'Mad Men': Teyonah Parris on Dawn's Big Episode, Outlasting Don's Other Secretaries

After a big turn in "A Day's Work," the actress tells THR about Dawn's lingering loyalty to Don, becoming the new Joan and her character's "Oh, this shouldn't be funny" moment in the break room.
Teyonah Parris in "Mad Men"

One scene in particular seemed to galvanize Mad Men viewers on Sunday: the brief break room exchange between secretaries Dawn and Shirley, greeting one another by the other's name in a sad-funny commentary on their invisibility to their white colleagues.

Each one managed to infuriate her boss, without managing to do anything wrong, over the course of the episode -- but for Dawn, it ultimately meant a promotion. She finished "A Day's Work" as the new Joan, running personnel at SC&P.

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Actress Teyonah Parris, who's played Dawn since the fifth season and will star in upcoming Starz comedy Survivor's Remorse, spoke with The Hollywood Reporter after the episode about her character's surprise new gig, dressing like an old maid and where Dawn now ranks among Don's colorful catalog of secretaries.

Did you even think that you would be back this season? 

I found out when I was asked to even come in and read a script. I had no assurance. I had to wait like any other time. I was like, "Lord, please let Don come back to the office!"

After seeing Dawn and Shirley make jokes about no one in the office being able to tell them apart, I thought they were going to finish the episode just switching desks. Did you expect the episode to finish on such an optimistic note?

No, I went through so many emotions reading that script. So much happens for Dawn. The scene in Don's apartment, then that "Oh, this shouldn't be funny" moment with Shirley -- which is so true and it happens all of the time -- to being fired, not fired, demoted and promoted … I had to read the end four times just to make sure I knew what was happening. I asked Matt during the table read, "Does this mean what I think it means?" And he said, "Yes, you're the new Joan." At least for this episode.

It seems like there would be a lot of ways to interpret a Mad Men script.

There are a lot of times when I'll read the script, and it's so subtle I'll think I understand what's happening. Then I watch the show and I truly had missed it.

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Seeing Dawn and Shirley share a scene, they could not look more different. Do you envy anyone on set getting to adopt the more dramatic ’60s fashions?

I think it's hilarious. She's young, but she dresses from chin to ankle and you don't see a thing. That's just who she is. She's modest and very much about the work. How are people mixing them up? Shirley has an Afro and the shortest dress that anyone has ever seen. That skirt was almost not safe for work, but she did look so cute in it. Just to see them next to each other, and the people still mixing them up, it's pretty hilarious. But it really happens.

Did you think she was done for when she told Lou off?

I didn't see it coming, but it shows you how much she's grown. When she first got there, you could see her holding her head down, trying to stay under the radar. Now you see her confident in what she does and what she brings to the table. The way she's matured professionally and personally, to be able to have her stand up for herself, it was awesome. I was happy for Dawn.

Why do you think she's so loyal to Don?

He's been a great boss to her. He stood up for her during a multitude of office politics issues. And that's just part of who she is, to stand by him when he's down. And I've lasted longer than any of his secretaries.

His others have either died at the desk or married him. Does that make Dawn the luckiest?

I would say so. Megan [Jessica Pare] puts up with a lot. My competition isn't that tough. It may have been because somebody else got a promotion, and they didn't know what to do with her, but, hell, in her life, I think this is good for Dawn.

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How do you feel the show has handled Dawn as a catalyst to address race in the ’60s?

I think it's just as sophisticated and subtle at some times, and overt in others, as the other issues they've talked about on the show -- particularly sexism. I think they handle it really well, and I look forward to the times when they address it.

Your Starz comedy, Survivor's Remorse, got a straight-to-series order. How much better is that than waiting for a call? 

I leave for Atlanta this weekend, and it's a good feeling -- I will tell you that. Mad Men, you hear the day before if they want you. It's a guest-star feeling. It feels good to know that I have this arc happening and I'll be a part of telling this story for at least this long.

What was your experience plugging two films [Dear White People, They Came Together] at Sundance this year?

I stayed the whole week, and it was intense. I could take that situation for three days, maybe. I think that's enough time. I feel blessed to have had two films there, but that is a lot of people in a very small space.