I spoke with the lovely Alexa Alemanni, who plays Allison, Thursday night (August 5).
Deborah Lipp: It is wonderful to speak to you.
Alexa Alemanni: Thank you so much, you too. I’ve been a big fan of your site. You guys do a really amazing job.
DL: How did you hear about our site?
AA: You know, my Mom is like my own personal publicist. She tends to Google a lot. So I think she found it pretty early on.
DL: Fantastic! I am so glad that you like the site!
AA: Oh, it’s great.
DL: We really try to advocate for the show and make this a good space for the actors.
AA: You really approach everything in a very intellectual way. I mean, there’s so much analysis that goes into the work that you do, and Mad Men deserves that, so it’s pretty cool to see.
DL: Yeah, I mean the show inspires it.
AA: Thank you.
DL: Let me start by where you’re from and where you went to school.
AA: I grew up actually in Colorado and in Italy. My Mom’s Italian so I spent every summer in Italy and then I went to school in Colorado.
DL: Are you bilingual?
AA: I am. And I’m an Italian citizen. I have both citizenships, which is pretty awesome, because I can work in the EU. And my family’s there. so it’s always this kind of back and forth thing. I went to Vassar, my parents have always been incredibly supportive, but they insisted that I go to college and I’m very grateful that they did. I studied theater history there. And then I moved to New York for like a year, and did some very low-paying theater.
DL: And then you went to LA?
DL: How long have you been in LA?
AA: About five years.
DL: So, just in time to get Mad Men?
AA: Pretty much, yeah. The first job that I got was actually on the West Wing. It’s actually a funny story. I was playing Leo McGarry’s intern. It was my first day on a TV set and we were shooting the cold open, it was a super-long scene, and John Spencer was in it, and Alison Janney was in it, and Mary McCormack, and Kristen Chenoweth, and Richard Schiff, and me, so it was a really overwhelming first day. But the director of the episode was Andrew Bernstein, and it was his first episode directing. And then a year and a half later, he was directing Mad Men,* and he was directing an episode that I was in, and of course he knew Elisabeth from the West Wing too, so it was just this really funny reconnection. It was really cool.
*[Bernstein directed Babylon, which is the episode Allison’s referring to; he also directed Flight 1, The Gold Violin, and The Inheritance]
DL: I had that on my list of questions!
DL: Obviously I looked up your resume, and you know, for a very early job, that cast is a little intimidating!
AA: Yeah, it definitely was. I think it was an 18-hour day. I remember, called my Mom, saying “Oh my God! It was amazing!” And John Spencer was just an incredible man. He took a lot of time to talk to me and give me great advise. It was pretty memorable.
DL: That was one of the last things he did.
AA: Yeah, that was his last season.
DL: His death was so sad.
DL: What a great actor. What an opportunity for you to work with somebody like that.
DL: Amazing first job.
AA: It’s funny, because you do that, and I remember saying “What could possibly be better than the West Wing? Nothing on television is as good as the West Wing!” And then, Mad Men came around.
DL: We’ve compared the two shows a lot because of the way they’re signature pieces for their creators.
DL: I mean, you can’t spend three minutes with West Wing without knowing it’s Aaron Sorkin, in the same way that Mad Men is Matt Weiner’s show.
AA: That’s very true. That’s very true.
DL: I was a huge West Wing fan.
AA: Me too! It’s always nice when you get to work on shows you’re a huge fan of.
DL: Had you already heard about Mad Men when you were cast?
AA: I didn’t. I didn’t know anything about it. I mean, it was the first show on AMC, so in everybody’s mind, AMC was a movie channel. So I got the audition—actually the casting director of the West Wing went on to cast Mad Men—so they brought me into the audition, and it was Episode 3, Season 1, so nobody knew anything about it.
DL: So you got it through the connection on West Wing, they’d seen you before?
AA: Yeah. It worked out.
DL: You got promoted on Mad Men a lot like Allison did.
