Christina Hendricks. Portrait by Leslie Hassler.
Often, as a journalist, you need to ask questions about projects you have not yet seen and do not initially care about, like Peruvian goats doing ballet in the Somalian desert. But it is an entirely different scenario when you will ask questions about a project that reveals you to own all four box-sets, in DVD and in Blu-Ray. When you have seen every episode twice and then watched the commentary. Twice. When you are such a big believer, this can sometime work against your journalistic skill-set, as evidenced by Chris Farley interviewing Paul McCartney on SNL.
Chris: (sweating and bleating, slightly) "Do you remember, um, when you were with The Beatles?"
Chris: (breathing heavily) (PAUSE) (more heavy breathing) "That was awesome!"
Along with millions of others, I feel this way about the television show, Mad Men. Mad Men, created by Matthew Weiner, is one of the finest television series to grace our screens, ever. It has taken us back in time, to see ourselves with the advantage of hindsight. And in doing so, it tells us about who we are now. They say hindsight is 20-20. But this is 20-20 vision with the additional modern benefits of LASIK. The result is sometimes beautiful, sometimes ugly, but never less than utterly extraordinary.
Christina Hendricks plays Joan Holloway (now Harris). Christina has the old-world, but never old, sex appeal of our Marilyn, and is perhaps our first red-headed pin-up since Rita Hayworth. But if the term 'pin-up' refers to a flat photograph, then Hendricks is in 3-D. Hers is a true sensuality, not one that has to be manufactured. She is a celebration of femininity and beauty. And she has major acting chops.
Her Joan has a power in her sexuality and her intelligence that make her a force to be reckoned with and she is a master of social nuance and has come to the rescue of each character, more than once. At the same time, by the fate of her gender, she has a permanent handicap. We watch her fall, dust herself off, and get back up, again and again. Sometimes her situation is pitiable, but she is always strong, always proud. And we are unwaveringly compelled to root for her, no matter how poor her odds. It doesn't hurt that she is simply glorious, in looks and in aspect.
Hendricks is having one hell of a great week. In addition to currently shooting Mad Men, she has two films opening this Friday, and has been nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Emmy. Nice work if you can get it.
With its all-star cast, Ryan Gosling, Albert Brooks, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, and Hendricks, Drive has been receiving thirteen-minute standing ovations and its director, Nicholas Winding Refn, won top honors at Cannes. Escaping from the cinematic criminal element, Hendricks is also starring in I Don't Know How She Does It with Sarah Jessica Parker and Pierce Brosnan.
Live, Hendricks' voice is lighter and livelier. She is happier, more excited, and more likely to laugh. And we do a lot of laughing. Even though there are no libations, sixty minutes with Christina Hendricks is the best kind of Happy Hour imaginable.
What did you think when you saw your new film, Drive?
I think it's like Mad Men where you read the script and you know it's going to be great -- you just don't know if everyone else will catch on. Like Mad Men, it's gotten an amazing critical reception. Unfortunately, I wasn't there when they saw it in Toronto, because Ryan has become a superhero over there. Apparently, they just went nuts for it!
He has definitely achieved some kind of Superman status. He only needs a cape! (laughter) Also like Mad Men, it's an incredible ensemble piece. In all of your projects you've chosen the best writers out there. Are writers important to you?
They are beautifully written pieces, all of them. I try to find the best quality and to do projects that excite me like Mad Men did when I first read it.
What did you think when you first saw the script for Mad Men? How did you know it was special?
The second I read it, I knew. And I wasn't alone. There we were, all of these actors, during pilot season. We were auditioning for four or five things a day and they all started to blend together. Some doctor show, some other doctor show -- you forget which is which! Mad Men stood out in the crowd by a mile. There was even a buzz around town with the actors, "Oh did you read this one? This is the one I can't wait to audition for, This is the one I want." We also knew it was on AMC. At that time they had no other shows and we had no idea if anyone would ever see it! I had seen other shows that should have been commercial successes but they didn't make it. So I thought, let me be a part of the one I'm in love with.
