For Christina Hendricks, playing Joan Holloway on “Mad Men” (Sunday, AMC) has been an eye-opening experience.
Not only is Joan one of the most intriguing and contradictory people on the drama, but Hendricks has had to deal with a variety of feedback about her character, who is the office manager at the show’s fictional Sterling Cooper ad agency.
Even Hendricks herself had surprising reactions to Joan during the show’s acclaimed first season.
“I remember when I first got the script where (Joan’s) roommate came to the office and she’s just been fired. And Joan says, ‘Sit down, tell me everything that happened,’” Hendricks said in a recent phone interview. “And I remember going, ‘Wait a minute, I don’t know how to play this scene - Joan is being really nice.’”
Joan certainly can be brusque with junior secretaries. But last season, she was tender and sweet with Roger Sterling (John Slattery), her married lover. And though she doesn’t understand the creative goals of Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), a secretary who has been promoted to copywriter, Joan is also an ambitious professional.
“I don’t think a woman (at that time) would be office manager and running the whole place ... if she wasn’t driven,” Hendricks said. “And Joan could go out and find a husband quite easily. She’s an attractive, smart, successful woman, but she’s not pursuing that. She’s doing things that are safe to a certain degree, because she can’t marry a man who’s already married.”
What’s most satisfying is “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner has never made her seem like a TV stereotype.
She’s not a predictable man-eater, a one-note scold or a character who is prone to soapy promiscuity. Joan is a complicated, guarded survivor in an era that wasn’t kind to women with professional ambitions.
At a recent panel discussion of the show, Hendricks recalled one woman in the audience talking about the show’s early ‘60s accuracy.
“As she talked about it, you could tell that the memories were coming up in her and that her body was tensing up,” Hendricks said. “You could tell that watching the show, for her, was certainly bringing up a lot.”
“I never hear anyone say, this is so farfetched. I hear the women say, ‘This is how it was,’ ” she adds.
Fans often ask what it’s like to work on a show in which the male characters can be so sexist: Hendricks says she tells them that her first read-through of the show’s scripts sometimes make her “catch (her) breath.”
“It’s the initial reading that really takes you by surprise, then you just settle in” and play the part, she says.
Though Joan’s behavior sometimes shocks the woman who’s playing her, Hendricks says she also gets a lot of positive feedback.
“I have women coming up to me and saying, ‘I love your character! She’s so empowered. She takes control; she gets what she wants,’” the actress notes. “That’s another side of her. And I respect that in Joan. She says and does things that I would never allow myself to do. Sometimes I think they’re nuts, and sometimes I admire (the actions she takes).”
One of Hendricks’ favorite scenes takes place early in Season 1.
The women on the staff of Sterling Cooper are assembled in a conference room to test lipstick shades for a client. Through a one-way mirror, a group of ad executives watch the women, making sexist comments all the while. At one point, Joan joins the women in the conference room and makes a point of bending over and showing off her alluring figure to the men.
“She was playing. She knew what they were doing on the other side of that mirror,” Hendricks said. “She was taking the control back, instead of being the victim. ... She wasn’t being slutty, she was being confident and sexual. That was one of my favorite scenes. It was one of the best, revealing moments for Joan and I also just love the dynamic of men and women on either side of that glass – I think it sums up a lot about ‘Mad Men’ - in particular, (what goes on) in the office.”
Here’s the text of my interview with Hendricks. It’s been edited and slightly condensed.
MR: It’s been kind of crazy to see all the press attention the show is getting this season
CH: It’s been extraordinary. I’ve never been on a show that people just don’t have anything bad to say about. I’m not scared to read the reviews for once. They tend to be positive, so that’s a really good feeling.
MR: It’s one of those things where I’m like, I want the second season to be good, but I’m almost afraid that it can’t be as great as the first season.
CH: I’m not just saying this - I really think it’s better this year. I think the scripts are extraordinary this year. Last year they were as well, but because now we already know these characters to a certain degree, these scripts are just opening up their worlds and it’s revealing more about them and you’re learning more about them. I just think that’s so interesting.
MR: Yeah, watching Season 1 again on DVD, I thought a lot about that - that you really don’t know these people all that well, we go glimpses of who they are, but there’s still a lot to learn about who they are. It kind of set the stage. ...
