Nothing underscored the significance of “Mad Men” on the professional and personal lives of its key stars like a simple fact that Jon Hamm noted about Kiernan Shipka on Sunday afternoon when cast and crew members gathered for a farewell gabfest hosted by the Television Academy.
During the Q&A session moderated by Variety’s Debra Birnbaum at Hollywood’s Montalban Theater, Hamm observed that his 15-year-old co-star “has been on ‘Mad Men’ longer than she hasn’t been on ‘Mad Men’ in her life.”
The emotional process of making, and ending, the landmark period drama that airs its finale tonight on AMC was evident in the discussion that also included January Jones, Elisabeth Moss, Christina Hendricks, John Slattery, Vincent Kartheiser and Jessica Pare. Following the cast members, creator Matt Weiner took the stage with nine key production staffers.
The actors couldn’t say enough about the depth of their characters and the relationships they’ve depicted on screen. Hamm said it stems from the larger themes explored in the show: “Who are we? What are we doing? What are we doing in life?”
Jones spoke about the importance of the scene she shared with Shipka in the penultimate episode, when the mother-daughter characters express their love, in their own odd way. “The words were so beautiful,” Jones said. “It was a therapeutic way of ending the show for us as people” as the characters went to a place “we’ve never seen Betty and Sally before.”
Shipka added that it was “a great moment” and gratifying to be able to show that deep down “Betty and Sally love each other.” She cited Jones and Hamm as guiding forces for her on the set. There’s a clearly a father-daughter-esque affection between Shipka and Hamm. “Jon was always such an incredible person to work with,” she said.
The actors each chose favorite clips to play for the session. Elisabeth Moss’ came from “The Other Woman,” the milestone moment when Peggy Olson gives notice to her mentor, Don Draper. She admitted it was hard for her to get through the scene without crying — in part because she really wasn’t sure what her role would be in the series going forward. The director wound up telling her to “dial it back a bit,” Moss admitted.
Slattery has directed five episodes over the seven season run, and he credited that with giving him greater perspective everything that it took to craft the series’ 92 hours.
“It’s an incredibly well-executived production,” he said. “To be able to see the process from the other side — the rewriting, the designing, the producing side. It’s an incredible experience.” Slattery’s clip came from the recent episode in which he and Moss’ Peggy wax nostalgic in the empty Sterling Cooper offices. “That was a good encapsulation of the way both of us have felt about this ride that we’ve had,” he said.
Kartheiser was humble about his clip choice, from season one’s “The Hobo Code” in which he watches Peggy twisting the night away on a dance floor. “I searched long and hard for a scene in which I didn’t overact,” he said. Jessica Pare picked her famous rendition of “Zou Bisou Bisou” — and acknowledged how hard it was for her to pull off at a time when she was still a newcomer to the cast. “It was a little shocking,” she said of learning she would have to do that scene.
The actors agreed that the period nature of the show lent gravitas to the characters because it allowed them to reflect on societal issues then and now. The trials and tribulations of Christina Hendricks’ Joan are a primer on the evolution of the women in the workplace during the past 50 years. “We’ve watched Joan’s journey and this particular struggle with sexism,” Hendricks said. “Here were are at the very end (of the series) dealing with the exact same bulls—.”
Hamm spoke with authority and echoed Weiner’s statements that there will be no sequel, prequel or “Mad Men” spinoff. But he did indulge in a little fantasy about the most ripe character for a spinoff series.
“It would be Sally,” he said. “I want to watch Sally grow up move thru the ’70s, turn into a rock star. Joan Jett or something. She’ll ride a motorcycle, kill a guy, make a bunch of a money, become Oliver Stone in the ’80s, date Kurt Cobain in the ’90s because she’s so cool. She’s just a touchstone for every generation.”
He paused a beat and added: “I’d watch that show.”
During the following Q&A, Weiner paid tribute to some of the unsung heroes of “Mad Men” in a panel that featured production designer Dan Bishop, director and d.p. Christopher Manley, costume designer Janie Bryant, property master Ellen Freund, set decorator Claudette Didul, makeup department head Lana Horochowski, hair department head Theraesa Rivers and casting directors Laura Schiff and Carrie Audino.
The group shared stories of making magic on a tight budget, particularly in the early seasons. Freund spoke of lengthy searches for just the right period props, while much research went into every bit of makeup, hairstyling and of course costuming to ensure period accuracy. Bryant remembered filming the Charleston scene in the episode “My Old Kentucky Home” and having to scramble because the period dresses on all of the actors were falling apart when they danced.
“You have to put something there. It might as well be right,” Weiner said in explaining his exacting attention to recreating the 1960s era. His philosophy was, “Let’s take away every reason for the audience to be pulled out of the story.”
Weiner also made a point of thanking his longtime right-hand producer, exec producer Scott Hornbacher, who was not on the panel. “He introduced me to every single one of these people,” he said.
As Birnbaum wrapped up the hourlong second session, she asked Weiner a simple but not so simple question about how he feels about the show being hours away from airing its last installment.
“It feels like Thanksgiving,” Weiner said. “It feels like we’re getting dressed up, we’re going to have a drink around 3, open the door, let the relatives in and not forget what the day is about. It’s about being grateful for having this incredible experience.”