Interview: ‘Mad Men’ star January Jones discusses Betty’s transformation

Back in January, if you’ll recall, I interviewed January Jones in Park City, Utah about her Sundance Film Festival premiere “Sweetwater” and I got to break the news of the “Mad Men” Season 6 premiere date to her.
At the time, although she hinted we’d get more Betty Francis this season, she couldn’t tell me anything about what was coming up for Season 6.
Jones still wouldn’t have been able to tell me anything when we sat down last month for a pre-premiere conversation, so we spent most of the time looking back and discussing the physical transformation Betty underwent last season. Here, Jones discusses her initial discomfort with the prosthetics and her fears about being used as a prop, as well as the ways in which the experience improved her acting.
Before talking to Jones, I had spoken with John Slattery, who wished he’d gotten to direct her more and said, “She has a way of making it look like it’s all really happening in real time while we’re shooting it and it’s sorta wild to watch.” So I made sure to talk with Jones about the immediacy of her process.
It’s an interesting conversation and it won’t spoil anything for you, so click through for the full interview…
HitFix: When did Matt Weiner tell you what Betty was going to be up to this season? And was it earlier or later than in past years?
January Jones: I don’t ask questions so I don’t find out until I get the script a couple days before the table-read.
HitFix: Why don’t you ask questions?
January Jones: Because I like to be surprised. I love reading those scripts. It’s like when an audience member watches the show. I get to find out then what exactly happens. The only time I find out something in advance, if I get a tidbit of something, it’s because I have to either learn a skill or a language or something different that I need to know about. But I like the element of surprise and I also work better when I don’t have a lot of time to think about it.
HitFix: That’s interesting, because I was just talking with John Slattery and he was praising your ability to be in-the-moment when you’re on-set.
January Jones: Well, I have no formal training. I don’t know what the hell I’m doing most of the time. I’m just waiting for someone to call me a fraud. Go ahead! [She laughs.] I work on instinct, but I’m a good reader and I can memorize things by looking at them once. So I usually read the script once, go to the table-read, I hear it again again. And I’m one of the actors at the table that Matthew’s very annoyed with, because I’m usually quite monotone. I just need to hear it again. And then when I’m on the set, we don’t get rehearsal time except maybe for blocking, so when I say it, it just comes from a very organic, instinctual place. That’s just what I know and what I’ve learned that I’m good at. If I have a lot of time to think about something and break it down and “Would she do this? Would she do that?” then it just becomes too jumbled in my head and I just don’t feel that it’s real.
HitFix: And John said it totally as a compliment.
January Jones: No, I know. And I wish my brain worked in a different way where overthinking was a positive thing, but it’s just not in this capacity. It works well for other aspects of my life, but just not the art form that I do.
HitFix: Is the process different now because Betty’s a character you’ve been playing now for six years?
January Jones: No, because I feel like she’s so ever-evolving and it feels almost like a different character each season, because she’s constantly changing. I don’t feel like I know her well enough to just take for granted that I’ll know what to do. I really see her as a real person in that she is changing and trying to do different things. Whether it’s physical or emotional, I feel like she’s just always different, which is great for me. I like the challenge. I like trying and doing new things, whether it’s in Season 5 when she got heavy and I had to do things with prosthetics and a fat suit, that was just different physically for me, it lent itself a completely new Betty for me. I was doing things that I had never done before, because I had felt physically I knew what to do, because I had a certain way I walked and a certain way I held myself posture-wise and a certain way I smoked and did certain things. So when I was in prosthetics and the fat suit, as people called it, that was all gone. So I had to find a new way to be Betty. It was a whole new skill-set. I was not allowed to move my body that much. My head and my neck, I was very restricted, just because you would see certain things move that wouldn’t look real, so that was really challenge. But I learned how to portray certain feelings almost solely in my face, without turning my head and my body.
HitFix: When you put it like that, it sounds like to some degree you feel like you came out of the experience as a better actor, perhaps?
January Jones: Yes, I definitely learned a lot.
HitFix: Could you talk a bit more about what that entailed?

January Jones: Like I said, it was about portraying emotions and feelings without using my body. There was a scene I did just a couple weeks ago where Matthew said, “It’s going to be tough for you, because I want you to be sitting there and not move.” I had a very heated argument with someone and I wasn’t allowed to move. He said, “It’ll be like an acting lesson.” I was like, “I think I’ve got it. I’m never allowed to move anymore.” It’s all gotta come through the eyes.
HitFix: Is that the kind of thing where you stare into a mirror until you think you’ve got it right?
January Jones: No, because what I saw in the mirror was different from the DP and the lighting people were seeing on-camera, so if I thought I could do something at this angle, they’d be like, “No. You can’t.” So I would literally get on set and be told where to sit, to what point I could move my face before it looked bad. So it was scary. It was unsettling. I was thinking about physical things and not acting and I wasn’t getting acting direction. At the end of each take, the director would come up to me and tell me where to move. And I was like, “Oh. OK. But how is this acting?”
