Christina Hendricks on ‘Mad Men’, Sexual Confidence, and Her Early Goth Days
On a bright January afternoon, I meet Christina Hendricks at Dusty’s, a rustic French-American bistro in Silver Lake. It’s one of her favorite spots to eat in Los Angeles, and not far from her home. The 36-year-old actor, dressed in a fetching black dress that clings to her famous curves, strides confidently to the table, seeming supremely comfortable in her body. It’s a body that, thanks to an assembly line of red carpet appearances, provocative magazine spreads, and her standout role as sumptuous secretary Joan Holloway on AMC’s flagship drama, Mad Men, has become a national obsession. It drives men to helpless, testosterone-fueled fantasies, and women to reevaluate traditional Hollywood notions of beauty—maybe the spotlight isn’t only for the thin and waifish after all? But today, Hendricks, whose trademark crimson hair is partially concealed under a snug, black-and-white knit cap, blends in with the rest of the diners, almost. In the dim lighting, her alabaster skin is almost translucent, and as a lighter version of that familiar, breathy voice rolls across the table at me like wisps of smoke, hints of Joan Holloway creep through.
When Mad Men first premiered in 2007, it surprised everybody. HBO passed on the drama that centered around an advertising agency in 1960s Manhattan, laying bare the sexism, homophobia, and racism of the era. The show eventually found a home on upstart network AMC, and turned its relatively unknown cast, including Hendricks, into overnight stars. “Everyone seems the same, which is nice,” says Hendricks of her costars, which include Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss. “If there was a difference from Season 1, it’s that everyone’s on their cell phones a lot more because our managers and publicists are always calling.”
For those who have yet to plunge into Mad Men‘s martini-drenched universe, Joan Holloway is a brassy office manager and den mother to all the other women at Madison Avenue advertising agency Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, and a pro at hypnotizing ad men with a glance of those cerulean eyes or a swivel of those hourglass hips. Over the course of four seasons, we’ve watched as she batted away constant harassment using her own sexuality as ammo, carried on a torrid affair with one of the company’s founders, and finally managed to land a doctor husband, though not before he sexually assaults her in her workplace. (They still managed to make their dinner reservation.) When we last saw her, Holloway had transformed into a homemaker, though a danger-fueled liaison left her pregnant with the child of her former boss.
“The amazing thing about Joan is how confident she is,” Hendricks says, between sips of Sancerre and nibbles on french fries. “I was never that confident. When we shot the pilot I was like, Who is this woman? I’m not friends with people like that.” But today, her self-confidence is brimming. Starring on a hit show might do that to a girl, but Hendricks admits that Joan’s sass was contagious. “She’s living in the ’60s, but she uses sexual innuendo, which is taboo. Because of that—and a very tight green dress—she became a sexual character. She was very openly saying, I have sex, and I don’t care if you judge me. I’m not going to apologize for who I am. Those qualities resonated with people, and have given me confidence.”
She’s a character that, like Hendricks herself, has experienced some of womanhood’s watershed moments in the five years we’ve known her. “Just as I have changed, and as significant things have happened in my life, like getting married and moving into a new home, Joan has gotten married and gotten pregnant,” Hendricks says. All of this has added up to a softer Joan Holloway, who once teased a white colleague for seeing a black woman. “She was a lot bitchier than she is now. She’s mellowed out and wised up. With the more responsibility that she’s gotten at work and in her life, she can’t be as flip as she was. There’s a lot more on her shoulders these days. ”
Growing up in Knoxville, Tennessee, Hendricks had no inkling of the Tinseltown success that awaited her. With her mother, a psychologist, and her British father, whose job working for the US Forest Service caused them to move often, Hendricks dotted the country throughout her childhood, spending swathes of her youth in places like Twin Falls, Idaho, and Fairfax, Virginia. In her teens, she acted in community theater and did ballet, experiences that ignited a passion for performance. “I studied pretty much everyday,” says Hendricks of her stint as a dancer. “Then, when I was 15, I realized I wasn’t going to be a professional dancer and I sort of had to readjust. I already knew that performance was something that made me happy,” she says.
Before she discovered acting, Hendricks expressed herself through fashion. “When I was in junior high, I was sewing my own clothes,” she says. “I had these looks. Sometimes they were very tragic. I wore a pair of green, silk, MC Hammer–style pants with the low crotch, Birkenstocks, and my hair in a turban. What that look was, I don’t know, but it was kind of amazing.” In high school, she embraced goth culture, and the black fishnets and makeup that came with it. “I wasn’t one of those sloppy, dirty goths. I thought it was very beautiful and I went out of my way to do it right, in a very high-fashion kind of way.” (Of Mad Men’s influence on her current style, she says, “I now have a section in my closet devoted to pencil skirts.”)
When Hendricks eventually moved with her mother to Los Angeles after her parents split up, she had an epiphany that a career in show business was possible. After considering a job at a record label—she had some friends in the music industry—she began booking modeling gigs, which led to commercial work. “It all happened naturally,” she says. She was surviving off guest spots on shows like ER and Joss Whedon’s sci-fi soap, Firefly, when the script for Mad Men gave her the opportunity to play a new type of character. “I was surprised to get the role of Joan, since I’d always played these socially awkward, quirky, best friend characters,” she says. “I’d audition for cop and lawyer characters, and everyone would say that I was too soft.”