AA: Yeah, I always joked with Matt that my career seems to follow Allison’s career. And you know, there’s a lot of similarities between the two. I was just always so happy to be there and to be working on that set and to be working with those amazing actors and the incredible scripts, and working with Matt. And I think to a certain extent, Allison was the same way. She’s just really happy to have that job, and feels really happy to be there. Yeah, we kind of grew up together on the show.
DL: Did you get a sense, while you were really still working in episodes where you weren’t getting dialogue and so on, did you get a sense that you were being noticed? Was there a particular moment when you realized that you were going to be singled out, or did the whole thing come as a total surprise to you?
AA: Do you mean for this season?
DL: Even last season, when all of a sudden you were Don’s secretary.
AA: [laughs] No, it’s funny, every time I go to Italy, Mad Men calls me back. It’s happened like three times now. I go and visit with my family, and I get a phone call that they want me back on Mad Men, and I change my flight and I come rushing back. So even Season 3, I remember I was at the table read, it was like Episode 2 of Season 3, and I was flipping through the script; I hadn’t gotten it the night before, and it says “Allison is sitting outside of Don’s office.” Like, Oh my God! Really?
[we both laugh]
And then I was kind of freaked out, because it’s not like they tend to last very long. So I was a little concerned, but I kept coming back, week after week, so it was really pretty amazing.
DL: I think that Matt didn’t want Don to turn into Murphy Brown [who had a different secretary every episode].
AA: Right! [laughs]
DL: So if another secretary went south or was incompetent that it was going to start to look like a joke.
AA: Yeah. I think, very much so. And I mean it’s, there’s never a story line that even comes close to repeating itself. And, you know, she was a really great secretary. He really needed that, especially now, with everything that’s happened.
DL: Right. I know you’ve got to be careful about what you say. Are you filming 12 now?
AA: Yeah. Episode 12.
DL: We did our set visit last year during the week of the premiere, and I’m so glad we did now, because we got to see Sterling Cooper.
AA: Oh, yeah, it was a sad night.
DL: They were filming Episode 11 the week of the premiere last year, so I figured it was about the same.
DL: So, you actually know how the season goes, and I won’t ask anything, because I know better.
AA: People always want to know, and they always ask, but I think honestly, it’s such a more enjoyable experience as a viewer if you don’t know. And especially with the story that is created, just to be on the edge of your seat and be sucked into that world, I mean, you don’t want to know.
DL: I never want to know. It’s very hard to run the blog—and I’m the one who runs the news stuff—it’s very hard to do that and not get spoilers.
AA: I’m sure.
DL: But I’m pretty good at it.
AA: I’m sure!
DL: So when did you find out you were cast for Season 4?
AA: I was in Italy.
DL: Of course!
AA: Of course. [laughs] They told me I was coming back, and I think I jumped around for a while, because at the end of Season 3, I was crying and saying “He didn’t even leave a note,” so I certainly didn’t have any expectations. And I didn’t know where the story would pick up, but once I saw that we’d moved forward a year, and they were already established in their offices, it made a lot of sense to me that he would bring her along. She’s been the best secretary he’s had, aside from Peggy, but Peggy was very ambitious. Allison isn’t. She likes her job, she’s good at it, she worked her way into that position. She’s just very attuned to his rhythm and his needs, so it made sense in the world of the show that if he could bring somebody along like that, he would.
DL: Absolutely. Because why hire somebody new and risk them not being good, when you can at least make the offer, make the phone call? I mean, it makes total sense.
DL: Secretaries are hard to find.
AA: They are. [laughs]
With this season, you see him very lonely and missing his kids. I think she kind of steps in this season as his work wife, essentially. She cares about him and she looks out for him and he relies on her for that. Conversely, he’s always respected people who work hard. I think that made it a pretty unique relationship.
DL: Even at the point, at the beginning of Christmas Comes But Once a Year, when he is telling her she’s going to get a bonus, as horrible as that was later, that impulse in the beginning was really good and very professional.
