[EXCLUSIVE] Teyonah Parris: The Black Woman Among 'Mad Men'

“When is everything going to get back to normal?” a drunk and ineffectual Roger Sterling asks Don Draper in the episode Tea Leaves of AMC’s “Mad Men”. It’s July, 1966. The proud son of the agency’s co-founder, Sterling has just been embarrassed in a company-wide meeting. Then, his good friend Don drops the bomb that his ex-wife, Betty, might have cancer. And if he needed another clue that the times were a-changin’, he could simply look outside of Don’s office to see Draper’s new secretary, the sweet but panderless Dawn Chambers, the first (gasp!) African-American to work for Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.

The certainty that Mad Men would, at some point, venture into race and civil rights didn’t stop critics from wondering what was taking so long for the nuanced, painstaking exploration of the social mores of Black folk to finally appear. In Weiner’s World, Black people were props: the maid, the girlfriend, the elevator operator, the Playboy bunny. But in Dawn there is already plenty to work with: Played by the lovely and promising Teyonah Parris, Dawn finds most of the company culture curious, resents being reminded of her race, and is so far unfazed by sophomoric humor pointed in her direction. “Tell you the truth, it makes the agency more modern, between that and it's-always-darkest-before-the-Dawn over there,” says Roger Sterling of two new hires. Some of it she hears, some of it she doesn’t.

While the hasty recruitment of a Jewish copywriter named Michael Ginsberg was intended to make SCDP seem more progressive to a prospective client (Turns out everybody's got one now,” Roger Sterling marvels), Dawn is a product of a more sinister plan gone wrong. Season five opens when employees at a rival agency get caught tossing “water bombs” down on a group of civil rights protesters. SCDP decided to run a facetious ad in the New York Times that said it’s an equal opportunity employer whose “windows don’t open.”

The joke, as it were, was on SCDP; the next day its lobby was filled with Blacks, their résumés in hand. It looked like a casting for a commercial spot with James Brown and ultimately, the botched joke meant that SCDP would soon be getting a little hipper.

Weiner wasted little time working Dawn into the show’s narrative. Working late one night in the episode Mystery Date, Peggy hears a noise she learns is the sound of Dawn crashing on the couch in Don’s office. Because of racial unrest in Chicago, Dawn’s brother won’t allow her to take the subway at night. Cabs refuse to pass 96th St. to Harlem, where she lives.(Why’d she stay so late in the first place?). After wrongly assuming Dawn is shaken by the recent Richard Speck massacre of eight female nurses, Peggy demands that Dawn stay with her. But girls night ended awkwardly. Ready to retreat to her bedroom, Peggy glances at her purse, conflicted if she should leave it unattended. Dawn is mortified by the wordless exchange, which one critic suggests says more about race in the 1960’s than all of The Help. While it’s too soon to tell if Dawn’s hiring is a significant piece to the puzzle that is "Mad Men"—which obsesses about the ironic and often suppressed nature of people’s motives and intentions —the moment was deliciously heartbreaking.

I figured I’d move to L.A. to try something different… I ended up staying for 10 months before anything really happened. And the thing that really happened was “Mad Men.”

That’s what we know about Dawn so far. No Olsonian soliloquies about what Black consumers want — yet. Parris, meanwhile, is currently living in Los Angeles. She talked to EBONY.com about getting recognized, her excitement about getting the role on Mad Men, Peggy’s unflattering purse moment and more.

EBONY.com: Congratulations on the show. Not even Jon Hamm was famous before Mad Men, so we’re curious about how your life’s changed in the two weeks since you’ve been on it.

Teyonah Parris: I mean, I get a lot more Facebook messages and stuff now [laughs]. It hasn’t been anything too crazy. But definitely a lot more attention, and people are excited about the show. So that’s always good.

EBONY.com: Are you getting recognized more now?

Teyonah Parris: Not from the show because, you know, I’m wigged up, very homely. In life I have a big huge afro. I actually have a McDonald’s commercial that’s running right now, so I get recognized from that.

EBONY.com: Tell us about the story about the casting process for the part of Dawn.

Teyonah Parris: For me, I auditioned like everybody else. I almost wasn’t able to audition because I had an international trip planned already. But luckily, we were able to work that out. So I went in like everyone else. I went to [casting directors] Carrie [Audino] and Laura [Schiff] first. And then I got called back to meet with Carrie, Laura, Jon Hamm and Matt Weiner. It was nice! The script that we all auditioned with wasn’t one from one