Playing Don Draper’s dotty secretary on six episodes of “Mad Men” last season, Randee Heller had only a handful of scenes and maybe 30 lines. And now she has an Emmy nomination as well, a just reward for turning the bossy Miss Ida Blankenship into an iconic comic creation that went well beyond anything “Mad Men” creator Matt Weiner had in mind.
“Randee was channeling something and came up with a character that is so far from who she is that it was amazing,” Weiner says. “I said to her in the audition, ‘You’re too young for this.’ She said, ‘You can make me look awful. I’m fine with it.’ And I replied, ‘OK, then … we will!’ ”
The Envelope caught up with the 64-year-old Heller at her Tarzana home recently and learned that though her native Brooklyn accent isn’t as thick as Miss Blankenship’s, she has the same wonderfully nutty comic brio as her character.
Of course, there’s always the fantasy, but I never thought it would happen. That morning, it’s 5:30 and I’m laying in bed with my iPhone because I just wanted to see and put it behind me. Then the phone rings and it’s my girlfriend of 50 years from grade school, and she’s screaming, “You got it! You got it!” Then I started screaming and my boyfriend ran in, thinking something happened to me.
Something was! And Ida didn’t even have to sleep with Don Draper to make it happen.
Not that you know, anyway. (Laughs) But between you and me, he doesn’t remember. He was very drunk that night.
He was drinking a lot at that point in the season.
And that, I think, is why Miss Blankenship worked so well. Things were getting so dark and tragic on the show, so here’s this bumbling, irritating, wisecracking woman -- the comic relief. It’s very Shakespearean. Someone had to come in and release all that emotional tension -- (Heller’s phone rings. The ring tone is the sound of a dog barking.) That’s my daughter. She loves her dog, so I chose that ring. One day I was walking across Ventura Boulevard and I’d forgotten I’d chosen that sound. My phone went off, and I thought there was a dog chasing me down the street and I started screaming. (Laughs)
I see now why Matt hands you the credit for Miss Blankenship.
He told me, “I didn’t know how funny you were.” That just naturally comes out. And it was fun to show up and say, “OK. What can I do with her? How can I make the most of this?”
Were you sorry to see her go?
I thought the arc was great. I mean, it was disappointing. I would have loved to continue. But I thought it was perfect, actually.
Did you have a hand in the way she died?
We knew she was going to die at her desk. But the manner in which I did it -- putting her head back and the tongue out -- that was me. They actually had a stunt guy come because it was painful to drop my head down on the desk like that. They put a tiny pad down where my forehead would hit. I went down like a warrior!
Could you believe the reaction?
Oh, my God! People still come up to me. “Maybe they could bring you back as a ghost. Or you could play her sister.” They’re not happy that she’s gone.
Roger Sterling did deliver that beautiful eulogy: “She died like she lived, surrounded by the people she answered phones for.”
I loved that! (Laughs) I feel so blessed. I had been acting for 41 years and I dropped out about nine years ago. You hit a certain age and you’re either too young or too old. So I said, “I’ve had it.” I went back to school, got a teaching degree and taught English as a second language to adults from all over the world. And I loved it. It was incredibly rewarding. Then I moved in with my boyfriend. We had been going together for 11 years. And because I didn’t have to worry about the rent, I decided to go back to acting a little bit. And one of the first auditions I had was “Mad Men.”
And now you’re going to the Emmys. You think anyone will recognize you?
Once I was at yoga in the morning with no makeup and someone said to me, “Oh, did you play Miss Blankenship?” I was crushed. So, I’m hoping no one will make the connection.
Maybe you could just wear the cat-eye glasses to the red carpet.
Or get all decked out in a beautiful gown … and then put on the wig! Wouldn’t that be something? (Laughs)
Top photo of Randee Heller as Miss Blankenship in "Mad Men" by Michael Yarish/AMC
Portrait of Heller by Bobby Quillard