Interview Date: 01/07/2011
Run Date: 02/04/2011
Kiernan Shipka is best known for her work as Sally Draper on “Mad Men,” a character who we’ve seen grow from a veritable non-entity on the show into a young girl who’s just as complicated as any of the adults. It’s impressive for any actress to be able to hold her own amongst the likes of Jon Hamm, January Jones, Elisabeth Moss, Christina Hendricks, and John Slattery, but the fact that Shipka is able to do so at the ripe old age of 11 is downright astounding. It’s no wonder, then, she’s branching out beyond AMC and is doing a bit of work for the Hallmark Channel, starring alongside Kellie Martin and Simon Kassianides in “Smooch,” a new movie premiering on February 5 in order to help put you in a romantic mood for Valentine’s Day. I had a chance to chat with Shipka during the 2011 Winter TCA Press Tour, but looking back at the transcription of our conversation, I feel more than a little guilty that we didn’t talk more about “Smooch” (as you’ll see, my questions were pretty heavy on “Mad Men” material), but I can assure you that the movie is extremely cute, definitely family-friendly, and serves to show a far cheerier side of this talented young actress than we usually get to see when she’s playing Sally Draper.
Bullz-Eye: So it probably goes without saying that I’m a huge “Mad Men” fan, but you’re particularly fantastic on the show.
Kiernan Shipka: Oh, thank you!
BE: So how did you originally start acting?
KS: I was just always drawn to the arts. I love acting, and I love dancing and singing, too. I also really enjoy painting. I’m just very artistic, I love the arts, and…I really wanted to do it. It was always a passion of mine.
BE: Which of the arts came first for you? My daughter’s five, and she’s taking both piano and ballet, so I’m just trying to get an idea if I should expect her to follow the same path.
KS: (Laughs) It kind of came when…we had a big monitor in Chicago, and I started typing these little scripts up and printing them. I had my grandparents and my parents perform them. And then I started writing in little characters for myself. That’s kind of where it all started. Dance and singing I was always into, and then I just kind of discovered acting and…everything was really fun.
BE: So how did “Mad Men” come about? Was it just a standard audition situation, or had you been on someone’s radar?
KS: Standard audition. Very standard. Audition, then callback.
BE: I know you said today in the panel that you’re not actually allowed to watch “Mad Men”… (Laughs) …but what kind of TV do you watch?
KS: I tend to watch the Food Network a lot. I think that’s fun. And then I like “Modern Family” and “The Big Bang Theory.”
BE: So when it comes to playing the part of Sally, how much interactivity does Matthew Weiner allow you?
KS: Well, it’s amazing to work with him. It’s such an honor.
BE: I know he’s pretty rigid when it comes to his scripts, but…given that you’re the one who’s actually a kid, do you actually get a chance to be a kid?
KS: Oh, definitely. I do a lot of other activities and hang out with friends. I’m very normal.
(Writer’s note: She didn’t quite get what I was asking, but as you’ll see, I tried again a bit later, tweaking the question a bit for clarification.)
BE: So what’s it like working with Jon Hamm and January Jones as your parents?
KS: It’s really fun. I think…they are so different in real life. And they’re both really nice. It’s great to work with them.
BE: Fortunately, with “Smooch,” you get a slightly less dysfunctional romance to work with. So how did this project come about?
KS: It was another very standard audition. (Laughs) And then I did the callback with Simon Kassianides, and it just…we did the scene together and then it was, like, “Oh, my gosh, this is going to be great! This is going to be fun!” It kind of all came together then.
BE: Is it a pleasant change to get to wear modern day clothes in a performance?
KS: Yes! But I do enjoy the “Mad Men” clothes a lot.
BE: Well, they are pretty cool.
KS: They’re very great, yeah.
BE: Do you get to take any of that home?
KS: I don’t.
BE: I didn’t figure so. I know some of it is actually from the original era.
KS: Uh-huh, definitely. They rent a lot of the clothing.
BE: So when it comes to your performance, Sally is a very intricate character. Do you just get tips as far as how to they want you to perform certain lines in the script?
KS: I don’t really get tips or any coaching. I just try to be very method and get into Sally.
BE: Is that challenging for you?
KS: Well, I’ve known Sally for so long, I’ve almost become her in a way. It’s pretty easy to get into Sally.
BE: She’s certainly evolved, over the last season in particular.
KS: Certainly. Yes.
BE: Is that aspect challenging? Because…I wouldn’t say it’s happened suddenly, because it’s definitely been a gradual process, but it seemed to be particularly dramatic this season.
KS: Oh, definitely. I mean, she just watched her family unit as she knew it just kind of tear apart. It’s really a tough time for her.
BE: So what’s been your favorite episode thus far?
KS: Well, I really loved episode nine, “Beautiful Girls.” That was very fun to film in the office. That was really fun. And then the first time I got to film in the office was Season 2, Episode 4, and that was my first experience in the office. It was a different one, when it was just Sterling Cooper. But it was fun working with all of these new people. That was really exciting. All of the episodes are great.
BE: Do you enjoy the chance to get to fly off the handle as Sally?
KS: Definitely. I think any acting is just fun. Acting is an adventure for me.
BE: Did they ever tell you to tone it down?
KS: (Laughs) Um, no. I think Matthew is really specific with the direction, but I hope I perform it well. I think I do.
BE: So what’s your life like outside of the set?
KS: Very normal.
BE: Do you go to school off set?
KS: I do an independent study program with a tutor. But, I mean, I dance, I sing, I hang out with friends…
BE: So standard kid stuff, then.
KS: (Laughs) Very standard, yeah.
BE: So what are your plans for the future? I mean, you still have a little bit of time to plan for them, but are you thinking in terms of college, a further career in acting? Or do you have other aspirations?
KS: Well, I would love to keep acting. Kellie Martin, because she went to Yale and she spoke so highly of it, I want to go there. It would be so great.
BE: Do you plan to keep acting as your predominant career?
KS: I do. I do plan to keep acting. I think when I get a little older, I would like to be behind the camera, too, and direct and produce.
BE: Lastly, “Mad Men” is your biggest success at present, but is there anything that you have worked on…a small part, perhaps…that you wish people would go back and look at? I mean, obviously, it would have been a significantly smaller part, but...
KS: I did a movie, “Carriers,” when I first came out here, with Emily VanCamp, Christopher Meloni, Chris Pine, and Piper Perabo. So it was a really great cast, and it was a really fun movie to work on. I was in the first part of it. I was about six, and it was fun. It was really good.
BE: Was it challenging remembering lines back then? Or do you even remember?
KS: If I know the storyline and I know what’s going on with my character, it’s easier for me to memorize the lines.
BE: Excellent. Well, I enjoyed “Smooch,” and I’m looking forward to the new season of “Mad Men” whenever it gets here.KS: Thank you!