Poor little Sally Draper. Her mother is cold and critical, her womanizing father’s moving out of the family home and her beloved grandfather, the only adult who seemed to truly care about her, has just died unexpectedly.
Should it come as any surprise, then, that the adorable tween could go off the deep end in the new season of AMC’s “Mad Men,” which premieres Sunday?
“There will be some shocking moments with Sally,” said 10-year-old Kiernan Shipka, who originated the character and nurtured her along to full-time cast status this season. “Lots of drama.”
Like everyone connected to the Emmy-winning series, Shipka has been sworn to secrecy about what’s coming in Season 4. But the articulate actress, who’s already drawn comparisons to a young Drew Barrymore, is happy to offer a wise-beyond-her-years, somewhat existential peek into a character that’s become a fan favorite.
Shipka has won critical acclaim with her portrayal of Sally Draper, daughter of suave ad man Don ( Jon Hamm) and former model Betty ( January Jones), and the lisping little girl who just wants to be loved but more often gets ignored. Her time with dementia-hobbled Grandpa Gene was a too-brief respite from her loneliness. (He let her drive his monstrous car and eat chocolate ice cream before dinner, but more important, he told her she was smart).
Now that Grandpa’s gone and she’s faced with a new family dynamic in Season 4, the still-grieving Sally may be ready to top the cigarette smoking and Scotch swilling that fans have already seen from her.
“I don’t think she knows who to trust anymore,” Shipka said, “and she can’t express her feelings, so that’s why she acts out.”
Shipka, a Chicago native who has 36 “Mad Men” episodes and other TV and film roles under her belt, said she’s worked to fully inhabit Sally Draper’s world-weary skin. She gets a major assist from vintage-look hair, makeup and clothes that she says “transform” her into a kid of the ‘60s.
“When I go on set, I am her,” Shipka said from the sunny living room of her Hancock Park home on a recent afternoon. “I try to think thoughts that Sally would think. It helps with my expressions.”
Breaking down “Mad Men’s” soap operatic and racy adult themes, Shipka says simply that the show “follows the office and family life of Don Draper.” She worries only about the family part, which stands to reason since she’s not allowed to watch the show. Her mother screens the episodes first and lets her see just the age-appropriate scenes (and always her own).
Shipka said she loved last season’s rare trip away from the Draper home to ad agency Sterling Cooper, where Sally shared the spotlight with costars such as Vincent Kartheiser (as Pete Campbell) and Robert Morse (Bert Cooper) and sipped her first (fake) cocktail. Her favorite scene in the series so far remains the one where she and Grandpa Gene (Ryan Cutrona) shared ice cream at the kitchen table and he told her he believed in her.
Series creator Matt Weiner said Shipka pulls a considerable amount of weight around on her tiny frame and called her “collaborative” and “professional.”
“When I saw that Kiernan was an actor and not just a cute kid, I realized I could give her as much material as I wanted,” Weiner said by e-mail. “The truth is, I’ve given her more material because I feel the character has gotten more interesting as her parents’ lives change.”
The Draper clan was in upheaval at the end of last season, with Don and Betty heading in opposite directions. She was flying off to Reno for a quickie divorce, and he was fleeing the ‘burbs for a bachelor pad in New York. His new ad agency, formed with fellow defectors from Sterling Cooper, was just getting off the ground. With parents that distracted, who could blame Sally for picking a fight at school? Shipka said Season 4 could be an even more fertile environment for Sally to unleash her “adventurous” side.
“She’s a free spirit,” Shipka said. “I think she’s fascinating and brave.”
Fans may mourn this fact, but Shipka’s lost her distinctive Cindy Brady-ish lisp. (She’s also had a growth spurt, shooting up several inches since last season). No one told her to get rid of the lisp, she said, but it started fading naturally so she worked with a coach to smooth out her speech. “There’s nothing wrong with a lisp,” Shipka said, “but it’s gone now.”
While she’s promoting “Mad Men,” Shipka also has a starring role in a family film, “Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore,” opening next week. She’s studying ballet, a hobby she shares with Sally Draper, and looking for her next dog rescue project. (She rehabbed Buddy, her 130-pound German shepherd, from a stick-thin abused stray).
A budding fashionista and growing object of fascination in the adult media, she posed for a photo shoot recently in Interview magazine wearing high heels that were too big but Burberry and Valentino frocks that fit just right. “I didn’t get to keep any of them,” she said, clearly disappointed. “They were so stylish and beautiful.”
When she’s not dreaming of Chanel and Papo d’Anjo outfits, Shipka’s hanging out with her friends and making mini-movies on her Flip camera like any 10-year-old. She said she rarely gets recognized as Sally Draper, but there’s an occasional exception.
“Sometimes people will say, ‘You have such a mean mom!’ ” Shipka said. “They feel so bad for me. But they don’t mean my real mom. We just laugh about it.”