FORTY-EIGHT hours after all-round defeat, and still Christina Hendricks is smiling. “I thought it might go that way,” the woman best known as Mad Men’s Joan Holloway is saying. “Are you kidding me?” she laughs.
The actress is sipping coffee in an empty restaurant near her Los Angeles home, reflecting on the Emmys, the TV awards held the previous weekend. “Did I go? Of course I went,” she says with mock-offence. “I was nominated.”
She was named on the shortlist in the Supporting Actress category for her season-five performance as the ambitious but good-hearted Holloway. But Hendricks lost out to Dame Maggie Smith, honoured for her elaborate millinery, waspish one-liners, puckered lips and hilarious bug-eyed snootiness as the Dowager Countess of Grantham in Downton Abbey.
In the American’s eyes, the venerable British thesp’s performance was always a shoo-in to trounce the curvy-contoured, steely-minded queen of mid-1960s Madison Avenue. From day one I was like, ‘It’s gonna be Maggie Smith.’ I mean, it’s Maggie Smith,” she says with enthusiastic feeling. “She’s a legend, she deserves it, it’s fine. She’s fabulous in Downton Abbey.”
It wasn’t the only disappointment for the generally award-winning Mad Men. For the first time in five years, it lost out in the Outstanding Drama category, with upstart newcomer Homeland stealing its crown. To make matters worse, Jon Hamm – aka Don Draper – failed at the fifth attempt to win the Lead Actor award. That went to another Briton, Damian Lewis, star of the hit thriller about a returning American POW.
But again, Hendricks radiates nothing but bonhomie. She worked with Lewis on his last American series, the short-lived Life. “I was really pleased for Damian. I gave him a big hug afterwards. I love Homeland – I think it’s an amazing show, and he’s awesome on it. It’s interesting because I’ve obviously worked on a show with him where he has an American accent, and I now watch him on a show where he has an American accent, and he got up to give his acceptance speech on Sunday and I’m like, ‘Oh yeah. Right. He’s British.’ He does it so convincingly, I’d kinda forgotten.”
Hendricks has good reason to be thinking about accents right now. We’ve met to discuss her new film, Ginger and Rosa, which is set in London in 1961. Half the principal cast are American, but all their accents are English.
But before we get on to that, a newsflash. Dear reader, in the flesh, Hendricks – one of the most lauded, loved and lionised actresses in Hollywood – doesn’t disappoint.
When I arrive at the restaurant, in LA’s happening Silverlake neighbourhood, she is busy tucking into a full lunch. I feel confident I would also say this if I was female, but, yes, she is as pulchritudinous in real life as she is on screen. Hendricks is dressed to casually dazzle in a red, plunging blouse and dark, tight jeans. The tightly-coiled-for-business hair she sports in Mad Men today tumbles around her shoulders. She’s all woman. In a town full of unreal, unhappy Skeletor womenfolk subsisting on salads and cigs and a crippling gym addiction, Hendricks feels, you know, human. If the sun was over the yard-arm, I bet she would be ordering cocktails.
Perhaps not uncoincidentally, Hendricks is also refreshingly cool. She’s relaxed, relaxing and laughs a lot. An awful lot. No publicist hovers, chaperoning and shepherding. She sorts out the bill herself. She’s managing her own schedule, the allotted time drifts on, there’s no sense of her forcing herself to grit her away through yet another interview, and she freely offers up the idea of us talking further on the telephone if I have more questions about Ginger and Rosa. It’s clearly something of a passion project, one Hendricks could talk about until the cows come home.
No, I am not smitten.
OK, I am a bit.
The 37-year-old plays Natalie, mother to Ginger (Elle Fanning), an adolescent coming of age in the era of nuclear paranoia and the threat of the bomb. She and her lifelong friend Rosa (Alice Englert) are bound together by both having been born on the day of the obliteration of Hiroshima, united by their teenage enthusiasm for CND, but then driven apart by Rosa’s connection with Ginger’s seemingly charismatic, poetry-spouting conscientious objector father Roland (Alessandro Nivola).
So did Hendricks, Boston-born Nivola and Fanning, who is from Georgia, compare notes on their English accents? “Well, first of all Alessandro is married to a Brit,” she laughs, referring to actress Emily Mortimer, “so he lives with it on a daily basis, and he has done lots of films where he has needed to do a British accent. So it was easy-peasy for him. But Elle and I both worked with a dialect coach, so we were all concentrating.”
