Seeing a Black woman on television is nothing new, but watching a brown beauty navigate through the Mad Men mix is an exciting event.
Teyonah Parris just so happens to be that breath of fresh air.
Playing Dawn Chambers, Don Draper’s new secretary, Parris is a gleaming representative of the era’s racial tensions. Prior to her character’s arrival, the show’s penmen kept civil rights issues at a dull whisper. Now, however, the talks are loud as Chambers outs the prejudices that her fellow agency dwellers didn’t even know they had. (See: “Mystery Date”)
VIBE VIXEN: Were you nervous when you got the gig or when you started to go on set?
TEYONAH PARRIS: There’s always that first day of school kind of jitters. For me, it usually manifests itself in some type of clumsiness, so I was very excited or giddy, that kind of thing. My first second on set, they’re like, ‘Okay Dawn come see your desk,’ [and] I go to the desk–which you guys see me at all the time–and I sit in the chair, but I miss the chair and the chair flips behind me. I was like, Ugh. [Laughs]
Wow! That’s a great first impression.
Yeah, everybody had a good laugh and were like, ‘It’s ok.’
Now outside of talking to your grandmother, how else did you prepare for the role of Dawn?
It was [listening to] more music definitely, but moreso than that, I wanted to get into the world of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, so it was marathon weekends of Mad Men. I had seen a few episodes but not all of them.
So you weren’t with the Mad Men mania prior to your role?
I had watched the show and enjoyed it but I wasn’t.
What were some of the things that stood out while you were watching all of Mad Men?
This man (Don Draper) gets around. He definitely has a lot going on in the romantic area. He surely goes through a lot of secretaries, and I really found myself drawn to the story [and how] it’s just so settled. I was really drawn to that aspect of the show. It just seems so perfect and normal on the outside, but they all have this undercurrent rumbling in there.
You’re really drawn to the complexity of each character.
I think that’s what draws a lot of people to Mad Men mania, I would say.
When you were cast, where did you see your character going?
The breakdown for this character said African American, early 20s co-star. I thought I would be there maybe a day, maybe two and I had no clue in what capacity I was gonna be used. I didn’t know I was his secretary or anything, so once I got hired and I found out I was his secretary, I was like, Oh, okay.
Now, you’ve seen how the secretaries are with Draper…
Right, but I have no clue how long I’ll be here, so I don’t have any crazy expectations.
What were some of the top three lessons you learned from the other actors and working with everyone?
The other new actor Ben Feldman, we started on the same episode. He does a lot of television, so he and I would kinda talk and he just helped me learn very technical things.
You know, I come from a background of theatre, and in theatre, you got that one time when you’re up there. If you mess up or anything goes wrong, you have to find your way back to the scene and everything without skipping a beat. While filming Mad Men, it’s very rare that they’ll even use one whole take of anything. And I knew that before doing this, but it really hit home for me in doing this.
Which do you love better: the stage or the TV?
I love theatre. I like the immediate gratification or the you suck-ification of it [laughs]. With film, it’s just this whole waiting thing. I mean, it’s like you wait to get to set, once you’re on set, you’re waiting and you finish the project then you gotta wait some more. But at the same time, I love that cause it’s so different for me. It’s so different.
With Mad Men being super authentic, tell me how you got comfortable with the ‘60s style. Was it something that you already loved?
Oh yes, I’ve definitely always loved it. I love playing dress up. If I could wear a ball gown to the grocery store, trust me I would. So the clothes? It was just like, Yay I get to try on clothes and they’re very different! And the wigs? Oh, my goodness, oh my goodness.
They were crazy?
I have a huge afro, so it was very different. I hadn’t worn a wig in so long. In my mind, I imagined that it would be the big Diana or something, that kind of fabulous. Uh, no you’re gonna be this little shy, church-going, homely young lady named Dawn, and we’re gonna comb your hair over, [laughs].
Was it irritating to have the wig on?
It wasn’t irritating, it’s just a lot of work pinning that hair down. When you release it, you wanna look normal for the next day; you have auditions or whatever, and you have to not [have] braids all the way back or twists or whatever. I need my hair to be out so pinning it down and getting it flat every night was a process.
It sounds like a taxing process.
But I would much rather do that than have them try to press my hair. I was totally fine to do it.
What products do you use on your hair?
I got into YouTube and started following this girl, Naptural85, I think that’s her name. She uses all organic stuff: you get raw shea butter. You know how they sell the tubs of raw shea butter? I get that and add essential oils like lavender or tea tree, and whip it up with a cake batter mixer. I whip it up like a cream to put on hair when I wanna do a twist out. Then, Naptural85 has one with coconut oil that’s a little lighter for everyday hair dressing. It’s all natural stuff like coconut oil, shea butter, tea tree oil, lavender, ylang ylang, nothing crazy.
In terms of you being the first African American employee on the show, what other African American actresses or women in the business do you admire right now?
I really admire what Ava Duvernay is doing right now, she’s with the independent films. I had the opportunity to see her film I Will Follow, and I’m just really excited about the work people are making, telling stories about us that need to be told that aren’t necessarily comedic or aren’t necessarily somebody’s mom is on crack. I’m really excited about that, and with Shonda Rhimes and Kerry Washington doing “Scandal”, the first African American woman on primetime [television] with an African American head writer. That is amazing. I am beyond proud and just excited for what that means for us coming up behind them.
What’s next for you? What are you most looking forward to?
Right now, it’s back to auditioning. It’s been pretty busy with that, so that’s always a good thing. I’m looking forward to the opportunity to just work on more good material, more material that challenges me, excites viewers and tells the stories of women, stories that need to be told that aren’t told.