AA: I think that first scene, with the letter from Sally, it’s really important, just in the arc of what happens in the episode, just the fact that he lets her read the letter from his daughter to him out loud. All these details, I think that’s the brilliance of Matt’s writing in setting that up, you get that without anything explicitly being said, how much their relationship has changed, how much she’s stepped in to fill this role. You get that just from sharing the letter together.
DL: Also, it’s…let me ask you something. Allison goes to Don’s apartment with the keys and he pulls her into his lap. We were talking on the blog about, she had made a remark about ‘Oh, thank you for that bonus, now I don’t have to write a letter to Santa,’ and now she’s sitting on his lap the way that Harry is sitting on Santa’s lap…
AA: Oh my gosh, I’d never thought of that! I never made that connection.
DL: If you have hundreds of people writing comments on your blog, you can act a lot smarter, because everybody contributes. [both laugh]
AA: Wow, very true.
DL: Was the lap, was the physical setup scripted?
AA: You know it wasn’t scripted, but Matt had a very specific idea of what he wanted. We did the first rehearsal and Matt was like, ‘Okay, that’s great, but this is what I want.’ And then that choreography of pulling the hand and sitting on the lap was very, very specific in his mind, of exactly how he wanted it to look. And I think, bringing him his keys is not anything out of the ordinary, and is kind of [in] her job description now, even like when she says to Joey, ‘I might have to get some food in him, make it an hour,’ she’s obviously gotten used to having done this before. I think she has every intention of getting him into the apartment and making sure he’s okay and then going on with her night. I think the way that Matt did it, and it works so well, is that it all changes when he grabs her hand. We talked about it a lot, and Matt’s really helpful with these things, because there’s so little in the script that you have to fill in the gaps. Because his writing is so restrained. But what we were talking about is, I mean it’s Don Draper, so it’s hard to imagine that she didn’t have a little crush on him when she first started working there, a long time ago. And then that physical contact, just grabbing the hand, kind of brings back all those feelings in this big rush. So that kind of leads to where it goes from there.
DL: He’s a hard person to say no to. And he’s also her boss.
AA: She definitely at a certain point makes the decision to kiss him back. But I think it’s very understandable how it really just kind of happens for both of them.
DL: You’ve been praised all over the media for the performance the following day. It was very moving.
AA: Thank you. Thank you very much. I think a large part of that is honestly due to the writing. I mean, that scene, they exchange fifteen lines, and everything is said between them, especially for Allison. Having writing that way, it gives you the ability to fill in everything that isn’t being said. It’s a really challenging thing to do as an actor, but it’s also an amazing thing to get to do as an actor, when you get a scene like that. It’s scary because you can’t hide behind anything—you don’t have lines, you don’t have cool shots, you don’t—it’s just there. It can lead to some really honest work, especially when you’re working with someone like Jon, who is so giving. It was just a great, great experience shooting that scene.
DL: Are you the kind of actor who, you fill in the back story? You know what Allison is doing when she’s not at work, and you’ve got a storyline in your head—is that something you do?
AA: To a point, if I think it’s relevant, or if I think it’s going to help me. I kind of have this idea that she was up really late that night because she was so excited about what happened, wrapping all the presents, things like that I’ll fill in for myself. But one of the great things about working on TV is that the material is new every week, and you don’t know what’s coming, it really forces you to stay in the moment and to keep it as fresh and as real as you can. That’s the fun of it.
DL: Because otherwise you’d have a story in your head about Allison and then next week’s script would contradict it?
DL: Speaking of back story that we don’t see, it did look to us like Allison continued to see each other after their little fling in Nixon vs. Kennedy.
AA: [laughs] Aaron [Staton] and I always wondered about that. It was kind of like this long running joke on the set for a while, because it was always implied at different points over the years. Like any time there was a party scene, they’d stick us next to each other. But then it was never really explored. I think it was maybe more fun to have people wonder about it.
