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Jessica Paré 'before Mad Men I was having a hard time'

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Mad Men’s Jessica Paré models this season’s most sought after high-street buys...

Words: Lyndsey Gilmour

Photography: Brian Bowen Smith

Fashion: Andrew Holden

Actors spend a lot of their interview time trying to prove they are nothing like the characters they play. An extrovert on screen? They are quiet and reflective in real life. A serious strategist? The on-set practical joker. Not so Mad Men’s most recent breakout star, Jessica Paré. The enthusiastic, honest, hopeful, young actress with enough sexual chemistry to ensnare serial philanderer Don Draper (at least for a while) bounds onto our high-street special set in real life with enough energy for the whole team and then some. Chatting animatedly about music (she’s a Nineties devotee), heels vs flats (heels, all the way) and her favourite French swear word (hostie – used to express irritation, outrage or even joy and meaning ‘host’ – as in the sacramental bread or host).

Jessica’s similarity to her character, Megan Draper née Calvet, is no coincidence. After originally auditioning for the part of a prostitute in 2010, something about the Montreal native captivated the show’s creator Matthew Weiner who was convinced she needed a bigger role. “I loved her face and her energy, and she’s got this slightly tomboy thing. At the same time, she looks like a French movie star from that era, exotic and intriguing,” he said. “And she has a way of making the dialogue sound better than the way it was written. The woman is devastatingly beautiful.”

Accordingly, he created the character of Megan, a French Canadian secretary-wannabeactress – gap-toothed smile and all – who before long had Don (and Mad Men fans) hooked.

“It’s amazing to have a job where I go in every day and I get to say beautiful words,” she says. “If it hadn’t been so amazing it wouldn’t be so hard [to say goodbye]. It’s so bittersweet.”

Yes, people. Brace yourselves. After seven years transporting us through the oh-so chic Fifties and Sixties, Mad Men is finishing. Having made Manhattan advertising agency Sterling Cooper infamous, the final series starts on Sky Atlantic next month and will no doubt send its fans (and your Twitter newsfeed) into hyperdrive. Even if you don’t watch it, you know all about it. The sex, the politics, its slew of breakout actors (Elisabeth Moss, Christina Hendricks, January Jones, Jon Hamm), the fashion, themes of adultery, alcoholism, racism and sexism… When it goes, it will be sorely missed.

From secretary to lonely soap star, she’s ignored by her husband and propositioned by her co-stars, Megan has experienced not only one of the craziest character arcs of the show but also a wardrobe evolution.

“When I first started in 2010, she was wearing blank clothes, conservative; nothing with too much personality because she wouldn’t have much to say,” Jessica recalls. “She’s not there to make a name for herself – she’s there to do her job.

And then when she becomes a copywriter and Don’s wife, and then an actress, her clothes definitely start to speak more of who she is; a lot of heavy prints and beautiful combinations.”

Did she have any influence on her look? Or were the show’s award-winning costume designers [the shows head costume designer Janie Bryant won the Costume Designers Guild Award 2009 for Outstanding Period/Fantasy Television Series] protective of their work?

“Ha! I would say it’s more them than me,” she laughs. “Megan has been more fashion forward than me from the time I started playing her. “And trust me, there have been pieces I’ve wanted to steal for years!”

Describing her personal style as ‘French with a rock edge’, today she is in the simple off-duty- Hollywood uniform of jeans and T-shirt, designer bag (Céline) and jacket (Givenchy). “I’m as comfortable in jeans and T-shirt as I am in tailored businesswear and on the red carpet,” she says. “Truth be told I’m a pretty practical person so I do like the idea of mixing more accessible brands with designer.”

Again, in direct comparison to her character, Jessica always wanted to act. Her parents, Anthony and Louise, both pursued the profession before she and her three brothers arrived on the scene, eventually settling in more stable careers – her mother became a conference translator, her father a professor at Montreal’s McGill University. Jessica, however, made it to the next level when Oscar winning director Denys Arcand plucked her from obscurity to star in his film Stardom about – fittingly – a teenager plucked from obscurity to become a star. It opened at Cannes in 2000, going on to the Toronto International Film Festival and gaining Jessica rave reviews.

The success of Stardom made her an overnight celebrity in her home country and in 2005 Jessica decided to make the journey south to Hollywood. Her first project once ensconced in the hills was Jack & Bobby – a political TV drama with an at-the-time jobbing actor Bradley Cooper, was cancelled after one series. Career stalls meant that before Mad Men, her most famous role had been a five minute appearance as Tara the topless groupie in 2010’s Hot Tub Time Machine.

“You give your best years to your career,” she reflects. “You spend all your time working on auditions, and it’s like getting ready for a date, which sucks. You go [to an audition] where you’re barely acknowledged and it’s a difficult grind to do year after year.

“I’ve had a lot of meetings with directors who tell me they want the character – a girlfriend – to feel like a real person. And you always want to say, ‘Well, that’s great, why don’t you just write a real person? As you would, you know, a man!’”

