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Mad Men’s Alexa Alemanni on Being Don Draper’s Secretary

On last week's Mad Men, Don Draper, emotionally wrecked by his divorce, hit a new low: He slept with his secretary, Allison, and then coldly ignored her the next day. We reached Alexa Alemanni, who plays Allison, to talk to about the eventful episode (and get hints about what's coming on Sunday!).

You've been on Mad Men since season one, right?
Yeah, I went in and auditioned with one line — "The grand lot of us are going to Lansky's" — which was a mouthful! And I just kept popping up all season, but it wasn't until season three that I came in as Don's secretary. I think Matt [Weiner] has done an amazing job of creating this full and textured world, and the characters are constantly present; it's really important to him to see a lot of similar faces and to repeat those faces.

Did you know that you were coming with Don to the new firm?
I mean, I had no idea I was coming back. It was very nice for me. The season ended with me, crying, saying, "He didn't even leave a note!" So my expectations were pretty low.

And did you have a clue that you'd be playing a bigger part? Specifically that you'd be sleeping with Don?
I had absolutely no idea, and I thought it was so surprising as a story line, because it's such a violation of these really strict codes that Don has for himself. So to see him cross those lines was such a clear indication of the emotional state he's in right now, and so the script was pretty shocking to read. I think I probably jumped around the apartment a couple of times, of course. That last scene I just think is so beautifully written, and it's really restrained in its writing, and it's such a great vehicle as an actor to get that space to fill in everything in between the lines.

What was it like to be the symbol of Don's descent?
He's very alone when we see him at the beginning of the season, and you don't see everything he went through. But you assume she was there for it, through the divorce, missing his kids, and I think she really steps in as his work wife, essentially. She cares for him and looks out for him, and that kind of almost made the whole thing worse, you know?

Why did she sleep with him? People have been arguing over her motivations.
Matt and I talked about that lot. I think when she goes over there, she really has every intention of getting him in the apartment, and making sure he's okay, and then continuing on with her night — you get the impression that she's done it before. And then I think it really all changes when he grabs her hand. What Matt and I talked about is that it's probable that when she first started working there, she probably had a little crush on him, and that physical contact kind of brings up all those thoughts and that regret. She definitely makes that conscious decision to kiss him back, and I think it's really understandable how it would happen.

What do you think her expectations about it were?
She really just kind of gets into it. There's also this excitement that happens instantly in that moment, you know? I think it's interesting how everyone's debating that scene the next morning. I've been hearing how strongly women, especially, have responded to it. I mean, I don't think she was expecting to be swept off her feet, or treated like Jane or anything like that. But it's natural that there's a kind of anticipation and excitement when you see that person the next day. What is he going to say? How is he going to look at me? What is he going to do? I just don't think she was expecting the whole thing to be ignored. It's one thing to say, "This shouldn't have happened," but it's another to say, "It never did happen." That's the heartbreaking thing about it for her.

Was she typing her resignation letter at the end?
Matt and I talked about the Christmas card — she knew Don didn't write it that morning. So it's not that he's paying her for the night before or anything like that, but I think she walks out of that office, and the card is just a reinforcement that this never happened. And she gets that, puts the card away, and she goes back to work. And that's really all that it is.

So she's not going to resign in that moment.
Exactly. It's funny to me how fans hold on to things a lot, like, where's Pete and Peggy's baby? Are Don and Betty going to get back to together? And the thing that I always say is that Matt writes really true to life. And whatever would actually happen, usually happens. I just think we're not used to seeing that. So, yeah, she wouldn't just walk out the door. She still has rent, she wants to keep her job. She also is still processing it.

What was your direction in that last scene? Stare sadly off in the distance?
[Laughs.] Nothing specific like that! You know it's a really good day when Matt comes down to set, because you know he's going to help you through the scene and give you something that's the key to everything. For me, what it really was is that there's no way to process that information quickly enough to really reach an emotional reaction. There just isn't enough time. So the best thing I could do is listen to the lines and let them affect me.

So what can we expect for Allison and Don this week?
I think it's going to be interesting to see how they adjust to the new situation. There's obviously this thing between them that's going unspoken and unacknowledged, but there's still something very intimate that happened between the two of them. So watching that play out, I think, is going to be really cool.

Photo: Amanda Leddy / Splash News