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

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

AMC's hit dramatic series casts the first African-American in the all-white Sterling Cooper Draper Price agency. Parris speaks exclusively with EBONY on Hollywood, race, and her new place in it all

by Darren Sands, April 13, 2012

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

of the episodes we’ve seen so far. They made it up completely. I guess that was not to give away what they were doing for all of the people who were auditioning. That was really fun—I had no clue it really wasn’t going to happen in the show. But I did that, and I don’t think they even gave me an adjustment. I just said, “That’s what I got…and thank you!” [laughs] And that was it. I was nervous, but it was pretty seamless.

EBONY.com: Where were you when you found out that you had gotten the part?

Teyonah Parris: Oh, yes…oh yes. I was in line at Trader Joe’s. Or about to get in line. I had a basket full of stuff…I’m a working actor thinking, “Oh gosh, how am I gonna pay for all this food? But I gotta eat.” So, I’m getting in line and they guy was about to start pulling the stuff out of my cart. The phone rings and it’s my manager, my agent —everybody. The whole team. And they’re like, “Heeeeey …!” Of course, they were taking forever, drawing it out. I’m thinking, come on, it’s either really bad news or really good news because all of y’all are on the phone. So they’re like, “You got the part!” OH MY GOSH! First thing I thought was, I can pay for these groceries! And so I had to get outta line —I asked someone to please watch my basket —I went outside, and I just screamed, “Thank you!” to God. I just had to thank God. I’m yelling on the phone with them and they’re saying, “Okaaaay.” I said, “Y’all don’t understand: I’ve [got all these] groceries, and I’m worried! They just all started cracking up, but I was very serious. So that’s how I found out.

I figured I’d move to L.A. to try something different and it was a very trying trial period. I thought I’d come out here for three or four months … I ended up staying for 10 months before anything really happened. And the thing that really happened was “Mad Men”.

EBONY.com: What kind of preparation or research did you do to play a secretary? Had you ever done any work like that before?

Teyonah Parris: I actually took typing and stuff like that in school and I also did summer jobs in law firms, that kind of thing. I’ve worked in an office before. But crazy enough, my mother was a secretary or administrative assistant —she does that kind of work. So I’ve been around it for a very long time, with her typing books and stuff like that. I don’t know why I was never actually interested in it, but I just wanted to type fast because I liked the way the clicking sounds [Laughs]. It wasn’t a totally foreign world to me. My maternal grandmother worked in an office during the 60’s. So it was really cool to ask her about these things.

EBONY.com: What kind of feedback does your family give?

Teyonah Parris: My mom is just excited. She’s totally excited and it’s funny because she’ll give me acting notes and I’m thinking, “Woman, I went to school for this! [Laughs] I can’t really say anything but, “Thanks mom!” It comes on late at night so she hasn’t seen this last episode yet. She can’t stay up that late. But she did see last week’s and was just really excited that I was on TV. My dad is thrilled as well.

EBONY.com: Everyone’s talking about this scene with your character and Peggy Olson with the purse —your expression is amazed and heartbroken. What’s going on inside Dawn’s mind that very moment?

Teyonah Parris: With Dawn, she hasn’t had anyone really to connect with in the office. She’s on eggshells for the most part. And for this woman to extend herself like that— Dawn says she’s [slept in Don’s office] before and you don’t know if she’s lying or telling the truth so Peggy will just go away — and to not rat her out and to actually take her in, Dawn thinks her experience isn’t going too bad as she was thinking [it would be]. Then you see the scene as it evolves and they start to talk: Dawn is throwing things out about her life, but Peggy’s talking a lot as well and not really responding to what Dawn says. She kind of just talking about her own problems, her own issues. I don’t really think that bothers Dawn. I think she understands. And she’s a very gracious person — she’s shown that from what we’ve seen of her. She’s learning how to handle being the only Black person in an office. She understands that this woman wants to be progressive — and that she is in a sense. But she

Stay in the Know
Sign up for the Ebony Newsletter