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Q&A: 'Mad Men' Actress Teyonah Parris on Dawn's Ambition

'The responsibility of the time cards can be a catalyst for her'

Teyonah Parris as Dawn Chambers on 'Mad Men'
Michael Yarish/AMC
May 9, 2013 12:35 PM ET

The role of Don Draper's secretary has always been a thankless job – just ask Ida Blankenship – but a few savvy women, including Peggy Olson, Jane Sterling and Megan Draper (née Calvet), have managed to use it as a springboard for more lucrative positions. It's too soon to tell what the future has in store for Dawn Chambers, SCDP's first African-American employee and Don's current assistant, but given that she's held onto her job longer that the majority of her predecessors (about two years and counting), it's safe to say she's not going to fade into obscurity. We caught up with South Carolina-bred Juilliard grad Teyonah Parris while she was in London enjoying her Mad Men hiatus – and just hours before she hit Beyoncé's Mrs. Carter Show at the O2 Arena – to talk about Dawn's increased screen time and that clumsy hug from Joanie.

On the Set of 'Mad Men' with Jon Hamm

At this point, Dawn is one of Don's longest-lasting secretaries. What do you think that says about her?
[Laughs] Listen, she shows up, she does her work and just shines in her little arena. Wait, that's really funny. I guess she is, huh?

She's about neck-and-neck with Allison from seasons three and four. Don's secretaries do have a knack for getting promoted – or marrying partners. Anything is possible.
Dawn is just happy to be working, especially after that whole debacle with Joan and Scarlett.

This season's fourth episode, "To Have and to Hold," finally gave Dawn a meaty story line, one that has audiences wondering what's going to happen next. What was your reaction when you received that script?
I pretty much couldn't believe it. When they send scripts, we only get the pages we're in, so I thought, "Whoa, this is a lot of paper!" So I was really excited. But to see it in the context of the rest of the episode was even more fun.

'Mad Men' Cast Gets Intimate in New York

At the end of that episode, Joan rewards Dawn with more responsibilities, but labels them "punishment." It seems that Dawn is the only person that Joan can still wield authority over. What's your interpretation?
I agree that, especially when we see the rest of Joan's story in that episode, that she identifies Dawn as someone who will still bow to her. And I do think she takes advantage of that. Joan is going through her own struggles, but in Dawn, I think she sees someone who is just trying to do right and stay on the right track.

Where do you think Dawn stands now? Does she fear Joan, or are these "punishments" an opportunity for her to prove herself?
I think it's more the latter. The responsibility of the time cards and the supply closet can be a catalyst for Dawn to open her eyes to other opportunities. Even if Joan did make them a punishment, I think Dawn sees them as a promotion. She now has the authority to run another aspect of the office. And not like, to tell people what to do, but to be a supervisor of sorts.

That's really intriguing, because in the scenes with her friend Nikki, you get the sense that Dawn wants to get married and have a family. Perhaps this will trigger some additional ambitions?
Right, because when we saw Dawn talking to Peggy on the couch [last season], Peggy asked her, "Well, do you want to do anything else? Would you want to be a copywriter?" she says, "I'm happy where I am, just to have a job." People would ask me, "Was she lying? Do you think she really does have aspirations?" I don't think Dawn was lying, so much as maybe – like you said – this was something that could light the spark to have further aspirations. In that time period, being a black female, you just wanted a job – you wanted something steady with benefits, something you could support your family with – so I don't think that Dawn was lying so much as that there were more important and pressing things for her to consider beyond "Am I trying to be the next Don Draper?"

Don Draper's Long Journey Into Darkness

Another more recent episode, "The Flood," addressed the Martin Luther King, Jr. assassination. What were your opinions of the finished product?
It was interesting, because you see things through this white world; the black characters are very much on the periphery. Another thing that I found interesting was how the two characters that wanted most to carry on were Dawn and Harry Crane.

That was the most realistic reaction for Dawn. But, at the same time, she provided one of the few moments of comic relief in the entire episode. I don't know if you've scoured the Internet, but that awkward hug between Joan and Dawn is everywhere.
I actually saw that before I saw the episode! The fact that everyone is talking about that is funny. People are reading into Dawn's response very differently.

How so?
Well, the beauty of giving one performance, one interpretation of art, is that people receive it differently. So I don't want to put anything on the record, because I feel like if I say something, people will take that as the end all be all.

And is it true you're going to see Beyoncé tonight?
I'm so excited! I've never seen her live. And if you want to talk about a crazy fan. . .

Just make sure you know the lyrics to "Irreplaceable" when Bey hands you the mic.
I'd be one of those fans who's too busy screaming to actually get the words out.

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