If anything can make “Mad Men” fans feel the real-world passage of time as the show chronicled life in the ad world over the decade of the ’60s, it’s taking a look at Sally Draper in season one and Sally Draper in season seven. Naturally, as Sally has grown up before viewers’ eyes, so has the actress who plays her.
Kiernan Shipka was six years old when she shot her first episode of the game-changing AMC series; as the show closes out its run this month she’s 15. Over the years she’s evolved from an adorable child performer into a particularly effective and versatile young actress with considerable career potential ahead of her. As she says a final goodbye to the various fractured Draper households, Shipka sat down with several media outlets to reflect on growing up in the world of “Mad Men.”
Can you sum up your experience starting so young on the show and everything the character went through and you probably went through in real life as well?
Kiernan Shipka: Sure. It was a really incredible experience to grow up with a character. She was growing up, I was growing up. It was pretty special to me to have such an amazing thing that was a big part of my life, from a learning perspective, from an acting perspective. The people are so great. So just overall as an experience I think it was super influential and just a major part of my childhood that I’m so, so happy existed.
It’s such a rare thing to get to play someone for a really long time. Sure, I’ve worked on stuff since, so it’s so crazy to film something and then be done with it because, obviously, something like Mad Men always just felt so familiar. And to be able to watch a character really grow and not know what’s next and then know what’s next, it’s kind of this great, great thing.
Even if you get another show that’s on throughout your 20s, that’ll be a different thing.
Sure. I mean, I think every experience is totally different. It was definitely different for me in the fact that I had been on the show longer than I hadn’t in life years being alive. So that certainly was very, very inspiring but also just a familiar, awesome thing.
Having had a chance to walk around in the ’60s a bit, what’s the thing costume-wise that you will miss the most? And what’s the thing that you won’t miss at all ever again?
The thing that I’ll miss the most, I think, is just the fact that they’re all real, vintage pieces for the most part, unless they’re made by Janie [Bryant, “Mad Men” costume designer”] and her amazing team, is pretty cool because one more step into really being this character. It’s pretty incredible to be on a set. You feel transformed to be quite honest. The thing I won’t miss is the pants. The pants are not comfortable, guys. Not comfortable. That’s the one thing that I will not miss.
Did you learn something about dressing yourself from costume designer Janie Bryant, who’s obviously so knowledgeable about the ’60s styles?
Oh, sure. For one, she totally taught me that style is more than just these beautiful items of clothing. It’s really telling a story, especially in Janie’s case. It goes so much further beyond just these pieces of clothing. It’s really telling a story of its own. That I found really interesting and really cool. Also, I was six when I started, so my interest in fashion sparked while I was on the show. And, I think, a large part because I was on the show.
Can you talk about your relationship a little bit with your TV parents? Did they ever feel like real parents to you in the sense that were they protective? Did they try to teach you things? It must just be such a different experience starting at six.
Just being on the set with so many great people, it’s definitely a very familial kind of vibe. We’ve all known each other for such a long time that it totally feels like this kind of second family, all these great, great people. And we all know each other really well. So it’s a cool thing to have.
Have you gone back and looked at the early seasons? Is that kind of weird to do?
Yeah. No, I’ve gone back and I’ve watched it all now. From a viewer perspective, it’s so good! It’s so nice to be a part of a show that’s kind of that incredible. So it was super fun. I did go back and watch it all and it was fun.
Do you have a favorite Sally moment or scene that sticks out to you?
Let’s see, there’s so many. I like the first time that we ever see me as Sally, I walk into the room with this dry cleaning bag over my head, and Betty tells me, “Oh my gosh, my clothes better not be on the floor!” It’s totally a safety hazard. There’s a plastic bag over my head. She doesn’t care and I roll my eyes. And I think it’s just kind of very funny because it’s kind of from the beginning, Sally wasn’t having any of it. It’s sort of funny now to look at their scenes and their relationship and how it’s evolved and their first real moment that we see together.
Do you have any memories of that first day or week on set? Does something still kind of stick out from that experience?
Yeah, sure. I remember asking January [Jones] if she played my mom, being really excited. There was a stunt coordinator there because it was the first scene that I appeared in was actually our first day on set. So it felt very, very official and very fancy. And I just remember being super, super pumped. I kind of never lost that excitement which is really awesome. But no, I just remember being super, super excited, and everything was all new. It was this new place. So it’s exciting.
This might seem existential, but going into these last episodes, what would you the actor say to your character? Anything you’d whisper in her ear for some advice on what she’s going through?
I think I would ask Sally for advice, to be quite honest! I think she’s a pretty cool person. She had some rocky times. But I think that she handled it all with a grace that I never would have. I think she’s kind of amazing, so I would probably be just gushing to her about her instead of the other way around, I’m sure.
Have you entertained any thoughts about what Sally does when she grows up?
