Interview: Sally Draper is Child's Play for Kiernan Shipka
BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. - One day, Kiernan Shipka has vowed to herself, she will watch the TV show she plays a kid in, and that adults keep talking about.
That would be Mad Men, the four-time Emmy Award-winning drama in which she plays Don Draper's precocious, increasingly difficult 12-year-old daughter, Sally Draper. Mad Men is not the kind of television program kids Shipka's age watch on their own - or would want to, she reasons - but their parents do.
Shipka's parents, non-actors who ceded to their daughter's desire to take up acting when she was just five years old, haven't banned Mad Men, exactly, but it isn't ideal family viewing, either.
"I definitely wasn't allowed to watch it at the beginning, because I was only six, and I feel you have to kind of start the show from the beginning," Shipka said, deep in thought. "So, when the show ends, I'm planning on kind of having my own Mad Men marathon."
On this crisp spring morning, Shipka is relaxed, grounded, and apparently well-adjusted and mature for her age. She has appeared before a group of visiting international journalists at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, a 1928 holdover from Hollywood's golden age and the faux-Tuscan palace where Richard Gere courted Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. The hotel's guests over the years have included Elvis Presley, Warren Beatty, John Lennon, U.S. President Barack Obama and, on this day, the cast of Mad Men and the series' creator and overseer-in-chief, Matthew Weiner.
Shipka is on her own, though, if only for a moment, and she's full of surprises.
This Wednesday, she will appear, as herself, in the upstart, first-year sitcom, Don't Trust the B---- in Apt. 23.
The first surprise: Comedy is her first love, not drama, per se, although Shipka's not about to complain about a recurring role in one of the most talked-about, culturally defining dramas in the current television age. Whatever it might be - drama, satire, parable, allegory - Mad Men isn't a comedy.
For Shipka, kicking back and cutting loose in Don't Trust the B---- in Apt. 23 was a blast, even if playing herself meant she didn't get the funniest lines or most out-there physical bits.
In her own TV-viewing "me time," though, she would rather watch sitcoms than a heavy drama.
"I love well-written comedies, so Modern Family and The Big Bang Theory," Shipka said. "I think both really knock it out of the park. And then I'm also kind of addicted to the Food Network channel. I can watch that show for hours. It's really addictive."
Another surprise: If this acting thing doesn't work out, Shipka says, she would like to work in the sciences one day.
By law, child actors in California are required to keep up with their schooling, even though Shipka says her workdays can range anywhere from six to "nine-and-a-half" hours. "It just kind of depends how heavy your character is in the episode." Shipka is on an independent study program, and of her daily lessons, it's science that appeals to her the most.
Not that it will come to that.
"I hope I am in the position where I can just act forever, because that's really what I love and I can't really imagine myself doing anything else," Shipka reasoned. "At least, not right now."
Another surprise: Jon Hamm is really, really funny. From week to week, Don Draper may seem like a bit of a cad and a sourpuss, but that's why they call it acting.
"They are all funny," Shipka said. "There are so many jokes going around on the set. We always have fun during the scenes, especially in rehearsal time. Jon is really funny, surprisingly, because you think he plays such a dramatic character. But then, when he shows off his funny side, he's hysterical."
Another surprise: Shipka's favourite scenes in Mad Men are the ones that require the toughest chops. Being slapped, for example - hard - by her onscreen mother, Betty Draper, in a now-infamous episode from last season.
"Definitely, definitely: The more drama in the scene is better," Shipka said. "I really love challenges."
Shipka said she was more stoked than anxious while preparing for the slap scene.
"I kind of do what I feel in the moment, as an actor," she explained. "I've never been coached, or told to do something in a really specific way. It didn't hurt. There was a stunt man there. He kind of taught us how to do it, so it didn't feel like anything."
Shipka is well aware, at 12, of the pitfalls that can await child actors as they grow older.
"I haven't gone through anything super-hard, as of now, just because Mad Men has been a really amazing opportunity," she said, soft-spoken, all of a sudden. "I'm really aware that I'm very blessed to be on the show. It's been great, because it's been consistent. I love being on the show."
Kids don't recognize her on the street, and she's fine with that. Parents, though, are a different story.
"I don't think I've ever had a kid that has actually come up to me," Shipka said. "I think I'm definitely recognized by adults, though. Most of them say that they like my work, or they'll ask about Jon Hamm. That's a pretty common question, actually."
If she had to choose between growing up in the 1960s, the era of Mad Men, and growing up today, in the time of The B---- in Apt. 23, Shipka doesn't hesitate.
"I would definitely choose growing up in 2012, now, just because of all the communication and electronics. It's made it a lot easier for me to keep in touch with my friends. I have friends in Michigan and Boston, but I can still chat with them on a day-to-day basis, which I think is really amazing."
Her friends don't know that much about Mad Men, but they may be more appreciative about The B---- in Apt. 23.
"They're not really intrigued at all (by Mad Men), to be honest," Shipka said. "They don't even really care that I'm on the show. It's my hobby, that's all. They have their hobbies, some of them. They swim, they do soccer. Acting is kind of my thing.
"I don't think they're interested, because Mad Men is not a show that they really watch. It's not a show they would watch, anyway, I don't think. They treat me normal. They don't usually ask too many questions about the show."
That's for stupid, old people, like Mad Men viewers - and visiting journalists from out of town.
Shipka's episode of Don't Trust the B---- in Apt. 23 airs Wednesday, April 25 on Citytv and ABC at 9:30 p.m. ET/PT. Mad Men airs Sundays on AMC.
Seasons 1-4 of Mad Men are available on DVD and distributed by Alliance Films.