Mad Men’s Teyonah Parris on Playing Dawn and Peggy Just Not Getting It — Exclusive
Mad Men fans sent up a collective cheer when Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce finally hired Dawn, the company's first black secretary. As viewers in the 21st century watching a show about a decade of great social upheaval, we thought it was high time Mad Men started addressing race more directly, even if the executives stumbled into integration by mistake.
Dawn, played marvelously by Teyonah Parris, has only been in two episodes so far, but she's already made a big impression, especially in Season 5, Episode 4: “Mystery Date,” where her scenes with Peggy stole the show. Wetpaint Entertainment was thrilled to get a chance to chat with Teyonah about how she landed the role, what it's like on the Mad Men set, and how she thinks Dawn views Peggy's fumbling attempts to connect with her.
Wetpaint Entertainment: Congratulations on the role. How has the reception been so far? Teyonah Parris: People are excited. They're excited to have new blood, myself and Ben Feldman, who plays Michael Ginsberg. People love that show, period, so I think people are very receptive.
Can you tell us about the casting process and how you landed the part? I had to audition like everyone else that I'm sure was really excited to go in for that role. It was actually crazy, because I was almost unable to audition, because I had an international trip planned. But it was like, I need to go in for this, so we're going to make this happen. So I went in like everyone else and met with Carrie Audino [the casting director] and I had the first round. Then I had a call back, and then the second round was Carrie and Jon Hamm and [show creator] Matt [Weiner] and that was exciting because I wasn't expecting them so soon. But I was like okay, I'm ready. It was exciting. And then — I don't even remember how long after, I think like a week after I heard that I got the role.
How did you feel about landing to part, especially in light of how critically acclaimed Mad Men is? I actually remember the moment. I was in Trader Joe's and I was buying groceries. I'm like, "Oh gosh." Definitely working actor — oh, how am I gonna pay for all these groceries, I need to eat! And then my manager and my agent, everyone called all together on the line and they said, "Hey you got it." I had to pull myself out of the line, step outside — like, can y'all watch my groceries — and I went outside and screamed.
What's it like to be the new girl on set? Everyone was really nice. My first episode [Season 5, Episode 3: "Tea Leaves"] Jon Hamm was actually directing, so I met my boss on the show and he was actually the one to kind of usher me in. So that was really, really nice, to have him bring me in.
Part of what makes Mad Men so special is its commitment to historical accuracy. Did you do any special research to prepare for the role? Oh, definitely. I’m slightly obsessed with this era. It's been my dream to do a character in this time period, so I had a great wealth of knowledge going in. For me the turnaround was really quick, so it was more of a matter of listening to music, brushing up on things that I knew were happening, and, even more important for me, I wanted to get into the world of Mad Men. I had watched the show, but I hadn't been watching it for the whole four seasons. So for me it was like, I need to get into this world as well.
Did you create a backstory for Dawn to help get into character? Well, I did. I had come up with quite a plethora of things. As you know, in "Mystery Date" you got to actually know a little bit more about what the writers thought, who Dawn is for them. But I didn't have that information when I first started. So I did make up quite a bit. For me, she was a transplant into the city. I came up with all kinds of things. Once I got a scene that actually said who they wanted Dawn to be, I said, OK, well I'll just have to re-adjust.
Speaking of "Mystery Date," many fans were really struck by the scenes between Peggy and Dawn in that episode, and especially the one in Peggy's apartment. However, in a lot of ways that scene was focused on Peggy, and the way she felt about Dawn and Dawn's race. What do you think was going through Dawn's head in those moments? I think she appreciates the effort. I do feel like she sees where Peggy is coming from. But just like in the office, when she catches Dawn and is thinking oh, but you're not a nurse — it's like she's almost there, but then she doesn't get it. I think Dawn appreciates the effort but she realizes there are just some things this woman just will not understand. [Peggy] just doesn't get, as much as she thinks she does.
Like when she asks Dawn if she wants to be a copywriter, which doesn't seem very feasible at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Right. It's like, Dawn's happy just to have a job, and to have a job in a good place with benefits and things like that, and can help her mother.
The moment where Peggy looks at her purse was hard to watch. What was that like to film? I feel like I've dealt with that before in life, even in this day and age. It was really just — I had to go there. I had to allow myself to say yep, this is even ten times worse back then. I just feel like the type of person Dawn is emerging to be [is] a gracious girl, and she deals with what she's given very well. Very, very well. And to play that I just had to allow myself to go there.
We haven't seen much of Dawn interacting with Don — which, by the way, is very hard to distinguish out loud. [Laughs] They would do like a Jersey accent [to distinguish]. Dawwwwn and Don. Or some kind of accent, I don't know what that is!
So, how do you think Dawn perceives Don, and her place in the office? What I can gather is that she doesn't realize that it was a mistake that they even put that ad out. But I think she feels that they're integrating. I'm the first one to integrate this office, so I think she feels that whispering and things like that. And just like how Roger Sterling and Peggy — I think she feels that. But as far as her boss, Don — he's been pretty straightforward with her. You know, like he says, she was the most qualified. And all of the interactions we've had so far — you know I think he's just like, she's here, and she's doing her job, and she's good.
One thing people love about Mad Men is the costumes. Oh, yes!
Can you tell us a little about your wardrobe and what it says about Dawn's character? Oh my goodness. [Mad Men costume designer] Janie [Bryant] is amazing. I remember going into all of my fittings like "wow, can I have this, can I have this, can I take this home?" Like I said, I'm lightweight obsessed with that time period. I remember going in and Janie and I would kind of joke — oh yeah, this is good, she can wear this to church — you know. I feel like Dawn is very conservative. She doesn't want to draw any unnecessary attention, or any more than the color of her skin is already drawing to her. She really just is there to do her job and is grateful for a job. For me, it was she's very conservative. She wants to blend in as much as possible — but she doesn't really have the money to blend in on the couture side. She does what she can.
And just for fun, which cast members do you think are most and least like their characters in life? Oh god! Ah man, okay — I feel like any way I go it's not going to be good, because these characters are so.... Okay, in the sense that women love him, I'm going to say Jon Hamm. Becauseall of my family, all of my friends, any woman I know is like "oh my gosh, Jon Hamm." But not because of any bad behavior or anything like that! I don't know him like that. [Laughs] But as a man you kind of dream about.
The charming side of Don without the dark side. Exactly! As far as women just swooning over him, I would say Jon Hamm. And then the least like [their character] — oh! Ben Feldman [Michael Ginsberg]. I only got to meet him a few times on set but his character is so never stops, never stops. But [Ben and I] connected on set because we are both the new ones, and he's really just chill, for the most part. So I would say he's the least like.
For more from Teyonah, you can follow her on Twitter @TeyonahParris. And, of course, remember to tune in to Mad Men on Sundays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on AMC.
Rebecca Martin is an editor at Wetpaint Entertainment. Follow her on Twitter @BeccaMartin47.