Christina Hendricks: ‘People think I’m Joan. They think I’m sexy and sophisticated and really cool’
How do you leave the office politics of ‘Mad Men’ behind? Starring opposite the late Philip Seymour Hoffman is a smart move. TV's `embodiment of beauty’ talks about saying goodbye to Joan, surviving high school and the power of hair colour
Hendricks on queen bee Joan: ‘She was resilient and confident and even when she was dealt some really lousy stuff, she seemed to learn from things. She was a smart cookie’. Photograph: Valery Hache/AFP/Getty Images
Henricks in God’s Pocket (above). ‘I only knew him from work, she says of her co-star, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. ‘He wasn’t this super-close friend. But he was a beautiful person to work with’
Christina Hendricks doesn’t walk into the room so much as glide, as if perched on an invisible pair of roller skates on unseen tracks. And she doesn’t speak so much as trill, in a pleasing baby-doll lilt, as if she’s addressing a pretty kitty or a unicorn foal. Even before you get a good gander at the sleek red hair, the flashing pale eyes, and those golden-ratio curves, she makes an extraordinary impression.
But you knew that. For how could anyone have failed to notice such cultural events as the 2010 Esquire poll in which she was named best-looking American woman and sexiest woman in the world?
She simultaneously draws admirers from both genders. Fashion designer Vivienne Westwood has called Hendricks “the embodiment of beauty”. In 2011, then British junior equalities minister Lynne Featherstone praised Hendricks’ hourglass figure as “an ideal shape for women”.
Hendricks, one senses, has heard such sentiments a little too often. Two years ago she laughed, exasperated, and refused to answer when an Australian interviewer insisted on using the term “full-figured” in two successive questions.
She tells me a story about shooting her final scene for Mad Men, which wrapped, after seven award-winning seasons, just two weeks ago.
“It’s funny because it was a very emotional day and as each person finished their last scene, they’d say thank you and goodbye to the crew and then [series creator and producer] Matt Weiner would say something to the actor. So I said that this experience has changed my life in every way imaginable. People think I’m Joan. They think I’m sexy and sophisticated and really cool. And what I love about you guys is that you know that I’m not.”
What did she like best about being Mad Men’s office queen bee?
“I love that she looked like me. That became incredibly convenient,” she says, laughing. “And I loved that she wasn’t just one thing. She was resilient and confident and even when she was dealt some really lousy stuff, she seemed to learn from things. She was a smart cookie. I loved that every week I would get a script and I would read it and think: ‘Oh wow, Joan does that this week’. I joke that she was like my much cooler best friend. But she really was.”
Mad Men crept up on Hendricks in much the same way it crept up on America. The first two seasons were characterised by confused conversations and a whole lot of explaining: “It was endless,” she says. “What’s your show called? Mad Money? What Men? Where’s it on? AMC. TNT? No. AMC. What’s AMC?”
It took a while for her to realise that it had snowballed into something big and zeitgeisty. “There was no one moment – just lots of little weird ones,” she says. ”When Jon Hamm won the Golden Globe for best actor and we won for best show that first year, we didn’t even know anyone was watching. And then we were spoofed on Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons. And that was amazing. And you suddenly realise: oh, this really is something.”
Hendricks has subsequently graduated to the silver screen, a medium, one feels, where she belongs. In May, she popped up at Cannes having played the lead role in Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut, Lost River. The pair had previously shared screen time in Nicolas Winding Refn’s much-admired 2011 thriller Drive. Interested parties can now catch Hendricks in God’s Pocket, a gritty, star-studded drama that features one of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last performances and is directed by fellow Mad Men alumnus John Slattery.
It must be odd answering questions about her late colleague. “It’s very strange,” she nods. “We took our film to Sundance. We’re all together. And a week-and-a-half later this horrible thing happens and he’s gone. I only knew him from work. He wasn’t this super-close friend. But he was a beautiful person to work with. I’m so grateful to have had that experience. I can’t get my head around it. I keep telling my husband [the actor Geoffrey Arend, whom she married in 2009] that I have the oddest feeling that I am going to see Phil again.”
