Although originally reading for the role of Peggy Olson in AMC’s “Mad Men,” actress January Jones convinced creator Matthew Weiner to develop a whole new side to the drama series. Since 2007, Jones has played Betty Draper, disgruntled wife to Don Draper, and has provided a look into a world outside 1960s Madison Ave.
In addition to “Mad Men,” which earned Jones an Emmy nomination in 2010 and will air its final episodes in the coming weeks, Jones has snagged a lead role in Fox’s new comedy “The Last Man on Earth” and now stars in “Good Kill,” a feature film playing at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. In “Good Kill,” directed by Andrew Niccol, Jones plays Molly Egan, wife to Major Thomas Egan (Ethan Hawke), a drone pilot who not only begins to question his controversial job, but develops PTSD as a result.
Jones opened up to Indiewire about her work on the film, her last days on the “Mad Men” set, and her powerful Instagram presence, which has garnered her nearly 250,000 followers.
You’re taking over the world. You’re finishing up with my favorite TV show of all time and you’ve started another TV series that just got picked up for another season—
Taking over the world? Thanks!
How is it being involved in so many projects and having such consistent work?
Well, I knew that this time and this year would be really busy. I have for a little while. It was a little intimidating, but I was also super proud that it was three very different things. And three things that I’ve so proud of. In one sense I’m sad that [“Mad Men”] is ending, but I’m so excited that people are finally getting to see it so I can fucking talk about it. I’m so sick of holding the secret inside for so long. And I’m excited people are seeing “Last Man” because it’s so funny and I’ve had so much fun doing it. It was like the best job ever.
[“Good Kill”] we shot over a year ago and I knew it was going to be important. I didn’t know what kind of audience would get to see it, because it is sort of controversial. But I hope — for the people who see it — they do at least respect it and the story that it is telling even if they don’t like it. I think it’s going to open a lot of conversations, which is important to me because I didn’t know anything about it when I read the screenplay. I knew nothing.
Was that what you drew you to the role?
Yeah. I felt like an idiot. I was like, “How do I not know about this. I’m not reading my newspapers.” But when I was talking to Andrew about [drones], he was like it “was always hidden.” It wasn’t really talked about. He said it started under the Bush administration and then encouraged through Obama. So it’s not a political argument, it’s universally accepted as a good thing. So I had to learn not to judge it and to just educate myself. People have asked me about my opinion, but I think an opinion about something like that is private. I also don’t know exactly what I do feel. I understand the pros and cons of it. The military people I have talked to are super pro. I mean it’s less people in a box with a flag on top.
I don’t know if it’s a coincidence, but in this film, and also in “Mad Men,” you play a strong mother and strong wife. Is that something that attracts you when looking for roles?
When I first read the script I loved it so much. Then I was like, “Ugh. It’s another wife and mother role. And she’s not communicating with her husband. Is there a risk in that for me not to do something like that because it’s so similar?” But then I realized the similarities end after she’s a wife and a mother. If I’m going to limit myself to not playing wives and mothers then I’m not going to work very much. [laughs] Because so many women are a wife and a mother or a wife or a mother. That doesn’t mean they’re not interesting and don’t have a story to tell. I thought her story was very much different than the other wife and mother that I play. She does try to communicate with her husband and she does try to draw things out of him. And Betty isn’t just a flat character. She’s gone through so many different things and with so many different people. I feel like she changed every season. So I can’t compare the two. I don’t think people should compare the two really. But it was a whole other set of challenges for me to do. I was scared to do it, which is always a good sign. If I don’t understand something and I’m scared of it, I usually think that I should do it because I’m going to educate myself and grow. I had to do a lot of research on post traumatic stress disorder and people who are either married or a part of someone who is dealing with that. They had two drone pilots there and even though I wasn’t in those scenes I wanted to hear what they had to say. So I learned a lot about a lot of stuff.
Shifting gears a little bit to “Mad Men” and Betty Draper. Looking back, as you were saying, every season Betty has changed and her role has changed.
It’s intimidating as an actor not to know what Matt is going to do.
Is that the best part about playing Betty?
