I recently sat down with Christina Hendricks, star of Drive and probably most known for her role as Joan in AMC’s Mad Men. She was looking very much like the famed character at the recent press junket for Drive. She tuned out to be as lively and lovely as one would hope. We cover the process of taking on a role as open to interpretation as Blanche vs. the established choices for Joan, how the characters compare against each other, what color(s) her heart is, and a bit of a preview of this season of Mad Men. But we don’t find out how much her haircut is, much to the disappointment of one New York City hairdresser.
The following is a transcript of that interview, with questions from myself and other members of the media in bold. Ms. Hendricks’ answers follow.
The Film Stage: What was the process like preparing for this role?
Christina Hendricks: Really it was spending an afternoon with Nicolas [Winding Refn, director of Drive] talking about this character. You know, the character doesn’t have a lot of lines and we have to make a lot of assumptions about who this person is and wanted her to be a rich character, so when the sort of horrific things happen to her you feel something. So we spent the afternoon talking about Blanche [her character] and where she probably grew up and what she probably did and how she got in to this situation and sort of laughed about it a little bit and got a very clear idea of what she’d probably wear. It was just a fun conversation with Nicolas.
She kind of reminded me of another Blanche…from Streetcar?
DuBois? (laughs) Really?
In the neediness. It seemed like she had such a desperation to her.
I think she’s a person who got herself…I don’t think she was a bad girl, I think she got caught up in a bad situation and didn’t really know how to get out. She doesn’t really want to be there but she doesn’t know what else to do.
Here we are in season five already, so now we all know our characters quite well and we’ve established these people so now when we go back….it’s really nice, actually, because there’s so much information that we have about our characters now that they’re these very rich, full stories and each time we get a new script it’s like, “well she would behave this way because in season two this happened and season three this happened and season one this happened” so this is how she feels about this person, and this person, and this person. It’s this very, very textured world, so that makes it somewhat easy to go back and to drop back into character and just continue telling these stories.
And your character in Drive is so polar opposite to Joan–
In the way that she doesn’t necessarily drive the scene.
She definitely takes (laughs to herself) literally a back seat role in this, yeah. She doesn’t have the confidence and the chutzpah that Joan has. Sadly. She could use a little.
You think her life would be different if she had that quality?
Certainly that’s a survival quality that Joan has and I think that’s why a lot of people respond to her character and have this supportive feeling towards her because she’s a survivor. She gets back up again when knocked down, and Blanche doesn’t, so much.
As an actress, is it more fulfilling to go through the process where you’re with Joan and you’re able to make that character as you go along or to inform the Blanche character here? They’re two different tools, so do you have a preference for one or the other?
They’re so different it’s hard to compare. I was obviously drawn to playing Blanche because she was so completely different and because after seeing Nic’s work and having seen Bronson and the type of energy and style and how modern it feels is so different from what I’m doing [on Mad Men]. It’s sort of exciting to do something completely different coming straight out of Mad Men. Of course the process is entirely different. There’s some security in having such back story in Joan as far as what choices you make as it makes the choices quite simple, you know, because you have so much history. Sometimes it can be scarier when you have very little information because you’re creating so much on your own and you hope that’s what the director was thinking, or the producer was thinking, and the writer was thinking as well. You don’t want to do disservice to the story.
How do you think this movie is different compared to other movies in the same kind of genre?
I think this movie is different from everything right now. I think what Nicolas is doing is very different, and that’s why I was really excited to work with him. I don’t know if any of you have seen Bronson but when I saw this movie, I hadn’t felt that excited about a film in a really long time. It was sort of [like] the way I felt the first time I saw Trainspotting. It was dark, but it had this energy, and you didn’t know what to feel afterwards, and that’s how I felt after I watched Bronson. So I had an idea of how stylized Drive was going to be and what Nicolas was going to bring to it. Even knowing the script and knowing Nicolas and knowing everything, when I sat down to watch it I was bowled over with surprise and the excitement that I wanted to feel. The soundtrack’s fantastic and there’s an energy about it.
