Mad Men’s Elizabeth Reaser on the Waitress, Auditioning for the Part, and the Fan Reaction

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With just five episodes of Mad Men to go, Don Draper is enamored by a woman much like himself — Diana (Elizabeth Reaser), a fellow divorcee trying to forge a new identity. During a break from rehearsing her new Off Broadway play Permission, Reaser called Vulture to talk playing the waitress, “sexing it up” for her audition, and the fan reaction. Spoilers ahead.

I’m so surprised that Matthew Weiner has brought you in, this major character, so close to the end.
What I love about his writing, I think he’s just such a great, great storyteller. He’s really committed to Don’s journey and telling his story. It made sense to me when I read it.

Explain how it made sense to you.
Well, Don seemed to me very disconnected from his life and lost. And then he meets someone who he connects with outside of his world. That can feel intoxicating. And it feels like home or something. I don’t know, I can’t speak for Jon or for Don, but it feels like these two people that saw each other and from that first moment sort of knew each other in some way, not in a literal way. And so it made sense to me that they would connect so quickly and so deeply.

Were you a fan of the show before you were on it?
Yes. I have been a huge fan for many, many years. And it was one of the toughest secrets because I was essentially lying to everyone in my life about where I was going [laughs]. It was so bizarre. My best friend [Justin Kirk from Weeds] and I would watch the show. We would go to his house and eat Twizzlers and just be obsessed, and we would re-watch it and watch several episodes at a time. And I had to lie to him and not tell him [laughs] that I was doing it. And it was absolute torture. But he was grateful that I didn’t tell him because he got to be surprised.

Did you watch it with him?
No because he ended up going to the premiere, and he actually invited me to go to the premiere with him, and I was not allowed to go so I had to then lie again and say, like, “Oh I can’t go, dammit. Don’t tell me anything.”

You couldn’t go and just pretend you were a viewer?
No, I couldn’t even do that, ’cause it’s so top-secret. So I had to say to my friend, “No spoilers.” And then he flipped out of course and was totally freaked out.

Did you watch the fans react on Twitter last night?
[Laughs.] Yeah, I caught some of it. I’m always fascinated by how people react. It’s great to see people’s immediate reactions to things.

Not everyone was nice, though.
Oh yeah, but that just means that people are invested in the show, ‘cause people love the show, and I get it. We all want what we want to see. And I’ve also had people saying a lot of bad things about me [laughs] in my time.     

Is Diana the female version of Don?
That’s how I sort of read her without anyone telling me that. But I just felt like they were very similar in the way that they communicate, and people say, you know, “Diana is mysterious,” and I think she’s very direct. And I love that about her. And she’s been through so much that she has nothing left to lose. During that time period, and I could say the same for today, there is this idea of what it is to be a woman, and she’s really rejected that idea. And she’s decided to live outside what society has told her to do or how to behave or how to move through the world. She basically doesn’t give a fuck. I mean, she cares, and she has a deep, deep heartache and a tragedy [in her past] that is unrecoverable. So that sort of takes her outside of time and space, and it just means she’s almost like untouchable, when you’re that hurt, when you’re that broken by the world.

This may be a very silly question, but I’m just going to ask it — do you think Diana is a real person?
[Laughs.] I do. I do think she’s a real person, but what do I know? But yes, I do.

In last night’s episode, Don goes to her restaurant, she says she never wants to see him again, and then he gives her his card and she calls at 3 a.m. What happened between her shift and 3 a.m. that makes her change her mind?
[Laughs.] I think a few things. She’s extremely lonely, and she lives this very solitary, disturbed, desolate life. And she’s had a drink, and he’s Don Draper at the end of the day. And for her, if she can keep it as anonymous as possible — she doesn’t want to connect with someone. The problem is she really connects with Don Draper.

And he seems really into her.
Right, like he sees her. He really sees her and she sees him, and it’s like everything she doesn’t want, but it’s also like she’s alone in the world. You know that feeling of someone just gets you and sees you. I think that Diana, she has real courage. It’s how she moves through the world, and she doesn’t need Don. I mean, she wants him, but she’s fiercely independent in a way, in her grief.

Why do you think she left Wisconsin? How were you able to justify that and empathize with her and withhold judgment?
I guess she felt so real to me. I grew up in the Midwest and something about her just felt very devastating to me, and I think losing a child — I don’t know what that feels like — but I have to imagine there’s really no way to come back from that. And she made a real, like, ugly choice, but she did what she had to do. Which is horrible. I mean to abandon your other child, just from an outsider’s perspective, there’s a million ways you could judge her. But who knows what’s best at the end of the day for anyone else?

Did she break it off with Don last night? I couldn’t even decide what happened.
[Laughs.] I don’t know. I have my ideas, but I’m much more interested in how other people see it.

Can I hear your idea?
I think she doesn’t want to feel good. Like she says, “I don’t want to feel better.” I think that’s part of why she left her life. If she’d stayed in her life, she would have had to move forward in order to be a mother to that other child, to her living child. So she doesn’t want to do that. She wants to stay in her grief and not be released from that loss, the loss of her child. The problem with Don is that she’s fallen in love with him, and he feels good to her in every way. And it’s just a super-raw connection, so I think it’s a horrible thing of, how do you move away from someone who feels good to you? But also, she doesn’t want to feel good.

Did Matthew Weiner call and say, “I’ve got this part for you”? How did this come to be?
[Laughs.] No. I auditioned, and I knew nothing — I didn’t know who the character was, I didn’t know who the other character was, I didn’t know Don was Don. No one told me. But when you get the material, it was clear to me because I’m such a huge fan — it just felt like Don, the way that he was talking in the scene, and I just fell in love with his character. I just felt that the way that she talks to him — it’s just very powerful.

What do you remember about your audition?
I remember being so nervous because I’m always nervous , and I remember Matt Weiner and Scott Hornbacher, the director of the first episode. They were very warm, and the room was very kind. And I remember feeling like I needed to look sexy, which I always feel silly sort of sexing it up for an audition. And yet, it’s really what you have to do.

What’d you wear?
[Laughs.] I wore this, like, skintight black pencil skirt — which I’ve only worn one other time in my life because it’s just, like, it’s not comfortable. So I pulled that from deep in the closet. And the whole nine yards — the heels and the hair and I just sort of, I felt like I wanted to commit to the sexuality of the character ’cause I think she’s extremely sexual on top of all of her grief. I went in one time, I was not offered it that day. I felt like it had gone well. To me I just felt like this woman, I felt like I was the woman — I don’t know why, and it probably doesn’t speak very highly of me. But I felt very connected to her.

Of all these women that Don’s been with over the years, as a fan of the show, did you have one that you particularly liked him with?
I loved him with Betty. I just love Betty. I think Betty’s like one of the great characters, and I love January Jones’s acting and love her portrayal of her. I love when they like reconnected—

At the summer camp?
Oh my God! I just felt like that was so, so sexy. I just loved that. But I also loved Sylvia. She’s great, and I love Linda Cardellini.

Did you make up anything about Diana’s backstory?
Yeah, I had a whole notebook of her life.

What’s in the notebook?
I was really interested in her life before New York, and also coming to New York, and what was that like for her and finding an apartment and finding that little room she lives in.

What else is in the notebook?
Just, like, all the stuff about losing a child.

Did you name the children?
Yes, I did, but it’s all in the notebook [laughs]. I can’t, I just don’t think I can say any of that. That's her whole inner life, you know?