Tomorrow night at 10 marks the debut of Sundance’s Hap and Leonard, a period buddy drama based on a series of Joe R. Lansdale novels, and starring James Purefoy and Michael Kenneth Williams as the two title characters: respectively, an ex-con and his gay Vietnam vet best friend. In the late ’80s, they live on the bottom rung of life in East Texas, and keep getting caught up in trouble, starting in the TV show with the arrival of Hap’s ex-wife Trudy.
The adaptation, primarily directed by Jim Mickle and written by Mickle and Nick Damici, has mixed success. Purefoy and Williams have good chemistry together in the Terriers vein, and Leonard couldn’t have been better tailored to Williams’ slow-burning charisma if Lansdale had somehow gotten a glimpse of The Wire before writing the first book. But Purefoy’s always-sketchy American accent goes particularly haywire as he tries to sound Texan, at times changing register within a single scene. And the story, involving a shady group of ex-hippies who want Hap and Leonard’s help recovering a missing fortune, drags at various points in the three episodes Sundance made available to critics.
What this first story does offer, though, is the presence of Christina Hendricks as Trudy, in her first dramatic TV role since the end of Mad Men. (In the interim, she’s been having fun playing “Chair” on Another Period.) This is a much less glamorous role than Joan Holloway Harris – Trudy spends much of the series wearing a drab waitress uniform – and more in the vein of Hendricks’ cameo in Drive a few years back, but every minute she’s on screen, you understand exactly why all of Hap’s most self-destructive impulses come out when he’s around this woman.
At press tour in January, I spoke with Hendricks about the new job, the end of Mad Men, and more.
How does it feel to be here to talk about another show after all this time?
Christina Hendricks: Well it feels great to be doing another show. I”ll always miss Mad Men, of course, but it is interesting to finally answer different questions after nine years. Not that that”s a criticism to anyone, but just simply as a character for nine years, you”re going to get a lot of the same questions for many, many, many years. This is sort of refreshing.
Yes, let”s talk about Joan”s pen for five minutes now.
Christina Hendricks: Yes, exactly. Let”s do that. Pencil skirts.
Trudy and Joan obviously are very different characters, but the idea that your next show is one where the characters are all obsessed about what they were like in the 60s is an interesting choice.
Christina Hendricks: I know. That is a weird coincidence. Certainly not why I chose it. I wasn”t expecting to do anything. I thought I was going to take a break.
So then why did you choose this?
Christina Hendricks: You know what? They sent me the script. AMC (a sibling channel of Sundance) of course has been my family for so long, they thought of me when they were casting it and sent it to me. And my manager said, “Don”t kill me, but you”ve got to read this.” And I just knew that I had to play Trudy. I couldn”t pass it up. I loved it too much and I was surprised. I didn”t think I was going to fall in love with anything that quickly. And it was so different and I just thought oh my god, I want to be this girl for a while.
A lot of it’s shot on location and outdoors.
Christina Hendricks: Oh man. I”ve never been so dirty. I still have scars from bug bites and scrapes and all sorts of activity.
In one of the episodes, an alligator interrupts Trudy and Hap. Real alligator or movie magic?
Christina Hendricks: It was a fake alligator. But did I spend all night leaping out of a raft to a lagoon? Yes. Was I trying to swim to the beach of the lagoon in boots and socks and a leather jacket weighing me down? Yes. It was pretty intense. As we were doing that swim to the beach, we were both sinking under because we were weighted down with so many clothes. And we really started panicking and he really tried to save me. So all of that panic and panting is 100 percent real.
In terms of the clothes, this is a different look for you. How much input did you have into the wardrobe?
Christina Hendricks: Well, we had some look books and some ideas of what we wanted. I”m trying to think of how to answer this properly. They”re not my favorite costumes, you know. But I think they work well for her.
Sometimes when actors are in period series, they get sick of wearing that stuff. Ashton Kutcher by the end of That ’70s Show like had an allergy to all ’70s clothing. Do you find some elements of Joan’s clothes that you still incorporate into what you wear?
Christina Hendricks: Oftentimes when I do a project I do get influenced by the wardrobe. I certainly learned a lot from Mad Men and from Janie (Bryant) in particular. She”s just so fabulous. But even when I did Ryan Gosling”s movie (Lost River), we had a very ’80s kind of vibe and I would say for two or three months after that, I was dressing in a very sort of ’80s way. This one, no. This one I”d love to burn those clothes.
