Kiernan Shipka in SCENE Magazine.

mad about kiernan shipka: television’s golden child

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When Kiernan Shipka watches Mad Men, it’s usually in her bedroom on Netflix. The 14-year-old plays Sally Draper on the show, and she doesn’t like to see herself on screen when her parents—or anyone else—is around. It’s just too weird. “It’s sort of that feeling of hearing your voice on a voicemail,” she says.

But it’s a fun image to entertain. When I think of Sally, a scene from Season 3 comes to mind. Her stunning but irritable mother Betty (January Jones) has ordered her daughter to go watch television. Heartbroken over her grandfather’s death, the tear-streaked 9-year-old curls up before a newsclip showing a Buddhist monk setting himself on fire. For a moment, Sally—glued to a black-and-white TV in 1963—is watched by Shipka—glued to her MacBook in 2014.

Shipka says that episode was important not only for the character’s emotional development, but also for her own growth as an actor. She had never had that kind of outburst on screen before. “I had to walk out there and be very emotional,” she remembers. “It was definitely very good for me.”

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Born in 1999 in Chicago, she began acting in television commercials for Gerber and Toys“R”Us. When she got the Mad Men role at age 6 and moved to L.A., showrunner Matthew Weiner told her mother to keep her daughter out of acting lessons. “Mad Men in and of itself has been an acting school for me,” she explains.

It helps that she plays a character who experiences a lot of ups and downs. Though filled with ironic humor, Mad Men has so far proven to be a tragedy filled with sad, broken adults, and Sally—a window into their lost innocence—might be the show’s most tragic character. Over the years, that innocence fades as she learns to make her father (Jon Hamm) cocktails, struggles to deal with her parents’ divorce, gets sent to therapy after masturbating at a slumber party, tries her first approved cigarette (handed to her by her mother) and walks in on her father cheating on his second wife (Jessica Paré).

In one memorable Season 4 episode, Sally runs away from her mom to her dad’s Madison Avenue office, an enthralling world she rarely visits. Shipka recalls, “I love it when I get to visit the office, because I don’t usually get to—”, she pauses, catching herself speaking from Sally’s viewpoint, “—film there.”

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Hearing Shipka become Sally is strangely gratifying. I’ve spent the last few years watching her grow, and it’s hard to leave the make-believe behind. As with every actor fortunate to play a memorable part while young, she risks forever being mistaken for her character.

“People come up to me and talk about how awful my parents are,” she says with amusement. “I think it’s cool to play someone people relate to and love so much that they think you really are that great.”

But talking to the actor, it’s clear how different she is from the character she plays. Shipka seems genuinely friendly and happy—even chipper. Though daring, Sally is reserved and somewhat traumatized by all that’s happened to her.

“In a lot of ways, people are a product of their environment,” Shipka muses. “[Sally] comes from divorced parents and she’s had a lot of drama happen. I don’t come from a broken home . . . but I think she’s amazing and handles her life really well, better than I would.”

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Aside from age, fashion may be the only area where they do collide. When Sally is little, her mother dresses her in frilly party dresses; as she gets older, she tests the waters with riskier pieces like go-go boots. Shipka is also a burgeoning fashionista with a wardrobe some 30-year-olds might envy. She often cites Grace Kelly as her style icon. “I totally owe my love of fashion to Mad Men,” she confesses. “I got very inspired by the clothes that costume designer Janie [Bryant] put together.”

All this makes her sound impossibly sophisticated for her age. Which she is. Because of her filming schedule, she never took summer breaks from her tutoring studies, so she’s already a high school senior; she even rhapsodizes over her assigned reading—Gothic and Shakespearean literature. When pressed, Shipka credits her maturity to growing up around a largely adult cast, but she insists she’s still just a regular teenager: “If you see me with my friends, I’m definitely 14. Maybe 15.”

To an extent, I believe her—if by regular teenager you mean someone who spends her Saturdays trying out brunch spots around L.A. with the pals she meets playing tennis and golf and through her improv troupe at Second City, where she performs weekly. If her own life were a show, she insists it would be a comedy: “Anybody’s life would probably be a dramedy, but if it had to be one or the other, I would want it to be more about my circle of friends. We’re crazy.”

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It might be more accurate to call Shipka a regular teenager with really good taste. Her favorite ice cream is mint chip; her favorite band, Haim. Her celebrity crush? Not Justin Beiber, but Prince Harry. And when she says she watches a lot of television, she’s not talking about TMZ.

“There’s so much good TV right now,” she gushes. Veep is her current favorite, but she’s also barreling through Arrested Development and nearly done with Freaks and Geeks. “I’m sad that I only have a couple episodes to watch and then I’m done,” she adds.

I know the feeling. Mad Men has just entered its seventh and final season, and when we talk, Shipka is preparing to shoot the final episodes. She’s spent most of her life living Sally’s, and she also feels a little down—even scared—about saying goodbye.

“It’s the very definition of bittersweet,” she says. “I can’t quite put into words how odd it feels to be ending, but at the same time I saw this quote that said, ‘Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened,’ and I’m trying to apply that as much as I can.”

Shipka says she’ll be happy if she can keep playing interesting roles. Whether that means appearing in another television series or graduating to the silver screen doesn’t really matter. The curse of TV—the idea that actors who start out in television get stuck there—is no longer a legitimate concern. While Sally grew up during the so-called Golden Age of Television with shows like The Twilight Zone and I Love Lucy, Shipka occupies the unique position of not only growing up in TV’s new golden age, but also helping to bring it about. She is, in a way, its first child.