Inevitably, getting cast as Megan transformed her life. “Everything changed,” she says. “Like, I was able to pay rent. And I had this old car. The engine had rusted through and the wheels were going to fall off. It was really bad…”

Jessica was also about to become internet famous. After Don’s surprise proposal at the climax of series four, Megan, who could have easily been dismissed as another of his use ’em and lose ’em girlfriends, had to make her mark. And boy, did she. Her seductive rendition of Zou Bisou Bisou in French at Don’s surprise 40th birthday party in series five sent social media into meltdown. The next day, Jessica’s version of the song – originally released in 1960 and already recorded by nine different people, including Sophia Loren – was released as a music download, topping the iTunes chart.

“I’ll be lucky if I ever live that down!” she laughs. “They [the crew] made a 7” vinyl with my face on it. It was amazing. I should have realised [it would become a big deal], because it’s a real… what do they call it? An earworm? That song really stays in your head. It’s so catchy and you can’t get it out.”

The song’s success opened another unexpected door for Jessica as a live musician. A self-confessed Nineties grunge lover, she was introduced to Scottish alternative rock band The Jesus And Mary Chain guitarist William Reid by her boyfriend, Canadian musician, John Kastner. He was a Mad Men fan and asked her to join them on tour for several dates in 2012.

“Walking onto a TV set is very different to performing in front of thousands of fans,” she smiles. “Give me a camera, a scene and 20 people in a room and I’m very comfortable, but live, when I have to sort of be myself, I’m a nervous wreck.

“I had to tell myself, ‘All these people bought tickets months ago, they got a babysitter, they drove into town, they bought drinks and they’re here to see their favourite band. Do not f*ck it up! Pull your sh*t together and do not ruin it for them!’”

Away from the set and the stage, Paré’s life is surprisingly reminiscent of our own, often curling up in front of Downton Abbey. “What’s not to love?” she laughs. “I’ll sit there with some junk food and a box of tissues and weep my way through the entire season and love every second of it. But I can’t watch weekly

because I can’t live not knowing what happens next, so I binge. I watch the whole season in a weekend and then I’ll do it again. And I’ll happily go backand watch it from the beginning any time anyone else wants to.”

Life After Madison Avenue

Despite the fact that Hollywood has become Paré’s home for now, her native Montreal will always have her heart. “It has such a different mix of cultures and language,” she says. “I miss that. The mix of French and English – it’s very different to France – it’s like nowhere else in the world.”

She insists if we were ever there we have to promise to try the city’s bagels – different to the New York version she swears – and then head over to Saint Laurent for some Portuguese mains before ending east of the city for Iranian gelati. And although she doesn’t get to practise her French as much as she’d like these days, she’s still Gallic to her core.

“I’m at the age when my friends have started having kids, and when my first good friend had a baby, the first time I picked up her daughter I spoke in French,” she says. “I didn’t even think about it. It just came out. Maybe it’s because it’s my mother tongue?” she laughs. There’s a warm and infectious easiness to Jessica that is incredibly endearing. And despite the 14 years it’s taken for her to get to this point in her career, where others would be terrified as final filming approaches – the Mad Men finale will air in 2015; the last series being split in two – she is feeling reflective.

“It’s been such a big part of my life,” she says. “Before I got the role I was having a hard time getting work and just in life, so it’s been such a ride. It’s a dream job for an actor. It’s so well written and they are an amazing group of people to work with. We’re very tight. We genuinely enjoy each other’s company.”

Jessica’s affection for her cast mates is clearly genuine.

January Jones lives only a few blocks away and Elisabeth Moss, who she refers to affectionately as ‘Lizzie’, shares her obsession with Rag & Bone boots and ‘cat jokes’. With the cast ordered to sign secrecy agreements to stop Mad Men’s plotlines from leaking, speculation for the final series is rife. I’m particularly interested in the theory that Megan will meet a grisly end. (This is thanks to a balcony scene in series six where she wears nothing but a pair of briefs and a star T-shirt in an image resembling an old picture of Sharon Tate, the actress wife of director Roman Polanski, who was murdered by members of Charles Manson’s cult in 1969.)

“As far as I know it’s just a T-shirt; just a costume,” says Jessica – refusing to be drawn further on the parallels between the two women despite the show’s head costume designer Janie Bryant tweeting that it’s more than mere coincidence.

“Matt [Weiner] has said in an interview that it was just a reference and not related to what is going to happen to her but I don’t know... Matt is the most secretive about our storylines. I guess in the age of the internet it’s nice to have some mystery.”

With this in mind, pushing her to comment on rumours the last episode will take us to present day only elicits a shake of her head. So, if not Megan – what lies in her future?

“My favourite thing about the job is the collaborative aspect, finding my piece in the story, my part of telling the story and the character’s arc. I like the collaboration between actor and camera. The technical aspects appeal to me. And working with people… I’d like to do an action movie and then do a romance…” she trails off.

“I’d like to try all of it. Basically, I like all genres with the exception of torture porn,” she adds, laughing once more.

Mad Men returns Wednesday 16 April at 10pm on Sky Atlantic

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