The fifth season of "Mad Men" brought the dawn of a new day. And one result was the introduction of the latest female in Don Draper's life: Dawn Chambers, his new secretary and Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce's first African American employee.
When viewers rejoined the 1960s-set drama after a 17-month hiatus, they were briefed on the racial tensions that spawned riots and protests during the period the series is set in. After jokingly advertising itself as an equal opportunity employer in an attempt to poke fun at one of their competitor's woes, SCDP ended up hiring its first African American employee, played by Teyonah Parris.
We spoke to Parris about joining the show, her relationship with Peggy and just how stingy Matt Weiner can be with details about the show.
How did you find yourself on "Mad Men"? Were they as cryptic about what the role would be as they are with their previews of upcoming episodes?
I auditioned like everybody else. My first audition was with the casting directors and then after that, I got a call back and in that call back, Jon Hamm, who was directing that episode, and Matt Weiner were there. I was not expecting to walk into that.
But as far as knowing what the character would be, the breakdown said: "co-star, African-American." They don't let on to anything. I had no clue. I also didn't audition with the material we see in the episodes. They made up a completely different scene for the character.
Do you recall what they had you do?
It was a scene with Dawn and her cousin, she met up with him at a diner. And she was talking about her new job at the agency and just how it's different and hard and even when she sees black people in Midtown, how they kind of can't even acknowledge one another without feeling awkward about it because they feel like just by talking to one another, white people will feel threatened. It was a pretty amazing scene, actually.
So once you landed the gig, does Matt sort of brief you on what the character would be and symbolize?
Oh, he doesn't. He doesn't. I got the script and I saw what I was doing and I had to ask a few questions, like, how long have I been here? You know, I didn't even know how I got there. So when I watched the first episode of the season, I was watching with everybody else and I was like, 'Oh, this is how Dawn gets into the office.' I had no clue. I find things out with everyone too.
A lot of people were concerned that Dawn was simply window dressing, like, 'look, the token black character that will signal the changing times.' And we sort of got to know a little bit more about her in last week's episode, but it was mostly through the eyes of Peggy. What are your thoughts on that?