Mar 082009

hullaballoo continues her conversation with Donielle Artese.

I just loved meeting Donielle Artese. We met in a coffee shop one afternoon, and talked for about three or four hours. She’s so bubbly and charming — just a lot of fun, and we hit it off instantly. In addition to Mad Men, we talked about everything from her early days as a dancer, to being diagnosed with Lupus, to her overcoming kidney failure, to the realities of being a Black actress in Hollywood if you’re not Beyonce or Alicia Keyes.

Last time around, she gave us some background information and told us what her initial thoughts were about being on the show. This time, we delve deeper into the character of Sheila, and discuss our hopes that she’ll return in some capacity in Season 3.

As noted, there’s still a lot more to this conversation, although this is most of the relevant (and printable) Mad Men stuff. She had some great stories about being on the set and working with certain cast members, which I hope to divulge at some point. (I know, I know…) But for now, here’s the much anticipated part 2. I hope you find it was worth the wait.

Aside from the on-camera stuff, which is fantastic, the off “camera stuff is amazing. It’s one of the most welcoming, friendly sets I have ever been on. It’s just magical.

hullaballoo How was Mad Men different from some of the other things you’ve done?

Donielle I knew it was a period show. I’ve done period numbers as a dancer. I’ve done 20s, 40s, 60s, 70s “ just about every time period so I was accustomed to it, and I knew pretty much what to expect in terms of costumes and fashion. But then I got to wardrobe, and she started pulling out authentic under garments from the 60s “ not just the stockings and the garters, but all the underwear: slips, girdles, bras “ everything. I was like”I can’t wear my own?” She said “uh, no. In fact, you need to put these tips in. Just lean over and”

hullaballoo Wait — what? Tips?

Donielle For the bras, so they stay pointy.

hullaballoo What? There are special tips? I mean, I realize they’re bullet bras and they’re supposed to be pointy, but they require special tips?

Donielle Yeah, inserts “ to perfect the sillhouette. So every inch is. Filled. Out. Initially I was like, “but I’ve got big boobs, why do I need these.” And she said “honey, listen. These help.” You know, it’s that level of detail; it’s that painstaking. And can I just say that the wardrobe women are sensational “ just wonderful. They really need to get their due credit. They work so hard to make everything right and to keep the show authentic.

hullaballoo Yes, that’s obvious. I think that’s one of the things that everyone really appreciates about the show, the attention to detail “ especially with regards to the costumes and the props. I know it’s one of the things that enthralls me.

Donielle I know. It’s just amazing.

hullaballoo So after wardrobe, then what?

Donielle Well, then they wanted to do a hair test.

hullaballoo So what did they do? What did that entail?

Donielle Well, I also do some hair modeling, so I’ve got a big selection of pieces that I use for various things. Something just told me, “hmmm period, why not bring one of your short do’s to see if they like it.” So I showed up with one of my hairpieces and asked if they could use it “ possibly do a flip with it, which they loved. I have really long hair, so we tucked it all in, and gave the piece a cute little flip, and it was perfect. So much so that the stylists were all, “can we keep this?”

hullaballoo But this was just prep work, right?

I put everything on and walked around the set, and it was the craziest thing. I felt like I was in a time warp.

Donielle These people were serious about the job they were doing, and the story they wanted to tell. I mean, my stockings were ironed and even had a crease in them. I had to wear garters “ stuff that you don’t even see. It’s all so authentic, and it really helps you step into character. When it was finally time for me to go on set, I was amazed at the world they’d created. They made it easy for the actors because, you’d put on the clothes and step onto the set, and you were instantly of that era. You became that person. I began to act differently. I mean, I didn’t have to do any character prep because I felt like I was already there. The clothes “ they kind of guided me. I had on a girdle and couldn’t breathe, but I felt pulled up, and tighter. You know, we’re a lot looser now, more casual, but they were a lot tighter, more constrained and repressed back then. Wearing those clothes made you feel like that. I put everything on and walked around the set, and it was the craziest thing. I felt like I was in a time warp.

