'Mad Men': Cara Buono talks about playing Don Draper's new lady love
This season of "Mad Men" has brought many changes for Don Draper, not the least of which is his blossoming romance with psychologist Dr. Faye Miller. As played by Cara Buono -- a veteran of that other boundary-breaking, Emmy-hogging drama, "The Sopranos" -- Faye is the anti-Betty Draper. Sure, they're both blond and might not be so great with kids, but the similarities end there. While Betty is all exterior with little inner life, Faye has a lot going on beneath her cool, Kim Novak exterior. Betty is all proper diction; Fay's a genuine New Yawker whose rougher edges occasionally poke through. It's just this combination of authenticity and mystery that have Don -- and "Mad Men" fans -- so intrigued. I caught up with Buono -- who, I should add, doesn't have the slightest trace of an accent -- earlier this week.
Now that the audience is finally getting to see more of Faye, it must be such a relief for you. You can talk about it!
Yes! At first, I couldn’t even tell people what I was doing in California, or how many episodes I was going to be on, or who I had scenes with. It was difficult not to talk about it with anyone, and also such a relief to go to work and know that it was safe to talk about it because obviously they all knew. Now it’s a lot easier because the last two episodes reveal the relationship between Faye and Don.
Tell me about landing the part.
I live in New York and got a call from my agent saying there was this new role on “Mad Men,” it might be recurring and they’re seeing people tomorrow. I said, “OK, this is one of those things where you hedge your bets, use your miles and get on a plane.” I flew out Tuesday morning and got the job on a Wednesday. It was a great surprise.
Is it tough coming into a show that has such a passionate following?
I had some experience when I joined “The Sopranos” in the last season. My character married Christopher, and everyone loved Adriana. I knew what it was like to join a very beloved, secretive show and following a very iconic character. Also, because I thought it would only be a few episodes, I didn’t really know what was ahead of me. But Faye is such a good character and I felt comfortable as her, so I felt comfortable being part of “Mad Men.” It was a good fit.
[Show creator] Matt [Weiner] wanted her to have a very slight New York accent that would slip out occasionally. I picked a very specific areas where it would come out, like if she got a little bit mad, or let her guard down a little bit. We’d get a little tiny glimpse into where she might be from.
What sets you apart from Faye?
I have naturally dark, almost black hair and she’s blond. She’s also Jewish. The line she says in the phone booth when she’s telling her boyfriend off. “Go ... in the ocean.” That’s an English translation of a Yiddish expression. And her father, though he’s a gangster, he’s not of Italian descent.
Speaking of which, that was an uncharacteristic outburst for Faye, who is usually pretty controlled.
I thought that was interesting also. I assume that she thought no one could hear her. But I thought it was a small glimpse into her personal life and how she takes control of situations within her personal life. The other thing I should clarify is that we’re not even sure if it’s a boyfriend or a lover or what. She could have multiple lovers. Who knows with Faye?
The first two times Don hit on her, Faye rejected him summarily. So why’d she change her mind?
The first time it was just presumptuous. The other time, he was drunk. I think finally he’s asking her out in a proper, old-fashioned way. She kind of dictates the conditions -- “Ask me out, in a proper way, when it’s not part of work” -- and he accepts the challenge. I think she set the tone for the evolution of their relationship, and they’ve gotten to know each other as people.
Do you think the fact that both Don and Faye wear these facades -- that they’re both, to some extent, disguising their true identity -- is an important part of their attraction to one another?
You know when you meet a kindred spirit and you recognize it, and you don’t have to say anything, you just get it? I think that’s going on. Peeking through these bits of armor, they’re really connecting in a way that is really unique. And we haven’t seen that before for Don.
Faye is really the only character who is, by her own design, a career woman. Peggy sort of stumbled into it, and Joan has no choice.