DL: Even when, in the Color Blue, when he asks her to go with him to the company party, she doesn’t say ‘No, I don’t go out with you,’ she says ‘No, I don’t my boss to see that.’
AA: I think that by Season 3, it’s certainly a little later, she really kind of steps up into her job. I kind of had the feeling that maybe they were done at that point, if there was ever anything going on.
DL: What are the table readings like?
AA: They’re amazing. I’ve been to some other ones, and they’re nothing like the Mad Men ones. First of all, it’s the fact that you can’t say anything about what happens to anybody. So the people that you’re sitting around that table with are the only ones that know what you’re going to be doing that week, are aware of the intensity of the emotional things you have to do, or the funny things that are going to happen. It feels like a family. And you get people who show up for their first table read, you can see that they become a part of this big family, which is really what the cast and crew is. They’re really funny. I think that sometimes, the show—people say it’s so dark—but there’s a humor to it and that always comes out in the table reads more than anywhere else. It’s a lot of fun.
DL: How is that different from other table reads?
AA: Maybe it’s just because I’ve been on the show for so long. I think it’s because nobody can say anything about what happens. So you’re really all in it together. There’s this sense of family that comes out of it that’s pretty fun.
DL: So you’re a secret club.
AA: Yeah, exactly! We have a password.
DL: One of our favorite scenes, for many reasons, but obviously we got our name from the lipstick scene, the Belle Jolie—
AA: Oh, the lipstick episode!
DL: And you were in that.
AA: I was, I was. Wow, she’s changed a lot since then, huh?
DL: Really, because you didn’t even have a line in that.
AA: I did, actually. I did, it’s with the German interviewer and she asks me something about my lipstick and I say ‘Sometimes I try to match it to my nail polish.’
DL: Oh that’s right. And you get that incredible deer-in-the-headlights look on your face.
AA: ‘Did I do okay?’ Yeah. It’s pretty funny to see. And you see it, too, reflected in her wardrobe and her hair, you know, from being tackled on the ground and the lipstick episode to where she is now. She grew up. You see that in her clothes and how she styles her hair.
DL: She really took her promotion seriously.
AA: She did.
DL: So in that scene, it looked very complicated to film. When it’s shown there’s all these interesting camera angles and things reflected in mirrors. Can you talk about the filming of that scene.
AA: Oh, it was unbelievably complicated. The trickiest thing about it is that it’s really two separate scenes. It’s the scene going on on the other side of the mirror, and the scene on the focus group side of the mirror. But the problem is, when you’re on the other side of the mirror, you can see everything through it. So, as an actor, there’s so much going on, and there’s so many people, that you have to be really careful about remembering–even if it’s not your part of the scene—that if you were putting your lipstick on at that point in the scene, or if you were doing something with your hair, that you have to do the exact same thing when they’re on the other side, when nobody’s paying attention to you, because they can see it through the glass.
DL: That was real? There was real one-way glass?
AA: Well, what they do is, when they were shooting it on the opposite side, they would have glass, and then when they shot it from our side, they had a mirror.
DL: Oh my goodness.
AA: Yeah. They were really long days.
DL: It never occurred to me that they actually just did that with glass. I thought it was that the two scenes were cut together.
AA: You know, it was actually the way that you see it, with the room on the one side, and the other room on the other side.
DL: So you had to remember, ‘I put on my lipstick, then I look in the mirror, then I blot it’?
AA: Right. It’s not even something that’s happening in your scene. It could have been Rich [Sommer] and Vinny [Kartheiser] talking on the other side of the wall, but you were still scene through the camera. So you have to rehearse it all as one big piece. And then go in and chop it up.
DL: So it had to be very tightly choreographed?
AA: Yes, very much so.
DL: It looks so complicated because there were so many women, there were the guys doing that, there was all of the women trying on lipstick, Joan running her game on the German doctor—
AA: Oh, that moment when she leans forward, too! It was like my second episode, and I’d been a huge fan of hers for a long time, and I remember watching and being like, “Wow! You’ve got this character down!”