Hendricks wrapped filming on Mad Men’s fifth season a few days before we meet—“It went by in a blink,” she says—and while I press her for plot details, she has by now mastered the art of revealing everything and nothing at the same time. “A lot happens this year,” she says with a coy smile. “Last year was building up to what was going to happen with Don and Betty, and although there’s that, so much happens with each character this season that we were all like, Whoa.” When I ask about Joan specifically, she demurely shakes her head. “All I can say is a lot happens to Joan.”
Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner knows how lucky he is to have discovered Christina Hendricks. “Christina turned what I conceived to be a businesslike and glib gal pal into a substantial, ambitious woman filled with sexual confidence,” he says. There’s no denying that the character of a 1960s secretary could have been something trite, but with Hendricks breathing life into her, she became a force from which even other characters were able to draw strength—in particular, uptight and ambitious female ad exec Peggy Olson, played by Moss. “That’s one of the reasons I got to continue on the show. Matthew Weiner saw that they complement each other so much… they’re sort of the yin and yang,” Hendricks says.
It’s hard to imagine anyone but Hendricks embodying Joan Holloway, but for all the praise her performance attracts—she’s been nominated for two Emmys for Outstanding Performance by a Supporting Actress—talk invariably turns back to that bodacious, unavoidable figure. It’s not something that Hendricks, who sees herself as an actress, not a sex symbol, is thrilled about. “My husband makes me feel sexy, and I’ve always been really comfortable in my skin, but I’m really just a girl who would prefer talking about my acting rather than my body,” she says. “But,” she adds, “I’m a very comfortable naked person. Not in front of other people, but at home and in front of my husband, I feel good not wearing clothes.”
Hendricks’ husband is Geoffrey Arend, a gangly actor best known for his roles in Super Troopers and 500 Days of Summer. Thanks to his glamorous bride, he’s been blinded by more flashbulbs in the last three years than most people see in a lifetime. (He’s also been texting her sweet nothings all morning, she says.) When they married after a brief courtship in 2009, People magazine gave Arend the “Luckiest S.O.B.” award, but it’s Hendricks who considers herself the fortunate one. She says she fell in love with Arend so instantaneously that it freaked him out a little, though, as she tells it, it didn’t take long to put a spell on him. Today, they enjoy a solid relationship—an endangered species in Hollywood—which Hendricks credits to just working on it. “People don’t want to work at marriage anymore,” she says. “Even a really great friendship is a lot of work, but sometimes people stay together forever and they’re miserable. There has to be a middle ground.”
With Mad Men renewed for at least another season, Hendricks isn’t leaving mid-century Manhattan just yet. The savvy actor is already balancing out her filmography with supporting parts in mainstream attractions like the treacly Sarah Jessica Parker workplace comedy I Don’t Know How She Does It, plus surprising appearances in edgier art-house experiments like Tony Kaye’s education system takedown Detachment. After seeing the ultraviolent prison saga Bronson, she decided she had to work with its director, the Danish provocateur Nicolas Windig Refn. “Whatever that guy does, I knew I wanted to work with him, and then Drive came up,” she says, referring to his pulsating, neo-noir thriller about a stunt driver who moonlights as a getaway driver. Hendricks had her eye on the role of a deceitful rogue named Blanche, opposite Ryan Gosling, and while the gritty part was a detour from the glamour audiences have come to expect from her, Hendricks approached Refn anyway, asking to meet. He revealed he’d been interviewing strippers for the role and, to his surprise, discovered none of them could act. (“That’s because they’re not actresses, they’re strippers,” she told him, sagely.) Drive became a cult smash, and audiences were shocked by Blanche’s gruesome fate. (Spoiler alert: A shotgun blows Hendricks’ head to fleshy smithereens.) “I wasn’t making a point of doing the opposite of Mad Men,” she says. “I just wanted to work with this guy, but now he’s a fan of the show.” Such a fan that Refn publicly vowed to bring the DC Comics character Wonder Woman to the screen, with Hendricks wielding the Amazonian goddess’ golden lasso.
Besides the prospect of her very own superhero franchise, Hendricks is keeping busy with more terrestrial projects. Thanks to a contract dispute between AMC and Weiner, there was an unusual year-long break between the shooting of Mad Men’s fourth and fifth seasons, and Hendricks isn’t standing idly by waiting for season six to commence production. Instead, she’ll fly to London shortly to begin work on Bomb, yet another ’60s drama where she’ll play mother to Elle Fanning in a family of radicals. Hendricks also recently wrapped Struck by Lightning, a coming-of-age tale written by Glee’s Chris Colfer. But she’s most excited about the possibility of working on Neil LaBute’s Seconds of Pleasure, a movie about the interconnected lives of people traveling on the same airplane.
Hendricks knows that eventually Matthew Weiner will write his grand finale, the set of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce will be broken down for good, and she will have to move on. She takes none of it for granted. “The idea that we have two seasons left is a bit daunting. It’s been nice to have security. A lot of us have been around for a while. We know how cyclical this stuff is and how fleeting it can be, so the idea that the show will end is certainly bubbling inside of me, but I’ve never had a plan.”
Photography by Kurt Iswarienko. Styling by Christopher Campbell.