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Women are rising to the top of 'Mad Men'

Christina Hendricks, January Jones and Elisabeth Moss chat about auditioning, typecasting, and being women in a world of "Men."
/ Source: Reuters

"Mad Men" may be named for the guys, but the women rule the roost.

Take Christina Hendricks' savvy office manager Joan Harris (nee Holloway), a glamour girl who choreographs her every move with the precision of a five-star general drawing up battle plans. Or how about January Jones' frustrated housewife Betty Draper, whose icy veneer masks a woman constantly on the verge of coming undone? And of course, there's up-and-comer Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), a gifted copywriter finding her voice during the upheaval of the series' 1960s-era setting.

As the critically acclaimed AMC series begins its fourth season, the Emmy-nominated trio chatted about auditioning, typecasting, and being women in a world of "Men."

What was your 'Mad Men' audition process like?

Christina Hendricks: It was pilot season. It's that crazy time of year when we all go nuts. I had already auditioned for a bunch of stuff, and I was feeling depleted. I had gotten the script, and I was super excited and went to work on the audition with my best friend. I remember breaking down and crying because I was so tired. I was like, "I'm not doing anything with this role; I don't know what I'm doing." She helped me so much, so I had every word down and went in and enjoyed myself and had a really good audition. They brought me back to read the Midge role: the bohemian lover of Don Draper. At the time, they hadn't decided which characters were going to be regulars on the show and which were going to be guest stars. I said, "I'll take whatever one stays!" The women's roles were so beautiful.

January Jones: I went in for the role of Peggy twice. Ultimately, I wasn't right for it. ("Mad Men" creator Matthew Weiner) said, "There is this other role." He wasn't sure what he was going to do with it, and there weren't any real lines for Betty at the time. He wrote a couple scenes overnight — really amazing scenes, actually — and I came in and read for him, and that was it. I just wanted to be involved in the show in any way; I think we all felt that. It was such a unique project, and it was the best thing I'd read in a long time.

Elisabeth Moss: I auditioned twice. I did two scenes both times, and it felt like a really good fit for the part. I loved playing Peggy; I just really felt at home playing that character. I knew who she was, and I knew why she was doing what she was doing. And the person that I thought she was the person Matt wrote.

How did you approach these roles?

Jones: Betty's not very developed when it comes to emotional maturity, I think. So I kind of approached her as a child playing house, not really being able to deal with a lot of the issues in her life that don't go her way.

Hendricks: As I was reading the lines for Joan, I thought, "Oh, this is that kind of person that we all know that needs to be acknowledged, needs to be thanked. She needs a lot of attention." I based that off her being kind of a know-it-all. I found out later that Matt had a different idea — I think she was a little more conservative and pinched and uptight, and I interpreted it in a different way. Thank God he liked it. After I did that, he started to write for her in that vein.

There's so much going on in ever single moment of 'Mad Men,' yet the acting is so subtle. How do you find that balance?

Moss: I think it's a combination of the acting and the writing. In real life, we don't walk around giving speeches about what's going on with our day. You say hello, you say, "How are you?" I think we're true to life in that way. I like playing opposites and complexities and having subtext.

Jones: We get very little time to do the show, so it's a very instinctual, organic reaction -- for me, at least. It makes it that much better, because you don't have time to overthink it as an actor. You do what comes naturally for the character. I feel like I know her more than I've ever known a character, but also less, because she's ever-evolving. I don't know what's going to happen to her in the next episode, so I have to be on my toes in terms of being game to do anything.

What's been the most challenging thing for you to play on the show?

Hendricks: The reason this job is so fun is it's always challenging. You never just show up to work and walk through it. Every day, it's like, "Oh gosh, I get to do this." Even the moments where you're watching and listening are meaty.

Jones: For me, probably the giving-birth scene (last season). It was a very trippy episode: I mean, Betty's hallucinating. I've never had a child, and I was always terrified I'd have to do one of those "push a baby out" scenes. I had to be struggling with that and then the next day come in to work and do a weird dream sequence where I'm in the kitchen with my parents. It was an odd week.

