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Interview

Christina Hendricks on Wonder Woman, Mad Men spin-offs and Victorian corsets: ‘People always think I’m going to be much more of a lady than I am’

The beloved star of ‘Mad Men’ and ‘Good Girls’ is swapping Sixties girdles for Victorian hosiery in Apple TV+'s charming Edith Wharton adaptation. On break from filming her new Irish comedy with Chris O’Dowd, the actor speaks to Annabel Nugent about feminism, staying true to her goth roots, and whether Joan could get her very own spin-off

Friday 15 December 2023 06:30 GMT
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‘The goth girl lives on – she just changed her lipstick’
‘The goth girl lives on – she just changed her lipstick’ (Getty Images for IMDb)

By now, Christina Hendricks is comfortable being uncomfortable. For the better part of eight years, the actor contorted herself into waist-nipping dresses and stiffly boned undergarments to play Joan Holloway, the smokeshow secretary of Mad Men who’d flick away admirers with the swish of a wrist. And years on from the HBO show’s 2015 finale, Hendricks remains an enduring emblem of girdled glamour and Sixties sass. The Victorian corsets worn by her latest character, then, were no sweat.  

“Honestly, I could wear a corset every day of my life,” the 48-year-old laughs over a video call she joined as “Christina’s iPhone”. She’s in frosty Ireland on location for Chris O’Dowd’s comedy-drama Small Town, Big Story, and swaddled in a soft knitted sweater with a bird embroidered on the chest. Her copper red hair, as much a part of her Mad Men image as her silver tongue and signature sashay, is piled into a bun (not a beehive, mind you). A couple of ringlets have come loose. “People always think I’m going to be much more proper… more of a lady,” she says. “And then they realise that I’m goofy and a bit of a nerd. I mean, I can be a lady but that’s not really who I am.”

Exclusive Interview: Christina Hendricks And Gilles Paquet-Brenner Talk Dark Places [HD]

The subject of ladies is at the forefront of Hendricks’ latest project The Buccaneers on Apple TV+. Based on an unfinished Edith Wharton novel, the series follows a group of young American women who arrive in Britain circa 1870 in search of aristocratic husbands. The Brits are less than welcoming of their nouveau riche guests, who flounder in the land of stiff upper lips and dead-eyed decorum.  

Hendricks is a bit of both, she says – her mum is American and her dad is from Birmingham. (London remains “a second home” for her and her fiancé, the cinematographer George Bianchini.) “I like rules,” she says with cheerful bluntness. “There are social rules that I agree with and abide by. And then there’s a part of me that’s a little bit punk and is like, f*** it; I want to stir things up a little bit and make people a little uncomfortable. I guess it depends on my mood.”

Luckily, I’ve caught Hendricks in a good one. In conversation, her voice is melodic, bringing to mind the sort of breezy tune piped out of an antique music box with a ballerina in its centre. She is quick to enthusiasm, lighting up as she tells me how The Buccaneers allowed her to fulfil her life-long dream of riding in a horse-drawn carriage.  

Like those young Americans finding their feet on British soil in The Buccaneers, Hendricks knows what it is to be an outsider. For the last few years of high school, her family moved from Twin Peaks, Idaho, to Fairfax, Virginia. “I was one of those kids who moved around a lot because my father was in forestry,” she says. “And every time we went to a new school, it was a case of fake it till you make it. You try to observe people and fit in. You don’t want to seem too different – because kids can be cruel.” And they were. Despite her best efforts to blend in, she was bullied relentlessly. Suddenly, being different didn’t seem so scary. What did she have to lose?

Hendricks retreated to the chicly sullen life of a drama geek goth. Online, there is a photo of her as a teenager: a shock of black hair against her frosty pale skin, as she smiles up at the camera coyly from beneath a heavy leather jacket. (Hendricks says she’d dye her hair back to black now if the upkeep wasn’t so maddening.) “The goth girl lives on – she just changed her lipstick,” she jokes. “Anytime I see a goth on the street, I’m like, ‘I see you!’ and they look at me like, ‘Err… hello, nice lady,’ and I’m like, ‘No! I’m one of you. We are one.’” 

