Though she’s never had it easy, Joan Harris has basically evolved into Superwoman by the seventh season of “Mad Men.” She’s the brash bombshell who doesn’t hesitate to ask for exactly what she wants, and tries to help her fellow women in the office at a time when no one else does. As Sterling Cooper and Partners has gone through various iterations over the years, Joan suffered many difficulties representative of what women dealt with in the 1960s-era workplace. But she’s still standing, and is now more powerful than ever.
Christina Hendricks has played Joan with gusto over the last six seasons, and it looks like things are only going to get more dramatic. Hendricks still finds it surreal that the show is coming to an end: After the show airs seven episodes this spring, it will take a year-long break before concluding with its final seven episodes in 2015.
We talked to Hendricks, 38, just as the show is starting to film next year’s episodes, and got her thoughts on Joan’s best moments of the Season 7 premiere; the most polarizing storylines; and of course, the obligatory questions about the show’s fantastic wardrobe.
(This interview has been slightly edited and condensed.)
Are you getting nostalgic for the end, or does it still seem so far away?
I’ve been nostalgic already for quite sometime, I think I started last season. (laughs) It’s going to be a big change for us, so we’re all feeling it pretty much by this point.
One of the most common reactions to Season 7 is that Joan really is the boldest, most powerful woman on the show — but after all this time, she still doesn’t get respect. Why is it like that for your character?
I don’t really think it is just for the character, it’s all the sexism that we’ve explored in the show in the past. I just think it’s a reflection of the times. I think that she is someone who gets dressed up and embraces her femininity and that can be distracting for the men. They don’t know how to see someone smart and talented and powerful and also take pride in how they look; they just can’t put the two together.
How satisfying was it to play the scene in the premiere where Joan puts that condescending young marketing executive in his place, and by the end of it, he’s the one asking her for advice?
Oh yeah, it’s great. It’s nice to see Joan take things into her own hands and have it work out for her, and prove to someone that she knows what she’s talking about.
Another poignant moment in the premiere is when Joan goes to the business school professor for advice and when he says he wants to trade favors, she mistakenly assumes he’s talking about sex. Is she still scarred from last season with the Jaguar exec [whom she slept with to get the account]?
Yeah, I mean, it’s really her entire life that has been innuendos and scenarios and things like that so it only makes sense that she jumped to conclusions too quickly, and then she was embarrassed. But it’s a lifetime of being treated that way and having people not take her seriously. She doesn’t know this guy, so she made assumptions and immediately felt stupid for it.
Joan is so interesting because she’s this dichotomy of a really progressive woman, but at the same time, she tries to be realistic about the ways a woman can succeed in that era. What’s it like balancing that while playing the character?
It was interesting in the beginning because you had to really think about each moment you took and make sure you weren’t reacting like a modern woman who has these opportunities; you had to stop and remind yourself of those things. And I think now it sort of comes second nature to us, certainly for the other women on the show, too. But it’s been wonderful as a actress to have to always think about that and have to always play that. Because that’s one of the things that makes the show work — each character is thinking about living in a different time and having different circumstances than we certainly have now.
Has that gotten easier to play over the years?
It has, we used to get the scripts and sort of gasp in horror at the things that were happening. Now we’re just like, “Yep! That’s our show.” (laughs) It takes a lot of surprise us at this point.
What do you hear from viewers about the Joan storylines that resonate with the most people?
It’s been a series of things over the years, I think people were very excited by the relationship with Joan and Roger for a very long time and continue to wonder what’s going to happen with them. Then there was the storyline with her trying to succeed at work, like when she was trying to be script supervisor and Harry takes the job away from her. That was a really-talked about point.
Obviously, the relationship with her husband, that was a very important episode we did where he rapes her and she still makes the choice to stay with him. That was a very talked-about storyline. And of course, the sort of stuff about how she became a partner and dealing with the Jaguar clients has a been thing over the last couple of years. They continue to change, though, and I love that people are still excited about the different things are going on.
When people approach you, do they start talking to you about their experiences in that era?
Absolutely — I didn’t realize that advertising people were everywhere. And then as soon as you’re on the show, they’re like, “I’m in advertising! My mother was in advertising! My father was in advertising! He was Don Draper, he was this person.” A lot have people have said, “I was Joan” or “I knew Joan.” I like that it makes people nostalgic and think of the people in their lives like that. There’s not a lot of shows that do that.
Are you ever surprised by the topics “Mad Men” covers that people can really relate to so closely today, even years later?
I don’t think so, I mean, they’re very human stories. And unfortunately, even some of the stuff with racism and sexism and things like that, that stuff still very much goes on today. It’s just easier to talk about it when you look at it [through the lens of] history, you can say, like, “Oh, look how much better we are.” But it also opens up the conversation that it’s still happening.
What would Joan think of the “Lean In” phenomenon these days, in terms of encouraging women to be more aggressive and climb the ladder and not be afraid to speak up?
I think for quite a few seasons you just saw Joan believe that she had the top position she was even capable of getting, and she was going to do the best absolute job that she could and she was. And it sort of helped to see Peggy widen the ranks at work, it sort of helped her be like, “Wait a minute. I’m just as good as all these people, I can do that — if she can do that, I can certainly do that.” I think it took seeing other people do it as well to realize that she didn’t just have to be the best at what she was doing, she could be the best at something even greater.
Obviously, the costumes were amazing already for Season 7. Do you have a favorite season in terms of clothes?
(Laughs) I get so nostalgic about Seasons 1 and 2, so I think some of my favorite costumes that I’ve gotten to wear have been in those seasons … There’s some really super-flattering things in the beginning, silhouettes that I particularly like. But now it’s just getting so groovy and the prints and things are just so wild. It’s fun for me to see how different it was in the beginning until now. It’s changing significantly.
Do you still see your castmates who are filming the Los Angeles storylines away from the ad agency in New York?
Oh, we’re scheduled in the same way so we may not be in scenes together, but we’re there getting our hair and makeup together, we hang out on set together. So we still see each other, but sometimes you miss having scenes with the people who are in different storylines. But I have that every year. There were a couple seasons where Joan wasn’t really even in the office very much, so a lot of my scenes were just at home with new actors who were coming in. It changes each year, a little bit.
“Mad Men” airs Sunday nights on AMC at 10 p.m.