Yes. Probably just that. And I said to him very early on, “Don’t be afraid to challenge me.” And each season I was either learning to ride a horse, learning to speak Italian, or having prosthetics. I felt a little bit like a character actor, to be honest. I had physical trauma and it was super scary, but there’s no acting school that could have taught me more.
Oh God. It was like nine years of my life. Over nine years. Probably just the last day of work because we were all there and everyone was crying. It was saying goodbye to every character. It was very emotional, but a full circle way to end it. They scheduled it so the core group of actors had their last scene. It was very difficult. And the champagne toasts. It was like, “Come to so-and-so’s last take in this last scene.” We would toast and cry and that person would make a speech. It was good to get it all out, but it was hard. And we stayed late and we played games. We TP’d Matt’s car. No one wanted to go home. It’s been cool now that the show is coming out and we’ve gotten to hang out and do all this press. And talk about it a bit.
Where Betty stands now, at least from the last couple of episodes—
I didn’t see last night’s yet!
So you watch it like an audience member?
Yeah. We don’t get to see it early. Pshht.
Well, from the last couple of episodes [SPOILER], Betty’s going back to school. Do you have any of your own visions for Betty, if she weren’t constricted by the time? Things she’d do?
I think [going back to school] is an awesome thing for her. I’d like to see her in her 80s and she’s like a renowned author or psychologist. That would be an awesome place for her to be, to end up. To be informed. Someone reminded me a few weeks ago, I don’t know who it was, that Betty is the only female cast member — or any cast member — who you actually see read literature about feminism. I think we think about her as the least inclined to worry about that sort of stuff, but she’s the one you seeing reading “The Feminine Mystique.” It’s there. She’s just not that interested in it. And Matt always said too that she’s the kind of woman, and Joan too, that has her style. She peaked in the mid ’50s and she’s never going to change her style or her way of thinking, even though she’s aware of what else is going on. But, I think that she’s grown a lot.
In a recent press conference, and I’m not sure if it was with AMC, but Vincent Kartheiser joked about a Pete Campbell sequel called “Better Call Pete.” Do you have your ideal sequel for Betty or any of the other characters?
No one’s going to do it unless it’s Matt. And Matt’s not going to write it. I don’t think it will happen. I think the most interesting spinoff, if there was going to be one, would be Sally. Or Peggy. Probably Sally. I don’t know about a Betty sequel. It’s not going to happen [laughs].
So you’re doing comedy now. Can you tell me how that difference has been? Is that something you’ve been into?
I started in comedy and every actor on “Mad Men” has amazing comedic timing. I’m an actor. I want to try all different kinds of roles. I don’t just want to do drama. I think it’s also silly when people ask if I want to do TV or movies. It’s the same to do both these days. They are shot the same way. The only difference is that when you do TV, you don’t feel it as you’re doing it, but you have to realize that you’re in peoples homes. More people watch TV now than ever before. You have to realize that you’re making more of an impact because of that. But I feel like it was a nice therapeutic way to shed Betty, in a way. To go into a comedy and just to go to work and laugh. Have it be a little lighter. Also the freedom of improv and different creative experiences.
Lastly, and this is important, your Instagram account. It’s the greatest thing going on right now.
How do you cultivate and maintain such a brand?
I don’t know if I consciously created a brand. I just know that a year ago my sister forced me to create an Instagram account because I needed to be quote unquote “relevant.” And I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I was like, “So, I just post a picture?” I didn’t know what a hashtag was. I thought it was a side note, like a parentheses. I didn’t know you could click on it until like two months ago. I wonder what happens when someone clicks on one of my hashtags?
It’s probably just you.
Yeah. I have fun with it because it shows a side of me that audiences don’t know. My family and friends certainly do, but it’s a way for me to give a little bit. I’ve always been very private and I want it to remain that way, but it’s a way for me to give them something that is very much me without giving away any privacy.
And you got Elisabeth Moss onboard?
I know man! She texted me and was like, “Guess who just joined Instagram?” I was like, “Not you.” And she was like “Yeah!” And I tagged her in something and she went from 300 hundred followers to like 32k. She was like “you’re the best” and I was like “Yeah man.” It was cool. She’s really funny too. I hope people see that.