It may have been Joan Holloway's hard-to-miss sex appeal that first caught viewers' eyes, but it was her subtle struggles against the patriarchal glass ceilings and societal limitations of the 1960s that made fans of AMC’s Mad Men truly fall for her.
As the show continues to unspool its last storylines during its final episodes, actress Christina Hendricks brings one of the show's biggest breakout characters – and the role that made her a star – to a conclusion. Reflecting on the work, she has some serious insight on exactly who the sultry, sassy, steely office manager-turned-ad agency partner who traveled a rocky road to the top of SDCP is and what her story's meant over the years. Spinoff joined the actress – who next appears in Roadies, a backstage rock-and-roll series from Cameron Crowe for Showtime, for some (spoiler-free) final reflections on Joan and Mad Men's endgame.
What have been some of your favorite arcs of Joan's over the years?
Christina Hendricks: I look at it as a whole big trajectory really, but certain storylines, obviously – I always loved the Joan and Roger storyline, seeing what was going to happen between them, and sort of the way that Peggy and Joan bounced between hardly being able to tolerate each other to sort of admiring one another and giving each other advice, I always loved that. And those are obviously her long and ongoing stories, and her rising in the ranks at work.
I just really loved seeing her year after year becoming a very richly written character. When I started playing her in Season One I thought, "Oh what a fun, bitchy, sassy girl I get to play!" And I would never call her that now, you know? I think I just enjoyed seeing her go through very real and human things and learn from them and grow from them and become a much wiser character and woman by the end.
How about playing the accordion?
It was fun! It was nerve wracking. I was a beginner accordion player and Matt [Weiner] called and said, "Do you speak French and do you play the piano?" And I said, "I'll learn French, and I don't play the piano but I do play a little bit of the accordion, and wouldn't that be way easier to all of a sudden have an accordion in Joan's apartment then all of a sudden – we've never seen the piano in the corner of the room!"
So when we realized that it was going to be helpful in so many different ways, it became the accordion. Plus it was a much more popular thing to play in the '60s. Kids used to take accordion lessons, you know. That's not so common anymore, so it all ended up being perfect.
Do you think the core of who Joan is has changed over the course of the show, or is it just that she's adapted to the times that she's in?
I think the core of who she is, is the same, I think that we just really didn't know who she was in the beginning. It was a reveal each episode – certainly for me as an actress, I didn't know who she was. The stories had to be told, and I think a lot of the characters in the show went through a lot of wild storylines and all sorts of things and didn't learn as a character and I think she somehow learned from a lot of her mistakes, or a lot of her situations.
So I think it turned her into a different kind of woman, but I think she's always been a hard worker and I think she's always had this sort of fun enthusiasm about her, and I think that's always been there.
The way Joan wore her clothes, how she carried herself and how she was put together – she always had such confidence. Even when she was knocked down a bit, she always carried herself with such confidence. Was that something that was fun or gratifying to play?
Yeah! I'd like to think that I learned from some of that. I decided very early on – there must have been a line or something that I said – but I thought when this woman walks in the office, she is absolutely certain that someone is looking. At least one or two people in this room have stopped working to look and watch her walk across the room. Which is kind of a bitchy thing to think... but it's also a fun thing to play!
So even if I didn't have a line, if I had to walk from one side of the room to another, I was like, "Joan thinks someone's looking and she dresses to prove it," so I would just hold my head high and sort of walk the red carpet – kind of a catwalk, you know? She didn't just go from one place to another.
For women in the ‘60s, this was really the first time they could and did start to assert themselves in the office. And it's a very important time as portrayed in the show. Do you think Joan was a feminist?
I do. I don't think she knew she was. And certainly starting out, I mean, the thing she says to Peggy in the pilot episode is "If you play your cards right you'll get a husband, you'll move to the country" – and that's not a very feminist statement, but I think she started changing and I think watching Peggy's growth inspired Joan's character, to see the things that were changing around her, and I think she had some accidental feminist movements in the beginning that turned into her pursuing it and taking charge of it and being more in control of it.
Looking back at the past seven years, what do you take with you when you walk away? How do you encapsulate the time period, for you?
You know, I think about the time period less than I think about the environment and the characters and the very specific capsule that these people were in, in this office. And yet, because we got to play a decade and sort of look at it – we would highlight something political or something societal that was going on. To me it felt like this energy of seeing this change and having people have a strong opinion and a cause – and many people did not, of course. And that seems to have shifted. People going out there – young teenagers – and people feeling so strongly about a specific cause or something. I still think of that as the 1960s, I think a lot of people do think of that, and a time of a great deal of change.
Through the course of the show, did you ever meet anybody who was a real-life "Joan" and told you what their experience was like?