It’s not the first time Hendricks has found herself at odds with how others perceive her. When she first started acting, after a brief but lucrative career as a model, Hendricks was surprised to be cast in roles so far from how she saw herself. “I didn’t necessarily understand how I came across to other people or the impression I left on them,” she says. “So, when I would get something like a cheerleader, something that felt so foreign to me and so against my own experience, I would go, wow, why would they look at me and think that?” That discrepancy, she says, was “confusing” to her. No one, it seemed, besides herself, saw Hendricks as an outsider. “I’ve learnt to get over that, though,” she says. “I’m more well-rounded now but it did take me a while to realise I could be anyone: there are many mes inside me.”

Buck up: Hendricks as Mrs St George in Apple TV’s ‘The Buccaneers’ (Angus Pigott)

Hendricks has a superlative appearance – literally. She was voted “best-looking woman in America” at one point, and was anointed “sexiest woman in the world” by a poll of women readers for Esquire magazine in 2010, the pinnacle of Mad Men mania. Interviews from that time went out of their way to comment on her “throwback curves”, often using terms that today sound gratingly anachronistic. “I don’t know if I ever won a prize,” Hendricks laughs, when I ask how she reflects on being the recipient of such quote-unquote prizes. “But those magazines are going to exist year after year and that’s what they do – so long as they’re nice, it’s very flattering.” Later, she adds, “I think anytime someone comes and labels you as something, you have to say, ‘Is this from an organisation that I feel proud of?’ and that is something I stand by. It’s on a situation-to-situation basis.”  

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Many actors cringe away from the extracurriculars of the job; Hendricks is not one of them. “There are so many facets to being recognised in the industry, like fashion and skincare, and it can be really fun to play in all those different fields,” she says. “I don’t look down at those things or think they’re un-feminist because however anyone wants to take care of themselves is their own version of feminism. Some of those things help me feel strong and powerful.”

Swinging Sixties: Hendricks as Joan Holloway in HBO’s ‘Mad Men’ (Moviestore/Shutterstock)

Speaking of strength and power, I ask whether there was any truth in those rumours years ago that she was going to play Wonder Woman in a DC movie. Hendricks cackles in response, briefly covering her eyes. “Oh God. My friend Nicolas [Winding Refn, who directed Hendricks in Drive and The Neon Demon] started that whole thing,” she demurs. “I don’t think there was ever any studio talking about it, but it was a fun rumour and what a compliment. Now they’ve made that gorgeous film [starring Gal Gadot as the superhero], I don’t need to do it. Anyway, I think I might have aged out of the Wonder Woman category.” She exhales an easy laugh that makes clear she doesn’t mind one bit.  

Hendricks’s career is long and varied, studded with several highlights, not least the much-adored crime-comedy caper Good Girls, which came to an untimely end in 2021 after four successful seasons. But Mad Men was Hendricks’s moon shot; a part that earned her no less than six Emmy Award nominations. The show’s cultural impact was monumental – and so too was Joan’s. The character struck an enviable balance of wit and poise, with a preternatural understanding of people’s natures. She was, for better or worse, heralded as the perfect woman. As to the possibility of a Joan-focused spin-off, Hendricks levels with me: “Listen, that will never happen,” she says, straight-faced. “But if it was brought to me, I would probably jump on it in a heartbeat.”

Is she ever worried that the show’s legacy will eclipse everything she ever does? “It might,” she says, offering a light shrug of her shoulders. “It might be better than anything else I do, but it’s a pretty high bar and I think people still watch it, so if that’s the best thing I ever do, I’m pretty lucky.” With a faint curl of her lip, she adds, “But I’ve still got time left to do some cool stuff. So, we’ll see.”

‘The Buccaneers’ is available to watch now on Apple TV+

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