Speaking of Gosling, when you did Drive, it’s structured almost like there”s this little episode of TV in the middle of it, and you”re the very special guest star. And in this, you’re literally billed that way.
Christina Hendricks: Yeah. It was interesting because it”s the guys’ show. It”s Hap and Leonard. But it was fun to come in and be the girl. And she was just so different. She had so much sass and she was so fun.
And commitment-wise, it means you’re not going to be locked into something if the show goes on, which I assume is appealing to you at this point?
Christina Hendricks: I”m not looking for a series. I love TV. I love developing characters over a long amount of time. I think for an actor it gives you so much material and every season it gives more background and interest and richness. So I would definitely do another series. I”m just waiting for the right thing to come along.
Being a part of any hit is a career-changing thing. But playing the particular character you got to play had to cause a lot of change. I remember seeing you in Firefly, Kevin Hill and lots of other stuff…
Christina Hendricks: You saw Kevin Hill?
You were the mousy one on Kevin Hill which in hindsight is sort of mind boggling.
Christina Hendricks: I was the nerdy one. I always played those kind of characters until Mad Men.
So how long did it take for the kinds of offers you were getting to change after Mad Men?
Christina Hendricks: Almost immediately. It”s really funny because I often played the nerdy friend or the goofy sidekick or the sort of naïve movie character in some ways – so the Peggy character, I played a lot before. And I auditioned for so many things – cops, lawyers, doctors and things but they were like, “She just seems too sweet. I don”t see that hard side of her.” And then all of a sudden I was Joan and they”re going, “Oh, so she plays a badass in this.” And I”m like, “Oh my god, I get to play badasses.” Firefly was a little bit of that, but she started out as a mouse and then she turned into a dragon. But I never really had that opportunity. So all of a sudden people were like, “Oh, do you feel like you”re being typecast?” I would say, “No, this is just opening the doors.” No one thought I could do it and someone finally trusted me to do it.
I’ve talked to Hamm about the period thing. Jon Hamm with floppy hair in 1998 is a handsome but unremarkable guy. Jon Hamm in 1961 is Don Draper.
Christina Hendricks: Right.
Do you think you had to travel back in time for people to see that this was in you?
Christina Hendricks: I don”t know if the beauty and brilliance of that writing had been in the ’90s if the same thing would have happened. So much was about these perfectly written characters that we became so realistic and so three-dimensional that they were just the characters. So maybe if Mad Men had taken place in the ’90s it would have been just as believable. But the fact is that was the perfect storm and with the fashion and the sets and the writing and the actors it just all made sense and it just was one of those things that you can”t explain.
At what point in the final season did Matt (Weiner) tell you where Joan was going to end up?
Christina Hendricks: He never told me. Almost every other season I knew what was going to happen to me during that season. And this time he would not tell us. But there were a couple of people who knew. I think Jon knew. Maybe a few other people. I really didn”t know, so I sort of went through the same roller coaster as the audience script to script.
So when Joan leaves the agency two episodes before, did you even know if you’d be appearing again?
Christina Hendricks: I knew I was in the last episode.
Okay, but as you”re reading through the finale script, it could be anything? “Oh, she”s going to partner up with Peggy…”
Christina Hendricks: Yeah, or, “Oh she”s moving off with this guy.” I thought maybe she quit, you know, when Roger comes in and goes, “Just take the money and go.” I thought maybe she”s like, “Fuck Madison Avenue, I”m running off with this guy.”
It”s amazing: if you told the Joan of the first episode that she was going to threaten to sic the ACLU on an employer for sexual harassment…
Christina Hendricks: She would advise you not to do it. She could say, “Go home, put a bag on your face and diet for a week and think about it.”
That”s the great thing you get to do with TV: you get to take a character from A to Z like that.
Christina Hendricks: I love that.
One last, stupid question: your husband Geoffrey can do impressions. Can you do an impression of him?
Christina Hendricks: (laughs) No. I don”t know that there is one. It”s an ever-changing ebb and flow of voices and songs and – no I can”t. I just sit back and enjoy it.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com