‘Mad Men’s’ Teyonah Parris on Dawn’s Roller-Coaster Episode

In last night’s episode of Mad Men, a swift turn of events placed Don Draper’s African-American secretary in a power position few (especially Bert Cooper!) could have predicted: Dawn Chambers is now SC&P’s office manager, effectively becoming Joan Harris in a smart blazer and hoop earrings, with a tart tongue to match. While Joan moved into an account management role more suited for her partnership status, Dawn’s ability to seamlessly juggle Don’s secrets and new boss Lou Avery’s nonstop belittling was finally rewarded at the end of the episode when she took her seat in Joan’s old office.

For Teyonah Parris, who has played Dawn since the start of Season 5, this episode was an actor’s dream come true, filled with meaty scenes and opportunities to show off Dawn’s strong side. Flavorwire got on the phone with her first thing this morning to chat about this major turn of events for her character.

Flavorwire: Congratulations! Dawn is now the office manager at Sterling Cooper & Partners! That is awesome!

Teyonah Parris: YES! It is, it is!

What went through your mind when you first got this script? Dawn has had some juicy scenes before, but nothing like this.

Well, while I was reading it, I went through just as many emotions as the audience when they’re watching it. Because you just don’t know what happens, so first of all, I speak badly to Lou – I was like, “Oh, OK.” This is who she is, this is who she’s grown into. She’s become comfortable enough to do something like that. OK. She’s standing up for herself. And then [laughs] I get demoted to the front desk – I said, “Oh, God! All right, Dawn, good seeing you, we’ll never see you again!” Then when Bert comes in and says to Joan, “She can’t be up there,” I was like, “OK, she’s really going to get fired.” And to see her actually get a promotion after all of what she just went through, that was pretty awesome. And very emotionally draining. All those ups and downs. But it was so much fun to do, though!

I’m sure. Can you even pick a favorite scene of yours from this episode? You mouthed off to Lou, you had a hilarious interaction with the idiotic receptionist Meredith, you were playing office spy for Don…

Stephanie Drake, the actor who plays Meredith, she’s hilarious. She is so good as Meredith. We would be filming, and that was our first time getting to film together, and it was so hard to keep a straight face every time because she plays that kind of brainless, or, mind-of-a-child-type character so well. And I remember just busting out laughing while we were trying to do that scene because it was just so funny.

But I would say one of my favorite scenes, because I had many this episode, was the one in the kitchen with Shirley (Sola Bamis). That was fun – it felt like just a little peek into what we talk about, like [each of us] always being mistaken as the other one, and just making light of it, and you really get to see Dawn and Shirley both without having to have that filter of a smile.

On Twitter, I saw plenty of buzz for a Dawn-and-Shirley spin-off. Are you game?

Yes, I am all for that!

Now that Shirley is Lou’s secretary and Dawn has been promoted, do you think there’s going to be some friction between Dawn and Shirley?

I really don’t know. It’s always interesting when you go from being peers to someone’s superior, so it’s possible the relationship between Dawn and all the secretaries could change, and it’s possible that it could work to Dawn’s favor in knowing everything that the secretaries go through and maybe being able to handle it differently than Joan has in the past. I think what’s exciting is seeing, if they decide to address things like that, how they’ll handle it.

How would Dawn handle things differently than Joan?

I think it’s a little difficult to answer because I haven’t had the power that Joan has had. But even in the office where we’re addressing Lou, you see Joan as very much, “Let’s sit on this – let’s put everything through that filter of a smile. This is not the appropriate time.” And Dawn just kind of goes for it. And I think it was just so much happening – she’s working for two people and she’s doing a great job at both: she’s at Don’s house at all hours of the night just to give him information, to keep him abreast, and doing her entire job at the office, and buying perfume for her other boss’ wife. It’s just so much, and for Lou to flip out at Dawn for not being there [when Sally showed up] when she was out doing stuff for him, I don’t even think she thought about it. It was just that gut reaction [that] came out. That’s how Joan and Dawn are different.

Well, I think it worked in her favor. I think Joan saw something in her in that moment, and that’s what helped push her toward that promotion.

I think you’re right! I would agree with that! [Laughs.]

How has Dawn changed throughout the seasons?

I think when we first met Dawn she was a bit timid, and really, really you could almost physically see her keeping her head down, just trying to stay out of the way and do what was needed. And I think in the last three seasons now, we’ve watched her grow and she’s become a bit more comfortable in her skin as well as in this office. Now, since she first started, there are more black people there, so I think it’s been cool to see her, with the help of time and getting to know the people and the job, just ease into this role and be really good at it in an effortless way. I think she continues to excel at everything she does and juggle multiple balls, so to speak, and she does well with it. And it’s been fun to see her grow – now she’s able to go into her superior’s office and actually stick up for herself in a way that we haven’t really seen her do before. When she got in trouble with Joan last season, you just kind of see her tuck her tail and run to her girlfriend and spill everything to her. And now, here, this season, we see her actually standing up for herself. I think it’s really cool.

How do you think Bert Cooper is going to react to this new arrangement?

Well, people can’t see me from the other offices, so hopefully he’ll be OK with it [laughs].