Michael C. here. I missed Margo Martindale's work on Justified, but judging by the response to her Emmy win, and by the consistently stellar level of her work, the award was no doubt well-deserved. All the same, it was hard not to mutter a curse under your breath when a name other than Christina Hendricks was called out. For four seasons on Mad Men Hendricks has been the epitome of a what a great supporting performance can accomplish. Her nuanced, deeply felt performance as Joan Holloway prevented the character from being the period caricature it could have been in lesser hands, and raised the bar for the rest of the show.
Now with Drive, in the small but crucial role of Blanche, Hendricks is taking that skill for finding the heart underneath flashy surfaces to the big screen. I got to chat with Hendricks recently at a press event where she arrived bright and enthusiastic fresh from the set of Mad Men. Here are some of the highlights from the event where I was able to get a few questions in:
On her confrontation with Ryan Gosling…
Christina Hendricks: We shot that very intense scene the very first day of shooting. None of really knew each other, and we were in this hundred degree creepy little hotel room. And so Nicolas came up to us and said, “I’m the kind of director - I will shoot and shoot and shoot until you tell me not to shoot. So be vocal with me and let me know if you feel comfortable with what we’ve already got” No director ever does this. It’s really a nice thing to hear.
He was just very collaborative and very understanding; because it was really intense stuff we were shooting. And because I really didn’t know Ryan yet, it was this very real feeling of fear in this very uncomfortable hot room. So it was intense to shoot, but I think it lead to a successful scene. We all got to know each other by the end of the day [laughs] All sweating together.
Michael: How much of that intensity were you ready for and how much did you experience for the first time on the day?
Christina Hendricks: I think the night before we rehearsed it so we could get the blocking down but we didn’t rehearse it emotionally. We knew where we were going to be standing. Cause we knew it was going to be a long day and we knew it was going to be hard with the entire crew in there. So we all got together the night before and said, “We’ll walk here and here and then you’ll go down and the money bag will be here.” So I wasn’t quite ready for this strong leather glove on my face and I remember my heart being like “Ba-boom! Ba-boom!” He [Gosling] is such an extraordinary actor it felt real and very much in the moment. We did that scene over and over and over, so I was an emotional wreck by the end of the day. I was crying for twelve hours straight.
Michael: It comes across. Just watching it is draining.
Christina Hendricks: It was heavy. Nicolas would be like, “Can you do one more?” and I would be like “[gasping sobs] Hold on.” And Ryan was like, “Who are you? How can you keep doing this?”
On choosing Drive...
Christina Hendricks: I choose a project based on who’s involved and my faith in them and the script and the rest you just let go. I’d seen Nicolas’s film Bronson before we met and I was so impressed by it and so excited by it that I was like, “This guy’s going to do something cool." The end result was kind of what I imagined he would do. It was stylish and rich in color and scary and heartfelt and all these different things that I knew that he would do. I had a lot of confidence in him.
(From this point forward we could not avoid getting into SPOILERS -so read on if you've seen the movie)
Michael: Blache is a character you don’t know a lot about and is necessarily limited in her screen time, but like Janet Leigh in Psycho she has to be a rich enough character for the audience to believe she will be around the whole film. How did you approach that?
Christina Hendricks: That was me and Nic sitting in the living room and just bouncing ideas off each other and what he imagined, and what I imagined when I read it. So much about a person is how we present ourselves and what we wear. So we started with this girl who has these big crazy nails and she’s got earrings that say Blanche on them. She probably works at a strip club. She’s gotten caught up with these guys, the wrong group. And we really just started there, and started bouncing ideas of each other, cause like you said, you want this character to be very rich and full even if she’s not saying anything, because you want that moment to be upsetting. You want it to be startling. So you want that character to be someone you feel for when it happens.
On acting during car chases…
There was some discussion of the technical aspects about car chases and any direction she received from Refn. She cuts right to the heart of the question:
Christina Hendricks: Let me tell you something: I was really in the back of that car. And it was terrifying. I was so nauseous by the end of the day.
Some of it was with a stunt driver and some of it was with Ryan, who assured me, “No, no. I’ve been practicing.” I was like, (adopts a playful high-pitched protest) “You’re an actor! Not a stunt driver!” But he did do a great job. But we were taking those corners and this car would come up to you, next to you. [cringes at the memory of it] It was really quite something. And after you’ve been doing it for half the day the fear kind of wears off, but you’ve got to maintain that.
[She pauses, then appears to again cast her memory back to being in that backseat]
It was scary. [laughter]
On her memorable death scene...
Christina Hendricks: To the right of me was a shower stall and it was filled with cushions and to the left of me was an air rifle kind of thing that was quite powerful and a little bit scary when it went off. So the scene is that I get up off the bed and I’m trying to pull myself together but I’m really sort of losing it and then the shot comes. So I would have this moment in the mirror and then they would shoot this air gun and I would throw myself into this shower stall and hope that I didn’t hit my head on the tile. Over and Over. And that’s how we did it. And the air was powerful enough to really throw you, and I’ve also had years of dance so I was able to trust that feeling.
Then they sat down and did a full cast of my head and I got plaster all over. Then I think they shot the entire movie and at the very end they took a green screen and blew my head up. [laughter]
I was very impressed. I mean, I was watching it in such a technical way. How are they going to do this? How’s it going to look? [smiles] And I’ve been sort of looking forward to it for a couple months, cause, you know, how often do you get to see that happen to yourself? So I was looking at it very technically. I’m sure my mother will just not be able to control herself. (laughs) It’s like a pumpkin being smashed. I don’t know how they did it.
On choosing projects in the shadow of Joan Harris (formerly Joan Holloway)
Christina Hendricks: I’m really not using [Joan] as a barometer for what I choose. I really am looking at what’s the next best script. What the project is and if it excites me. If it happened to take place in the sixties and it was fantastic I would do it. I think that Joan is a very special and one of a kind character, and I think that Mad Men is a very special and one of a kind show. It’s almost hard to typecast us cause it’s so specific. It’s not like you’re going to get scripts that are coming along that are like, “Ah, there’s Joan again.” It’s so rare. So that’s kind of fantastic as an actress.
On Working with Nicolas Winding Refn again...
Christina Hendricks: In a heartbeat. Whatever he wants me to do I’ll do it. I loved working with him. Just loved it.
Continue to Serious Film if you'd like to read about Michael's chat with Albert Brooks