy Olson couldn’t have asked for a better product endorsement.
Created by Matthew Wiener, Mad Men has earned three Golden Globes and several other prizes along the way. It was AMC’s first original drama series, and it has also become a defining role for Moss. Peggy Olson lives in a smoky, testosterone-addled world in which women have to show a little leg to get by. Tough yet seemingly guileless, she’s a step removed from the rest: Peggy’s talent and sharp instincts elevate her from the secretary pool to a gig as copywriter, but she also manages to go nine months without admitting to herself that she’s pregnant. What initially appears to be the self-delusion of an innocent reveals itself to be something more nuanced when Pete, the junior exec who unknowingly knocked her up, professes his love. She tells him no thanks and that she’s given the baby away. “I wanted other things,” she says.
As the Sunset Tower tour continues, we squeeze back into the elevator and travel down to the salon—formerly John Wayne’s apartment—that is part of an expansive spa. “My laziness prevented me from coming here,” Moss says as the spa director pitches the various services available.
“We had no idea,” Armisen says.
“Hyeah. Fer sure,” Moss responds in mock Valleyspeak. “You don’t even need to get your clothes back on. We have to do it.”
Moss grew up in Laurel Canyon. Her mother, Linda, plays blues harmonica professionally, and her father, Ron, is a jazz musician who manages keyboardist Chick Corea. Their daughter divided her time between ballet and acting auditions. “What was great about ballet,” Moss says, “was that—aside from the fact that it gave me discipline—it made it so that I wasn’t one of those ‘child actors.’ I didn’t care whether or not I got a part.” Moss didn’t finally choose acting over ballet until she was 15. By 1999, she was one of Winona Ryder’s fellow patients in Girl, Interrupted. That same year she scored a recurring part on The West Wing as Zoey Bartlet, the president’s youngest daughter. “I got thrown into working with Martin Sheen and John Spencer and Allison Janney, these incredible people, at 17 years old,” she says.
What stands out in Moss’s more prominent roles is how she twines vulnerability with shrewdness and tenacity. In 2004, she earned an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Virgin, in which she stars as a lost soul who is convinced she’s been impregnated by God, when in fact she had been date-raped after passing out. Last year Moss made her Broadway debut in Speed-the-Plow, David Mamet’s play about the toxicity of high-stakes Hollywood. Portraying a sometimes naive temp secretary, Moss was credited with giving dimension to a role that had been originated, to disastrous effect, by Madonna in 1988. With Moss the character acquired the layered complexity—part ingenue, part player—that also makes Peggy Olson so compelling.
“I find the most interesting thing to play is characters who have one thing going on in the front and more going on behind,” she says. “I don’t know if I look young so it makes me look innocent—I don’t know what it is, but there’s definitely a real parallel between all those characters.”
In December Moss will appear as a laughably overbearing executive assistant in Did You Hear About the Morgans?, a comedy starring Hugh Grant and Sarah Jessica Parker as a power couple who are relocated to a small town after entering a witness protection program. Next spring she’ll be in Get Him to the Greek, a spin-off of Forgetting Sarah Marshall, in which she is the tempted girlfriend of Jonah Hill, whose rock star boss has a yen for copious sex.
Soon Moss will have to leave the Sunset Tower for a late-afternoon Mad Men table reading, but there’s still time to see one of the penthouses. “He stayed here!” she says, referring to Armisen, when we enter.
“It was early on in our relationship,” offers Armisen, smirking. “I sent her pictures of myself.”
Walking onto the wraparound balcony, Moss gasps. “God, look at this,” she says. Beyond us is a cinematic panorama: the Hollywood hills, the clusters of high-rises, the circuit board of streets.
“It’s so great,” says Armisen, taking in the view. “It’s the greatest.”
“It’s the greatest,” Moss agrees.
“It’s the greatest thing ever,” Armisen says.
One thing is certain: It’s quite nice.