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Mad Men’s Ben Feldman on Getting Cast As Michael Ginsberg and What Fran Drescher Had to Do With It

Ben Feldman as Michael Ginsberg. Photo: AMC

As the latest hire at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, Michael Ginsberg is setting all sorts of office precedents: He’s the first Jewish employee, and he wears jeans! We spoke with Ben Feldman, who plays Ginsberg, about getting cast as the possibly sexist, maybe clueless, definitely eccentric new guy. While only time will tell what is in store for his character, Feldman was more than happy to chat in the interim about keeping his cool around Matt Weiner, the Ginsberg-Peggy hookup theories, and Fran Drescher’s influence on his work.

Are you and Pete Campbell ever going to have a battle of the busy plaid jackets?
[Laughs.] That plaid jacket. When I went in to meet Janie [Bryant, the costume designer] and go over costumes, if she didn’t step back, look at me puzzled, laugh, and then apologize — if she didn’t say, “Oh God, Ben, I’m sorry” — then that outfit did not make it to air. She did a wonderful job of making sure that everything I wore looked just ridiculous enough.

Is Michael Ginsberg the first person to wear jeans at the office? Were people making casual Friday jokes on set?
Yes. I did some research and I guess casual Friday was something that existed before this time. I think it started in the fifties, but wasn’t a real big thing; I think in 1966 it still would’ve been outlandish to wear jeans to an office. But I don’t think [Ginsberg] knows better just yet. I think he’s trying to figure out what is appropriate. And that’s probably the only pair of pants he has.

We asked readers to come up with some questions for you, and a couple of people wondered where Michael and Peggy’s relationship is going, and if it’s going to turn romantic.
That’s so funny. That’s such a thing that people are interested in. I can only speak to my initial impression of the script. I guess I sort of got that, too, but not nearly as much as other people who watched last Sunday’s episode. I think people see a girl fascinated by someone else, and if that someone else is another gender, they immediately go to love interest. I think there’s a lot more to it. He’s kind of a crazy person and this brilliant artist and I think something in that resonates with her.

One reader liked the scene with your dad, and wonders if we’ll be seeing more of Ginsberg’s home life?
I think his dad plays a very important part in the character’s life, whether Ginsberg likes it or not. As we saw, his dad is basically all he’s got. He’s got a dingy little apartment and his dad just sits there reading a newspaper and talks about getting girls. He’s really important to him and I think, whether in a negative or positive way, he’s affected Michael Ginsberg quite a bit. You don’t see a lot of parents on the show. There are a few, but in real life, everybody I know seems to be so directly affected by their parents, especially when you’re in your thirties and late twenties and start to become an adult. Parents have such a tremendous influence and I think it’s kind of exciting to see that play out on television.

What was your first meeting with Matt Weiner like? Is Ginsberg’s adoration for Don at all similar to how you felt about Matt Weiner at your audition?
I felt like Michael Ginsberg whenever Matt or Jon [Hamm] was around. I mean, Jon’s a producer now and was also there in the audition because he was directing that episode. I’ve been a fan of this show since day one. I was one of the 900,000 that watched in the beginning and one of the loudmouths that had to push it on all of their friends. So it was super exciting for me to walk into a room and audition for both Matt and Jon. I’ve been doing this for ten years. When I first started out I was super awkward. I did a play [The Graduate] in New York with Alicia Silverstone and Kathleen Turner and Jason Biggs, and I’d just graduated college and wasn’t used to being around people that I looked up to or people that had been in my living room on my television. I wasn’t used to celebrity, so I was kind of a bumbling, awkward idiot. I’ve pretty much gotten over that, or at least I thought I had, and then I walk into the room with Matt and Jon, who together are part of one of my favorite shows in history. And I went immediately back to being a bumbling 22-year-old idiot.

People seem divided about whether to like or dislike Ginsberg. On the one hand, he comes off as sexist and cocky; on the other hand, he seems really earnest and genuine. What do you think of his character?
I was really fascinated and excited about those [conflicting traits]. In fact, you guys, Vulture, wrote in a recap — it was one of my favorite things I had seen because it said, “it sent chills up my spine.” It was talking about essentially what you just said, about how he’s sort of despicable and crazy and loud and obnoxious, but at the same time we’re fascinated by him and wanna see what happens. That’s a gift to an actor.