Yes, she is. What’s so interesting about Faye is that there’s such a mystery to her background. How did she put herself through school, how did she get to where she is? It takes a lot of work, a lot of discipline. I think it’d be so interesting, if we’ll ever find out what makes her tick, how she got to where she is. The initial reaction to Faye after the focus group was that people didn’t know what to make of her -- they thought she was cool and cold and manipulative, but really she's just good at her job. That’s a typical response to a strong successful female, even today.
On Sunday night’s episode, Faye admitted that she’s not good with kids. It seemed like it was a difficult thing for her to acknowledge, almost like she was ashamed, even though she’s also very secure in decision to pursue a career.
Some people aren’t great with babies, or they’re not great with a smaller child, it’s not that they’re bad mothers. I think she’d be a really good mom to Sally as a teenager. But there are some people who are more maternal and nurturing. It was interesting for me as an actress for me to play that scene because I knew intellectually that no matter how much Don likes me because I’m smart and sassy, on some level, I knew that he is always going to look for a mother figure for his children. I think she was right about it being a test. On some level it was, whether Don realizes it or not. I really wanted to play the scene like not being good with kids is not a terrible thing; to play it with less shame. But sometimes the emotions get the better of your intellect. As an actress, I was conflicted.
Don and Faye’s relationship begins from a place of honesty, which is a big change for him. Do you think she’s someone he can open up to about his past?
Something I realized is that Faye is not a mistress; all of Don’s other women have been mistresses. But she’s a real … can I call her a “girlfriend”?
I think it’s safe to call her that at this point.
But what I’m thinking is, would she want to call him her boyfriend. I always thought it was interesting, that she’d say she has dinner plans, she’s busy. Who are all these people she’s going out with?
That’s funny. Do you find yourself wondering about the life of your character, even though you play her?
Oh, all the time. I fill in the blanks with what I think is going on; I don’t know if that’s what Matt Weiner’s thinking. As an actress, you have to give your character a life, a history, and make it full and rich for yourself. Especially with Faye, she is putting on a façade, pretending she’s married. I’ve come up with some of my own ideas of what I think what’s going on.
Do you discuss these with Matthew Weiner?
They’re always an extension of the things he told me. He’ll give me a kernel and I’ll run with it. But it all starts with Matt Weiner.
Faye always looks impeccable. Do you feel like the clothes help make the character?
Oh, absolutely. The period undergarments and the suits and the hair -- it changes the way you stand, the way you sit. It really informs how you behave physically. I love to work that way. You can’t help feeling a little desperate when you’re looking desperate, and when you’re put together you’re going to behave a little different, too. It was interesting doing the scene in the bedroom after we break a lamp. I didn’t realize how grayed-down I was -- the hair, the makeup, everything was gone. So, obviously it was a very different way of feeling.
Can you tell us anything else about what's in store for Faye, without revealing too much?
I would love to see Faye get drunk in a bar with Peggy and talk about stuff, to see what would transpire between them. Because you get to see the guys bonding like that. The guys are buddies at work, they’re competitive, but not in the same way that the women are. It was interesting to see the three women in the elevator at the end.
What did you make of that scene?
We’ve all had our different situations with the men in our lives, and we’re all individually processing it, and we all acknowledge each other. It was a really interesting tableau. How did you interpret it?
To me it was sort of sad, like they’re alone, together. It spoke to how they were bonded by this collective experience of being women in the workplace, yet they're kind of strangers to each other.
I didn’t interpret it as sad as much as … they’re all alone in there together, but they’re not personal friends. How should they interact anyway, in terms of what just happened?
Is it different now, watching “Mad Men” as an insider, as well as a fan?
It makes me love the show even more. I am still very affected by it, even though I know what’s happening, I’ll still l have an empty feeling, or dread, or a lot of the feelings I would have just as a fan, because it’s so well done.
-- Meredith Blake
Photos: Cara Buono plays Dr. Faye Miller (top); Faye rejects a very drunk Don Draper (bottom).
Credit: Mike Yarish/AMC