I heard from one of the researchers that they tried to adhere to every last detail. For example, they’d research whether it was raining on a particular day in 1962, and if it was, they’d put water on a character’s coat so it looked like he just came out of the rain. If they showed a picture of JFK, they’d make sure it was a picture of JFK from 1962, not from ’63. I mean, who would know? I see JFK, I think it’s JFK. I wouldn’t know if they used a picture from the wrong year. Most people have no idea how President Kennedy’s look varied from 1962 to 1963, but that’s the level of commitment they have on the show. It’s so specific, and it really stems from Matthew [Weiner]. It’s a testament to his dedication and his vision. He’s so hands-on and involved in every last detail because it’s like his baby. I don’t remember a day when he wasn’t on the set “ at least, he was always there whenever I was. He’s really put his mark on the program and it shows. That’s why it’s so good. You can’t half-step on quality, you know?

hullaballoo When we first meet Sheila, she’s at the party with Paul and she has a run-in with Joan “ Christina Hendricks. Joan comes over and makes this remark to you, and you just “ I thought your reaction to it wasperfect.

Photo courtesy of Donielle Artese Phelps

Photo courtesy of Donielle Artese Phelps

Donielle You liked that, did you. I think they actually cut it down a bit, because myI think the look I gave her was initially more drawn out. A lot more pensive.

hullaballoo It was subdued, but powerful.

Donielle Can I just tell you, all of my friends and family were so upset at that scene with Joan.

hullaballoo Well, yeah. And with good reason. I think it’s hard to look at it from today’s standpoint and not be ready to jump through the TV screen.

Donielle Absolutely. And I had to keep reminding them that it’s a scene written from a particular point of view, which takes place at a particular point in time.

hullaballoo And it’s true to that time. Today in a situation like that the temptation might be to get all sassy, go Angry Black Woman on somebody if they tried any of that. Even if it’s not necessarily the best approach. We’ve come through a lot, and expect NOT to have to deal with any of the same nonsense, even though it still exists.

Donielle Oh, definitely. But it wouldn’t have been an option in 1962.

hullaballoo Right. Not at all.

Donielle We can look at where we are today and say I would havebut back then? It just didn’t “ we couldn’t act like that. Certainly someone like Sheila wouldn’t have done that.

hullaballoo My mother, who was of a similar background and would have been about Sheila’s age then “ well, slightly older, actually “ but she’s often said that to me. Right around the time your episode aired, I was thumbing through an old magazine at her house. It contained a story about the Little Rock 9 and featured a picture that I’m sure you’ve seen “ the famous one where the young Black woman is being taunted as she tries to enter the school. I asked her if she’d ever experienced anything like that “ if people were really that cruel. She said some people were worse, while others weren’t nearly as bad, but she dealt with them. Not that she was cowed or afraid of anyone “ just that there was a different way of handling situations like that. It’s funny, though. I look at her now, and I wonder how she survived those days because she takes nothing from no one. Even so, she’s always very elegant if she has to reprimand or rebuff someone. I suppose she learned that from having come through that time period.

Donielle Yes, absolutely. The manners were certainly different. And I think some of it had to do with them being so constrained with their clothing and everything. As the 60s wore on, clothing, hair — everything became looser and wilder, and so did our attitudes. It was also about changing expectations. There were some major inroads happening then.

hullaballoo Right. And we are different now because of all that stuff that happened “ as well as stuff we hoped would have happened, but didn’t. I think we’re more disillusioned, but we’re also more determined — we’re more willing to move beyond certain boundaries.

Donielle Which also speaks to a general rule that I have about every role I play, and that’s to never play “the Black girl.” I mean it’s evident that I’m a Black woman, adding attitude doesn’t make me more of one. In fact, it’s usually a distraction. Plus it’s very limiting. I mean, I want to go up for the same parts as Cameron Diaz and Drew Barrymore. They don’t act that way, why should I?

hullaballoo Actually, I think Cameron does

Donielle [Laughs] You may be right

hullaballoo But, I know what you’re saying. I mean, really, who’s to say what it means any way? Who defines what it is to be a “Black girl, a Black woman, a Black person?”

