As her Mad Men character, Betty Draper, continues to separate herself from ex-husband Don, so, too, does her portrayer, January Jones, appear ready to strike out on her own for a career in the movies. Often compared to Grace Kelly, she’ll be seen this weekend as an icy Hitchockian blonde tormenting Liam Neeson in Unknown, and she’s got starring roles coming later this year in the expensive X-Men: First Class and The Hungry Rabbit Jumps, where she stars opposite Nicolas Cage for director Roger Donaldson. But does the 33-year-old actress have the chops to make it on the big screen, or has Jones already hit her Emmy-nominated peak with her work on Mad Men? To find out, we spoke to industry insiders to answer the question: If January Jones were a stock, should you buy, sell, or hold?
Stock History: Like Betty Draper, Jones began her career as a model. After impulsively quitting to move out to L.A. and try her hand at acting, she managed to book the occasional tiny part in movies like Full Frontal, Anger Management, and Love Actually, before landing a more sizable supporting role in American Wedding, the third installment of the American Pie franchise. As Jones aged into her late twenties, she suddenly found a groove where she popped: screen wife. She played spouse to Barry Pepper in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada and Matthew Fox in We Are Marshall, then went the television route and found herself paired with Jon Hamm to great effect in Mad Men, the first original series launched by AMC.
Peers: Though she’s not yet as indie-castable as Keri Russell (34), who also graduated from an acclaimed TV drama, Jones is competitive with her and other “third leads” like Malin Akerman (32) and Jenna Fischer (36). And though not as old as Friday Night Lights star Connie Britton or Carrie Anne Moss (both 43), she’s playing in their league: respected actress … and maybe more.
Market Value: While Jones is an important part of Mad Men (though, as her diminished screen time would suggest over the last season, the show is plenty strong without her, too), her big-screen appeal is yet to be tested. She’s faithfully stumping for Unknown, but the promotional materials barely feature her, lest she get in the way of the attempt to pitch the movie as a semi-sequel to Neeson’s successful Taken. It may not be working: Tracking reports indicate that Unknown will fall to I Am Number Four this weekend, and may even be surpassed by the new Big Momma movie. Jones can expect better box-office results when X-Men: First Class comes out this summer, and while she’s part of a large ensemble cast, she’s also one of the few recognizable names in a movie filled with up-and-comers (and she has the showiest new role, scantily clad villainess Emma Frost). If X-Men does well, it’ll lead to more offers.
What Hollywood Thinks: Though some Jones watchers in the industry have yet to be convinced, people who work in television are high on her. “She will never do TV after Mad Men,” said one TV insider. “Totally a movie star … She’ll be on Mad Men for at least two to three more years. And then she’ll almost certainly try to do a movie career.”
But will it work? “We’ll see what happens with X-Men: First Class, but for now, she’s just ‘casting,’” said a top film agent Vulture spoke to. “I mean, in TV, she might mean something, but in the feature world, she’s just not who you go to first. Look, I love Mad Men: I’m a snob; I admit it. But she’s a girl in her mid-thirties with a track record that includes Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights, We Are Marshall, and Pirate Radio, all of them ‘meh.’
“From my perspective, it gets harder to get these kinds of women jobs,” the agent continued. “I’d rather represent a Rachel McAdams or a Jennifer Garner, because they can do comedy, romantic comedy, or drama. Her? I don’t really know what her range is; for that matter, I don’t know what her ambitions are. There’s only so many Cate Blanchetts and Samantha Mortons who’re great actresses and work all the time. So unless you think they’re going to turn into Meryl Streep or Kathy Bates, it’s hard to represent women like this. And when you’re on a TV series, it’s even harder, because you’ve got such a small window to shoot a movie. It makes threading the needle just that much trickier.”
The Analysis: So what are January Jones’s ambitions? Though her three most significant credits of late are wildly different — an acclaimed television series, an action drama, and a superhero flick — all of them primarily ask Jones to look cold and remote while posing in beautiful clothes. We know she can do that in her sleep, but the question is, can she do anything else? Her Mad Men co-star Jon Hamm expanded his range overnight with his first appearance on Saturday Night Live — he’s now hotly pursued for screen comedies — but when Jones guest-hosted in 2009, it was disastrous. (Admittedly, SNL’s lackluster writing didn’t do her any favors.)
It’s clear that Jones will need to strengthen her repertoire if she wants a film career, and one top publicist we spoke to suggested that she use all her available means to do it. “One of the many good things that publicity can be used for is to change the way you see someone who’s usually seen in a certain way,” said the rep. “In Mad Men, she’s this frigid housewife. But in her Versace campaign, she’s naked, smoldering, and sexual. With such a small window to do work in [outside of the show], that’s what she should be looking at — not just magazines, but branding campaigns, consumer products, doing talk shows, whatever. There’s a way to reposition her image even without other projects. The question is, what to reposition her as? And I am not sure how to answer to that.”
The Bottom Line: Here’s one idea: Though her SNL appearance might have indicated otherwise, January Jones is actually pretty fun in person. She’s a candid, freewheeling actress to interview, and though many TV leads complain when their characters grow increasingly unsympathetic (since it can affect their big-screen bankability and audience favor), Jones just laughs and says, “Everybody assumes I’d like to see [Betty] happy, but it’s not fun to play out.” It’s an even rarer thing for an actress to be so self-effacing and truthful that she admits, as Jones famously did to GQ, that her ex-boyfriend Ashton Kutcher thought she was untalented and had no future.
Jones really ought to capitalize on that funny-brazen side and take a supporting role in a comedy. If she could find some material where she gets to be the inappropriate best friend or the sexually aggressive dream girl, she could revamp her image and yet still work within her wheelhouse. Until she does, though, she’s in danger of letting an iconic role like Betty Draper define her permanently. Jones is certainly fashionable and beautiful, but so are a lot of other actresses, and they’ll supplant her if she can’t find more to recommend herself.
“So is she a ‘Hold’ or a ‘Sell’?” mused the top agent we spoke to. “It depends what happens with the X-Men movie. I wouldn’t write her off. I’d want to see how that movie does; it could change a lot. But right now, I don’t think she brings money to the table.” Jones will face an uphill battle to change that perception of her, but at least the actress is prepared; as she said to GQ while discussing Kutcher’s dis, “The minute you tell me I can’t do something, that’s when I’m most motivated.”
Buy/Sell/Hold: Strong Hold/Weak Sell