Ginger and Rosa was written and directed by Sally Potter. She’s a filmmaker known for artful, leftfield projects like Orlando, which starred Tilda Swinton. Beautifully shot and atmospherically low-key, this low-budget film presented Hendricks with a very different kind of project in the annual five-month hiatus between filming Mad Men seasons. Her last big-screen appearance was in Drive, Nicolas Winding Refn’s stylish thriller about a nameless getaway driver, played by Ryan Gosling. She has also squeezed in Struck by Lightning, a dark comedy written by and starring Chris Colfer (best known as Kurt in Glee). I play a naïve, nice stepmother. Sort of a little bit innocent. And a little ... dozy,” she smiles.
“It’s a lighter project. I just read this kid’s script – I shouldn’t call him a kid, he’s not a kid any more – and it’s great and really well written and he has a great, dark sense of humour and he got together a great cast of people I wanted to work with, and I was proud to be in his first movie.”
Ginger and Rosa offered another refreshing change of pace: a British arthouse indie film. One in which Hendricks gets to sing and rock a mean accordion. She also learned piano to play ‘bohemian’ Natalie, although most of those scenes ended up on the cutting-room floor. “I studied piano when I was little but I haven’t played since I was about ten years old. But because I play a little accordion anyway, the right hand came to me, and the left hand I had to do the ‘Good Boys Do Fine Always’ – those mental tricks – to remember chords.”
She first picked up the accordion six or so years ago, practised for a while, then landed a TV job in Canada. “I had to drop it. Then, a couple of seasons ago, I got to play it in Mad Men.”
Is whipping out the accordion her party trick? Hendricks practically guffaws at the suggestion. “If I’ve had a few drinks it is the scariest-sounding thing you ever heard. I’m like, ‘No, wait, wait, I can play the can-can, honest. I swear I can play La Vie en Rose ... Well, it sounds something like it ...’”
Hendricks may have only become internationally well known as an actress in her early 30s, when Mad Men premiered. But she has been performing one way or another for half her life. The daughter of an English-born father who worked for the US forestry service and a psychologist mother, her first career was modelling. She moved to New York from her home in small-town Idaho when she was 18 and carved out a decent career being photographed for magazines and advertisements.
But it was during a year-long sojourn in London in the mid-1990s that she decided to change career path. The modelling jobs were drying up and she was broke. Her mother, who was by now divorced from her father, was contemplating following Hendricks’s brother and moving to LA. “I was getting sort of tired of moving around so much and living in flats that had been furnished with someone else’s stuff and always living in a suitcase,” she recalls. So she joined her mother and brother in California.
“And I’d always been really into music, and I thought, ‘Well, maybe I’ll try to work in a record company or something like that. That would be really cool.’ And I’d always wanted to be an actress – I hadn’t studied but I’d done theatre my whole life. But for some reason I just never thought of it as a profession. I just thought it would always be something I would do in community theatre – I didn’t know you could make money at it and pay your rent.”
To make ends meet in the meantime, she kept modelling in LA. Then she was approached by an industry figure keen to manage her as an actress. Hendricks was savvy enough to hold back. “I didn’t want to just all of a sudden start going on auditions – I didn’t want to be considered a model-slash-actress. I wanted to be an actress.”
She declined the offer, but asked the would-be manager to hook her up with an acting teacher. Two years later, she decided she had studied enough and was finally ready. She called him back, signed up, landed an agent and started auditioning. Six months later, she was in Vancouver shooting a TV series. “It was crazy,” she admits of her speedy success. She was, quickly, living the dream. “Kinda,” she laughs.
“I remember calling my boyfriend at the time, who was an actor as well. When I’d gone to audition for the show he had said, ‘Listen, you’re gonna be testing with some other girls, it’s really nerve-wracking, don’t get your feelings hurt, it’s no big deal, you’ve got to do 100 of these before you get one.’ I’m like, ‘I know, I know, I know.’ So then I called him and said, ‘I got it.’ He was like, ‘What? Wait a minute, that’s not fair.’”