The scene in the motel room. It’s very tense. Could you talk about the experience of shooting that scene?
It was actually the very first day of shooting on the movie, entirely. It was about a hundred degrees, and we were shooting in this tiny, little hotel room with a crew of people there. I had just met Ryan [Gosling] and he’s throwing me on a bed (laughs) and I was terrified. Rationally I knew I [shouldn’t] be scared, but everything felt so real in that room. The danger felt real because it was uncomfortable, and Ryan is such an amazing actor as well. As intense as it looked, it felt.
Do you feel that spending so much time in the world of Mad Men and the sixties that there’s a transition period returning to the present?
It’s funny. Now that we’re on season five of Mad Men there are certain things that we’re so used to adjusting to when approaching our characters. I know that when I play Joan and she’s going to react a certain way, I have to remember that she can only behave this way because the men at work wouldn’t want her to act this way, or it’s only appropriate to act this way, or a lady would do this. It’s become so natural to me to look at the scripts in that way that I immediately almost become a woman of the 60’s in my mindset. It’s so [linked to] the storytelling of Mad Men and Matt [Weiner, creator/show runner]’s writing. When I read a different script, I’m completely taken out of that and zoomed into a different storytelling mode. [Mad Men] feels very specific and very different.
When you read Drive, did you first think of it through that 60’s sensibility–
–Or were you able to get into–
–No, no. I can differentiate quite clearly. In fact, it’s funny when we have guest stars on Mad Men we always have a table read of the script with the entire cast the day before we start filming that episode. The guest cast doesn’t get the script until the day they’re there as it’s so secretive and [production doesn’t] want them to have pages [of the script] that could get leaked anywhere. And you always see this look of surprise on their face because there’s so many things that are different. [It’s like how] the audience feels when they watch it. “I can’t believe these people are throwing trash in the park,” and “I can’t believe these kids are running around with bags on their heads,” and we’ve gotten so used to it….we still laugh, but we’ve gotten so used to it, that it’s fun to see guests who come in and have to come on set and they’re smoking these fake cigarettes and they’re like [choking sounds] and we go, “Welcome to Mad Men!” (laughs) You know, but they’re still getting used to it where it really feels like home to [the cast] now. It’s fun to see someone come on set for the first time and see how all the bookshelves are really just loaded with books from the time, and the magazines are all from the month [in the show] and it really is special to come on set for the first time. How meticulous they are with everything.
I just got back to Mad Men, guys! (laughs) I do have a couple movies lined up that I’m excited about working on. We’re going to see if they come together during this season of Mad Men or we might wait for hiatus. I also went back and did some theatre this year, did a musical, and I had a blast so I’d like in to doing more of that. Coming to New York and doing some more theatre would be really great.
Mad Men is shooting right now?
Were you let go…
Yes. Much to their chagrin, yes. I was able to get away for a couple of days but I’m going straight back to work on Thursday. We’re already on our fourth episode.
Very nice. And it’s a March premiere, I’ve heard?
March, yeah. It’s strange. Normally we shoot about four episodes and then it starts airing. This year we will have shot the entire season before it starts airing, which is kind of nice in a way, because you don’t know how people are responding and you’re just doing your work, and you’re not thinking about audience response or anything else. You’re just going to work and doing your best job and that’s it, so it’s kind of nice.
And could you give us a little preview?
(smiles) I wish I could, I wish I could. I’ll tell you it’s good. There’s some surprises, I can tell you that. There’s something to look forward to. (laughs)
I just watched the season four finale and it was just so great to watch Joan and Peggy [Elizabeth Moss] finally have the conversation we’ve wanted them to have for so long.
I know. It’s funny, we watched that at a screening here in New York with a room full of people. We hadn’t seen it yet. Elizabeth Moss and I both started to cry a little bit because we feel so attached to those characters and her and I have been sort of like sisters from the beginning, always had this power play. It was such a nice moment to see those two characters finally bond. Just two women sitting together instead of this powerplay between the two of them. I think the audience wanted that for a long time and we certainly did, so we got a little choked up. It was nice.
And Joan seems to be getting more vulnerable through the series. Is that something that continues?
