Playing copywriter Peggy Olson on AMC’s “Mad Men” has been as much about Elisabeth Moss’ own life as it has been about following a character’s arc. Although Moss says show creator Matthew Weiner asked her to watch a few period films like 1960’s “The Apartment” to prep, she went into the role with the idea of making Peggy feel as real as possible.
“I wanted to play her as a person, and not in any particular era,” Moss says. “So for me, the research I had done was that I’d lived my life up until I was 23, and I used my own experiences and who I was. What I love about doing a long-running series is that I grew up over nine years on this show. We made the pilot when I was 23, and I was three weeks away from being 32 when we wrapped.”
As Moss changed as a person, she was able to funnel what she learned into her onscreen persona. For other actresses, new facets of their characters emerge as they discover fresh elements season after season, whether it’s through the writing or additional outside research.
Although Lisa Kudrow’s character, Valerie Cherish, in HBO’s “The Comeback” grew out of a monologue she performed with the Groundlings in the 1980s, she says she was surprised about how the character had changed between season one in 2005 and when she and Michael Patrick King were writing this time around.
“When I first did this, the research was more about (reality shows) than the character because (we) found more layers to her as we were writing,” says Kudrow, who also stars in Showtime’s “Web Therapy,” now in its fourth season. “As we were writing this and I was being Valerie, I noticed she was a little crankier, so at one point, I stopped everything and went, ‘Michael, am I crankier?’ And that was a surprise to me. Then we just felt like, yeah, she is older, and she doesn’t have to try to get everyone to like her as much because that’s not what successful reality shows are.”
When supporting actress contender Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting signed on as Penny on CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory,” she too had just entered her 20s and her character was little more than eye candy.
“I don’t think (the writers) knew how deep the character would actually get,” Cuoco-Sweeting says. “So that first season, they just wanted this sexy chick that the guys couldn’t talk to. So my research was be hot, which just cracked me up, but obviously as the years have gone on things have completely changed.”
She admits that parts of Penny’s trajectory on the show have also mirrored her own life, but she attributes the character’s maturation to the scripts.
“If you look back, I was completely the ditzy girl next door,” she says. “It wasn’t like it changed overnight, and I have to attribute that to the writing. She would grow up a little bit and kind of settle down.”
“Last Man on Earth” star Kristen Schaal is heading into season two of the Fox series, but says initial research involved mapping out her character’s personality traits.
“Episode two was all I had to work off, so I made a list of how Carol was like me and how she was different from me,” Schaal says. “She tries to make the best of things, like I do, but she’s different from me because she can’t adapt to her new situation fully, and she doesn’t have a sense of humor, and she’s really into grammar. I had to tell the writers, ‘We can’t drop this grammar thing, and there’s no way I’m going to be able to tell if the grammar is correct or not.’ ”
Thanks to the writers, Schaal doesn’t have to convince the audience she knows grammar, but “Rectify” star Abigail Spencer did have to learn to smoke for the first season of her Sundance Channel drama. After she mastered that skill (without developing a real-life habit), her research became an ongoing process season to season.
“What is so great about living in a character for a very long time is you just keep getting to know them, so the work never stops,” she says. “Once I am playing a character, every day has room for inspiration, so I’ll keep a piece of paper or an article. I’m always collecting what becomes the inner life of that character to draw upon at any moment.”
While crafting an inner life is key for any character-driven drama, the actors on Starz’s “Outlander” have seen research and training go to the next level for season two. Caitriona Balfe learned to ride horses for the first season, and this time around, she’s taking up another language.
“We started our French lessons, so I very much feel like I’ve gone back to school, back to the irregular verbs,” she says. “You’re dealing with French from the 18th century, so it’s quite a different beast than my normal conversational French. But it’s just wonderful to be able to take the character that you’ve built and continue with that journey.”
After a journey of four riveting seasons, “Scandal” star Kerry Washington says her research has changed quite a bit from when she took on the role.
“In the beginning, I felt like I was learning so much about the world of crisis management, and that’s not really the focus of the research any more because I feel so entrenched in that world,” Washington says. “That process of turning into Olivia physically from head to toe helps me to connect with her, because she is somebody who is specific about how she looks in the world, she understands that how she looks controls the way that people understand her.”
Washington also says she’s still learning things about Olivia, which keeps the role fresh for her each season.
“I’ve always said in the film world that a project comes into my life when a character has (something) to teach me,” she says. “And I definitely felt that way when I read the pilot of ‘Scandal,’ but I didn’t expect to consistently be challenged and taught by her. Each episode now comes into my life when there’s something that I need to be exploring through her, and it’s really a gift to kind of have this playground of the soul.”