“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.
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 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 also has her own issues. When the purse thing happens, I think maybe Dawn realizes she let her guard down a little too much. And then it’s, like, “Oooooh, right. I thought I had somebody here, but maybe I have to reinvestigate that.”
EBONY.com: Do you think she’s more aware of her race or her gender at SCDP?
Teyonah Parris: I think for Dawn, it’s her race. And then that she’s a woman on top of that. It’s not necessarily because she’s thinking about it, but more so because everyone else is thinking. Like when Harry Crane came to her desk and says that it’s kind of hard to tell who’s who (phonetically: Dawn/Don) around the office. He’s saying that it’s awkward because Don’s White and you’re Black, that kind of thing. Dawn’s thinking, “Well y’all keep reminding me that I’m Black!” So I definitely think it’s race first and then gender.
EBONY.com: When Peggy asks her if she wants to be a copywriter, do you think Dawn is being genuine with her answer? (“No, I like my job.”)
Teyonah Parris: I have an answer for that, but I would rather people form their own opinion at this point —as to whether she’s being genuine or not.
EBONY.com: “Mad Men” is known for its fashion. Do you have a favorite outfit that you’ve worn on the show so far?
Teyonah Parris: The first episode I wore this plaid skirt with this beige ruffled shirt. I really liked that skirt —even though it’s all the way down to my ankles [Laughs]—I just love that skirt. It’s this heavy, almost wool-ish skirt. I don’t even know that people can see it, but I know I have it on.
EBONY.com: If you could pick one person’s wardrobe from the show who would it be?
Teyonah Parris: Well the first person that comes to mind is Christina Hendricks, but that’s probably more so because she rocks the hell out of what she actually wears. Give me those curves, too [Laughs]! But her clothes aren’t going to look the same on me.
EBONY.com: You went to the prestigious Juilliard School in Manhattan, do you remember your audition?
Teyonah Parris: This is asking me to go waaaay back. My dad— bless his soul — drove me all the way up there from South Carolina. He said, “If that’s what you want to do, baby, we’re gonna go do it.” So we took that trip. It really was a madhouse. I got there at 8 a.m. and I didn’t leave until probably 2 a.m. It was a good thing because I kept making it to the next round, and I was exhausted by the end. I had my whole family in the lobby waiting for me. But we got it done. I was happy when I left the audition; maybe two months later I got the acceptance.
EBONY.com: You were featured alongside Reese Witherspoon in your first feature How Do You Know. It didn’t do as well as projected but what did you learn in that process?
Teyonah Parris: I had just gotten out of Juilliard and was terribly nervous about being on a set. I had never done a professional film or television gig…ever. So, to this day I’m so grateful that James L. Brooks trusted me enough with the role having no film credits to my name at the time to play opposite an Academy Award Winning actress. I was such a technical/logistics sponge on this set. I was and still am curious about everything. And I’m never too shy to ask questions so I did a lot of that! This was also my first experience of what it means to “get left on the cutting room floor” and how the finished product can morph, evolve, and change after editing. So, what I took away from this project is that all I really can do is try my best to tell this character’s story and what happens after that I really have no control over. I always make sure I’ve done my best to share their story.