Moss: It's difficult to nail a scene down, but I think the most challenging thing for me has been to retain who she is as Peggy and at the same time let her grow and change. I feel like she has had the most room for growth over the course of the show, just by virtue of her age and the time period and who she is. It's a moment-by-moment sort of process. I try to maintain a balance of thought and decisions, and at the same time I really like to allow for things to just happen, allow it to be organic and just let go -- it's a balance between regimented and not regimented. I make a choice that this is how she would handle this situation as someone who has grown, and then allow the old Peggy to creep in a little bit. I've never played a character who has come so far and changed so much over the course of a period of time.

These characters are so iconic. Have you found yourselves dealing with any typecasting?

Hendricks: It's actually opened doors for characters for me. Before I played Joan, people thought that I was maybe a little too soft or sweet or vulnerable to play tougher characters. Now I play one of the toughest characters there is, so I've been reading scripts and being offered roles that are these really strong, aggressive women, which no one ever thought I could do before.

Jones: It's been a very amazing blessing, so I won't complain and say now I'm typecast -- and I never would've dreamt that you could be typecast as someone from the past, but occasionally something will come across my desk that's another period piece. There are a lot of really great ones, but I try to stay away from doing too much of that, at least from the '60s. And I kind of like having that allure about the show and about the characters: There's a noir feeling about it, and a lot of the stuff I'm attracted to has that vibe.

You've all been acting for a long time. Do you have roels you consider breakthroughs?

Moss: I think any actor will attest to the fact that there rarely is that one role. I think the idea that someone is a breakout — an overnight sensation, and there's this one thing that happens — is kind of a myth. You look at anyone's career; you'll see that many small steps that were involved. Something that was a big moment was I did a film called "Girl, Interrupted": I was 15, and it was my biggest movie at the time. That was something, but at the same time, then I did my first play in New York. That could've been something. I got on "The West Wing." That could've been something. I remember I read with (creator) Aaron Sorkin and didn't realize it was Aaron Sorkin. It's probably good that I didn't realize, 'cause I would've been really nervous! I thought it was interesting that he did that; most (show creators) choose just to watch. It was at Warner Bros., and a million girls, I'm sure, were auditioning for this, and I was like, "There's no way I'm gonna be the one."

Hendricks: I landed the lead role in a pilot of John Wells' called "The Big Time," which was actually another period piece. It was set in the '40s. It was one of those jobs where you work a 17-hour day, and at the end of the day you're like, "Wait, I have to go home?" I think that proved to me that I had the chops and the stamina to go in and play a lead role and fully immerse myself into a character.

I remember, I went in to test for it, and there was a room of people testing, and John Wells walked in the room, and he was like, "I understand that this process isn't human. I'm sorry for you guys because you're all amazing. When you walk into the room to audition, please make yourself comfortable, take your time, don't rush, make sure you give the best audition you can give." I thought that was the nicest thing someone could come out and say, because you're racked with nerves. Your palms are sweating, and you feel like you're gonna throw up, and you're looking at your competition sitting in the chair next to you. I remember walking into the audition room, setting down my bag. And they were like, "Wow, you really are taking your time." I'm like, "John Wells said I could!"

On the other side of the spectrum, would you mind sharing a worst audition story?

Jones: I think they're all bad — I hate them. I hate that you have to go into a room and see people you don't know and spill your guts out for them and have them tell you that you're not right for it. It's heartbreaking, it really is. But you have to do them. If I can come out not wanting to punch myself in my face, I consider it a good audition.

Hendricks: I remember one in particular. It was pilot season, and it was a procedural kind of show, and I went in to play the wife of a cop. I had to break down and cry and all these things. I left so confident. I was like, "I killed that." There are so few moments as an actor where you feel like in an audition you were truly there, you were so present and you really felt it. I got a call from my agent a couple hours later: "What were you wearing? The casting director was so offended by what you were wearing."

Now, let me tell you what I was wearing: gray dress pants from Banana Republic and a navy-blue silk top from Donna Karan, which was the nicest thing I owned. It was a little low-cut, because most things are; I just happen to be bustier than a lot of people. It was very classy and very nice, and the casting director was so offended by my breasts that she called my agent and said, "I couldn't even hear her audition because of what she was wearing." I was like, "You pathetic woman. I just killed that audition so hard, and you're so distracted by what I'm wearing that you didn't see my acting. And I put on my nicest duds for you!"