CH: Yeah, exactly. There are a lot of characters on the show. In Season 1, each person had an episode to shine, and some more than others. But there were little things revealed, enough to make the characters really rich and to create this world that they’re living in. Now we’ve got the opportunity, now that the background has been laid out, to show more.
MR: Right, Joan is someone we got to know to a degree, but there were all these things you learned about her that you just went, “What?” She could be so awful but then she could be so kind too. Sometimes I don’t know what to make of her.
CH: Sometimes I don’t either (laughs). I think the nice thing is that these characters are really well rounded characters. Sometimes you don’t like Joan. There are things that she does in the office and things that she says and the way she treats Peggy in particular makes people dislike her. And a lot of people could dislike her for having an affair. But then you see how tender she is with (Roger Slattery) and how girlish she is. And she’s just a girl. And then you see her with her roommate – she’s a good friend, but she’s confused. There are all those elements of Joan.
I remember when I first got the script where (Joan’s) roommate came to the office and she’s just been fired. And Joan says, “Sit down, tell me everything that happened.” And I remember going, “Wait a minute, I don’t know how to play this scene – Joan is being really nice.” And (Matt says), “But she is nice. That’s her roommate, and Joan likes her.” “But Joan’s never nice!” It was just another side of her I hadn’t seen yet, I had to figure that out.
MR: There are a lot of great scenes between Joan and Peggy - there’s that one where Peggy says, “I think I understand now. You’re actually trying to be nice.”
CH: It’s true. I think Joan really is trying to be helpful. And Peggy’s behavior is dumbfounding to her. It’s like, “Every other girl came in here and listened to what I had to say. You’re not the first girl to be walked around the office and told what to do. Every other girl is doing that and been just fine.” Here’s this young girl who is not listening to me and I know my advice is good. So it’s really frustrating for Joan.
MR: One thing I’ve been thinking about is, Peggy and Joan are not that different. Maybe both of them are eventually going to get married, but neither of them is on this path to get married and have a house in the suburbs. Neither of them is really pursuing that.
CH: Right, they’re both career-driven in different capacities. Joan is, to her, at the top of her field and that’s exactly where she wants to be. Peggy wants to go in a different direction, but they’re both ambitious and career-driven. I don’t think a woman in 1960 would be office manager and running the whole place and telling everyone where to go if she wasn’t driven. And Joan could go out and find a husband quite easily. She’s an attractive, smart, successful woman but she’s not pursuing that. She’s doing things that are safe to a certain degree, because she can’t marry a man who’s already married.
MR: At the end of last season, she goes out with her roommate and the guy that Joan picks up – well, he’s not exactly the hottest guy in the bar.
CH: He’s so gross! He’s this ridiculous character with this snarky attitude. I think the roommate revealing (that she had romantic feelings for Joan led to Joan’s response of) “Let’s shake this off! Let’s shake it off! Let’s get a meal and pick up a man.” She’s not dealing with it, not in the healthiest of ways.
MR: What was interesting, in that moment with the roommate, was that Joan’s response was, “That didn’t happen.”
CH: The way that I understood it and when I talked to Matt – it was more like, she didn’t really believe that the roommate believed it either. When Joan says, “You’ve had a long day, I’m here for you, you just got fired today.” That’s the only way Joan can (process) it through her brain. She doesn’t really believe that her roommate is a lesbian, it’s absurd.
I think that Joan is being tender in her own way. She’s like, “We’re going to go out, we’re going to see New York City.” It was Joan trying to be tender but at the same time she was not completely acknowledging or completely listening. It was like, “This is messy. Let’s clean it up!”
MR: What do you think Joan really wants from men? I love that (“Long Weekend”) quote from her: “These men, we’re constantly building them up. And for what? Dinner? Jewelry? Who cares!”
CH: It’s interesting, in the pilot, she’s walking Peggy around the office, and she says, “If you play your cards right, you’ll end up with a house in the country and you won’t be here at all.” Which is I think the idea of what every woman wants, yet she’s not pursuing it.
