We're Mad about the girl

For Christina Hendricks, playing the part of Joan Harris in Mad Men is 'like winning the lottery, on Christmas Day', she tells Paul Byrne

Paul Byrne

Just about the coolest show on TV right now, Mad Men is the kind of sweetly sophisticated TV drama that puts Hollywood's big-screen offerings to shame. Even Inception looks mildly shabby and desperate by comparison.

"It is sweetly sophisticated, yeah," smiles Christina Hendricks, the voluptuous Knoxville actress who plays Joan Harris, the voluptuous office manager of advertising agency Sterling Cooper. "It's also just a great drama. I knew it was something beyond the norm the second I heard about it. Getting the role was like winning the lottery, on Christmas Day."

Luck is only part of the reason Hendricks got the role of Joan Harris. There's also her considerable acting chops, having impressed earlier on in Firefly, Life and ER. It was Mad Men, though, that put Hendricks on the map. Esquire magazine just voted her "the sexiest woman in the world", which, given that Mad Men is full of sexy women, is something of an achievement.

"Well, what can I say," smiles Hendricks, "these are the awards that every actor dreams of when they start out on this long road of discovery and artistic exploration. It is fun to end up in a poll like that, but you don't want to give it too much thought, or effort. I'm sure if you were to go back through their previous champs, not that many of them went on to bigger and better things."

Take a bow, Megan Fox.

"You really have to have something else going on in your life besides being sexy. Not that there's anything wrong with being sexy . . . "


And there seems to be very little wrong with Mad Men, which has just returned to our screens on BBC4, and will be heading to RTE in four months' time.

"That seems kinda cruel for Irish viewers," offers Hendricks. "They're going to feel a little out of step with the rest of the world, right? I think we'll have to pull together and get the Irish situation sorted out, right?"

Spoken like a true redhead. Only Hendricks isn't a true red-head, having begun dying her blonde locks at the tender age of 10. Which seems kind of early. "I was determined to develop early," laughs Hendricks. "At least those parts of me I had some control over. I think it must be the actor in me that saw the potential in changing my appearance. It's the basis of acting itself, transforming yourself into someone else. Not that I had any reason to escape the old me -- I just loved the experimentation, the effect you can have by simply changing your hair colour."

Hendricks has been having quite an effect on audiences now for four seasons of Mad Men, this 1960s-set drama centred on the stylish, masterfully manipulative world of advertising at one of Madison Avenue's slicker agencies slowly taking the entertainment world by subliminal storm.

"Advertising is a fascinating world, and one that still takes up a huge chunk of our society," nods Hendricks. "The way the media manipulates a story, the way we're sold a lifestyle, a remedy, a product that's going to make us more desirable, cooler, smarter. It has just become increasingly subliminal. I don't know what Don Draper and the boys would make of how advertising is now part of every single aspect of the media. Great amounts of money change hands so the leading man will knock back a certain beer after he's rescued the pretty girl -- there's no escape from product placement."

Including, fittingly enough, on Mad Men. Still, it is just about the most fashionable show on TV right now, a TV phenomenon to rival The Sopranos, The Wire or Sex & The City. Only this particular slice of zeitgeist TV isn't on HBO, but AMC (American Movie Classics), a station originally concerned with broadcasting movies.

The move into original drama has paid off though, with not only Mad Men scoring high but the darkly comedic Breaking Bad also proving a ratings and awards winner, as witnessed at last month's Emmys.

"There's been a shift amongst a lot of channels in America to that HBO model of producing high-quality dramas that find a strong, appreciative audience rather than merely trying to, you know, appeal to the dumbest person in the room all the time," says Hendricks. "It's meant that TV will often produce the work that everyone is talking about rather than what's going on in your local multiplex. TV is patiently turning out challenging work that benefits from a little closer inspection.


"The internet has played a part -- people can access it when they want to, and therefore give it their full attention -- and DVD also has that effect. People want to indulge in something that takes them through hours and hours of storyline developments. You don't have to resolve everything in two-and-a-half hours. And that means you can really explore the small detail."

Upcoming for the Tennessee tiger is the latest from Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn (Pusher, Bronson), the action thriller Drive, based on James Sallis' novel, with Hendricks starring alongside Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan. In the meantime, there's Greg Berlanti's comedy Life As We Know It (alongside Katherine Heigl), the Leonie Gilmour biopic Leonie (headed by Emily Mortimer), and Tony Kaye's American public school system drama Detachment (co-starring Adrien Brody and James Caan). Hey, while the iron's hot . . .

"Absolutely," nods Hendicks. "I want to grab every opportunity I can, and work with all these wonderful people I might not otherwise have access to. You know, people like Ryan Gosling and James Caan -- who wouldn't jump out of bed to work with these guys? I feel incredibly lucky to be where I'm at. And I'm going to make the most of it. That way, there'll be no regrets when I'm an old redhead being wheeled around in my chair . . ."

Mad Men is currently screening on BBC4 Wednesday nights at 10pm