Are we really going to have to wait until 2012 to see Mad Men again? I'm crying into my martini!
But at least you still have the martini! (laughter) It is a long wait, for the fans, and for us. We're really happy to be back but we're already working on a fourth episode. There are some big surprises coming.
The day after 9/11, I was walking down 14th St. in Manhattan. And there was your co-star, John Slattery! (Joan's long-time boss and lover, Roger Sterling) He was volunteering -- helping people and carrying things-- it was amazing. Is your wonderful chemistry with him as lush as it looks?
Oh, he is just an extraordinary actor and he makes me a better actress. I love every single time I get to work with him. It's wonderful.
Was the part of Joan Holloway a guest-starring role, initially?
I did the pilot as a guest star and they were still making a decision about what to do with the character. Matt Weiner decided once he saw Joan and Peggy together, that there couldn't be a Peggy without Joan or a Joan without Peggy. He thought it would be a great storytelling technique to show those two women together. So I got to stick around.
It is amazing how some of the richest parts on television right now started as guest-spots. It is impossible to imagine the show without you.
That's good. I don't want you to be able to imagine it without me! (laughter)
Christina Hendricks. Portrait by Leslie Hassler.
It seems like Joan and Don Draper would be a natural pairing for drama, in terms of their natural street savvy and charisma. We've watched Elizabeth Moss and Jon Hamm get closer this last season, to phenomenal effect. (Episode: "The Suitcase") Do you think that will happen with Don and Joan?
I hope so. I love working with Jon and it's true that we haven't had one-on-one scenes together. But in the moments with just the two of us, people have really responded. He's such a fine actor. I hope there will be more of that.
It was surprising to see him at an AMC after-party. He looked like such a kind and upstanding person. Almost like Atticus Finch, as a fireman! There was none of the weary pathos we see episode to episode.
Everyone expects him to be Don Draper! You know, he's so great at comedy too. You take that gel out of his hair (laughter) and he becomes an entirely different guy. It's a testament to how talented he is.
He is, truly. On the show, Joan is a kind of social mastermind. She controls the office, she's 10 steps ahead of everyone else, but because of where women are during that time she has to pose behind her lipstick and her girdle, to keep people comfortable. What is it like to know that she has these facilities but can't always use them?
It's extraordinary to play that as an actress. You have to consider it every time you make a character choice. You have to go about it knowing that she has limitations and restraints. She cannot act as Christina would in a situation. She has a ceiling above her. She's incredible at what she does, she's an extraordinary asset and people recognize her, but there is also a common knowledge that she will not take it any further. What's interesting about the character is that she doesn't sit around and moon about what she can't do. She takes pride in everything she has achieved.
Absolutely. There've been a few times on the show where Joan says something that is barely admissible even for the former time period we're in. There is the situation with her coworker's black girlfriend. And then also the confrontation with the two men who could potentially serve in Vietnam. Why is Joan able to say things that would make someone else completely unlikable and get away with them?
The line you're talking about -- with Paul Kinsey's black girlfriend. I called Matt Weiner and I said, "Oh boy! This is upsetting me." He said, "No, no, no, she's not racist. She's calling things like she sees them." Paul is trying to impress people with his open-mindedness and she's knocking him back down a peg. The one thing about Joan is that she's honest if nothing else. She is certainly a woman of her times. What she's really saying is, "Everyone around you can see what you're doing. Just so you know."
Wow. She is "the great leveler"
... and sometimes it's quite vicious. And when she has that horrific scene with the guys. She's being backed into a corner, her powers are being taken away and she's scared. And that's how she lashes out.
And that's what people do. It's when we are afraid that the most "interesting" things come out of our mouths.