I think that Joan’s probably a bit confused too. She wants it all, and yet like many women, she’s like, “I’m a catch, I’m doing all this, and what are these guys giving us?” It’s like, “I’m putting in my fair share, I’m holding up my end of the bargain.” I think she’s a little disillusioned. And therefore, going out and picking up this guy who isn’t that handsome or interesting, like, “Eh, well, which one of them is?” It’s like, “This will do.” Until she finds the one who she thinks is holding up their end (of the bargain).
MR: The experiences of the women on this show are so interesting, and so different from what we usually see on TV. What’s your reaction to all that, and what’s the reaction you get from other women? I’m sure you’re getting a lot of people walking up to you and giving you their impressions on the show.
CH: That’s one of the first questions, “How is it being on the show, when they treat you like that?” We’re all playing characters, so that is not bizarre at all. The first time we get each script, it’s the time when you flip the page and go, “I can’t believe someone would say that, I can’t believe someone would behave that way.” whether it’s toward women or it’s things we simply do not do any more. It could be socially, racially, environmentally, whatever it is – (you react to) things that make you catch your breath.
Then we have the table read, and most of have a sense of humor that is quite dark, so everyone laughs and cackles at these horrible things. Then you get on set and we start playing these characters and you sort of forget how bizarre and awful and strange it is because that’s how your character acts. It’s the initial reading that really takes you by surprise, then you just settle in.
MR: Do you have a lot of women saying, “It wasn’t like that at all” or “It was really like that back then”?
CH: We do a lot of Q&A panels for the show, and a lot of people will come up afterward and want to say things. And I’ve had a lot of women who were secretaries during that time, or their mothers were, say – it’s amazing how they’ll start out kind of laughing and saying, “I was a secretary at that time and this is spot-on. This is how it was.” I never hear anyone say, this is so farfetched. I hear the women say, “This is how it was.”
It’s almost strange, you can almost see a physical change in their bodies – you see them getting angry. The last (panel) we did, this woman – she wasn’t being aggressive by any means, but as she talked about it, you could tell that the memories were coming up in her and that her body was tensing up. It was interesting to watch her. You could tell that it was watching the show for her was certainly bringing up a lot.
MR: My mother must have said to me a dozen times, “The doctors were really like that. They would treat you like a child and talk to your husband.”
CH: My mother’s a therapist and that (Betty’s husband, Don, getting reports from her therapist on Betty’s sessions) was one of the things that shocked me the most when I read it. My mom, for a while she had her practice in our home, and you did not talk about who came in and out of that door. It was just so confidential. You’re right, it was treating her like a child. And (Don) thought he was being responsible by checking in with (the doctor).
MR: It’s kind of appalling, but I think that’s one of the appeals of the show – it delves into things that still happen, to a lesser degree, but we don’t acknowledge it. Different treatment for different people still happens.
CH: I think it definitely still exists. People hide it better, people are more careful. Even as an actress, it’s a very different business than most, but ... My boyfriend is also an actor and sometimes you go meet people at studios, just to sort of introduce yourself and let them know who you are. My boyfriend’s like, “You’ve got to go in there and be like this and be like that.” And I’m like, (laughing), “First of all, I know how to act. And you know what, a woman can’t act like you do. If I went in with all this comedy and all this pomp they would think I was a (expletive). I would look like a crazy, confident (expletive). You go in, and you’re charming and funny and dynamic and quirky.”
Which he is, and he’s wonderful. But I said to him, “If I went in there and did that, it would be too much. I would be too much.” People are still not ready for women to act like that. They want them to be more demure, they still want them to be sweet. There’s still that element.
MR: There’s still that idea of a man being sort of bold and out there and cheeky – it’s like, “Isn’t he a rascal?” It’s not necessarily a negative thing.
CH: I had someone say to my boyfriend – it’s not someone he particularly likes, luckily – who said, “Wow, when I first met your girlfriend, I didn’t like her at all, but I just love her now.” My boyfriend goes, “What are you talking about, man?” The guy goes, “I just, you know, I like women who are a little bit more demure.” I was just like, “Oh my God, I hate that guy!” I was too confident and cocky for him. I held my own in a conversation and he felt that was a bit obtrusive.
