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Christina Hendricks: ‘My agency dropped me when I first agreed to play Joan in Mad Men’

Christina Hendricks hated her high school. When she was 13, her parents moved from the small town of Twin Falls, Idaho, to Fairfax in Virginia because of her father’s job with the United States Forest Service. Hendricks felt “uprooted” and resentful. Then she had to start at a new school: Fairfax High.

She stood out from the beginning. In Twin Falls she had been part of a children’s theatre group. She wore Birkenstocks and “hippy dresses”. She was surprised when she saw the other girls her age in Fairfax “carrying purses [handbags]. I was like, ‘Ooh, purses!’ To me, only moms had purses. They were much more sophisticated and they were having sex and wearing makeup – all these things that had not happened for me.”

From the start, Hendricks was bullied. “We had a locker bay, and every time I went down there to get books out of my locker people would sit on top and spit at me. So I had to have my locker moved because I couldn’t go in there… I felt scared in high school. It was like Lord of the Flies. There was always some kid getting pummelled and people cheering.”

Hendricks found refuge in the drama department. Acting provided an outlet for a feeling of impotent rage. She became a goth, dying her hair black and purple, shaving it at the back and wearing leather jackets and knee-high Doc Marten boots. Were her clothes a type of armour against what she was experiencing?

“Yeah, exactly,” she says, nodding. “My parents would say, ‘You’re just alienating everyone. You’ll never make any friends looking like that.’ And I would say, ‘I don’t want those people to be my friends. I’m never going to be friends with the people who beat up a kid while everyone is cheering them on. I hate them.'”

Christina Hendricks in God’s Pocket, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final film. Photograph: PR
Fast-forward 26 years and Christina Hendricks is now one of the most recognised, acclaimed and lusted-after women in the world. Her portrayal of Joan Harris, the sassy 60s secretary who rises to be partner of an advertising agency in the hit series Mad Men, has won her critical plaudits, Emmy nominations and the slathering admiration of a legion of borderline-obsessive fans.

At 39, Hendricks is – unusually for a female celebrity – loved in equal measure by men and women. Much has been made of her extraordinary looks that hark back to a bygone age of glamour – her curves, her auburn hair (dyed red because she loved Anne of Green Gables as a child) and her translucent skin.

A 2010 poll of female readers for Esquire magazine named her “the sexiest woman in the world”. Googling her name will throw up websites called things such as “Admiring Christina Hendricks” and a Tumblr devoted to answering the question “What Would Joan Do?”, which resolves modern etiquette dilemmas by channelling Hendricks’s character in Mad Men (on relationships: “Anyone who you have to convince to be with you isn’t worth convincing”). When I told people I was interviewing Hendricks, a female friend pleaded with me to tell her she thought Hendricks was “the ultimate woman since Eve”. “Oh, that’s so nice,” Hendricks says, pressing her hands to her chest as if accepting a prize. “Thank you.”

Has she been shocked at the response to Joan and, by extension, to herself? I imagine it’s a lot of pressure to have to live up to being the ultimate woman since Eve. “I guess I was surprised,” Hendricks says when we meet in Joe Allen, a basement restaurant in the theatre district on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. “I watched what people responded to in Joan, and she’s so many things, but I think it’s her strength, resilience and confidence.”

Has playing Joan rubbed off on Hendricks’s personality?

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