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Christina Hendricks Finds a Good Fit in God's Pocket

05/09/2014 02:11 pm ET | Updated Jul 09, 2014

Since evolving from featured player to cultural icon on AMC's landmark series Mad Men, Christina Hendricks has become not only a major star, but an indelible part of the New Golden Age of Television, with her turn as ladder-climbing corporate sex bomb Joan Holloway. Over the past seven seasons, Hendricks took what could have been another cheesecake turn and made it very much her own, evolving Joan into a thinking man's sex symbol, never missing an opportunity to show that there's a serious engine that purrs underneath Joan's enviable chassis.

With Mad Men winding down its final season, Christina Hendricks joins forces with series co-star John Slattery (who plays her boss, and former love interest, Roger Sterling) in his feature directing debut, God's Pocket, adapted from the novel by Pete Dexter. Set in the titular (and fictitious) Philadelphia neighborhood during the late '70s, God's Pocket paints a picaresque tableaux of a working-class community's coming apart at the seams, following the death of Leon Hubbard (Caleb Landry Jones), a much-despised local miscreant. Hendricks plays Jeanie Scarpato, Leon's mother, local girl and wife of transplant Mickey (Philip Seymour Hoffman, in one of his final turns) who finds herself questioning a disappointing life's decisions following Leon's passing. The stellar cast also includes Richard Jenkins, John Turturro, Eddie Marsan and Joyce Van Patten. The IFC Films release hits theaters Friday, May 9.

Christina Hendricks sat down with us recently to discuss her past, present and future. Here's what followed:

Were you familiar with Pete Dexter's work before John Slattery approached you with this?

I have to be honest: I wasn't familiar with him before this. I read the script first, then went back and read the book. John gave me the script before the break from our second-to-last season, and said, "Just keep me apprised about your schedule."

Jeanie is a great part. I notice you've been particular in the non-Mad Men parts you've chosen since your star has risen.

(laughs) Where did you hear this? I would so love to be this person you're describing!

I'm thinking of projects like Drive, where it was a very small part, but the quality of the material must have made the size of the role a non-issue.

That was a very specific case. I had seen Bronson and thought it was one of the most exciting stories I'd seen since Trainspotting. It was dark, but had this incredible sort of manic energy. I talked to my manager and said, "What is this guy, Nicolas Winding Refn, doing next?" That was an amazing experience, because Nicolas and I became friends and then I got to do another movie with Ryan Gosling, who's also become a good friend. It was an organic way that all transpired. But, I wouldn't say I've looked for things specifically that aren't like Mad Men.

I meant that you haven't done big, splashy, commercial rom-coms which, let's face it, usually suck. You've gone for smaller, quality films.

(laughs) I've tried to choose projects that I would want to see myself. So, thank you. These are the kinds of movies I respond to, and sometimes I do respond to the big blockbuster movies, but to go down that road and sort of expose yourself publicly with all the publicity and everything else that being in one of those movies entails, I would have to be so completely in love with it that there would be no question.

This role, which was decidedly unglamorous compared with your other work, was also really fascinating and complex. Is that what drew you to her?

I think it's interesting to explore even one of the things she's going through. She's going through four or five intense life experiences simultaneously. She's grown up in this community that I think she's always wanted to get out of. It's insinuated with her and her sisters that she was the favorite and thought she was a little bit special and would get out and make something of herself, but she didn't. She's stuck at home with a husband that she's not getting any of her needs met from. They're just missing each other at every moment. Then on top of this, her son dies. So she's in about as vulnerable a place a person can be in.

I remember when we spoke before you said that you also grew up in a place where you didn't fit in and wanted very much to leave. This role really hit a nerve with you, it sounds like.

Yeah, although I grew up in very different places. When I grew up in a small town in Idaho, it was very much made up of people who'd spent their whole lives there, and although it was very different from the community in God's Pocket, you can take away that feeling from it. Then my experience in high school, which was very upsetting and I felt very misunderstood, like I didn't fit anywhere. You can combine those feelings and those memories to help bring a part to life. So I think all those things helped, definitely.

Since you knew your director, John Slattery, so well, I'm guessing there was a lot of shorthand in terms of working together.