Exactly. And of course, we're watching it in hindsight so we know just how serious it is, what she's saying. (Telling two draft-eligibly young men who have behaved very badly -- "I hope you die in Vietnam.") It's those kinds of moments that Matt writes so well, they take your breath away and they make you think.
Do you really play the accordion? Viewers had to wonder if you had a stunt-accordion-body-double?
(laughs) I do! I was thrilled that I got to play it on the show. I keep it out in my room and look at it to remind myself to practice.
What is so wonderful about Joan playing the accordion is that it was so unexpected. How did this come to be?
They called me up and they said do you speak French and do you play the piano? And I said no but number 1.) I'll learn French and 2.) I play the accordion.
Even better! Is it true that you became a redhead at age 10 after reading Anne of Green Gables? How did you have the presence of mind at that age to know who you would become?
My mother is a fun-loving spirit who made it okay for me to go to the drugstore and throw a Clairol Loving Care over-the-gray rinse on my hair! I guess I've always felt like a redhead.
What is it like having a Mattel Barbie fashioned in your likeness?
All I can say is that it's completely surreal. I can look down and it says Joan, but it's me, and I still don't think I fully register that.
I heard Mattel was supposed to be making you your own Christina doll. Did they?
They did! And it's wearing my gold dress from the Golden Globes. But I have to go down to Mattel to pick it up. So, she's down there waiting for me. I need a free day to go get her.
Which brings us back to your promoting Drive: Nicolas Winding Refn. He took Ryan Gosling every night for pie at the 101 Hollywood coffee-shop. Any pie for you?
I got a late-night call saying, "Hey, come join us" but I was already headed to bed, so I didn't get pie. Pretty stupid move, on my part. Not to go get pie with Ryan Gosling and Nicholas. It was my bedtime.
A late-night Ryan Gosling sharing his pie is in all likelihood, the fantasy of millions. What was it like to live a life of crime in your new film, Drive?
It was so fun because it's so completely opposite from what I'm doing on Mad Men. She's this down-and-out, that girl caught up in the room around and gets herself in a pretty bad situation. I had seen Bronson (directed by Refn) and I was floored. I thought he was so talented that when I got the chance to work with him, I jumped at it.
Ryan Gosling has this great intensity as an actor, even when he acts with inanimate objects (Lars and the Real Girl) it's exciting. Your scenes with him in Drive involve very high stakes. What was that like?
The whole world is in love with him right now -- with good reason. He's an incredible actor and the scenes I have with him in particular are as you said, "high-stakes" and they were intense. It was our first day of shooting and it was maybe 100° in this hotel room with the crew -- it felt very real. That's because he's so good. I'm dying to work with him again.
Speaking of being good, what does it feel like to be up for an Emmy? Often it is the supporting roles where a lot of the best acting happens.
Thank you for saying that. It feels like an incredible honor. To work this hard on the show, and every season we go in, we are nervous to start again because there is no sense of "I've been here, so now I can relax," it really feels like we have to make it better each year. The material gets more intense each season and I want to be as true to that as possible and to be able to have this kind of writing to work with -- you just have to sink your teeth into it and work as hard as possible. And my parents are proud. (giggles) My dad's coming out with his girlfriend and I'm getting to take one of the children from Make-A-Wish -- He will get his wish to go to the Emmys.
How beautiful to be able to do that for a child! Speaking of childhood dreams, what was it like when you spoke to Woody Allen?
I was a nervous wreck. I was shaking and sweating and it was about two seconds long and I thought, "Oh no! Did I say the wrong thing? I don't know what happened!" I'm an incredibly huge fan and hopefully I'll get to meet him someday.
I would bet my Barbie on it.
Drive Website: http://www.drive-movie.com/
I Don't Know How She Does It Website: http://howshedoesitmovie.com/
Mad Men, on AMC: http://www.amctv.com/shows/mad-men
To see more of photographer Leslie Hassler's work: http://www.lesliehassler.com/
Follow Cynthia Ellis on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CynthiaJEllis