I love that Ginsberg opens the door for Peggy and calls her by her first name, Margaret — which, by the way, I had totally forgotten was her first name.
That was one of my laugh-out-loud moments when I was reading the script.

There’s kind of an “out with the old, in with the young” theme to the season so far, especially this episode. Do you think Ginsberg fancies himself in Don’s seat? Is he going to be the next generation Don Draper?
I could be wrong — I’m basically a viewer just like the rest of you — but I don’t think he sees that. I think to him, it’s very moment-by-moment. It’s, Get through the door, say anything I can to get them to like me or to accept me. Peggy has that line, “You’re just like everybody else.” And he says, “I’ve never been accused of that, but I really am trying.” I think that’s really his main concern, is to get in the door and try and stay there. I don’t know that he sees that far down the road. I don’t think someone in his situation could even imagine being Don Draper in the future.

What did you think of Roger’s line about “getting a Jew” into the office to look progressive? Was that Roger being Roger, or was that typical of the time?
I think it was definitely a part of that era. It’s also Roger being Roger. I would say I find it kind of unfortunate when people look to certain events — especially with my character or with Teyonah, who plays [Dawn] the new receptionist — I find it unfortunate when people look to these characters to be representative of an entire race or class of people, or at least a generation of a race or class of people. I think they’re fully realized individuals and unique characters, and to paint them as representatives of an entire group of people is belittling the writing and development of the show. So I thought people who were upset with Ginsberg — some people found it to be either stereotypical or somehow offensive — I think he’s a person, and he’s a strange and quirky person, but he’s not a mouthpiece for an entire generation of Jewish people.

Some people were also a little upset that Dawn didn’t get more of a plotline, given that she’s the first black character in the office.
You know what? If they gave Dawn a giant plotline, people would be saying, “Oh, they’re hitting us over the head with the racial divide and et cetera.” As soon as you introduce race and ethnicity and religion into something, people are gonna find a way to be offended. You never know. I mean, Dawn could go away or could come back and have some huge plot in another episode. It’s the kind of show where it benefits you to sit back and hold your judgment and hold your applause until you’ve seen everything.

Are you Jewish yourself? Do you have any Jewish heritage?
I was raised Jewish, yeah. My father’s Jewish, so my world is Jewish whenever I go home.

Let’s talk about the accent. What did you base it on, and did Matt Weiner or Jon Hamm help you develop it?
Between living in New York City and going to school in upstate New York, I had that sort of middle New York accent. The two people I kind of based it on were both women. One was an old friend of my parents — as far as the way Ginsberg acts, it really seemed similar to this particular woman. And I did a show with Fran Drescher for two years [Living With Fran], and whenever you work with Fran Drescher, you [affecting Drescher’s voice] start to talk like her and do a very specific Fran Drescher accent. I think a lot of it was me toning that down, dropping a little bit of the nasal, and adapting it to this guy. I didn’t worry about it being too specific because he’s such an individual. Again, it’s that whole [idea of] not trying to represent a large group of people, and I apologize to anybody who grew up in the sixties on the Lower East Side. But it wasn’t really so much as getting it accurate to them as much as there was a voice I heard in my head when I first read it, and that was the voice I ended up going with. I did it in the audition. It was this terrifying choice that I made, but I figured I might as well go out on a limb, and as soon as I was done with my first scene I was scared that Matt or Jon or someone would crucify me for the accent. They started to give me notes and I said, “Do you want me to lose the accent?” And Matt was like, “No, no, no, the accent’s good.” And that was the last time we discussed it at that point.

I read you have your own wine label. Did people on set know this?
Actually, on my first day of shooting, I brought Matt a bottle of the wine. I try and do that. You gotta get the wine into the producer’s hands. It’s been a passion of mine and my good friend Eduardo, who I went to elementary school and high school with. And he went to Cornell and I went to Ithaca [College], so we’ve known each other for a long time. There comes a point where you’re drinking so much that you have to stop and go, “Is this gonna be a problem? Or do we need to make this into a sellable art?” And we chose the latter.

Which bottle did you give to Matt?
It’s called Anjelica Cellars. It’s this great central-coast California, French-feeling, bad-ass wine. I think I gave him the ’07, but I’m not sure.

Mad Men’s Ben Feldman on Getting Cast As Michael Ginsberg and What Fran Drescher Had to Do With It