Just being the hot new girl on TV’s most obsessed-over show doesn’t automatically make you recognizable. That’s what Jessica Paré discovered at April’s Asia Pacific Pay-TV Operators Summit in Bali, when she mentioned what she does for a living and a woman blurted out, “You’ll have to forgive me, I stopped watching Mad Men as soon as Don Draper proposed to his secretary.”
We’re walking along Glendale Boulevard in Los Angeles, and Paré has to give herself a minute; she’s laughing too hard. “I was like, ‘Whoa! That’s me!’ ” she says, raising her hand. “She really put her foot in her mouth”—the woman, a summit attendee from Malaysia. “She was like, ‘You look really different in person.’ When really she was like, ‘What the hell is that story line, bitch?’ ”
Don’s sudden proposal at the end of season four to Paré’s Megan—a 25-year-old secretary with whom he’d shared little more than sex on his office couch (while he was in what seemed to be a promising relationship with a more age-appropriate intellectual peer, Dr. Faye Miller)—was the shock heard round the Internet in the fall of 2010. Our Malaysian friend might not have been tactful, but she’d only said what everyone was thinking: What the hell was up with that story line?
In the show’s current, fifth season, though, the engagement has given way to something even more shocking: Megan and seemingly reformed womanizer Don (Jon Hamm) are actually married and, most of the time, happily so. In the season premiere, Megan surprises her uncomfortable husband with a birthday party and an erotically charged rendition of the French ditty “Zou Bisou Bisou” performed in front of his co-workers. The clip went viral and turned Paré, a virtual unknown outside of her native Montreal, into an instant star.
“Your record has been selling well,” the clerk at Jackknife Records and Tapes tells Paré as she buys an LP of David Bowie Live at the Tower Philadelphia. He’s referring to the vinyl single of “Zou Bisou Bisou” released the morning after the season premiere; it quickly went to No. 1 on Billboard’s World Music chart. “Where is it?” Paré asks. “Probably in some bargain bin.” No, the clerk assures her, “I had it up for display, but I can only feature one thing for so long. My distributor was like, ‘You’ve got to get this. It’s hotter than Madonna.’ ”
Paré laughs easily and often, despite a case of extreme jet lag. Bali is fifteen hours ahead of Los Angeles, which means she left there on a Monday and arrived here on a Sunday. “I time-traveled,” she says. “The third day is the worst because you’re like, ‘Am I hungry, or is my stomach trying to leave my body?’ ” Somehow she still manages to open doors for everyone, help me clean up a spilled latte, and flirt with children and dogs. “Oh, I’m Canadian,” she says when I compliment her niceness. Then she laughs some more.
A few months ago, traveling to Indonesia for work, not to mention having a No. 1 single, would’ve been unfathomable for Paré, 31. Playing Mrs. Draper, she admits, “was definitely a major upswing in my career.” It’s the biggest thing to happen to her since she briefly became Montreal’s “It” girl at 19, after landing the lead in Canadian auteur Denys Arcand’s 2000 film Stardom, about a supermodel. Americans know her mostly for a minute-long topless scene in 2010’s Hot Tub Time Machine. “I cross into the States from Canada a lot, and the border guards always say, ‘You’re an actor, what have you done?’ I always try Mad Men, but I guess it’s not our target audience. So then I’m like, ‘Hot Tub Time Machine?’ And they’re like, ‘We love that movie!’ ”
She doesn’t regret it. “I think tits can be funny,” she says. “Please don’t make that the headline.”
When Paré first auditioned for Mad Men, it was to play the prostitute who slaps Don in the face during sex, in season four. “The hooker part went to somebody else, but they told me it’s not because I didn’t do a good job,” she says. “I thought she was wonderful,” Mad Men creator Matt Weiner tells me, so he called her back. He also watched Hot Tub Time Machine.
Weiner found himself drawn to Paré’s gap-toothed smile. Her teeth are so distinctive he even wrote a scene in which Megan recalls being told she could never be an actress because of them. Paré doesn’t understand all the fuss. “I forget about them because they’re in my face and they do their job just great. I never get anything stuck in them.” (For the record, the camera must add ten pounds to each tooth, because in person she’s a knockout.)
All Paré knew when she finally got cast was that they’d been looking for a brunette. She waited all night for her first script to arrive, and when it did, she had one line: “Yes, Joan.” Paré was thrilled. “Picture me at the table read, quietly looking at Jon Hamm and Christina Hendricks. I was freaking out. I was like, ‘Yes! Joan!’ ” It had been Weiner’s plan all along to introduce an office girl, Megan, who would marry Don. He, of course, did not tell Paré. “Every time I did an episode, I didn’t know if I would be back,” she says. “I was just happy to sit in the background if they did a scene in the reception area.”
Then suddenly, job insecurity set in when Don took a romantic interest in her—the surest sign on Mad Men that your character may not be long for the show. (After Megan’s first kiss, the show’s costumers told Paré, “It was nice knowing you.”) Between Don’s history and Weiner’s sadism, there was no guarantee of a wedding, or even that Megan would return for season five. During the anxiety-filled, post-proposal months when Weiner and Mad Men’s network, AMC, were locked in contract negotiations that threatened the show’s future, Paré kept her expectations low. “I kept saying, ‘Two words: closed casket,’ ” she says. “It opens on a closed casket. Pan up to Don, bereaved, winks at a blonde down the aisle. Bye-bye, Megan.”
As of this writing, at least, her character is on a roll. After Megan’s commercial pitch saved the Heinz account for Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, she quit copywriting to pursue acting. But as always, there’s an undercurrent of danger: Don recently ditched her at a Howard Johnson’s after a fight, and then chased her around their apartment in a rage. “It’s pretty volatile the first year of any relationship,” says Paré, who reportedly wed producer Joseph M. Smith, in 2007, but tells me, “I was married, I’m not married now.” She talks as if she’s coming back for next season, though, she points out, “we all know this is not a show about Don Draper being a happy, healthy man.”
Paré wouldn’t have it any other way. Her favorite authors are “bleak, depressing” ones like Kafka and Camus, she says as we walk to a bookstore. She also likes to play morose songs like the Lemonheads’ “My Drug Buddy” on the ukulele, and tells me she came to meet me “straight from therapy!” The Howard Johnson’s episode in particular spoke to her because “it underscored how ultimately we all just live and die alone,” she says, flashing those teeth. “Ah, what a job.”