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Sundance 2014: 'Mad Men's' Elisabeth Moss sees double at Sundance

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It’s a good kind of too busy right now for actress Elisabeth Moss. At Sundance for the world premieres of two films, Alex Ross Perry’s “Listen Up Philip” and Charlie McDowell’s “The One I Love,” she has also been making awards-season rounds for AMC's "Mad Men," as well as the miniseries “Top of the Lake,” for which she recently won a Golden Globe.

Making her schedule even more hectic, the final season of “Mad Men,” in which Moss plays Peggy Olson, a meek secretary transformed into a self-possessed advertising executive, is currently in production. The weekend of the Globes, she squeezed in an interview before getting the manicure that would become infamous when she cheekily flipped off the “mani-cam” of one network’s red carpet coverage.

Having so many projects percolating at once could presumably leave her a little confused at times regarding just what she’s supposed to be talking about.

MORE: Complete list of Sundance film festival selections

“It was a little discombobulating, but it just takes a second,” she said, noting how on consecutive days she went to events for “Top of the Lake,” “Mad Men,” this interview for her two Sundance films, then the Globes for “Top of the Lake” and back to work on “Mad Men.” “It is funny, you do have to stop for a minute, 'What is this about?' Just watch, I’ll end up telling you a bunch of Peggy stuff.”

Both roles at Sundance capture the shifting mix of steely determination and soft vulnerability that is something of Moss’ stock in trade. In “Listen Up Philip,” Moss plays Ashley, a New York City photographer who breaks up with her novelist boyfriend, Philip, played by Jason Schwartzman. The film’s unusual structure, with a literary narration read by Eric Bogosian, finds Ashley leaving the story for a spell, but then re-emerging as the focus of an emotional story line all her own.

At first writer-director Perry was looking for a more outwardly comedic actress for the part to play off Schwarztman’s deadpan timing, but when the idea of Moss came up, he realized, “That’s going to make for a more interesting film. It’s not who can spar comedically with Jason, it’s who can run laps around Philip. And she’s it.”

Perry added that though he didn’t immediately see Moss in the part, he quickly came around to it. “Just seeing her in a New York movie in Brooklyn wearing shorts and being kind of fun and bitchy, it became really exciting to me," he said. "That’s an easy role to assume requires no acting, ‘Oh, she’s just playing a normal person.’ But it’s quite the opposite. She found so much to create within that character.”

FULL COVERAGE: Sundance 2014

For “The One I Love,” Moss plays one half of a couple, alongside costar Mark Duplass, who are sent on a weekend retreat by their therapist. The story features something of a spoiler-able twist everyone seems to be likening to Charlie Kaufman for its cerebral absurdity. It can make talking about the film tricky, and Moss recalled a conversation she had with director Charlie McDowell about just that.

“For eight years I have not talked about ‘Mad Men,’” she said, referring to the closely guarded secrecy of the show. “I asked Charlie how to talk about the movie and he said, ‘Maybe say this and this,’ and I was like, ‘I got this.’ I know how to talk about something without talking about it.

“What attracted me to the movie was the relationship aspects of it,” she added. “The concept behind the quote-unquote twist is the idea of who you present in a relationship, how you project one person in the beginning and then kind of shift to something else, maybe more who you really are. And then what’s considered the ideal woman from a man’s point of view and what he really wants his girlfriend to be like.”

Even with the film’s more secretly fantastic elements, Moss kept the performance grounded in something believable and real.

“She just feels like a real person to me,” said McDowell. “And I really discovered this after working with her; she’s just the most present actor I’ve ever seen. She really dedicates herself to what she’s doing in the most naturalistic way. There’s never a moment that feels phony or false to me."

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With her turn in “Top of the Lake,” which showed at Sundance last year, and now returning with both “Listen Up Philip” and “The One I Love,” Moss is already showing it likely won’t take much for her to shake off Peggy Olson once “Mad Men” is done. For any fans of the show hoping that Moss might accidentally spill some tidbit about the ultimate fate of her character, she is perhaps not the one to ask.

“I actually don’t any have idea. A couple of pieces here and there, but I don’t know how we’re going to get there,” she said. “The bigger ideas I don’t even know.”

What comes after “Mad Men” for Moss remains to be decided. She says she is open to both television and films, and has also enjoyed the few theater productions in which she's acted. She's now hoping to take her time in finding what’s next, freed up from the restrictions the show placed on her schedule.

“I’m just starting to look seriously,” she said. “For me, I’m now available in a way I haven’t been for eight years. I’m looking forward to the idea that when I’m done in June I don’t have to find something for the next few months. If I don’t find something right away, that’s OK. But just watch, I don’t get anything ever again and I’m like, ‘I wish I was back on "Mad Men."'”

Also:

Sundance 2014: The dilemmas of having it all in 'Happy Christmas'

Sundance 2014: 'Cold In July' jumps genre onto fest's main stage

Sundance 2014: Men of a certain age travel, party in 'Land Ho!'

Follow Mark Olsen on Twitter: @IndieFocus

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