This, it soon transpires, is a very Christina Hendricks thing to say. She may, as she notes, look like Joan; she may even play the accordion like Joan. But where Joan does cool realpolitik, Hendricks is sweetly unguarded.
She talks frankly about getting bullied at school, about her teen goth years and about not really watching movies growing up. She never sounds rehearsed. And she never sounds insincere.
“My husband is always amazed that I haven’t seen this movie or that movie,” she says. “But we lived in Idaho. I was a ballet dancer. I studied every day of the week. My father worked for the forestry commission. So we camped and did a lot of outdoors stuff. We might watch some TV shows after dinner. But I think we were the last people in town to get a VCR. We rented it. And watched The Breakfast Club.”
She doesn’t seem like the outdoorsy sort.
“Oh, let’s be honest: camping is the worst. That said, I love being in a cabin, I love being in the woods. The smell of a campfire is one of the most comforting, beautiful things to me. I crave the smell of evergreen and those things that remind me of growing up. I just don’t want to sleep on rocks and pine cones.”
Her father, Robert Hendricks, sounds awfully American, but he was born in Birmingham and became a naturalised American following a stint in the army. Hendricks, accordingly, holds dual US/UK nationality and lived in London for just over a year in her early 20s.
“I’ve always felt at home here,” she says. “And once I came here, a lot of little things seemed familiar. My dad didn’t have a British accent and he didn’t talk about home but we always had Yorkshire pudding at home. And he put butter and jam on crackers. And he was always a tea drinker, not a coffee drinker. So my dad suddenly made sense.”
As her father worked for the United States Forest Service, the family moves around, living between Fairfax, Virginia; Portland, Oregon; and Twin Falls, Idaho.
“We moved every four five years,” she recalls. “So you’re always the new kid. You’re always working out where you’re going to fit into this scenario. And you have to do it very quickly. And sometimes it works.”
And sometimes you get spat on, as she was in Fairfax. “Gross. I know. It was just that one high school. Can you imagine if it happened everywhere? It was just adolescents bring cruel and not understanding someone who is a little different.”
Happily, she fitted in just fine with various dance school and community theatre groups. And her mother, a psychologist, knew just how to bring the 10-year-old Hendricks out of her shell.
“It was mostly that I was obsessed with the TV show Anne of Green Gables. That was the specific thing. But I also loved Ginger in Gilligan’s Island and I Love Lucy. And my mom introduced me to Ann Margaret through Bye Bye Birdie. So I was just drawn to redheads. And one day my mom said: ‘Let’s get one of those ‘cover the grey’ rinses from the grocery store. And I was over-the-moon thrilled. Because I was a white blonde kid and suddenly I showed up at school the next day with flaming red hair. My teacher was like: ‘What did your mother to do you?’ And I said: ‘I’m finally myself.’ That was a pretty cool mom thing to do.”
She’s kept the colour and remains convinced that she was supposed to have been born a redhead.“And I love when people think I’m Irish. I think that makes me sound more romantic. It’s like being a dancer. And I do freckle. So during my goth years, I’d add on baby powder just to add to the pale.”
Her colouring and appearance, she says, hasn’t always been helpful in the acting business. She laughs: “You get ‘oh you look very period’. Not a specific period. Just not this one.”
She has, nonetheless, worked steadily since the start of the millennium and was a cult sensation through a recurrent role on Joss Whedon’s Firefly long before her Mad Men years.
“That was strange because it was one of those shows that people only recognised years later. But it’s a bit like Mad Men. You have the luxury of easing yourself into a phenomenon. And then one day people are calling ‘Joanie!’ from the other side of the street.”
She clasps her hands together: “It’s so sweet. It gets me every time.”