DL: We adore Christina, we’re huge fans.
AA: She’s wonderful.
DL: We’re big Joan fans.
AA: Well, how can you not be?
DL: So you’ve done these two huge party scenes, speaking of complicated filming.
AA: Ooooh boy.
DL: You’ve done Nixon vs. Kennedy, and then you did the Christmas party. I interviewed Michael [Gladis], and he says the Nixon vs. Kennedy party is the favorite thing he’s ever filmed.
AA: You know it would be up there for me, too. At that point in the season, it was the group of office people, and it was me and Julie McNiven, who plays Hildy. So it was, I don’t know—we learned the polka, and all of a sudden we’re just dancing, and you get excited. I don’t know what it was about that night, but it was a really, really fun night.
DL: And now you did the conga?
AA: I was actually not in the conga line. I managed to get out of that one! But I’m watching the conga line. But yeah, those party scenes—it’s a lot going on. But a lot of times, we don’t all get to be together. Usually it’s just the table reads, so it’s a lot of fun when everyone can be there together. Especially when there’s dancing involved.
DL: Well, Season 3 was the musical season.
AA: Yes it was. And even Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency, it was the same thing. It was just this gargantuan scene and it had that same feeling as Nixon vs. Kennedy. It’s just that fact of everyone being together in a room. It doesn’t happen that much on the show, so when it does, it’s always a lot of fun.
DL: Now, I understand that people were jockeying to get into the lawnmower scene.
AA: Well, you want to be there for that one!
DL: Did you get splashed?
AA: I did not. I came running up and helped Joan hold him down when she was tying off the foot. But watching Rich’s face when he got splashed was pretty hilarious.
DL: So that was another big chaotic day. And how long are you filming a scene like that?
AA: Well the Christmas party scene, which is really like seven or eight scenes, but from the beginning of the night until the last thing you see at the Christmas party I think stretched out over two and a half days. Long days at that.
DL: Michael Uppendahl filmed that episode. And he’s very meticulous, and he gets a lot of coverage.
AA: Yes he does. You don’t get a chance to do that a lot on TV, because it moves pretty quickly, so I felt very blessed because having the episode that I had, I was more than happy to have extra takes. And Jon’s always really good about that too. Throughout that episode, whenever we would wrap on a scene, he would always check with me, he would be like “Are you sure, you don’t want to do it again? You feel good?” So it was a really great, great experience for me.
DL: So everyone talks about how filming a sex scene is really stressful.
DL: What were your fears going in, and how did that compare with how it ended up being?
AA: Well, I’m married. My first thought was, should I say anything to my husband? I decided not to, and I’m really, really glad that I didn’t, because it helped me stay focused on my work. I mean, he would have been lovely, had I told him, but it helped me focus and do what I needed to do. I told him afterwards, and at that point, there wasn’t anything he could do about it. So his answer was like, “Oh. Okay.” But you know, they’re always going to be strange and awkward, those scenes. It’s a very intimate experience and you’re sharing it with some twenty-odd people. But I was really lucky because I’ve known Jon since Season 1, and I worked with him a lot in Season 3, and he was so great that day. Just funny, and relaxed, and we had a lot of fun, and he cracked me up a lot of times. On top of that, it helps that when you look up between takes, that you’re not looking at a stranger holding a boom over your head, but it’s crew that you’ve known for a couple of years. I can’t imagine going in there and not knowing anybody and having to do it for the first time. For me it was a really wonderful experience.
DL: Also, it’s Jon Hamm.
AA: And he’s had plenty of practice on the show.
DL: Yes. Also he’s not bad to look at.
AA: That is true.
DL: Pretending, momentarily, go back in time, because I’m not going to ask you to give anything away, but at the point where you finished filming Episode 2, what did you think would happen next, with Allison and Don?
