It’s been nearly impossible to sympathize with Betty Draper this season — which may make her new husband, politician Henry Francis, somewhat of a saint. The man filling Don Draper’s deceptively shiny shoes has stuck by Betty through bad decisions (staying in the Ossining house) and worse ones (firing Carla), and even initiated the only positive change in the Draper household by insisting that Sally see a therapist. Actor Christopher Stanley has spent most of his career playing working-class heroes on shows like NYPD Blue, but he clearly has a soft spot for the benevolently ambitious Henry. He spoke to us from the set of the upcoming CBS legal comedy The Defenders, where he’s guest-starring as a colleague of Jim Belushi.
What kind of character are you playing on The Defenders? Cop or politician or something?
It’s a corporate litigator. He’s a lawyer. He’s this kind of cunning, slick guy who wants to get his way. A little unscrupulous. He’s pretty much the opposite of Henry.
Looking at your résumé, it seems that you, like John Slattery, are often cast as high-powered men in suits and uniforms.
I know, I know. It seems to have been the pattern. But that’s okay as long as they’re decently written and kind of intriguing.
Seems like your fictional characters all probably met each other at some point.
You had a line in the finale where Henry told Betty, “There is no fresh start, lives carry on,” which I thought was the key line in that episode. Do you feel like this is something Henry believes Betty will never be able to understand? Is he actually one of the people on the show who can move his life forward?
I think that he does believe that he can. I think that’s why he’s with her. I think Henry values something in Betty that’s beyond her beauty. He senses something a little bit more complex in her. Having said that, I think Henry’s mature enough to understand that when he says, “Lives carry on,” what he means is so much of the show is about the characters reinventing themselves and almost forfeiting their past and rubbing out their past to create something new. I think Henry is wise enough to understand that you can’t really do away with who you were, that who you were is very much a part of who you are. He knows you have to reconcile with that somehow in order to move forward. So his message to Betty is that this is who you are, you’re having a hard time, you’re struggling, but you have to come to terms with this in order to get on with your life. You can’t just make these abrupt moves and make these bold statements and say I’m entitled to this and that and start anew. It doesn’t work that way, because the past has a way of biting you on the ass and stopping you from being the person you really want to be.
I’m thinking about when Henry and Betty got together. In a way, that was as abrupt a courtship as Don and Megan. How do you think Henry’s relationship with Betty differs from that?
There was a bit more of a courtship between Betty and Henry. He was very much, I think to his fault, been a gentleman with her. The relationship before they were married was never consummated. He was very chivalrous, and he knew that they couldn’t move forward until she came to terms with what she wanted to do with her marriage. With the exception of a brief kiss in the car in the parking lot, they developed almost a kind of a friendship before this romance started, and then it segued into a romance and then bloomed from there. So it’s not to say that this marriage won’t have a few bumps in the road, it certainly has. I remember Matt Weiner in an interview saying that [the first year is] usually the toughest year of marriage: If you can get through that you can get through marriage, and I tend to agree with him. And I don’t think Henry was just Betty’s safe harbor. I think she really loves him and his love for her is genuine. There are definite struggles. Don’s experience definitely seems to be more abrupt. I think that Don really needs a mother for his children, because I’m not so sure he feels fully equipped to be there as the father that he needs to be.
It’s definitely been suggested that in going to Henry, Betty was looking for a father figure to replace the one who had died. Do you see it differently?
I think in any relationship, even in the healthiest of relationships, we are all parents to each other at times. I think that’s a normal, healthy sort of relationship. I think there are times when we’re each a mother and a father when we need to be. If it starts to become obviously out of balance or one person is acting too childish and requires that too much, then there’s definitely an issue. But I can definitely see where it can be read that Henry is a little older than her and he can be seen as a father figure for her. He’s just so much more mature. He’s been through divorce, he’s been through what Betty’s been through. He’s helping her to come to terms with her resentment and her anger and her confusion and her fear about this stuff. If that comes off as a father figure, I can certainly see how it would. I also think he definitely realizes he might have bitten off more than he can chew with Betty. She’s certainly a handful, but I think he’s willing to take that on because he truly loves her and he loves his children.
Do you think he thinks of them as his children more than Don’s kids?
I think Henry’s smart enough to know Don is their father and he always will be, but he certainly loves them and he is very protective. And I think he’s very supportive of them, especially Sally with everything she’s going through. I think that probably brings up issues for Henry about his own daughter. Again, he went through divorce when his daughter was around the same age, and I think that that sort of probably strikes an emotional chord with him. It’s a question for Henry about when to intervene, and it’s not an easy thing for Henry to negotiate all the time.
We got to see Henry’s family, his mother, earlier in the season. How do you think that relationship has informed who he is and his relationship with Betty?
Well, I think she’s a strong woman and is obviously very opinionated and has her own thoughts about what Henry should do. It could be said he chose Betty in spite of what his mother wants for him, but at the same time he’s choosing a very strong-headed and very opinionated woman as well in Betty. But I think he’s going to do what he wants to do.
What do you think Henry’s defining moment was this season?
There’s a couple of them. In [the finale’s] scene when he calls Betty out on the firing of Carla, that to me really in a lot of ways sums up who Henry is. He saw that as a real injustice. He absolutely felt it was required that he confront her. And I think that says a lot about who he is. He’s a man of a lot of integrity, and he has this capacity for empathy that I really adore. I think he really has a problem with bullying and it’s just not something he’s going to tolerate. I think that’s one defining moment for him. I think another is when he sort of coaches Betty through it when Sally comes home with a haircut and Betty flips out. He pretty much diffuses the situation.
Is that the scene where Betty calls him soft?
That’s right. She calls him soft. And he chuckles and he’s amused by that, and that’s one of the things that I love about him. For the time period, he certainly appears to be someone who’s a little more in touch maybe with himself emotionally. He appears to be soft, but at the same time he’s very much a man. I sensed something different from him than the other characters on the show and I love that about him.
Betty has been a challenging character to like, and our critic even talked about her becoming something of a monster this season. There’s something about the way that Henry can still feel compassionate for her that’s kind of moving.
I don’t think I would call her a monster, either, but she definitely has a sense of entitlement and she’s a very selfish person. But I think the thing that Henry recognizes in her is that she’s struggling. That she’s having a hard time. I know divorced couples that even ten years down the line still have not really gotten over that pain. She’s trying to find herself, and I think he’s really willing to try and support her through that.
I want to talk to you about working with January Jones. I think it was John Slattery who said her acting is fascinating to watch in person, is that something you would agree with?
I think she is a naturally instinctive actor and those are really the best kind of actors there are. With January, she has the ability to just be in the moment and react from a very visceral place and that’s extremely believable. She’s a natural — that would be the simplest answer.
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