As the launch of Mad Men Series 2 approaches on Movie Network, Rachael Turk talks to January Jones, a.k.a. Betty Draper.
Mad Men is equally about women. How does Betty balance/oppose from other key female characters, eg. Peggy (the naive), Joan (the siren), Rachel (the career woman) and Midge (the mistress) and Helen (the single mother)?
The genius of Matt Weiner and the writers on this series is that the female characters are all very different but each has something in common. They could easily have been window dressing but are very complex and layered. Betty is the wife and mother of the main Mad Man and Donald Draper character would not be nearly as interesting without seeing his home life. You sympathise with him more when you see that struggle. Meanwhile Betty’s struggling to find her independence, trying to find something for herself. All the female characters are trying to find that – and so are a lot of women today. If anything, it’s even harder now because you want to be all of these things: wife, mother, worker, siren.
To me, the greatest achievement of your performance as Betty is the suppression of knowledge – that your husband is having an affair, that your life is not all you thought it’d be. That represents a lot of what characterised the 1960s America – social change, and its counter-force, the social, sexual and political forces of repression. Does Betty Draper represent women’s awakening and transition during this time?
My character is, more than any other, living in a façade of perfection, even in terms of herself. If things make her sad or afraid she hides it. She’s imploding. There’s an angry person inside. The acting is all in the eyes and expression. The hardest thing about the first season was that she can’t ell anyone except a small boy. This shows her level of maturity – she’s still a girl. In Season 2 you see her become her own woman.
I loved the ep in Series 1 where Betty shoots the pigeons, after her hope of rekindling a modelling career is dashed. What is she saying to herself in that scene?
That was really fun, and one of thesemoments of implosion in Season 1. Another was slapping Helen Bishop in the grocery store. The scene with the gun and pigeons was Betty’s realisation that those dreams of a career aren’t going to happen – whether she knows it’s because of Don or not – and a resignation to being a mother.
In the scene in Series 2 (Ep 203) where Donald asks Betty to join him at the restaurant for a business engagement, she replies “Is this one where I talk or I don’t talk?” – seemingly without a hint of irony. Is Betty aware of the truth she speaks?
Oh yeah, she means it! That’s the difference between Seasons 2 and 1. She would have genuinely asked that in Season 1.
Your role in Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada has a similar element of naivety, which finds transformation and release. What did you bring from that role and experience?
They are very different characters but both are dissatisfied with their marriage. They are both sad and angry and lonely. But Lou Ann did act on her discontent. She left and had an affair. That’s not something Betty would do. Betty wouldn’t let her unhappiness change her idea of what her life would be. She’d fight to keep her marriage and family in tact.
The “mistress and the wife” scenario is, dramatically, an archetypal one. What is new about the way Mad Men plays it?
Some men and women still cheat on their husbands and wives but perhaps it was done differently and people certainly didn’t get as divorced as often. It’s more about the independence that women have gained over the years. Don struggles with his infidelity too and is attracted to these very strong independent women even though he married what he thought would be his ideal mate.
Instead of some Rear Window view, Mad Men places us right in the living rooms of these characters. It reminds me of Far From Heaven [2002, dir. Todd Haynes] in the way it gets behind the façade of the whiter than white picket fence.
Julianne Moore did an impeccable job in that role. The time was very glam post-war euphoria. There were no consequences. What you find out in Mad Men is that the actions do have dire consequences – be that drinking, smoking, womanising or whatever. What we avoided at all costs was to be a movie from the 1960s where everyone looked like Grace Kelly and wanted to be happy and glamorous and in love. We are trying to do something real in the portrayal of reality; these are characters that have real feelings and emotions and issues that modern audiences can relate to.
The second season of Mad Men will debut in Australia on Movie Extra on December 14. January Jones’ next film The Boat That Rocked (dir. Richard Curtis) – also an ensemble ‘60s comedy piece – is currently in post-production.