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Mad Men’s Teyonah Parris on Dawn’s Surprise Promotion, Don vs. Lou, and Doing Improv With Amy Poehler

Sola Bamas as Shirley and Teyonah Parris as Dawn Chambers - Mad Men _ Season 7, Episode 2 - Photo Credit: Courtesy of AMC
Photo: Courtesy of AMC

There were some hard, heartbreaking moments on last night’s Valentine’s Day–set episode of Mad Men. Sally Draper, especially, went through some stuff, but so did office secretaries Dawn and Shirley, who were nearly fired three times between them, merely for being kind. Dawn got dressed down by her new boss, Lou Avery, for seeming to care too much about having missed Sally’s unexpected visit, which occurred only because she’d spent her lunch hour shopping for perfume for Lou’s wife. And Shirley’s attempt to clue Peggy in on the fairly obvious reality that those roses didn’t come from Ted and weren’t, in fact, even meant for her backfired on her. Luckily, they will both be sticking around, with Dawn installed in her new, elevated position as head of personnel in the wake of Joan’s promotion. So what’s next? This morning, Vulture spoke with Teyonah Parris, who also stars in the Sundance breakout Dear White People, about Dawn’s future, not hating her character’s now former boss Lou Avery (!), and how much she’d love a Dawn and Shirley spinoff.

Shirley and Dawn call each other by the other’s name — a mistake I assume their bosses make all the time.
Yeah, I took it as “All black people look the same.” That’s Shirley and Dawn’s joke. Constantly throughout the day, we’re called by the other’s name. And we look nothing alike! Shirley’s so cute and fashionable, and Dawn’s covered up from chin to ankle. Really, people? Really? I loved that scene.

They put up with so much in the episode.
We were treated very badly, but we’re still standing at the end. Dawn’s promoted, Shirley’s not fired — it was pretty awesome. It was just fun to see what us secretaries go through. On Twitter, everyone was like “We need a Dawn and Shirley spinoff!” Yes! Yes! Absolutely, we’ll take that spinoff, thank you.

But, gah. Lou.
Actually, I was very surprised watching it back, probably because I’m influenced by the actor [Allan Havey] himself. I did not think he was that bad. [Laughs.] I did not.

I know, but I really didn’t in the first episode. It was only when I read last night’s episode that I thought, Oh, okay. He’s not the nicest guy around. He’s got some issues going on. But initially, yeah, my reaction didn’t match up with everyone else’s.

Why do you think that is?
Well, Dawn’s been there a while now, she’s really good at what she does, and I think it’s not just Don who notices it now. With him being gone, it’s given her a bit more room to show more of what she can do. In some ways, Lou has allowed her to rise to the occasion.

That’s a fair point. Their confrontation did play like a Peggy moment, the way Dawn stood up to Lou in the end.
Yeah! It felt very good to do that. I was really excited to do it. It shows you Dawn is a lot more comfortable and a lot more sure of herself and her worth. I mean, when she gets called in she pretty much thinks she’s going to be fired, but then we find out, oh, he can’t fire her because the NAACP will be all over his ass.

What was the experience of reading the script through?
Dawn goes through so many ups and downs and really never knew where she would land, and it was the same for me. When I read that she got moved to reception, I thought, Aww, damn. I guess that’s it. And then I keep reading, and I literally had to go back and read my last scene four times to make sure I understood what was happening. It’s subtle on TV, and it’s subtle when you read it. Am I taking a box in there and unpacking? Is it my box I’m taking home?  

I thought she’d been fired until she hung her purse up on the door.
I don’t remember what exactly it said beyond “Dawn enters with the box,” but I know it didn’t say, “She’s happy” or “She’s sad,” or anything like that.

Did you have to double-check to make sure you were staying?
Um … listen, yes. Pretty much. [Laughs.] I asked [executive producer] Matthew Weiner, “I know you can’t tell me anything, but what this is insinuating is that I’m the new Joan, right?” And he was like, “Yes!” Okay then! I don’t think she was necessarily after that, but I think she deserves it. Dawn just always shows up, does a great job, never asks for any attention or acknowledgment of the work she does. For Joan to see that she could handle being head of personnel — even though her hands were forced, and she had to do some finagling — I think it’s awesome for Dawn.

Did Matthew say anything else about this episode to you? It’s obviously one of your bigger ones.
Not a thing. I saw my pages when everyone else did. There was no, “Oh, this is a good episode for Dawn!” No. Nothing. We talked about it a bit at the table read, as in he said, “Do you like it?” Uh, yeah, I do!

The episode opens with Don getting dressed up for his visit from Dawn. He cares what she thinks. Why do you think she’s so loyal to him? She’s not just fielding his calls. She’s going to his house, keeping him stocked with cream and sugar …
He’s always treated her well at a basic level. I do think Dawn thinks he’s a good guy who’s going through some things. That’s what it is: She knows he’s a good guy, he’s been a great boss to her, and also this is normal for her. Doing this type of thing for him is I think part of who she is. It’s in her nature. She’s not even doing it for the money.

Joan’s always been very protective of the secretaries. Do you think Dawn will be the same way?
I don’t see why not? Remember that episode when she got into trouble for clocking the girls out when they had already left? All the girls do that. That wasn’t something special. It’s just, like, secretaries unite. It will be interesting to see whether that helps or hurts her. It’s hard sometimes going from being someone’s peer to their superior.

I wanted to ask about the rom-com satire you made with Amy Poehler, They Came Together, which premiered at Sundance this year. What was the best part of that?
She is fun, I tell you. She is fun. It was a summer in Brooklyn. Amy and I, our characters work in a candy shop and we had a lot of moments in that shop just playing. Trying and improvising stuff, going “nope, nope,” and trying something else. I’m a fan of her work, and to watch it happen in person was pretty awesome. And I ate a lot of candy. I can’t speak for Amy, but I definitely did.

You’re also starring in the upcoming Starz professional basketball comedy Survivor’s Remorse, which is being executive produced by Mike O’Malley and LeBron James. What’s working with LeBron been like?
We leave to shoot in four days, and I’ve only met Mike and a few of the other actors. I don’t even watch basketball, I can’t even pretend. There you go.

Mad Men’s Teyonah Parris on Dawn and Don