HitFix: So you become a prop at a certain point?
January Jones: In a way. It got discouraging. I was like, “Well, I hope that the performance is good, because no one seems to be worried about that.” But I got better at it and I just learned to trust myself.
HitFix: And then what was it like watching those episodes afterwards?
January Jones: It was very hard to watch that first episode. When I first saw it on the screen, I saw the first scene where she comes on screen and I had to pause it and walk out and be like, “Oh my God, oh my God… OK.” And then unpause it and then watch it and it took me a while to not see the physicality of it and just to listen to the story.
HitFix: And you were eventually able to?
January Jones: Yes. Yes, I was eventually able to and I was very pleased by it. But it was a very different Betty.
HitFix: And it was Jon who directed that first episode for you last season, wasn’t it?
January Jones: Yeah.
HitFix: Did it help the transition?
January Jones: It did. It did help, because I trusted him and think the world of him and even though I wasn’t getting maybe as much feedback on performance as I liked, I know that if there was something, he would have said it. We’re at a point in our relationship now where we’re not extremely sensitive and we just say it like it is, which is a  nice place to be. So I felt like I trusted my surroundings and what he was doing and I thought he did a really good job.
HitFix: Did you have a big part in the episode he directed this season? Or less so?
January Jones: I can’t say. Or I probably can’t say. But no. I just said it. Not as much. I’m trying to remember which ones Slattery did and which one Jon did. We have an amazing group of directors, but I really love when you’re directed by an actor. It’s just a very different experience. I find it very helpful, just because they know what you’re going through and pay attention to technique. I think they both do a really good job. It’s not something I would want to do.
HitFix: If not you, are there other actors in the cast who are naturals and ought to get behind the camera now that John and Jon have done it?
January Jones: I think Jared Harris would be amazing. He’s not on the show anymore, but I think he has some interest in doing it. I haven’t heard of anyone else showing an interest in it. It’d be a hard thing to do.
HitFix: Do you miss some of those old people who you may have occasionally gotten to work with in the first few seasons who maybe you don’t see anymore now that Betty is off in a different sphere?
January Jones: I was only in the office a couple times, but I do wish I got to work with John Slattery more. He’s a lot of fun. [She pauses to briefly answer a phone call from her father and then apologizes profusely.] I’d love the chance to do it. I miss Anne [Dudek], who played Francine, and some of those ladies, we had a lot of fun. Darby [Stanchfield], who I got to slap in the super market. And I love the scenes working with Marten Weiner, who plays Glen. I’ve gotten to work with such amazing talent. I think it would be fun to do something with… But I just don’t know how Betty would work herself into the office anymore, since she’s not in Don’s life as much.
HitFix: How has working with your on-screen kids changed over the years? Obviously Kiernan has become a powerhouse…
January Jones: Yeah. She’s a woman now! It’s been a real pleasure to see and watch her grow, not only as a woman and as a person, but as an actress. She’s great and I think that it’s been done in such in such a healthy way. She has very wonderful parents and she’s very grounded and extremely smart and I think she has a long career ahead of her and I feel very proud to think that I had a part in that.
HitFix: And the other two?
January Jones: Mason, who plays Bobby, again, it’s always more of a pleasure when you have a child actor who wants to be there and he also has wonderful parents and is a really good little actor, too. It’s interesting, because when we come back after each break and start another season, we see each other and we’re like “Hey, hey, hey” and then we see the kids and we’re like “Whoa, you’ve grown a foot.” It’s so weird. We were on set and we looking at pictures the other day on either the Draper or the Francis set and there was a little picture that we had taken Season 1 of the family and Kiernan was seven and it was so funny and to see her now. I was like, “Look how cute you were!” and she’s like, “Awww… I was so cute” and I was like, “Oh my God. You’re an adult.” It’s so weird. “I haven’t aged at all, but look at you.”
HitFix: It sounds as if everybody is looking at this as a penultimate season. How does it feel looking forward to only one more season after this one?
January Jones: I feel really sad about it. I try not to think about it, because we’re not even done with this season yet, but the idea that it won’t be there anymore is really sad and not only because I won’t be able to play that character any longer, but I’ll miss all the people I get to see every day. Our crew’s been with us for such a long time. It’ll be very sad, but I don’t want to think about that yet!
HitFix: Is there an angle to Betty’s journey that you hope they do find a way to work in? Is there a place that you hope the show leaves her?
January Jones: I don’t think so, because even it ends up in a good place, that doesn’t mean that the next day, that we don’t see, won’t be bad. I think they should all just go down like the Titanic or something. He’s not going to wrap it up for everyone. He’s just not gonna do that.