MR: I think a lot of TV shows try to present the world as if we’re in this enlightened world where racism and sexism are a thing of the past – “See, we got past all that!” I don’t know that they really ever explore what it’s like to face these kinds of attitudes. In a weird way, it doesn’t come up enough.
CH: I think you’re right. I think people are scared to show it. Because Matt Weiner is rather fearless and because of the setting of the ‘60s we can throw it all around and no one can be like, (“Gasp!”) because it happened, it existed, but we can all brush it off like and go, “Well, it’s not like that any more.” And also, Matt writes it so beautifully and so real that it’s hard to watch and deny it.
MR: But what was really refreshing to me, and this was sort of an indication that the show was not going to be the usual kind of TV show – on another show, the Joan character would have been the (expletive). The woman who’s just on the hunt for men and who’s really mean to other women.
CH: Right. She’d be a man eater and all the other women would hate her. It’s wonderful for me because, in the past, when you play a female role you’re playing the epitome of a female - you’re the quirky best friend, or the mean (expletive) or the sexy, slutty one. You have to sort of epitomize the (stereotype) in order for them to tell the story. And you’re right, Joan isn’t a (expletive). Sometimes I read the scripts and I say, “I can’t believe she’s doing that!”
But I have women coming up to me and saying, “I love your character! She’s so empowered. She takes control, she gets what she wants.” That’s another side of her. And I respect that in Joan. She says and does things that I would never allow myself to do. Sometimes I think they’re nuts and sometimes I admire (the actions she takes).
MR: And another interesting thing they’ve done is how they’ve treated her sexuality. She sometimes does use her sexuality to get what she wants. But it seems like she’s careful about who she goes out with – with the exception of that random pickup. But there’s that scene where the women are testing out the lipsticks, and she deliberately walks in front of the mirror that the men are watching through and shows off her figure.
CH: She was playing. She knew what they were doing on the other side of that mirror. She was taking the control back, instead of being the victim. She was like, “Oh yeah, I’ll play back.” And she wasn’t being slutty, she was being confident and sexual. That was one of my favorite scenes. It was one of the best, revealing moments for Joan and I also just love the dynamic of men and women on either side of that glass – I think it sums up a lot about “Mad Men” - in particular, (what goes on) in the office. I think that scene is awesome
But you know, I was online and (on one site) there was a picture of me, and under the picture it said, “Floozy.” I thought, “Joan’s not a floozy.” I think there’s indications in Episode 1 (of Season 1) that she’s slept with three men. But you only see her having a relationship with one man through whole (season), apart from that one night. You don’t see her running around town. She’s having a relationship with Roger Sterling.
MR: Right. And let’s talk floozies – Roger and Don.
CH: What do you mean?
MR: They get around.
CH: Oh yeah, but they’re men (laughs). They can do whatever they want. I do have to say, when people write about the show, womanizing is not left out. People do acknowledge that that is something that is definitely happening.
MR: Do you think that Joan really loved Roger? Or was it just that she had affection for him and was sad when he got ill?
CH: I think Joan is smart and always knew what her place was. I think that she probably thought, “Goodie, look what I’ve done, I got the big boss man and he’s charming and dashing.” And then this relationship went on for a while and those moments when they’re in the hotel room – you can see how comfortable he feels talking to her, how comfortable and easy they are together.
Even if you’re a smart woman and you keep reminding yourself, “he’s married, he’s married” – I don’t know a woman, certainly not myself, who can be physical and comfortable and be with a man that long and not start to fall in love. The tenderness and the physicality, the women I know, it would be almost impossible.
When he gets sick, I find those scenes heartbreaking, because she does know her place and she can’t do anything about it. She’s helpless and I find it heartbreaking that she has to be silent. And I think she really does care.
MR: In that scene where he finally returns to the office, he’s not all sentimental, I’ll never forget what he said to Joan - he’s like, “You were the finest piece of (expletive)...”
CH: I know, it’s awful! (laughs)
MR: It was awful, I felt so bad for her.
CH: It’s awful but it’s Roger being as tender and charming as he knows how to be. He was, for him, being really tender. I think Joan knows that too. There’s a sadness, like, “Really, that’s the best you can do?” At the same time, that’s her man. She’s getting just about what she thought she would.