Donielle Right. Nobody defines me but me.

hullaballoo W. E. B. Dubois talked a great deal about the duality of being a “Negro” in America. He has this great quote about looking at one’s self through the eyes of othersI can’t remember the exact phrase, but it seems like it’s one of the major underlying themes of Mad Men as well. I mean, in the first episode of the series, the Rachel Menken character says something similar to Don Draper. That’s why when your character was introduced, I had such high hopes for them to really explore that aspect of race, sex and class that was beginning to come to the forefront of how people viewed things. A lot of that stuff that happened in the 60s “ it was about self-definition and not being constrained by others’ expectationsabout not fitting into some box that somebody else created for you.

Donielle And that’s why I see my role as Sheila as fairly significant. So far, I am the only African-American character who is not a maid or elevator worker or other servant who’s there solely at their beck and call…

hullaballoo To”fix” things?

Donielle Yeah. Yes, sort of. All due respect to the actors playing those roles on the show “ they’re all fantastic, super talented. And while they’re playing somewhat stereotypical positions, fortunately Matt Weiner portrays them as sensitive, insightful human beings ” which is a nice twist. But my role is different. Sheila White represents beauty, poise, intellect, and fortitude. To me, this character shatters the all too familiar stereotypes of the angry, uneducated, ghetto/hoochie black woman. I think Sheila White’s storyline is important to the truth of race-relations in the 60’s.

hullaballoo Exactly. And it’s one of the reasons I hope we see more of her “ you know, that she’s at least affected Paul in some profound way, and we’ll see that emerge on the show.

Donielle Here’s hoping. I am so grateful for this show, and will still be overjoyed for having been part of this experience, even if I don’t appear on another episode, although I hope that’s not the case.

hullaballoo So the Joan scene, did Matthew Weiner give you direction or tell you how to respond?

Donielle He had me do it different ways. Christina’s such a fabulous actor, that all I had to do was play “the truth.” They just let the characters do what they do.

hullaballoo There’s a lot of conjecture on various blogs and throughout the Web that Paul only dated Sheila because he’s a poseur “ because he wants to feel hipper than thou. My argument was, “yeah, he probably is a poseur, but that’s still a big risk to take in 1962 “ to be openly dating a Black woman, to be showing her off to friends and colleagues, or bringing her into your office? That’s a big step.” What do you think about that?

Donielle His character tends to be that way. I mean, he smokes his pipe and he’s got that neckerchief, but I think he genuinely likes her. I think that perhaps initially he was trying to be different, or trying to do something different, but I think he really, genuinely likes her. I mean, he is that way “ he’s kind of uh, what’s the wordI won’t use the word they use on the set

Photo courtesy of Donielle Artese Phelps

Photo courtesy of Donielle Artese Phelps

hullaballoo What do they call him on the set? I won’t use it. I’ll edit it out if it’s

Donielle They call him a pussy.

hullaballoo [So, I lied. Heh. That’s just too good to ignore]

Donielle But I think he really likes her. He went down South with her, so there must have been something.

hullaballoo I thought he might have got his butt kicked on the bus.

Donielle I don’t think he got his butt kicked on the bus. I think he was too scared to really have his fist up and go “All Power to the People!” That was the source of the argument they had; he was terrified to go.

hullaballoo How did it feel to be acting on the bus at “such a moment?”

Donielle I have to tell you. I didn’t have one thing to say on that bus.

hullaballoo I know, but you were pretty much reacting off of him. He was being the biggest asshole

Donielle You think he was being an asshole?

hullaballoo He was so condescending.

Donielle I don’t think he was being condescending at all.

hullaballoo Aw, you really love your man

Donielle He was talking about going beyond color. I think he was trying to relate “ trying to show that he’s not “The White Guy,” not “The Man.” He was trying to relate to the brothers.

hullaballoo Okay. That’s a good take on it.

