Past Perfect Christina Hendricks
The Mad Men star thinks her retro bombshell with brains, Joan Holloway, is justified in doing anything to get what she wants—and we love her all the more for it
by LESLIE GORNSTEIN / photographs by JOSHUA JORDAN /
styling by HAYLEY ATKIN
Even if you’ve never caught an episode of Mad Men—AMC’s ring-a-ding retro spectacle of 1960s ad men and the women they ogle—you’ve likely savored an eyeful of Christina Hendricks. You can’t miss her: the fired-copper hair, the vanilla-malt skin, the just-under five feet eight inches of concentrated va, va and voom. As iconic as a ’64 Mustang, Hendricks’ distinctive lines and decided moxie have made her a viewer favorite, as well as this year’s preferred cover girl. The buzz hit fever pitch in May, with Esquire magazine crowning the 35-year-old bombshell Sexiest Woman Alive.
And yet, there’s more to Hendricks than the sum of her formidable parts. As the Sterling Cooper agency’s diva office manager Joan Holloway, Hendricks brings a depth and nuance to a role that could easily have lapsed into the realm of vamp and camp. There’s a melancholy lurking just beneath the swing coats and verve. In one pivotal moment from last season, newlywed Joan is pressed into playing the accordion for her husband’s dinner guests. Even as she lilts through a torchy rendition of “C’est Magnifique,” Hendricks’ eyes tell the real story: C’est mal—très, très mal.
These days, Hendricks’ free time is dwindling, thanks in part to a Hollywood that’s finally getting a clue, plus a marriage last year to actor Geoffrey Arend. Still, she is passionate about exploring the local scene whenever she can—a Tom Waits show here, a promising new restaurant there—as well as, of course, broadening her acting chops. Along with the fourth season of Mad Men, which debuts July 25, Hendricks has three films in the can, including the Katherine Heigl dramedy Life As We Know It, due in October. C’est magnifique, indeed.
Leslie Gornstein: Let’s talk about Joan Holloway—or I guess it’s Joan Harris now.
Christina Hendricks: The new last name always breaks my heart a little. I am so attached to Holloway.
Joan seems to be one of the most nuanced female characters on TV in a long time. She clearly believes that dressing sexy and seducing the men in the office are part of the path of survival. And yet female viewers identify with her strength. She’s clearly not to be toyed with. Do you see her as a feminist?
You know, I think there are elements of that. Joan certainly is in the workforce before many women did such a thing, and she excels at it. She really has all these men on their knees in terms of needing her professionally, and I think there’s nothing wrong with how she has gone about getting there. I don’t think it’s not feminist to use every tool you have to succeed, and part of that is being a woman—presenting yourself in a certain way. And yet she has these things in her home life, with her husband, that are very old-fashioned and frustrating. She is definitely a woman of her times.
Women viewers seem more protective of Joan than any of the show’s other female characters. I imagine it’s her potential.
I always worry about Joan—I love her. I say to [creator] Matt Weiner all the time, “Please! She’s had such a hard time! Give her a bone—come on!” But true to Mad Men fashion, not the happiest things happen. Still, she always lifts her head up and fights back, and that’s one reason people respond to her. She gets back up again, cleans it up and moves on with a smile.
Joan has sprung to life on her own online. There’s a What Would Joan Do? blog, and she’s apparently Tweeting, even though she technically shouldn’t even have a PC. What hath Christina wrought?
Yeah, I heard about What Would Joan Do? I thought it was hilarious and very clever. I know there are people out there using Twitter in the voice of characters on the show, but I don’t really get that. The whole thing confuses me. It’s a very 2010 sort of deal.
You have said that you auditioned for a Woody Allen role, but he turned you down for being “too sweet.” Had he not seen Mad Men?
I think that comment was probably snipped out of an entire paragraph of something I said. Essentially, this is what happened: I auditioned for this sort of crass, cockney character—very, very blue collar and a little rough around the edges. And he said he felt I wasn’t rough enough and, in that context, maybe I was a little too sweet.
Have you gotten any meaner? Should we call Woody back?
I tried! I really hope that if he heard about that comment, he wasn’t offended in any way. He is, like, my dream director.
You play the accordion, I am told. How long have you played, and why that instrument?
I started taking lessons four or five years ago. It is such a rich instrument for one person. You can get so much out of it, like a one-man band. I also think it’s a very romantic instrument, and it channels all the things I love—French culture, Tom Waits—and all the things I try to make my house look like. It’s something I’ve always been interested in. Then I got a show in Canada [Kevin Hill, with Taye Diggs], and I wasn’t able to bring it with me, because it’s cumbersome, so I dropped it. I was getting quite good at it.
So how did your accordion playing end up in a scene in Mad Men?
They called me right before we came back for season three, when the writers were establishing storylines. They said, “One, do you speak French, and two, do you play the piano?” I said, “One, I’ll learn, and two, not piano, but I do play a little accordion.” They were like, “Accordion! Oh my God, sooooo much better.” Besides, we’d established where Joan lived, and the apartment wasn’t large enough for her to be playing a piano in there. Plus, kids in the ’60s really did take accordion lessons. It’s time appropriate, as well as visually interesting, to have that in Joan’s apartment.
There is such a business these days based on being critical...who wore the worst dress, who had the worst cellulite—it just, you know, hurts your soul. At the end of the day, you’re just going to a big party.
