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Stephanie Drake on Playing Mad Men’s Most Assertive Secretary

Note: Mad Men spoilers ahead.

Now that Peggy’s overseeing creative, Megan’s cashing her divorce check, Dawn’s managing the office, and Miss Blankenship’s six feet under, Meredith (Stephanie Drake) has settled into the role as Don Draper’s secretary. In Sunday night’s episode of Mad Men, Meredith gave her boss a reality check in between answering his telephone and restocking his wet bar. Vulture interrupted Drake while she re-watched “Time & Life” couch-side at her L.A. home to talk about mothering Don, her series keepsake, and a mortifying moment with John Slattery.

Meredith had a lot of screen time on this week’s Mad Men. Her big line was telling Don, “Don’t call me sweetheart” — why do you think she decided to assert herself now after so many sexist remarks from the men in the office?
She has a special relationship with Don and feels like she can speak to him that way. I don’t think she can speak to anyone else like that. She spent the entire episode just wanting to know what was going on based on what everyone else kept saying, and she had just had enough of it.

But she did stand up to Joan back in season five — when Joan called her an idiot and threw the model plane at her, Meredith said, “You’re not allowed to do that.”
Meredith stands up for herself when absolutely necessary.

Do you think she’s a burgeoning feminist?
Oh goodness [laughs]. Possibly. I think she just feels like she deserves to know what’s going on.

This was the first episode where I got the sense that she’s ostracized from the other secretaries. When she sneaks up on Shirley and Dawn gossiping, they say, “My goodness, Meredith, we should put a bell on you.” Do you feel like she’s friendless at SC&P?
I don’t think so. I mean it was a funny comment that Shirley made, and I think Meredith is used to anything and everything at that office. Nothing seems to faze her that much.

She showed initiative on a couple of fronts in this episode. Not only did she want to be in on the water-cooler talk, but also, she wants to know if Don intends to take her with him to his next office. Do you think the latter is because of their relationship or her career ambitions?
I think she genuinely cares about Don and wants what’s best for him; she always has. And she knows that his life is in a bit of limbo. She even says, “You won’t have an apartment, you won’t have an office,” like at least tell me that I’m going to be around to make things a little bit better.

She seems like she’s the only character who is concerned about Don’s day-to-day well-being.
I know, she is! She takes her job very seriously [laughs].

I previously spoke with Elizabeth Reaser — whom, so far, we’ve only seen on two episodes — and she said she’d filled a notebook with Diana’s backstory. Did you, or you and Matt Weiner, come up with a past for Meredith?
Oh wow. You know what, I didn’t spend too much time thinking about Meredith’s past. I just assumed that I would find out if the writers wrote about it. Everything that Meredith has ever said is so specific to the character and her lovable ditziness that I didn’t want to mess with it. I completely left it up to the writers. If they wanted to tell me something that I didn’t know or hadn’t thought about, great, but I really didn’t make anything up on my own.

Not even what neighborhood she lives in?
No. I have thought about — it’s never said but I have certain ideas. She goes to the beauty parlor to get her hair done [laughs]. She always looks so cute, so she obviously likes to shop.

I kind of picture her living in one of those super-cheap apartments with 20 other girls all fairly new to the city.
I have that feeling, too. Yeah, definitely, I think she made a lot of friends in secretarial school and keeps in touch with them and probably goes out with them at night and goes to dinner and drinks. I think she has an avid social life.

Of the three lead female characters on the show — Peggy, Joan, Betty — whom do you think Meredith most aspires to be like?
I see aspects in both Peggy and Joan that she would aspire to be. Meredith, when she is given responsibility, seems to thrive and really does anything she sets her mind to. I mean, she does have her “Meredith moments” that get her in trouble. But overall, if she wanted to become office manager, I certainly don’t see why she couldn’t. She’s very personable — people seem to like her. So she could move on to other things easily.

Before the season-seven break, she kisses Don and it’s very awkward. Do you think at this point her feelings toward him are more romantic or maternal?
I don’t think they’re romantic anymore. She got the message even though it didn’t seem like she did at that moment. In the time that passed from that moment to when we catch back up with them at the beginning, it seemed like she had figured things out and doesn’t see him in that way but has very, yeah, maternal instincts toward him.

So she doesn’t want to be the next Mrs. Don Draper?
Hmmm. I don’t know if she’d be opposed to it, but I think she deserves someone without so many issues [laughs].

Just prior to the kiss she tells Don, “I know you’re feeling vulnerable right now, but I am your strength.” Where did that come from? That’s such a powerful statement and it sounded like something you would imagine her rehearsing in the mirror every day.
Well, she hadn’t been on his desk for that long at that point. Her feelings were romantic and maternal. I think they were both. And, she just kind of went for it. Maybe at the wrong time. Maybe she’d had dreams about them together and she thought this was her chance, when he was most vulnerable. And it backfired, but it led to a nicer relationship than if something had happened between them.

This week’s episode was directed by Jared Harris [who played Lane Pryce], which I love. In the scene where the SC&P partners meet with McCann-Erickson, you feel his absence so palpably, so it was so heartening to know that he was actually in the room. What was he like as a director?
He was fantastic! I was so excited to get to work with him. I had done one little scene with him in my very first episode of season five when I handed him Joan’s baby. That was really the only time I’d ever seen him, worked with him, talked to him, so I was just so excited to get to have him as the director, and he was great. He sat me down right before we started the scene where I come in and give it to Don, and he just gave me some things to think about. We talked through it for a minute, and it made the scene so much easier and, I think, better than if we hadn’t done that.

Did you get to take anything home from the set?
No. I wanted to take the pen that I used — I used it in every episode — it was this really cute Bic pen and one half was yellow and the other half was black-and-white swirls. And I asked the props master if I could keep it, and he said it was rented and they had to give it back [laughs]. It was an original 1960s Bic pen. After the airplane-throwing scene, I did get to take a piece of one of the Mohawk planes that they used, so I do have that. It was the wing that had broken off. I made sure it was okay.

I was looking at your Twitter page, and it seems like there are a lot of fun fan conspiracy theories involving Meredith. Do you have a favorite?
Oh my gosh, I know. I think my favorite was someone wrote the final scene of the show with the reveal that Meredith really is Meredith McCann.

And that’s how she’s been able to keep her job this whole time despite being spacey?
[Laughs.] Yes! I thought that was so funny. And I love all the ones where Meredith ends up running the place. Those make me laugh.

I like the one, too, where Meredith is Miss Blankenship’s niece. Lastly, what memory or anecdote from your time on the series really stands out for you?
I mean I’ll never forget, it was one of my very first days on set and I had only watched one episode of Mad Men, and I had watched it the night before my audition just so I had some idea what the show was like. So I didn’t know character names — I knew the actors but not that well, it was maybe my third day of shooting. And it was the scene in the first episode of season five where I come in holding that big statue. And all the main characters — all the guys — are all standing there in a circle, and the director says to me, “Stephanie, look at Cooper.” And I turned to my right and was looking at John Slattery, and he just looked at me and he said, “Nope, not me” [laughs]. And I got so red in the face. I was embarrassed, I was like, Oh my gosh, I guess I need to watch the show! I felt so bad. I never made that mistake ever again after that.

Playing Mad Men’s Most Assertive Secretary