How Jessica Stein is happy to be Don Draper's wife

Jennifer Westfeldt was the star in her home till her actor husband struck gold in Mad Men. The first-time director talks to Kaleem Aftab

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Fame can be a funny thing. When Jennifer Westfeldt burst on to the international scene, writing and starring in Kissing Jessica Stein in 2001, no one really took notice that her boyfriend had a small part in the film as well. Even in 2006, when she wrote and starred in the less successful Ira & Abby, interviews with the comedienne often didn't mention her jobbing acting beau. She was definitely the star of the partnership. Then came Mad Men.

Chatting about her directorial debut, Friends With Kids, which will have its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, it's impossible to avoid mentioning that it stars her partner since 1997, Jon Hamm. This is especially so, given that his success playing ad-man Don Draper has seen him promoted to the leading-man role in her latest film and he also serves as co-producer.

It is often difficult in relationship when one partner is suddenly and unexpected superseded by another in their work life, but, as with most things, Westfeldt just sees the positives.

"It's not changed a lot in our family," she says. "It changes a lot just in our time in the outside world. It's strange to get photographed walking a dog in the neighbourhood. Losing your privacy in that way is a bit strange, so we treasure our time at home. But we have been together so long that his long overdue fame – in my opinion – works better at this age. We've seen the ups and downs in both of our careers. We are aware that everything is fleeting, whereas our relationship isn't. So you can appreciate the moments of success with more perspective."

In Friends With Kids Jennifer stars as Julie, a New Yorker who is often out with her best friend Jason, played by Adam Scott. Their best friends are two married couples Leslie and Alex (Maya Rudolph and Chris O'Dowd) and Ben and Missy (Jon Hamm and Kristen Wiig) and when they both have kids it leaves the friends feeling left out. So they decide to have a baby together, without being together, having the child half the time and pursuing other romances when not on parent duty.

The fact that Westfeldt and Hamm do not have kids together makes it easy to put an autobiographical context to the story. The 41-year-old first-time director explains that, like with the previous two scripts she has written (she played on her Jewish upbringing in Kissing Jessica Stein and the infatuation with therapists and divorce in Ira & Abby can be related to her mother and stepfather both being therapists), there is an element of her own life without it being her own life.

"I think the idea came just watching and observing all our closest friends have kids and become parents over the last few years and feeling a little bit out of sync with our peer group," she explains, "watching the changes in them as they faced the challenges and strains of becoming parents." I ask her if any of her friends will be able to watch the film and see themselves being depicted on screen.

"It's possible," admits Stein. "I mean there is no character that is directly linked to our friends, but I think at least the way I write, every character is an amalgamation of things I've seen, a quality here and a quality there, or aspects of different experiences, you make a character out of it." It was hard work wearing so many hats.

"I don't know how you do this without it taking over your life and world. I don't think I've slept through the night in at least a year and I'm certain I won't for quite some time. I've done this process three times and I realise that I must be crazy every time I take it on because it takes up many years of your life. It takes four or five years from coming up with the idea to when you are done with distributing the film and talking to press. It's like having a child, and you really hope that they like my child and treat it nicely."

The Connecticut-born star sees being a female director as one of the few ways to guarantee decent roles for women in Hollywood.

"There are not that many female film-makers, there are not that many actresses writing for themselves. Luckily we have seen some real strides in the past few years, with Tina Fey's success, Nicole Holofcener, Julie Delpy, and now Kristen [Wiig]'s success with Bridesmaids. There are a few and you can kind of count them on the one hand. It's kind of exciting as a woman to not wait by the phone and to not only get the role of the girlfriend... the 39th time you play that thankless part. There are very few complicated roles out there for women."

The link between Bridesmaids and Friends With Kids is apparent in the casting. Hamm played Wiig's jerk boyfriend in the summer hit, while Maya Rudolph and Chris O'Dowd both had significant parts. Hamm jokes that he spent half his time on the Bridesmaids set tapping up the cast. Westfeldt believes that the success of Bridesmaids may be a game-changer for women in American film.

"It's a big deal to have a female-driven comedy open big. That's very exciting and unusual. I do think [the attitude to women in Hollywood] is changing, but slowly. I think if you want to do interesting roles and you are not one of three women in Hollywood – and even they don't always get interesting roles – then you need to role up your sleeves and get involved in all aspects of production."

Westfeldt still sees herself as an actress first and foremost. Her career started on the stage before she moved to Los Angeles and won a leading role on the series Two Guys, a Girl, and a Pizza Place, and attended a writers' boot camp where she met her Jessica Stein co-writer, Heather Juergensen. She has also appeared as a guest star in the eighth season of 24.

But, confirming how tough it is for actresses to get good roles in movies, her big successes away from her own scripted films have come on stage. She made her Broadway debut in the musical Wonderful Town and most recently performed Chekhov's Three Sisters alongside Hamm and in LA.

Working together is clearly one way of ensuring that she and her partner get to spend time together, especially when work commitments take them to different places. "A lot depends on what I'm working on," says Westfeldt. "The last time he was shooting Mad Men I was doing a play in New York so we were commuting. We live in LA and have a small rental in New York. It depends on our jobs how our day-to-day lives are."

As for directing her partner, she says: "He doesn't require much direction. He's a pretty good actor. He is not like Don Draper at all... I don't think audiences have seen him in this role in particular, this sort of contemporary role... this is a little more real, it's comedic and dramatic at the same time and it's contemporary. I'm excited for audiences to see him do this part." It's also time for Westfeldt to remind the world that there are two big talents living under the one roof.

'Friends With Kids' premieres at Toronto Film Festival, 8-18 September