Yeah. I mean, it’s one of those things where I have so much faith in the character because I think she’s really evolved and grown into a really amazing person. So I just kind of have faith that’s she going to do well. And I kind of had that knowingness. It’s weird to not know what she’s going to be up to next, but I think it’s going to be something good.
Will we get a sequel series – a “Better Call Sally?”
Oh my gosh. I’ve never even thought of that! That’s amazing!
Did you get to keep any of the outfits or any of the props?
The outfits are all borrowed so I think they all went back to probably Western Costume and all the lenders and stuff. I did get to keep the necklace that she wears. That was a little memento that I took. Everyone took a little something.
How was that last day on set? What emotions did you go through?
It was crazy because it was one of those things where everyone kind of knew it was coming for some time. At least I thought I was prepared, and I didn’t really think about it. And the day went by. And then all of a sudden I was wrapped, and it totally just hit me. It was a very emotional day. It was really planned out beautifully how everyone kind of wrapped and got to make a speech and say goodbye and thank everyone. Then after, everyone kind of stayed and had fun. So it was going from sad to happy, sad to happy. So it was just bittersweet.
How would you sum up the finale in one word?
I think as just kind of not saying a word about exactly what it’s like, it’s, obviously, the fact that it’s been on for so long, there’s definitely a lot of impact. It’s amazing. And I think that’s as vague as I can probably be. But it’s awesome.
Did you get interested in the ’60s at all during the course of this? Were there things about it that you like went down the road of like, “I want to know more and more about this kind of music?”
Yeah. For sure. It’s very cool to sort of feel like you get to live in a different time period. But also, I was growing up now, and I’m happy to be growing up now. But it’s very cool. The ’60s were amazing and super-neat. It was awesome. Sally was super into The Beatles, British Invasion, all that pop culture. Then, obviously, a lot of historical stuff happened. So being in that was very neat. Especially as I got a little bit older I totally started to get interested and did research, and, obviously, there’s a lot of episodes that have big events happen and how it kind of impacts everyone’s lives. So it was neat.
Matt Weiner’s such a ’60s savant. Did he say, “Well, if you like this, then you need to look at this, this, and this”? Did he point you in any directions at all?
Yeah, he’s great. There’s so much detail in all the episodes, from the music to the vibe and these specifics. The jars with pennies, the pennies could not be over the date that we were actually in, stuff like that. It’s just pretty amazing how detail-oriented everything was. So it was cool to experience that and see people that are the best at what they do.
What are your favorite stories from the show that Sally is not at all involved in?
I’ve always been a big Peggy fan, myself. I just have always loved that character so much. I love when she sings “Bye Bye Birdie.” I think that Roger is really funny always. I mean, who doesn’t love Roger? There are so many great storylines. I mean, I think even how Betty and Don’s relationship evolved, is really, really interesting. There are so many different, fun characters. Even just getting to watch Don over time evolve and kind of change and struggle. It’s kind of a treat to watch such good actors play such well-written characters.
Matt Weiner had said that when you cast a kid, the expectations are that they’ll memorize lines, not stare at the camera. And you were so good, he was able to write really good stuff for you. Do you remember any moments where you and a breakthrough? You’re like, “Yes, nailed it.”
Well, I mean, I was just so excited to be there. As far as learning lines and all that kind of stuff, acting was something that I was always super, super drawn to and thought was super fun and I loved. So it was just that excitement of going to work and getting to be able to act and be this character and be Sally was just such an exciting thought, that any time I had a scene I was pumped and ready.
Is acting it for you, for sure? Or do you still want to explore other things before you really commit to that career?
It’s it. I mean, when I envision my future self, I can’t imagine myself doing anything but acting. So I’m definitely planning on continuing.
Was there a moment during the show where you knew? Where you were like, “Yup, this is it. This is what I’m going to do.”
I wouldn’t say there was a moment necessarily on the show. I never really had a moment because I think it was just always something that as soon as I started acting, that was where I was super interested. There was never some kind of, oh my gosh, this is what I want to do. Because I just feel like it was always.
Since it wrapped last summer, you’ve taken on more acting jobs?
I worked on three movies since, and all were really fun experiences. Then I did a little something for “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” too, which is on Netflix and which was super fun.
Of that show and the three movies that you did since “Mad Men,” what different things did those characters allow you to do that excited you?
Well, “One and Two” is the first thing I’d done after I wrapped, so that was kind of, “Oh my gosh, this is something different.” It was in a different state, so it was madness. It really felt like this next chapter happening. And I love characters. And I’m lucky the three movies that I’ve done, that characters have all been really different. So that’s been nice to sort of explore these different characters, play these different people, and continue to work with people that I really like, has been fun and great.
With three episodes left in its seventh and final season, “Mad Men” airs 10 p.m. Sundays on AMC.
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