Like I said, we’re only on episode four, so there’s a lot yet to be seen. But I was talking to one of the guys in the crew the other day and he goes, “I was just watching seasons one and two and Joan was a lot sassier back then!” And I think she was really sassy, but that’s what’s so great about Matt’s writing and all the writers on the show is that these characters change and grow and you’re not going to see the same thing over and over. They’re living as real lives as fake people can live (laughs). Y’know, she’s had a couple of rough years and it’s beaten her down a little bit, but she keeps getting back up. But it’s taken a little bit of sass out of her pants I think (laughs).
And apparently being a mother could help her in that way.
We’ll see. We’ll see.
With fashion week in New York, Joan has become the quintessential element of the Mad Men fashion movement that’s taken everything by storm. How do you react to all of that?
It’s really exciting. It’s been really fun to see Janie Bryant, our costume designer who’s amazing, just did a line for Banana Republic. Now, for three or four years, hearing designers say they were inspired by Mad Men and it’s brought back what I think is a quite classical, lady-like look that I think is very attractive, so I’m happy that it’s easier to find now in the stores. But I have to be careful not to wear to much of it because I look like I’m in costume and I’m just totally crazy walking around like Joan. You know, I have to be a little bit careful.
You’re looking very Mad Men today.
You think so? I’ve got my hair down at least. I don’t have a bun in my hair (laughs).
How is it as an actress being in such a cultural phenomenon as well? I’m sure people see you, and with the red hair, it’s a little hard not to be Joan out in the world.
Yeah it’s….to be honest? It’s been surreal. It really has. It’s been this slow build of the show. We shot season one and not many people had seen it. Every once and a while we’d be out at a restaurant and someone would come up and go, “excuse me,” and I thought they were going to ask me where the restroom is or something, y’know what I mean? And then they’d be like, “I really love your show.” And I’d go [hands over mouth], “oh my gosh! Thank you!” We didn’t know people were watching yet. The critics were so great to us and wrote such glowing reviews so in season two people were sort of catching on. Then it became a sort of underground “cool” thing you know, and people were talking about it.
It was really this nice, gradual [climb]. It wasn’t an overnight thing. So at least we got to kind of get used to it, y’know. I can’t imagine some of these kids who overnight have a hit show or a hit movie. So we got to slowly get used to it a little bit. It is still strange, we’re all still sort of flabbergasted when someone stops us on the street. I still think I’m going to point them to the bathroom (laughs). I’m ready to give directions at any time!
Are you almost happier when that does happen? When you just get “excuse me, Miss?”
Yeah, that’s nice, sometimes.
Does that ever happen anymore?
Yes! Absolutely. I was just on the street and someone was [yelling], “Hey! Where do you get your hair done?” I was like, “…in LA.” And he’s like, “how much do you spend on it?” And I said, “well that’s kind of a personal question.” He said, “I work in a salon.” I said, “I’m sorry, I’m not going to tell you how much I spend on my haircut!”
If you have a color in your heart, what do you think it is at this moment in your life?
Hm, I don’t know. My first two reactions were green and purple. I feel like I have a warm feeling in me. I’ve been very lucky recently. I’m very much in love, and we just moved in to a new home, so I feel like I’m very happy in my home. And [there’s this] feeling of exciting beginnings and a feeling of blossoming, new things. So green and purple.
You mentioned wanting to go back to the theatre in New York. Is there a particular play or role that you’d love to do here? Or a theatre company you’d like to work with?
I think I would like to do some more musicals. I grew up doing community theatre in tiny little theatres in Idaho and it’s what got me excited about acting in the first place. It felt so good to sing and dance again. Just that energy of coming to work and moving and singing, it just makes you feel good. It makes you feel happy. So I’d like to come back and do some more of that.
Any particular musical?
I don’t know yet. I don’t know yet. Something that I can practice on for a really long time before I do it! (laughs)
Come back tomorrow for an interview with Drive star Albert Brooks and Friday for an interview with director Nicolas Winding Refn. Drive opens nationwide this Friday, September 16th.