I loved everything about the scene. I loved the shot, I loved him talking, the reaction of the guys. I mean, they were really listening to him, really paying attention.

Donielle That’s why my reaction was like, “aw, my poor little pookie. He’s trying so hard, my boo.” I loved that part. It was one of my favorite parts of my story arc. I loved everything about the scene. I loved the shot, I loved him talking, the reaction of the guys. I mean, they were really listening to him, really paying attention.

hullaballoo I’ve seen some Internet theories “ you know, fan stuff — about who Sheila is: that she’s actually the daughter of a judge, and she’s rebelling against her bourgeois upbringing and family obligations by working at the supermarket and dating Paul.

Donielle I love that idea. That’s fantastic.

hullaballoo Like the family has some guy picked out for her “ some Mr. Wonderful, med student at Howard or Meharry. She’s been to cotillion, the Boule. They have this perfect life mapped out for her, but here she is dating this goober copywriter guy, and bagging groceries.

Donielle That’s perfect. It fits with the time period, and even works thematically.

hullaballoo Right. People aren’t who they appear to be. Then you have this whole notion of trying to go beyond other people’s expectations of who you should be. Plus it would throw Paul for a loop. Here he thinks he’s dating this woman who’s “one of the people,” but really she’s more like Pete Campbell’s wife Trudy “ except for the fact she’s Black.

Donielle I love it. That would be fascinating to see that kind of story. I don’t think we’ve ever seen anything like that on television. Do you have that script written?

hullaballoo It’s not my idea. It’s just something I saw on the Inter-Webz.

Donielle You know what Prince asked me?

hullaballoo Prince, Prince? From Purple Rain? The musician? He watches the show?

Donielle Yes. I suggested he watch it.

hullaballoo Does he like it?

Donielle He loves it. He asked me if they were going to bring me back, and if I was going to get to wear something fabulous and sexy like Joan? All I could tell him was that I certainly hope so.

hullaballoo So do I. So do a lot of people. Honestly? Truer words were never spoken.


  11 Responses to “Nobody defines me but me”

  1. Finally, Thank you! This was really great! It sounds like you two had a really great conversation.

    I am sorry she had Lupus.

    I wish you had included some more stuff about being a black actress who is not Beyonce or Alicia Keys. That sounds fun.

  2. I love her! Thank you for doing this.

  3. I wish you had included some more stuff about being a black actress who is not Beyonce or Alicia Keys. That sounds fun.

    LOL, portias…but I want her to work some more. 😉

    We talked about a lot of things and actually NAMED NAMES. I don’t want someone getting the wrong idea about something that may have been said tongue in cheek (even if it was true) and have that affect her career.


    Wonderful, wonderful interview, in the true BoK fashion. Love it. Love her.

  5. The Cameron Diaz thing is priceless. As is The Artist Currently Known As Prince being a MM fan.

  6. I thought the most profound moment involving Sheila was when she was off screen. I'm talking about Sally Draper asking if Sheila was Paul's maid….that little scene spoke volumes.

  7. Oh, JS, I thought that was an incredibly poignant moment. And we talked about it, but…with some things you just have to leave them alone — let the work speak for itself.

  8. Thank you for posting this

    I really loved seeing her on the show. It was nice to see a black person not playing a stereotype. This girl is very beautiful.

    Not fair.

  9. I encourage anyone wishing to sponsor Donielle's Walk for Lupus to visit This is a cause very near and dear to her heart, having survived the ravages of the disease herself, and overcoming kidney failure as well as a stroke as a result of it.

  10. […] criticized often enough for not quite getting there about race. We have, on this site, discussed “Magical Negroes” in Mad Men, and the Sheila storyline ended up fizzling in an unsatisfying […]

  11. […] criticized often enough for not quite getting there about race. We have, on this site, discussed “Magical Negroes” in Mad Men, and the Sheila storyline ended up fizzling in an unsatisfying way. So now that he’s decided to […]

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