AA: It’s interesting, because it’s funny how so many people are debating that scene the next morning, especially how strongly women have responded to it, [about] what her expectations were. I think that she knows the place that he’s in emotionally. She knows he’s her boss. So she’s not expecting to be swept off her feet or anything, but I think it’s pretty natural that there’s this kind of excitement when you see that person the next day. Like, “What is he going to say? Is he going to look at me?” and “What’s he going to do?” What she wasn’t expecting was for the whole thing to be ignored. It’s one thing for him to say to her “This shouldn’t have happened,” and it’s a something totally different to say it never did. I think that with the Christmas card, she walks out of that office still trying to digest what happened, and the card is really just a reinforcement of what he implied, which is that it never happened. She gets that and she puts the card away and she goes back to work. And so that’s where it ended for me.
DL: I thought really, when she said ‘Do you want me to close the door?’ that she was saying ‘Do you want me to close the door so we can talk about this? And then obviously we’ll never do it again.’
DL: Because he’s her boss, and he’s an emotional wreck, and it was a mistake.
AA: I mean, too, you never know. Maybe he would say “It was really great, but it can never happen again.” Or, “You’re lovely.” I mean, you just don’t know. There’s some kind of anticipation, and it’s connected to the good feelings from the night before. So there’s some excitement there, but I think realistically, she doesn’t have dreams of marriage or anything like that, even remotely. It’s just, again, this idea of him saying that it didn’t happen and just completely ignoring that it happened is the brutal part of it.
DL: That was brutal. I think everybody felt that. Everybody can relate to that feeling to having been shut out at some moment in their lives.
DL: And it’s devastating.
AA: It is.
DL: I think she showed that with dignity. She’s still Allison. She’s still a good girl who does what she’s told, and she still values her job and her professionalism. One thing I noticed was that your makeup was very different in that last scene.
AA: In what sense?
DL: In the opening scene where you’re reading the letter to Santa, you’re wearing pretty dark lipstick and your eyes are pretty done up. And as far as I can tell in that last scene you’ve got almost no lipstick on at all and you look pretty pale. [Upon review, in the first scene it’s a red-rust lipstick, later it’s a baby pink. Eye makeup is similar, but lighter.]
AA: I think there’s a real innocence that was coming across in that last scene. You’re right, she is tough, and she had to be, and I think you had to be as a woman at that time. But there’s this innocence to her and a sweetness and a kind of quaintness. I think that the plaid and the simplicity of her makeup, it was all tied into that idea. Especially, when you look, Sally was in plaid the whole episode. It kind of had a lot of connections to that.
DL: Janie [Bryant, the costume designer] does some magical things with making visual connections.
AA: She really does. It’s incredible what she does.
DL: She’s one of the most creative people!
AA: [She] is! Wardrobe fittings are always an experience.
DL: I think that was done on purpose with the makeup, to make you look more innocence, more vulnerable. And I think the connection to Sally ties in with the sitting in his lap thing.
AA: And even the cut-away to her in between I think is so well done.
DL: It was rough. The world at 10:40 Eastern time or whenever that happened, you could hear the entire East coast saying “NO!” [both laugh] Every single review or blog post or comment mentioned either shouting “No” at the TV or cringing or both.
AA: Right. Well, he had pretty firm set rules that he doesn’t do that. So to see a character that has these defined set of rules, to see him chip away at them, it’s pretty devastating to watch, because you don’t recognize him. And you say ‘What happened to him? What’s going on? What is he going through that he’s willing to break these codes that were so important to him?
DL: I have one last question. Your friend [who introduced us] says that you’re an amazing cook.
AA: Oh! That’s very nice of him! That’s all from my mom. An amazing cook of Italian food, because if you try to get me to do anything else, it tends to not turn out very well.
DL: I wanted to ask if you had any specialties. Strictly Italian?
AA: Strictly Italian.
DL: Wonderful. I will be coming over with my appetite.
DL: You’ve been very generous with your time, thank you very much.
AA: Thank you so much, it was great to talk to you too.