It was supposed to be just another day at the office — except the office was Sterling Cooper & Partners, and I had stepped into a time machine.
I'd been granted a rare invitation to be an extra on Mad Men. But to look the part, I soon learned, was an elaborate process — with a startling goal: As I made my way through the hair/makeup/costume gauntlet, I lost count of how many times someone told me, "I know I've done my job well if I've made you look like your mother." Even showrunner Matthew Weiner chimed in when he first caught sight of me all done up: "I bet you look like your mother."
My transformation had begun the day before with a trip to Western Costume in San Fernando Valley, home to 8 miles of vintage clothing. Costume designer Janie Bryant's expert staff selected an array of classic, if unstylish, print dresses for me. That's when I first learned I'd be playing a secretary with sensible shoes. My costume fitter had more bad news for me: My look had to be accurate not only from head to toe but also inside out. That meant my first girdle, complete with pee hole, as she ever so helpfully pointed out.
My mod dreams dashed, I did a little digging. Maybe the clothes would offer a hint as to when Season 7 is taking place? I peeked through the racks: Had we at least progressed to the '70s? My only hint: It was spring — no jackets for me.
The next day, I arrived at the downtown L.A. studio and was quickly dispatched to the makeup trailer. Thirty minutes later, I emerged with a bright orange manicure and matching lipstick. My attempts at reporting were rebuffed: "Embrace the poppy," was all the makeup artist would tell me.
Then it was on to the hairstylists' chair. As soon as they spotted my long mess of curls, two stylists shook their heads in unison: "We're going to have to wig her." Wig 1 was a short bob. Wig 2, a bouffant. But finally we settled on a shoulder-length 'do with bangs.
At last, bewigged, bepoppied and unrecognizable, I passed the most important test of all: "Looking good!" said Don Draper himself, Jon Hamm. Hmmm...where could he be going?
When I made it to the set of Sterling Cooper & Partners, the cast couldn't have been more welcoming, though well trained in their wariness toward the press. "Didn't you see the 'closed set' sign?" teased Harry Hamlin.
"How'd you get this assignment?" asked Vincent Kartheiser (Pete Campbell). "Matt Weiner said yes," I told him, "and so I said, 'Where do I sign up?'" "That's what I said, too," he joked.
The first thing you notice on set is the smell. Smoke fills the air and clings to your clothes and to your hair. The cigarettes are only herbal, but the odor is pervasive.
As I geeked out on my office tour (Look, it's Peggy Olson's door! The kitchen! And the bar!), what stood out was the meticulous attention to detail. It's not just the clothes and the makeup, but everything you see, and even things you never will. Open a desk drawer and you'll find '60s-era paper clips. There's a vending machine tucked away in the corner with old-style mints and gum. The file folder I carried in my scene contained typed and dated invoices — including one for Joan Crawford at PepsiCo.
I asked Weiner why he is so obsessed with details. "I've heard other people say it's about the empty suitcases — when actors walk with empty suitcases and you can tell," he explained. "But I also believe that the character is about the hair and the makeup. And so I try to leave as little to the imagination as possible for the actors."
The last stop on my tour was "video village" — the monitor-filled room where the director, writer and crew sit to watch what's being filmed. While they debated about when Pete Campbell became a partner, my attention drifted to a nearby office wall, where I spotted a calendar for [MONTH AND YEAR REDACTED]. Success — at last!
Then it was time for my scene. Or, rather, the actors' scene. It's late in the season, and the partners are having a contentious meeting in the conference room when Jim Cutler (Hamlin) bursts in. Along with the other extras, I was told to walk through the office in the background. The assistant director gave me a file folder, instructing me to cross the floor, hand it to another secretary and then return.
So, walk we did. Back and forth. And back again.
The scene itself was about two minutes long, but it took nearly four hours to shoot, as they filmed from every conceivable angle around the table, with close-ups of every partner. Between takes, I chatted with the other extras and learned most were regulars. After all, they explained, if SC&P were a real office, they'd always be around.
I can't reveal what happened or who said what to whom in the scene. But when you watch it, glance behind one of the partners and you'll see a sensibly dressed woman who looks like her mother delivering a very important folder to Shirley. Trust me, she steals the scene.