A hundred! A hundred of them. It was so fun because we'd go and have a premiere or a Q&A or even just being out shopping or something, and we would either get, "I was Joan!" or "My mom's friend was Joan!" or "I was Peggy, but I knew Joan!" So yeah, so many variations of it. What I was really surprised about was before I started the show, I didn't know or maybe I just didn't know that I'd met so many people in advertising, and now everyone's in advertising! People will say, "I work for this or that" and I'm like, "Wow!" I had no idea – but everywhere I go, people are in advertising.
Were you able to use any of that information that the people wanted to tell you when they were from that world?
Well, most of the time they were saying, "Boy, Matt really got it right. I really remember that, I really remember that." But oftentimes their stories were very similar to the things that I read originally when I was doing research at the beginning when Matt said read Sex and the Single Girl or read Sex in the Office and the sort of expectations of a woman in the office – even just the way you'd set up your office: "Make sure there are candies; if a man wants to come by he'll stay longer and talk to you if there's a little sweet for him," you know, and things lik. If you're sitting down at your office, just little things like, "Why not hike the top skirt up an inch so they can see the lace of your slip, it's a little suggestive." You know all these funny little things that people say, "We did that!" It's fun.
Are you ruined for life because this is such an amazing project?
[Laughs] I might be!
Does anything compare when you read scripts now?
Well, it hasn't been that long. I have already worked on some fun – super-fun – things, I just did a pilot that I'm so excited about. But apples and oranges: so different, you really can't compare them. But to get to work with Matt and then work with Cameron Crowe, it's just like I would not have that opportunity if it had not been for this. So I will always miss it but I have to be grateful at all the doors it opened for me.
The Joan and Peggy relationship is so important on the show. What do you see as the core of those two's friendship/rivalry?
I think respect. I think there definitely is respect. And I think even early on when Joan was being downright mean to Peggy sometimes, I think one great thing about Peggy is she's always listening and taking in the information and then being like, "Is that true? Is my sandwich sad?" And she may not change or she may not do it but she's internalizing it, and there are so many scenes between the two of them where there's sort of comparing my way versus your way, and I always really liked that. I like when she sort of stands up for herself and gets further into it, but they still always end up back in that situation. Discussing it and I think they're always truly wondering if their way is right and truly wondering if the other's is right. That's cool about their relationship.
Do you think that's an honest portrayal of women's friendships?
Oh gosh. I would never put a blanket statement on all of womens' relationships. My relationships with every single woman I know is different.
Because they're kind of frienemies...
I mean, my friends are friends, full-on friends. [Laughs]
There's so many great scenes with Joan and Roger but are there any characters you wish you'd had more scenes with over the years?
Well obviously, Don and Joan don't have tons together but when they do, they're always – at least for me – these fantastic scenes. So maybe it was good that there were just a few here and there because they were so special but I always loved doing scenes with Jon. And I loved doing scenes with Aaron Staton, because I just love his character [Ken Cosgrove] so much! Every time he's on screen he cracks me up because he's so funny! And in the beginning of [Season] 7A, we got to do more stuff than we normally do, and that was really great.
The Don and Joan scenes were always great – the audience loved them and was wondering what their history was. Did you and Jon and Matt talk about what their history was?
We had discussed it several times, because there were times when they'd cross or make a joke or something. And so we had sort of discussed that they were like, she's like, "I've got your number" and he was like, "I've got yours, so let's not bother each other, let's get down to business." But there's that wonderful scene after she gets her divorce papers when they're at the bar and he's like, "When I first came to the office I was terrified of you – you were getting flowers every day and you were this and that" and so he sort of gave a history of that was how they met and she was very powerful and he kept his distance. And then of course he sent her those flowers, which I thought was so sweet.
Working with the show's great costume designer Janie Bryant, what did you learn about dressing yourself from somebody that smart about fashion?
Look at me: I'm, like, "Joan clone" now! Well, she just is so great, she's so talented. And she knows so much about fit. And yes, all the costumes were beautiful, but it's also because she made them fit us as perfectly as they should have. And I think that makes a world of difference.
Was there a costume you'll remember and miss very fondly, and any that you won't miss at all and were glad you never had to put on ever again?
The dress that Joan wears – well, she wore it a couple of times, we always wear our costumes several times - it was in Season One and then I think in Season Three – and it's also the one they used for the Joan Barbie. But it's a little purple dress with a pink sash and it was one of the first times I noticed vintage clothes had such beautiful attention to detail. Like an attached scarf that you'd have and then a little fishtail pleat. A lot of things you don't see all the time now, although I do think things are going back a little bit toward that again more. But at the time I thought, "Oh god, this is great - look at this piece of art!"
And then of course the fun dresses like Joan's red dress with her conga line at the Christmas party – that was a great dress! Her red numbers are usually pretty good. I loved the fashion in the beginning and I really loved the fashion at the end, but there was a middle mid-'60s thing that I was struggling with – the shapes were not particularly good for me and the colors were bizarre, just weird colors. So I preferred the beginning and the end. The middle can, like, go off into the universe.
Mad Men’s final episodes air Sunday nights on AMC.