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Mad Men’s Teyonah Parris on Playing the Show’s First Black Employee and Peggy’s Purse Moment

Teyonah Parris
Teyonah Parris. Photo: Jason Merritt/Getty Images

From Megan Draper to Miss Blankenship, Don Draper’s secretaries have a way of making their mark on Mad Men; the latest, Dawn Chambers, is no exception. As Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce’s first black employee, Dawn’s story line is under close surveillance by critics and fans alike, all of whom want to see how the show — one that has not featured many black characters — handles sixties race relations at the office. We spoke to newcomer Teyonah Parris, who plays Dawn, about the cast’s Don-Dawn pronunciations, the low count of non-white characters, and her bonding scene with Peggy.

Congrats on the role. Have you been watching the show with friends?
The first episode I did. I had a whole viewing party. I had twenty of my closest friends over — they were so nice and came up from different states. I was in New York and we had a little gathering and it was so much fun.

Were there moments that got anyone especially excited?
I didn’t hear anything that happened in the episode, because as soon as your face comes on the screen, everyone is screaming and talking, so I had to go back and rewatch it. I could’ve just walked across the screen with a cup of coffee and they would’ve been excited.

Big things tend to happen to Don Draper’s secretaries: Megan married him, Allison slept with him, and of course there was Miss Blankenship. Can we expect something equally momentous to happen with Dawn?
Maybe they’ll break a pattern, maybe the cycle will continue. I don’t know. [Laughs.]

Did you know about the history of Don Draper’s secretaries when you got the role?
I didn’t even know I was going in [to audition for] his secretary. The breakdown was: co-star, a day’s worth of work, African-American female — that’s it. And even once they did hire me I still had no clue as to what capacity I would be used, because if you’re not in that scene or in that script or episode, you just don’t know what happens. When I watched the premiere I was like, Oh, this is how I got into the office. I had no clue.

So you’re not there in the lobby when all the applicants showed up?
No, I wasn’t. It was news to me. I realized working with this show I have to give up a lot of my controlling ways. I like to be in control, know exactly this and that, have it mapped out. This show has forced me to just take a chill pill: I’m not gonna know because they’re not gonna tell me.

I like the scene when Harry Crane makes the awkward joke about Don and Dawn sounding alike. Was that supposed to be remotely flirtatious?
We didn’t get any specific direction to make it flirtatious. If that’s what Harry was doing, then whoa, he’s gotta work on that. I think we just kind of played with it in different ways, all of which were extremely awkward.

Was the Don-Dawn thing confusing on the set? Did people call you by a nickname to differentiate?
Oh yeah, it was this whole running joke. I don’t know what accent they were using, but they would go Dawwwn. That was me. And then it was Don. So, yeah, they just would exaggerate mine.

In your bonding scene with Elisabeth Moss, there is so much subtext going on. What was going through Dawn’s head?
I definitely think she’s freaked out on the inside. She just got caught sleeping in the office! And then she says, “Oh, I’ve done it before, don’t worry.” It’s like, Oh, I didn’t mean to say that. She could lose her job if Peggy says something. And Peggy goes, “Yeah, don’t worry, we have to stick together.” Peggy is trying to reach out to her in her own little way. She’s reaching out and talking to her, but she’s really just talking about her own self, you know? I think Dawn understands that this lady will never understand, even though she claims to. Like, “Oh, my boyfriend is covering the riots.” Peggy is hip and modern and forward-thinking, but at the same time, she doesn’t realize her own hidden prejudices.

Some people thought Peggy was being helpful and thoughtful in that scene, others thought she was more drunk and insensitive. How did you see it?
I do think that Peggy really is trying and she thinks that she’s helping and is genuinely reaching out. And let’s be honest: I think I read somewhere that the equivalent of $400 in this time period is, like, $2,500. If I had $2,500 and left it on the table, I would think about taking my purse, too. It just sucks that I happened to be black, because I’m sure that that played a part in her looking at the purse. But at the same time, I’m pretty sure a lot of us would do the same thing if it’s someone you just met, even if they’re the same race as you.

People have criticized the show for not having more black characters, but others think the show is just being true to the context of an ad agency in the mid-sixties. Do you have any thoughts? And since you’re playing the first black employee, do you feel pressured to have a lot of opinions about this?
I did not feel a lot of pressure. I am happy to be a part of the show. I know that this show hasn’t had an African-American in the office and I know that comes with a lot of responsibility as to how I portray this woman, but I can’t think about that. I can only go in and do what I think this woman would do. I try not to think, Oh, I have to represent every single black person in the world that was there in the sixties. I have to tell this one woman’s story and what that was for her. I’m kind of on the fence because as a black actress, there aren’t a lot of roles out there for us, and so you see a great show and it’s like, Oh wow, I would love to be on that show. Oh, but there are no black people on it. So that part is frustrating and I understand that, but at the same time I don’t expect to be a part of everyone’s story if it’s not true to the story that they’re trying to tell.

Mad Men’s Teyonah Parris on Playing the Show’s First Black Employee and Peggy’s Purse Moment