The Arc of Joan

6:00 AM PST 06/05/2012 by Lacey Rose
Joe Pugliese

A conflicted sexpot, a sleazy Jaguar salesman and a decision that ignited a national dialogue: How Christina Hendricks perfected TV's most-talked-about role and what Joan Holloway means to working women throughout Hollywood.

Ever since May 27, Christina Hendricks has been in defensive mode. That was the night that Mad Men's steely bombshell, Joan, did the unthinkable. She slept with a lecherous Jaguar dealer in exchange for a partnership stake in Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. As Don Draper makes his pitch for the car company's business -- "What price would we pay?" he asks. "What behavior would we forgive?" -- the single mom allows an unseemly man to take from her the one thing she has long and proudly maintained: control.

No sooner had Joan's fitted dress fallen from her pale shoulders in the episode titled "The Other Woman" than the Twittersphere exploded with opinions ranging from horrified shock to guilty delight. Outlets from The New York Times to New York magazine dubbed the hour a "game changer," "historic" and "the best" of the season. Even those who deemed the story arc unrealistic praised the performance of Hendricks, who more than any other Mad Men character has come to personify the Emmy-winning show's exploration of the shifting sexual and workplace politics of the 1960s. Wrote Time's TV critic James Poniewozik: "Hendricks -- long the most underrated actress on Mad Men -- performs the hell out of this, selling the emotional change that (to me) the plot didn't."

In a series long driven by the exploits of Jon Hamm's Don Draper, Hendricks' Joan suddenly has found herself Topic A among the TV-viewing intelligentsia (the AMC show has averaged 2.6 million viewers this season). In an era where great female roles are few and far between, a character that brims with sexuality (and just plain sex) is far from that of a bimbo. Instead, as a lightning rod for discussion about power, business, office politics, sacrifice and, frankly, every other complicated issue of the day, Joan is a Rorschach for our own deepest meditations on morality and ambition. "The question is, what would you do to protect your family? Joan is raising her son all on her own. She has no help from anybody. So is it noble? Is it slutty? I don't know," says Hendricks, 37, who admits she has felt compelled to justify Joan's actions to the many friends and family who reached out after the show. Softer and gentler than the character she plays onscreen, she acknowledges she's still deeply conflicted about her character's decision.

The scene is one creator Matthew Weiner had been flirting with for the better part of two years (see sidebar, page 40). And Hendricks admits she was concerned initially that viewers might turn on Joan, whose exploits so far this season include battles with her mother, her former husband, ex-lover Roger Sterling and the now-dearly-departed Lane Pryce. Far from backlash, however, the character of Joan has been met with fascination as the industry buzzes about the strength not only of Mad Men's fifth season (at worst, some have called it uneven) and chances for a record quintet of best drama series Emmys but also of Hendricks' own Emmy prospects, an individual acting accolade no Mad Men regular has won (though she has been nominated twice for supporting actress).

Hendricks' eyes grow moist as she reflects on the opportunity Weiner has provided. A Knoxville, Tenn.-born actress whose dreams of stardom date back to her theatrical debut as a 9-year-old in a Twin Falls, Idaho, staging of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, Hendricks started as a trained ballerina who first dyed her blond locks red after reading Anne of Green Gables at 10. Later, with aspirations of more, she declined her acceptance to the theater department at Virginia Commonwealth College to move to Manhattan. After nearly a decade spent modeling for catalogs and fashion magazines, Hendricks began filling her résumé with smaller roles in such TV projects as the late Brandon Tartikoff's Beggars & Choosers, ER and Joss Whedon's Firefly.

But it was Mad Men, a Lionsgate-produced series set in the 1960s era of Madison Avenue, that made Hendricks, now L.A.-based and married to Body of Proof actor Geoffrey Arend, a household name. The irony is that she was initially asked to read for the part of Peggy, the overearnest 20-year-old secretary role that ultimately went to Elisabeth Moss. Hendricks had her manager raise her concern that she was too old to play 20, so instead she read for Midge (a shorter-lived part as Don Draper's bohemian mistress, played by Rosemarie DeWitt) and Joan.

To hear Weiner tell it, Hendricks brought to the character of Joan "all of this power, sexuality and confidence" that made him reconsider his initial plan for Joan to be little more than a vehicle to introduce Peggy. Hendricks chuckles at his recollection. "He and I have a little bit of a discrepancy about this," she explains, seated on this June day in a fitted T-shirt, jeans and flip-flops, noting that the pilot script has her character saying such things as, "Go to my gynecologist. Get on the pill. Follow my lead. Oh, I slept with that guy."

"So I'm like, 'What are you talking about it wasn't supposed to be sexual? The whole scene is all about sex,' " continues Hendricks, whose hourglass figure garners as much attention as her acting (much to her disappointment). "I love that Matt gives me credit for it, but he wrote those words, and when I read the script, that's all I had as cues that this person is sexually confident, bossy, knowledgeable and likes to be acknowledged."

In the series' early days, Hendricks found the role a bit of a challenge. "I thought Joan was such a bitch, and I struggled sometimes trying to make her as real as possible because I thought, 'Who would be so mean?' " she says, recalling how surprised she was that viewers found Joan to be empowered rather than cruel. In fact, when fans finally started recognizing her on the street -- for the first year or so, few knew what Mad Men was, much less that she was on it -- the comments were typically of the "You go, girl!" variety.

The sentiment is shared by her castmates. Among them, John Slattery, who as Roger Sterling has shared many of Hendricks' more intimate scenes over the course of the series' run. "People want to think because of how stunning she is that she's just this torpedo, but she's way more complicated than that," he says of Hendricks, whom he recalls marveling at during his first day on set half a decade earlier. "My first scene was walking in with Don Draper at the end of a scene in which she's telling Peggy to, 'Go home, take a paper bag, tear out two eye holes and put it over your head.' I didn't know what I was getting myself into until I saw her. It was that scene that kind of woke me up to the potential for this whole thing."

Five years later, Hendricks, who spends what little free time she has between Mad Men and film roles (she most recently appeared in Drive) knitting, cooking and being with friends, can't find enough good things to say about the character or the impact playing her has had on her career. But with the series expected to come to an end following the show's seventh season, she's given some thought to the other types of projects she'd like to explore. At the top of Hendricks' list: "I'd love to do a Woody Allen movie," she says, as she starts ticking off other items on her wish list, including quirky Wes Anderson and Tim Burton films, a Western, a musical and a great corset drama.

"People always ask me if I'm worried about being pigeonholed as Joan, but there isn't another character like her," says Hendricks. "The show takes place in the 1960s and has such a specific mood and quality to it."

So there's life after Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce? In her mind, absolutely. "Once you're out of it and modern Christina is in jeans and a T-shirt, you don't see Joan," she adds. "It's easy to imagine me as someone else."

Not that anyone is looking forward to that day quite yet.

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