‘Good Girls’ Star Christina Hendricks on Being ‘Pioneers’ of Important Conversations

Christina Hendricks - Emmy Studio - Photograph by Peter Yang on April 7, 2018 in Los Angeles, CA
Peter Hapak for Variety

Christina Hendricks is no stranger to zeitgeisty dramatic television. She starred on “Mad Men” as Joan Harris, a role for which she was nominated six times for an Emmy. Now, she’s embodying a character trying to be taken seriously in a more predominantly men’s world again — money-laundering. An Emmy contender again this year for NBC’s “Good Girls,” Hendricks is getting to blend genres a little bit more than usual as Beth, a seemingly cookie-cutter wife and mother who robs a grocery store with friends and finds herself deeply intrigued by this new life of thrills.

“To me, the funniest things are the things that are played seriously. I always find absurdity in circumstances lends itself to humor,” Hendricks says. “The more real you play it, the more real and absurd it is.”

Here, Hendricks talks about  how she works differently on “Good Girls” than on “Mad Men,” the show’s timely themes and genre-bending nature, and advice for up-and-coming actors today.

What did you find most challenging about the first season of “Good Girls”?

It’s the first time that I was there every day, all day for 17 hours a day, and that’s a big change [but] in a good way because I found myself being even more invested and the relationship with the cast and crew, you spend every second of every day with them and it really becomes incredibly collaborative and everybody’s really got each other’s back. The challenge was just sort of the stamina part of it, but it’s also been really rewarding. We’re there all day every day in every scene, there’s less preparation time for every scene. In some ways it was like going to school again — it was about being incredibly, incredibly present and really listening to the other person because after you work 16 hours, 17 hours and you go home and learn your lines for the next day, there was time to sit there and take a million notes. Hopefully you’ve done your prep work on the weekend [because] you’re just going every day. It’s nonstop. It kind of fine-tuned my brain a bit more — just sort of, “Remember how we played this here? This has to play into this” — just the puzzle of it, it sort of kept me sharp.

After working on some serious dramas, including “Mad Men” and “Hap and Leonard” but then switching tonally to the more comedic “Another Period,” were you specifically looking for a project that would allow you to play with both sides of the comedy/drama masks?

I liked the idea that it was making me laugh. I also like that Jenna Bans had a vision and a focus, and I liked that she wanted to do something darker and bring it to network television — there was no way I had seen that show before. And I liked my conversations with NBC, they kept saying, “We’re ready, we get it. We finally understand this is what people are craving and this is what we want, and we like her and we trust her.” And I said, “If you can promise that, then I’m excited.”

How do you balance the tone on set?

It’s a lot of conversation in rehearsal and discussion and stuff to make that work. I think we’ve done it, but we worked really hard at it. We do take every scene and try to make it as real as possible. The scenes where we are actually getting to laugh, “We’re like, ‘Oh my god, this is so great’” because it feels like 90% of the time we’re tense and we’re scared and we’re in trouble — which does take a toll on you, even physically. We were getting massages all of the time because we were like, “Every one of my muscles is tense.” But no, I think we approach everything as trying to be as honest as possible. We will catch ourselves in the middle of a rehearsal and go, “I don’t know, this joke feels a little cutesy and it comes out of nowhere, and would I say this in this moment?” We have to go, “Well, who are these people and how do they deal with stress?” Some of them deal with stress by turning it into humor. We make sure all of those things are being addressed.

Were you surprised by the things “Good Girls” was able to do, being on broadcast?

On “Mad Men” I felt like we were pioneers to a certain extent, and I like to think this show is, too. There was a moment where the cunnilingus scene was taken out of the pilot. I called Jenna and I said it had to be in there. You don’t hate [her cheating husband] enough [without it]. He looks sad and dopey, but you don’t get the anger. I said, “It has to be in there to set the tone of the show we were doing,” and she agreed and put it back in, and I thought there was going to be some [network] push-back, but there wasn’t and I was glad. …I’m really proud of the movement of the show, and I think that makes it an interesting ride for people. I want people to feel like they’re one of us in it — feel the fear but also feel like they’re hanging out with their best friends.

In speaking of the movement of the show, how do you feel the timeliness of it airing at the height of #MeToo affected its reception?

The show existed before this particular movement. Does it resonate with people more right now? Absolutely. It is definitely something people talk about right away when they mention the show. But I think we do it in a way that’s empowering, you can still have a laugh, it’s not preachy, it’s understanding and accepting, and still is having people have the conversations we want people to be having and is in complete support of how people are feeling right now. I guess the answer is it wouldn’t be our show if it wasn’t addressing those things.

When you’re choosing your roles, how important to you is it that the show is tapping into such poignant conversations?

I wasn’t particularly looking for something like that, I’m always just looking for something good. It just so happens I’ve been lucky enough to be on [those] shows. “Mad Men,” too, started those conversations — it wasn’t that those conversations were there and so we jumped in. We started something. And in this case it’s a bit different, it’s sort of right in the middle of something, but this show exists in any climate, I think.

When you look at your career as it stands today, outside of “Good Girls,” what other roles till personally resonate the most with you?

“Mad Men,” of course, playing Joan was so significant and I learned so much about myself through her and about the world, really, through her. And I played her for nine years so I grew up with her. But also, Matt Weiner is such an extraordinary writer. I just did “Romanoffs” with him in Prague, and it may be my favorite thing I’ve ever worked on. And that was exciting because I was playing an actress who was going to replace an actress who had been fired from a project. It was like a movie-within-a-movie-within-a-real-life-situation. And it was really fun because I was flipping back and forth between decades, and it was a really cool, beautiful project with amazing people. That one meant a lot to me. And a project that I did that will hopefully be out soon that Jake Scott directed — “The Burning Woman” with Sienna Miller. We played sisters, and that was really, really special for me.

What advice do you have for those just starting in the business today?

I always just say you have to love acting so much because you have so much rejection. You could be so passionate about something and it doesn’t go, you might go two years and you’re auditioning and auditioning and auditioning and doing pilots that don’t get picked up, and there’s a lot of heartbreak and a lot of scrutiny and a lot of judgement. So unless it’s the only thing you can imagine doing and you love it so much, do something else. I always felt so lucky to get anything that at the time it was the best role. It was like, “I get three lines on ‘Angel’? It is the best! Because it’s a period episode and I get to do an Irish accent.” You can’t go to work every day and be like, “I hate my f—ing show.” You’ve got to turn your mind around. You’ve got to be like, “I wish I got to do more and this and this and this, but how lucky am I to have [this]?”