I think the first day of work is the same anywhere: you don't know the lay of the land -- who are the cool kids, will you be included, where will you sit in the lunch room, that sort of thing. You get the jitters. So when you talk to a director, you need to speak in a certain way and be a politician about it. I didn't go through any of that with John. We could just be completely straightforward with each other.

We have to talk about Phil Hoffman. He always reminded me more of a musician than an actor, someone like Billie Holiday, Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, because his power came from his pain, if that makes any sense at all.

Yes, absolutely.

Did you get a sense of that from him as an actor? What was your collaboration like?

It was endlessly fascinating. I walked into the first day of rehearsal with him and was very nervous: "What is this going to be like?" "Will I hold my own?" "Will I say anything that's of interest?"

So you still get intimidated, even at this point?

I think everyone does. I think as an actor, you're constantly looking for the truth and perusing honesty and reality and to do that you have to be incredibly vulnerable. So I feel like most people feel quite vulnerable walking into something. And I realized very quickly that Phil was not only interested in being vulnerable, but was interested in what I had to say, and was there to be collaborative and had questions for me, and I had questions for him. He was incredibly giving and understanding and I'd go home at the end of the day filled with all this emotion and heaviness at what my character was going through, but also feeling overwhelmed with a spectacular feeling that came from working with this great talent. And that was the rest of the cast, as well. I came home and just sort of flopped down. That's about as good as it gets.

Like training with Olympic athletes, I'd imagine.

Yeah, or going to a museum and seeing too much beautiful art in one day: it wears you out.

With respect to Phil, it sounds like you're saying that a lot of his power came from being a good listener.

Yes, definitely, but it wasn't just actors who connected with him deeply, audiences connected with him so deeply. I think it's because he is incredibly human and incredibly...he has a way of connecting with every kind of person.

You're still speaking of him in the present tense, which I find fascinating.

I know. Talking about this film today and being able to show it to friends and family tonight, Phil still feels very present to me and very much a part of this project and very real. We have grieved over the past few months and felt a lot of sadness, but on a day like today we can talk about how wonderful our experience was with him and what an amazing person he was, so it's nice.

I think we all see ourselves in an actor like Phil Hoffman, unlike someone like Paul Newman or Robert Redford, who played idealized views of who we'd all like to be. Phil Hoffman is who we really are.

Yeah, and it's the same thing for a woman. It doesn't matter what sort of social status the character he played had, he seems to find the humanity in that person and the goodness in that person in a very, very magical way.

We have to talk about the last season of Mad Men. It's going to leave many broken-hearted people in its wake after the final episode.

I know, for me too!

Watching Joan's character evolve has been amazing. I'm guessing you've spoken with many women over the years whose experiences have helped you to shape your characterization.

Yeah, I'm certainly playing out this very specific woman. She's not based on anyone in particular, but I've talked a lot with [Matthew Weiner] about her. She is her own real-life being, although she's fictional. It's been fun over the years meeting all these people who've come out of the woodwork. I had no idea how many people worked in advertising, or whose parents did, and inhabited this very specific world back in the day. And it's been fun to hear people's stories: "I knew Joan." "My mother was Joan." "I was Joan." So I think that's one reason audiences can relate to her and, in many ways, have been a cheerleader for her. She is so unique, but there are elements that people really connect with.

Is there one episode or season that's your favorite?

Over seven seasons, it's so hard. I'm always nostalgic for season one, because it was all new. Every moment was in Technicolor. I tend to go back to an episode called "Babylon," in season one. It was the episode where all the girls in the office were trying Belle Jolie lipstick. All the girls were on one side of the glass and all the guys were on the other. It was the first time you see Joan manipulating the situation: she leans over and sort of shows her derrière and is bossing the women around, being the queen bee. It also establishes her relationship with Roger: they go to a hotel room together and he gifts her with a birdcage. I love the Roger/Joan stuff, establishing who Joan could be, and how the episode established the sexual politics in the office. And there's also this amazing storyline where Don starts seeing this artist, played by Rosemarie DeWitt, who lives in the Village and they go to a Beat club. To me, it was a very rich episode that encompassed everything. It also encompasses everything I'll miss about it.