I AM YOUR STRENGTH
A Spotlite on Actress STEPHANIE DRAKE from MAD MEN
By Dustin Illingworth
Though ditzy, oblivious, and regularly bullied by Joan, Mad Men“s Meredith has become something far more complicated than a punchline for AMC”s prestige series. Played with charm and pitch-perfect comedic timing by Stephanie Drake, Meredith is still, of course, hilarious — but a pluckiness has emerged in recent seasons that serves to pleasantly frustrate our expectations. We sat down with Stephanie to discuss her character, her post-Mad Men plans, and that instantly iconic scene with Don Draper.
Dustin Illingworth: In many ways, the first visceral hook of Mad Men is its gorgeous 60s aesthetic. I”ve read that Matt Weiner is incredibly meticulous with regard to set design, even down to seemingly throw-away items. Can you talk about working in that environment on a daily basis?
Stephanie Drake: Everything from my daisy earrings to my Bic pen was from the 60s. I know that because I wanted to keep the pen when the show wrapped, but couldn’t because it was rented! It was amazing to walk on set everyday and be transported to that time. I loved typing on the old typewriters and answering the old telephones. Hanging up Don’s coat and hat was always a choreographed dance. My favorite was getting to read a magazine at my desk, which Meredith did quite often. Looking through those authentic 1960s magazines was a trip. I remember one had an ad for an outdoor home ice skating rink for just a few dollars.
DI: Did you speak with any secretaries from the period when developing the role of Meredith? How did you prepare for such a different set of cultural and sexual politics within the office space?
SD: The writers were always so clear about what kind of character Meredith was, that I didn’t need to do much preparation. Everything I needed to know about her was in the lines. The part came very naturally to me from the beginning and she was an absolute joy to play. I love that she did so many things wrong and was called every name in the book, and yet, she made it to the final seven episodes.
DI: Meredith has brought such a welcome sense of humor to the show, one that cuts through some of the tension and anxiety of the major story arcs. Do you think this was planned in your casting and character? Or was it something you brought to the table that developed organically into the story?
SD: Matt Weiner always used to say at the beginning of the table reads, that the writers want to be inspired by the actors. I like to think that’s what I did. The part was obviously a comedic relief, but I think I brought a truthfulness, a great sense of comedic timing, and my high voice to the part that inspired the writers to continue the character. I never expected to kiss Don Draper. I must have done something right!
DI: Let”s talk about that–your scene-stealing turn with Don Draper in the wonderful “I am your strength” scene of last year”s season finale? Did you and Jon Hamm talk about it beforehand or just dive in?
SD: I still blush when I think about it! We had had the table read for that episode the day before and Matt came up to me and said, “You know we’re shooting this tomorrow?” And I looked at him and said “Trust me, I’ll be ready!” Jon and I dove right in. We went straight into rehearsal after shooting the previous scene. Between Matt directing and knowing I was about to put my lips on Jon Hamm’s; I was nervous. But once we got through the first rehearsal my nerves disappeared. During one of the set ups I had to put my face in real close to Jon’s to get the camera focused, and I excitedly said, “Who’d have thought we’d be kissing?!” After we finished Jon and Matt both gave me a big hug. It was so hard keeping all of that a secret for 5 months. Career wise this was definitely a defining moment and I feel so lucky to have had this experience.
DI: Mad Men features an ensemble cast with more than one bona fide superstar. What”s it like juggling so many powerful personalities? Is it challenging to establish dramatics rhythms with so many people?
SD: By the time I joined Season 5 the show was a family. It had just come off a year and a half hiatus and everyone was thrilled to have their jobs back. I think everyone on the show realized how special it was and it made the cast members household names. Every time I came to set it was like a dream come true. The cast liked seeing me around because they knew something funny was being filmed. I loved having scenes with Christina Hendricks. She is so nice and friendly. And Jon Hamm is wonderful to work with. After every big scene with him he would congratulate me and tell me I did a good job. And he sang me “Happy Birthday” on my birthday. It doesn’t get much better than that.
DI: What are your feelings on Mad Men“s run coming to an end? I know you can”t give us specifics but are you satisfied with the series” conclusion?
SD: I am so sad! When I wrapped in June, I was good for about a month. I went to visit my parents in Florida and my brother and sister-in-law in Georgia. And after that it really hit me that I wasn’t going back. Luckily, I have the final episodes to enjoy, but I still can’t believe it’s over. I am very satisfied with the series and Meredith’s conclusion.
DI: With Mad Men finishing, what are you looking to focus on next with your career? Are there any particular showrunners or directors you”d like to work with?
SD: I love comedy, so I’m hoping to land another amazing comedic role soon. I’ve also been doing a lot of writing, and I know Tina Fey will want to be the showrunner when I’m finished. You can also catch me on an episode of CSI: Cyber at the end of May!
Stephanie Drake is an actress. On Mad Men, she plays the head secretary reporting to Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks), who scored a kiss from Don Draper (Jon Hamm) at the close of the previous season.
Written by Dustin Illingworth
Photography by David Crotty for PatrickMcMullan.com
Design by Mina Darius
Stephanie Drake, Photography by David Crotty for PatrickMcMullan.com