I start my interview with Jessica Paré the least professional way possible: kvelling. I can’t help it. Jessica, who plays Don Draper’s young wife Megan on Mad Men, is on arguably one of the greatest TV shows of all time. Great writing, great acting; and it’s a visual wet dream. Also, Jessica looks just like the model on the cover of Herb Alpert’s Whipped Cream & Other Delights, which was my childhood obsession, so I am full tilt kvell. Jessica has an easy attitude as she talks. Yes, you could blame it on being Canadian (sorry Canada, you polite bastards), but really, I think she’s just enjoying the ride. That said, Jessica is very aware (along with the rest of us) that the show’s ending is in sight. For us it means a little bit of the sads, and then refiguring our Sunday nights. For Jessica it means finding the next gig while knowing that lightning rarely strikes twice.
We spoke on the phone about what it’s like to play the very thing she is; a youngpretty actress trying to make it big in the business of show.
Alec: Are there choices you’ve made about how good Megan is as an actor?
Jessica: I think she’s getting better as an actor. She’s had some tough times adjusting to L.A., but I feel good about her career. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I have confidence in her.
How do you play that? How do you “act” acting?
In terms of making decisions about playing that kind of stuff, one of the amazing things about the writers we work with is that it’s very clear… the sense of these characters is on the page.
I love when Megan’s agent tells Don that she’s not behaving right with casting agents, outing her for hounding directors in restaurants. It’s such a heartbreaking moment. There is such a fine line between being aggressively confident as an actor and begging for a role.
There are so many times when I feel like I’ve been in these types of situations… feeling this horrible desperation and anxiety. I think stalking somebody at their lunch (laughs) is such a good story, and it’s one you’ve heard so many times. I mean it’s kind of a horror story, but you also hear the flip side to that, where the person goes and seeks out the director or casting agent and actually gets the gig. It’s one of those things of legend where it could really set you off in the right direction, or it could really backfire.
Have you felt that desperation / confidence?
Of course! Every audition experience is like that! Every single fucking one! The thing about being in Hollywood is that, yes it beats people down, but it does it really slowly. I came to L.A. because I got a job on a show. But when I tried to get another job, because of my citizenship situation… it just took a really long time for me to get a foothold in the industry and get another job. Mad Men really changed my life. Before I got this job I was moving back to Canada.
No. For real?
Yeah, back to Montreal. I kind of had nothing left to lose when I went into my audition. I was like, “If you don’t like it, it’s no big deal. Nobody else has.”
So many actors talk about their success happening like that. It’s that complete exhale of exhaustion that maybe allows them to let go.
I think it’s like what’s happening with Megan in that episode (with the agent). It’s so hard when you think you are right for a part, but it almost never happens. So when you have that moment where you feel like, “I am the only person for this role,” it’s hard to then go into the room and not reek of desperation. Clinging to that tiny little bit of hope is what’s happening with Megan at that point. So on the other hand, when you’re fucking over it and you’re like, “I don’t care about this. I don’t care about you. I’m jumping off this cliff,” you’re standing on your own feet, however exhausted you are.
That’s why I couldn’t have been cast as Megan. I’d have given her an eye twitch. Like, when Don first sees her after the meeting with the agent, I’d look hot, but there’d be something a little… off.
(laughing) Well, first of all, she’s not going nuts! She’s trying something, and she feels in her heart of hearts that she needs to communicate something. Also, She had a bad day. Let her be! You can’t judge her for having a bad day. Don comes and it’s like Dad is showing up, basically saying, “I heard you got into the liquor cabinet.” She’s trying to make it. She shouldn’t be incarcerated for one goddam misstep!
So, when you were hitting your wall, were you going to go back home and continue acting, or were you thinking, “I’ve given this acting thing its fair chance and now I’m done?”
I thought about both. Even before Mad Men, I’d done some really interesting projects and I’ve worked with really interesting people. I’ve done a lot of great stuff that I’m super proud of. But, at that point I was like, you give the best years of your life to this career that gives you nothing in return. You get flowers once a year and you’re on your knees again.
Wow. But are you saying you would go back and start a new career, or you would just be happy going home to do regional theater?
Well, to be fair, we do have a film and television industry in Canada.
(Ouch. Burn.) Yes, of course…
But I don’t know. I think every actor who gets to the end of a project thinks, “That’s it. I’ll probably never work again”. It’s just, I don’t want to do anything else.
What was your audition like for Mad Men? I read you first auditioned for another part.
At the beginning of season four, Don is sleeping with a prostitute. If I remember correctly, in the scene, she keeps slapping him.
Fun. But you didn’t get it?
I was told it wasn’t because I did a bad job.
Did you then have to audition for Megan, or did they keep you in mind for the part based on Slappy the prostitute?
No, I came in twice more for the role of Megan.
Do you go into your audition trying to look super 60s, or does that seem futile?
Everybody does. Every man in the room is wearing a suit, and every woman is wearing a proper blouse and a pencil skirt. It was pretty hysterical. I am of two minds around dressing for an audition. I never want to look like I’m in a costume. I think people have more of an imagination than that. But of course with a period piece, you want to touch on it.
There’s something about your face that feels so of the time. You really rock that 60s look.
Well, I’d love to take credit for rocking the look like that, but there’s an incredible hair, makeup and costume team that work seamlessly together. The looks I wear are so iconic. They are so recognizable, so you have to make it seem like a real person is wearing it. That’s where they are so brilliant. They nail the looks so hard, but you believe it. It’s not John Travolta wearing a bad wig in Hairspray, with all due respect.
Did you do research to learn about the fashion and style of the times? The history? Is that something you want to do to inform yourself, or are you just turning yourself over as a blank canvas?
In terms of the look, I fully assume blank canvas status. I could never do better than those women. Although, this last season, I did want to see how far we could go with makeup, because that period is so wild. I don’t know if you’ve experienced having a strip of fake lashes glued to the water line of your bottom lash?
I have not. My boyfriend probably has, though.
It’s quite the experience, and to wear for a 16-hour day, it’s crazy. But it’s real. I am so game for all of that!
Has any of the Mad Men style rubbed off on your homelife?
I like it to be minimalist, but warm, so mid-century stuff, a lot of the Danish wood really appeals to me. Both of the apartments (on the show) are amazing. That New York apartment!
Ugh! Love It.
Right?! That fucking living room is probably the most amazing set I’ve ever seen. It looks amazing on camera, and it’s amazing to shoot in. Then Megan’s L.A. home, which by the way, I didn’t know anything coming into the season, so when I came back I wasn’t sure how long I would be around. When I heard they had built “Megan Draper’s House” in the studio I was like, YES!
So, even with the end in sight, things seem good. A great home in the hills for Megan and you get to play with Jon Hamm all day.
He is amazing. He cares. He gives a shit. He’s interested in what people have going on and what they’re doing. I came on after the show was an established hit. Those guys have nothing to prove, but they (the cast) are all so playful and collaborative. Jon is so generous. He’s physically larger than life and should be so intimidating, but he’s so warm. He gives so much of himself to everyone he works with whether it’s someone like me doing scenes with him every day or someone coming in to do one line. He’s also really goddam funny.
Jessica’s own kvelling suddenly stops as she quietly confesses, “It’s just… it’s going to be hard to say goodbye.” For all of us, Jessica. For all of us.