Getting to know ‘Mad Men’s’ Dawn, the office’s first black employee


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The fifth season of ‘Mad Men’ brought the dawn of a new day. And one result was the introduction of the latest female in Don Draper’s life: Dawn Chambers, his new secretary and Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce’s first African American employee.

When viewers rejoined the 1960s-set drama after a 17-month hiatus, they were briefed on the racial tensions that spawned riots and protests during the period the series is set in. After jokingly advertising itself as an equal opportunity employer in an attempt to poke fun at one of their competitor’s woes, SCDP ended up hiring its first African American employee, played by Teyonah Parris.


We spoke to Parris about joining the show, her relationship with Peggy and just how stingy Matt Weiner can be with details about the show.

How did you find yourself on ‘Mad Men’? Were they as cryptic about what the role would be as they are with their previews of upcoming episodes?

I auditioned like everybody else. My first audition was with the casting directors and then after that, I got a call back and in that call back, Jon Hamm, who was directing that episode, and Matt Weiner were there. I was not expecting to walk into that.

But as far as knowing what the character would be, the breakdown said: ‘co-star, African-American.’ They don’t let on to anything. I had no clue. I also didn’t audition with the material we see in the episodes. They made up a completely different scene for the character.

Do you recall what they had you do?

It was a scene with Dawn and her cousin, she met up with him at a diner. And she was talking about her new job at the agency and just how it’s different and hard and even when she sees black people in Midtown, how they kind of can’t even acknowledge one another without feeling awkward about it because they feel like just by talking to one another, white people will feel threatened. It was a pretty amazing scene, actually.


So once you landed the gig, does Matt sort of brief you on what the character would be and symbolize?

Oh, he doesn’t. He doesn’t. I got the script and I saw what I was doing and I had to ask a few questions, like, how long have I been here? You know, I didn’t even know how I got there. So when I watched the first episode of the season, I was watching with everybody else and I was like, ‘Oh, this is how Dawn gets into the office.’ I had no clue. I find things out with everyone too.

A lot of people were concerned that Dawn was simply window dressing, like, ‘look, the token black character that will signal the changing times.’ And we sort of got to know a little bit more about her in last week’s episode, but it was mostly through the eyes of Peggy. What are your thoughts on that?

Um, I think Peggy is the perfect person for us to learn about Dawn. She’s the woman on the show who is more open-minded, feminist -- she doesn’t even know she’s a feminist, but that kind of air about herself. I thought it was pretty cool to see her mind-set and her beliefs and these things that she stands for sort of tested and see how that plays out for Peggy -- because, you know, we hear her talk about how her boyfriend is covering the riots in Chicago and all kinds of things. And then we have this heart-to-heart and at the end there’s the purse thing. The subconscious judgments that her character harbors and probably didn’t even realize it. I realize a lot of responsibility comes with this role. It’s the first time the show has had an African American in the office, but I try not to let it overwhelm me.

Will she view Peggy as a confidant in upcoming episodes or is she a bit wary to become too close to the people she works with?

I can only talk about the two episodes that have happened. The last episode, she just sort of leaves a note. I think Dawn understands that as much as it hurts because she thought she may have found a friend at work, she also understands that this woman will never understand.


And how much research did you find yourself doing for the part?

I did do some research, moreso about music because I’m pretty familiar with this time period. I actually have been wanting to do something in this time period for a long time because it was such an important time. A lot of my research was more on catching up with the series. I had watched a few episodes here and there but I hadn’t seen all four seasons.

In doing your research, you obviously became familiar with his past secretaries. Did that make you nervous or excited? Some had different fates.

I didn’t get nervous at all. I think it’s hilarious. I’m excited like everyone else to just see what happens.

Did one stick out that you were fond of? Megan got the ring on her finger, but I think Mrs. Blankenship (Randee Heller) stole Don’s heart.

Ida is funny. I’m going to go with Ida. She didn’t really care. I just loved what Randee Heller did with her. I just love the way they developed her in this world. It was a stark contrast to the young, beautiful women walking around.


Were you hoping for more interaction with Don in the first episodes you were in?

Coming into this, I didn’t have any expectation of what it would be because they don’t let on to anything. I didn’t come in expecting to change everything over night. I was OK with whatever they were giving me because I really had no clue. I wasn’t expecting much because they weren’t giving me much.

But it was awesome to watch him be in the episode and direct it too. He would give his performance and then check the monitor and come back. Just watch him navigating and all the hats he was wearing, it was fun to see. And it was sort of like, ‘Oh my god,’ the big guy on the show is ushering me in. You don’t see it on camera, but I felt like it happened off-camera as far as him welcoming me into this world. That experience happened with the real us, more than maybe it did between Don and Dawn.

Did Jon try to get you to buy a Mercedes while on set, considering the other hat he wears is doing voice-overs for their commercials?

No, he didn’t. I wish.


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-- Yvonne Villarreal