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The Contenders: Jessica Paré of 'Mad Men'

"Mad Men" actress Jessica Paré has made a name for herself playing opposite Jon Hamm's Don Draper, and now even her costars are predicting bigger things ahead.

June 14, 2012|By Glenn Whipp, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • JESSICA PARE was unsure if her character would return. But she did, and Pare made the most of it.
JESSICA PARE was unsure if her character would return. But she did, and Pare… (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)

About this time last year, Jessica Paré pulled her beloved 1995 Volvo station wagon into an L.A. service station near her Eastside apartment. Wolfy (yes, she named the car) needed help. So much help, in fact, that the mechanic told Paré there was no way he was letting her drive it off the premises. Problem was, Paré didn't have the necessary funds to cover Wolfy's revival.

"So, yeah, I did drive it away," the "Mad Men" breakout star says, "and, as I remember it, there was a fair amount of smoke trailing behind me."

For a recent visit over coffee in Hollywood recently, Paré arrived driving a brand-new Jetta, a "sweet ride," the 31-year-old Canadian actress enthuses. Actually, Paré threw in an additional modifier before "sweet," a word that cannot be printed here and a word that we're pretty sure has never been used so passionately in connection with a Jetta.

She can be forgiven for being so excited.

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"Mad Men" ended its fourth season with Don Draper's shocking proposal to Paré's Megan, the 25-year-old secretary who had replaced the dearly departed Miss Blankenship and embodied, for Don, the chance to start over with a clean slate. But given Don's impulsive behavior with numerous other women, the question hung in the air: Would he go through with the marriage?

Contract negotiations between "Mad Men" creator Matt Weiner and AMC kept everyone hanging, most notably Paré, who worried, to the point of desperation, that her big break would come to naught. At this juncture of her career, if audiences knew her at all, it was only from the funny topless scene she did in John Cusack's "Hot Tub Time Machine."

Even when the sides settled, Paré didn't know if she'd be returning to "Mad Men."

"Everyone was like, 'Don't worry, don't worry, you'll have a job,'" Paré remembers. "And I said, 'Two words: closed casket.' Don would be there, mourning, probably looking over his shoulder because Dr. Faye — or her mobster father, remember him? — is coming after him next."

Turns out Paré didn't have to worry about Don's scorned lover reappearing or Mafia hit men or, most important, her place on the show. Not only did Don and Megan marry, but they're happy together — which may be a more surprising development than the proposal itself. Sure, they have their moments, like when Don left Megan stranded at a Howard Johnson's parking lot, or the ill-conceived but oh-so-spectacular surprise birthday party she threw for Don's 40th. But even when they get riled up, the anger usually leads them to the bedroom — or the living-room floor, as was the case in the season opener.

"We know that Don has certain proclivities in his sexual life, and here he is with a woman who is his match that way," Paré says in a way that reflects her direct approach to just about any subject, save for a recent divorce. "She has a grip on him, and we're not used to seeing Don like that. I love seeing a woman express herself so fearlessly in a physical, sexual, powerful way."

"Mad Men's" two-hour Season 5 premiere showcased Paré. She performed an erotically charged song-and-dance number, "Zou Bisou Bisou," at Don's birthday party that made everyone (except for her husband) deliriously happy. (Paré's rendition reached No. 1 on Billboard's world-music chart.) She expertly conveyed Megan's hurt, anger and embarrassment the next day at the office. And by episode's end, she turned the tables on Don when, dressed in a black-lace bra and underwear, she furiously cleaned up the apartment's post-party mess. "All you get to do is watch," Megan snarled.

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On the degree-of-difficulty scale, Paré rates "Zou Bisou" much higher than Megan's unorthodox cleaning scene. "That underwear has more coverage than a lot of my bikinis," she says, laughing. "Doing a song-and-dance routine in front of the whole cast, people I had just gotten to know when we wrapped 18 months earlier, was terrifying. It's not exactly in my wheelhouse."

Maybe. But watching Paré make Megan her own independent woman through the season, you remember what Peggy told Joan when Megan left the company to pursue an acting career. "I think she's good at everything. I think she's just one of those girls." When Weiner screened the premiere episode for the cast, costar John Slattery told Paré, "You're going to have to change your phone number."

"Not yet," Paré says when asked if she has done so. "But I don't give my phone number out anyway."

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