Diversity has come to Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce! After five lily-white seasons, the fictional advertising agency has stepped into the 20th century with the addition of actress Teyonah Parris on the hit AMC drama, “Mad Men.” Parris plays secretary Dawn Chambers, a reserved young woman from Harlem, who will have to navigate her ways through shady office politics.
Parris almost missed the boat joining “Mad Men” revealing, “I already had a trip booked to go overseas.” But luckily, the ebony beauty was able make her audition and is now carving a place for herself on the award winning period drama.
The Urban Daily caught up with Parris and got the scoop on her first day on set, what’s it’s like working with TV’s sexiest bad boy Jon Hamm, and her views on the show’s handling of race.
Were you a fan of “Mad Men” before landing a role on the show?
I had watched a few shows here and there but once I got the gig, watching all the past episodes was a huge part of my prep. Not only did I need to get into the 60’s, but also the office environment of SCDP. I listened to a lot of music. I’m actually a huge fan of the 60’s–I like period pieces.
What was the first day like on set?
Well something you need to know about me, I’m a bit of a klutz. Every time I get on set, something always happens to me. So, my first day on the “Mad Men” set and everyone was very welcoming. Jon Hamm was actually directing this episode. The orange chair that my character Dawn sits on has three legs. So they direct me to the desk, and when I go to sit down the chair just flies out underneath me. Everyone was like “Oh that happens to everyone. Don’t worry about it.” I’m thinking, yeah sure!
What’s it like working with Jon Hamm?
It’s a very interesting dynamic because not only does Jon play my boss on the show, but he was also directing me. It was very interesting to watch him act as Don Draper and then go behind the camera. Even though he was wearing different hats, he was very easy with me, telling to relax. He’s cool people.
Let’s discuss the “Tea Leaves” episode. Peggy found out your character’s been sleeping at the office, and offered to let Dawn spend the night at her apartment. There’s a tense moment when Peggy is afraid to leave her purse out around you. “Mad Men” has always dealt with racism in a very nuanced way. How do you feel the writers have handled the topic?
I do know there were African-Americans in the advertising game around this time, but this isn’t their story. As I watched past episodes, I realized they’re trying to stay true to the story they’re trying to tell. The things they do are so subtle, that they ring so loudly. I feel that the show has been doing a great job. There are things that I, Teyonah the actress think “This is a great show, but there are no black people in it.” That is still frustrating, but this isn’t our story. They’re bringing us in which is realistic. That would be like being mad at an August Wilson play and saying, “Why aren’t there any White people?” There’s a plethora of TV shows without us in them.
So can we expect Dawn to hook up with any Sterling Cooper employees? Who do you think she might have her eye on?
I don’t think he would be in that office. Let’s just say if she could pick her potential future husband, I don’t know that Dawn would go “that” route (laughs).
Last year there was so much buzz about “The Help” with Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer making the Oscar ballot and now for the first time in over 30 years, we have a black actress, Kerry Washington as the lead of a primetime drama. Do you feel there are more opportunities for black actresses?
I am very hopeful for the future, not only for black actresses but all actresses of color. I will say Asian actresses have an even harder time—there are barely any roles for them. I have an actress friend who is Asian and she is frustrated beyond belief. I do believe the industry is becoming more accepting; I watched the “Scandal” pilot and I am so excited for Kerry Washington and (series creator) Shonda Rhimes.
“Mad Men” airs Sunday nights on AMC 10PM EST
Follow Teyonah on Twitter: @TeyonahParris