You’ve seen Tom Waits live, I assume, since you love him. Have you met him?
Yeah, at the Wiltern—probably one of the best shows I’ve seen. I got to have dinner with him. I talked more to his wife than to him, and I’m sure they wouldn’t even remember having dinner with me—but I got to sit there and watch him eat food, which was a huge thrill for me.
You’ve appeared in some notable music videos—Everclear’s among them. For the new Broken Bells video, “The Ghost Inside,” you play an android with removable limbs. Are you friends with that band?
No, I don’t know them, but I am fans of the guys [Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton and the Shins’ James Mercer]. My manager just said, “This kind of weird thing came across my door—would you be interested?” I thought it was a really interesting concept, and I’m obviously a huge music fan, so I said sure.
It must be refreshing for an actress not to be asked to play a typical video vixen.
That’s why I did it!
Is your approach to a video any different from, say, a TV gig?
Absolutely. You’re not telling a long story, so it’s almost an acting exercise. The director just says, “Now you feel this, now you do this.” You have to do things at the spur of the moment.
A friend insisted I ask you about your three-episode role in the late sci-fi show Firefly. Are sci-fi fans more obsessive?
I think sci-fi fans are so committed. They’re so immersed in this universe. Over the years, it seems Firefly has only gained momentum rather than lost it. I still get letters from people who watched the show—I get more Firefly than Mad Men letters.
Are you a sci-fi person?
I grew up in a sci-fi family, and my brother and dad are really into that kind of thing. It’s always fun for my brother to see me in a spaceship.
You’ve said you started dying your blond hair red at age 10. How exactly did you sell that choice to your folks?
They did it to me! I was obsessed with the Canadian novel Anne of Green Gables. I decided I was Anne of Green Gables. There was something that spoke to me about her, and I wanted to have her beautiful red hair. So my mother said, “Let’s just go to the drugstore and get one of those cover-the-gray rinses!” My hair was very blond at the time, but it went carrot red. And I was over the moon. I went to school the next day and felt like myself. And then I went back [to that color] over and over again. What a cool mom, right?
Back during awards season, you wore black dresses to two major events, including the Elton John Oscar party, and fashion journalists noticed enough to ask about your break from bright colors. Has that kind of press scrutiny changed how you choose red-carpet looks?
A little. I remember that very instance, and I thought, Oh my God, that is so weird—I didn’t even realize I’d done that. But there is such a business these days based on being critical. It’s always been there, but now there are entire magazines devoted to shredding people—who wore the worst dress, who had the worst cellulite. It just, you know, hurts your soul. At the end of the day, you’re just going to a big party. You have to remind yourself to wear the things you love. Sometimes your friends or a stylist will go, “Yeah...no.” Sometimes you can’t see yourself with objectivity, but you have to go with what you think is pretty. You’re borrowing these dresses to wear to events, and sometimes they don’t feel like you—like something I would ever wear.
Earlier this year, you told Glamour: “It is difficult come awards season, and I need to find a gown to walk down the red carpet in, and there are only size zeros and size twos available. Then it becomes downright annoying because all these designers are saying, ‘We love Mad Men, we love Christina, but we won’t make her a dress.’” Have those designers come to their senses yet?
Yes, it’s been really nice. The show has gotten more successful, and people started realizing we were winning [awards]. They’ve been incredibly generous, making really beautiful things. I guess it’s a good thing that story got printed. Someone got the message!
Do you ever feel like you have to wear a dress because someone created it just for you? I would imagine there would be pressure not to offend anyone.
There is a pressure that you absolutely have to wear it when someone says they would like to loan you a dress or make a dress for you. That can be very difficult, especially if you have never seen the dress. Can you imagine if someone said that to you, say, about your wedding? “Trust me! I’ll make something beautiful!” It feels a little like that—it all happens very last minute. But if you don’t wear it, they give it to someone else. And at the end of the day, everyone gets a pretty dress.
As a woman, I have to say the retro underwear on Mad Men actresses looks like utter torture. Am I wrong?
No, you’re not wrong. We’re so used to it now, but those undergarments really aren’t made for relaxing. If I get my entire costume on, and I have to wait a few hours for my next scene, I have to learn how to position myself, otherwise the boning presses into my guts! It can really hurt those internal organs! I have this little war wound—a blister from wearing a garter the other day for 17 hours.
I understand your next film, Life As We Know It, gets you out of those bullet bras. Tell me more.
I just look like your girl next door. It’s a romantic comedy with Katie Heigl and Josh Duhamel. I play her best friend. Tragedy happens, and she has to raise my child. We went down to Atlanta to film it, and we just had a blast.
There’s now a Joan Holloway Barbie. Do you like the doll?
I have only seen pictures of her so far. It’s amazing! I am such a girlie girl—such a Barbie girl. Am I weird if I want to give a bunch of them to my friends and mom and stuff? I’ll get one for everybody, and I’m sure my friends will be like, “Gee, thanks for the doll...of you.”
LESLIE GORNSTEIN is the author of The A-List Playbook: How to Survive Any Crisis While Remaining Wealthy, Famous, and Most Importantly, Skinny.
PRODUCER: Kim Pollock
STYLIST ASSISTANT: Rachel Kolar
HAIR: Campbell McAuley / Solo Artists
MAKEUP: Angela Levin / Tracey Mattingly
MANICURIST: Jenna Hipp / Tracey Mattingly