And now she’s Joan Holloway, one of the greatest roles in television, in a reliably superlative show that remains a testament to the writing skills of creator Matthew Weiner. In the last season of Mad Men, which ended in the summer, the secretary-turned-partner at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce had some of the meatiest storylines, notably leaving her husband and sleeping with a less-than-fragrant client to ensure professional advancement. Now, as she faces the imminent start of shooting on season six, has Hendricks shaken off the heaviness of those plots? “Oh, I loved it,” she says with relish.
“I loved doing that stuff. I was so excited to have all that material to work with, and some very fulfilling wrap-ups on some things – beating the husband to the curb was a long time coming. Joan doesn’t get to raise her voice and get irate very often, so that was great to do – to see what would take her to that limit, what would push her to the edge and allow us to show that side of her. And certainly she was challenged. I thought it was great. I hope to get to do more stuff like that this season.”
Early on in Mad Men’s run, Hendricks took mild issue with one of Weiner’s scripts. She felt a line said by Joan could be seen by viewers as racist. Is she empowered to challenge the show’s all-seeing, all-controlling boss? Does she feel sufficient ownership over her character to say, “I don’t think Joan would do this”? “Well, I can talk to Matt about anything. Sometimes he will tell me a storyline and be like, ‘Do you like it? Is it good?’ And it always is. Because he’s so smart and creative.
“But he presented this idea to me maybe a season or two ago, the storyline that Joan would be intimate with this businessman for these opportunities. And I didn’t know at the time what the consequences of her actions would be, that they would be so sort of positive ... at least thus far.
“So that was very interesting – I thought that made the storyline even more exciting. And really, after that first time that I sort of doubted whether it was a good idea – where I thought she could have been construed as racist – I just have trusted Matt.
“I mean,” she qualifies, “in the back of my head [in the last season], I thought, ‘Oh no, are people gonna hate Joan? Are they gonna just think that she’s a whore?’ But that was me not realising or taking into account the extraordinary writing and that there were a million reasons why she would have done it, and that they would show that and it would be very obvious. So I thought it was handled really well.”
The trust runs deep, and Weiner makes it easy for his cast. As Mad Men has advanced through the 1960s, the scenes and settings have remained meticulously, accurately drawn – the right fashions, the correct music, the appropriate drinks. The scripts are equally pin-point precise. “There’s a lot on the page – there’s a lot of stage direction. ‘Joan picks up a coffee cup; Joan puts down a coffee cup.’”
And this micro-management of the construction of the Mad Men world is part of the show’s enduring appeal. “People love sitting there nitpicking to see if we’ve put something incorrect in there,” she nods. “It’s sort of a hobby. It’s kinda fun. And it’s because the crew takes so much pride in being meticulous about that, and doing their research. They spend hours looking for Dixie [paper] cups that would have been from that year on eBay – and they find them. It’s so cool.”
As you’re reading this, Hendricks will be back on the Mad Men set, with the action moving to 1968. Weiner has already said he feels the show will be done in seven seasons. She thinks he has the story arcs mapped out “to a certain degree”. As the 1960s draw to a close, it feels like a logical end. “Yeah, I don’t know that he wants to go into the 1970s too much. I don’t know if you want to see us all in kaftans and Afros and flares,” she chuckles.
“But I decided that, just to drive him crazy, I’m gonna put a suggestion box outside of Matt’s office this year,” she laughs. “Because no one would ever dare. I just think it would be really funny. He might get a hoot out of people’s storyline ideas. Every year, I’m like, ‘Matt, Halloween episode.’ He’s like, ‘Gimme a break.’”
And for her next trick, in her final between-series Mad Men break, Hendricks is undertaking a film that couldn’t be further from Ginger and Rosa. In spring 2013 she begins work on the writing/directorial debut of her Drive co-star. In the “surreal, dark fantasy” film How to Catch a Monster, Gosling has cast her as a fetish club worker. Does this mean she’ll be wearing rubber? She inhales. “I will end up being, yes ...” she begins, then pauses. “Mostly I’m a mother, a protective mother ...”
Who, to make ends meet, gets a job in a fetish club? “Kinda,” she says brightly.
“It’s very creative and interesting. It’s not as obvious and blatant as you might think. We haven’t got to costuming yet. But I will be very hands-on, I assure you.”
Joan Holloway as dominatrix? Ah well, perhaps not that much of a departure after all.
Ginger and Rosa is in cinemas now. Season five of Mad Men is released on DVD on 29 October.
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