A t nine a.m. on a recent Saturday morning, Kiernan Shipka’s bubbly mother, Erin, flings open the door to their pastel wedding cake of a mansion in Los Angeles, calling up a sweeping oak staircase for “Kiki,” as she’s called at home, to check in downstairs. Kiernan had a sleepover with a couple friends the night before, and she’s still up in her room, watching TV: They made up a love story between Hello Kitty and an enormous stuffed bear that she likes to call Big Bear, and played Hedbanz, a game that sounds exactly like Celebrities, except that instead of sticking a card with a famous person’s name to a forehead with tape, one slips a card underneath a headband (or however the kids are spelling it these days). It was doubtlessly a late night, with a lot of giggling among the girls, and when they emerge, Kiernan’s friend, a freckled redhead with a Miley Cyrus smile, from across the street, seems to be a bit bedraggled, her long, thick mane tangled and face unwashed.
But not Kiernan. The girl who plays Mad Men’s Sally Draper, one of the greatest preadolescent characters in television history, may be only 11, but she looks like an editorial assistant at Vogue today, at least a miniature one, with her blonde hair swept back in a perfect ponytail, black ballet flats, and a knee-length Little Paul & Joe shift decorated with miniature skeletons, a Christmas gift from her parents. She bites her lip shyly, leading the way through her 1924 palace—past at least a half-dozen elaborate, enormous flower arrangements set on various glossy tables and through a cavernous office that she shares with her mom, with her name spelled out on the wall on top of her desk. On a white marble counter in the kitchen, there’s an almost comical number of bagel fixings, including strawberry-pomegranate cream cheese, spread out for breakfast. Two German shepherds, a prissy purebred with pancreatic problems and a lick-happy one that’s a rescue, huddle outside their kitchen cove, looking longingly at the food.
In the kitchen, Kiernan’s quiet for a few minutes, listening to the conversation among adults over the bagel spread about the renovation of this home (her wealthy parents—her father has a successful real-estate-development and management business in Chicago—redid the place two years ago, when they decided to buy a home in Los Angeles) and a star who wore her shoes on the wrong feet to a recent awards ceremony but didn’t realize it until she left the red carpet. “Were they, like, strappy shoes?” asks Kiernan. As it turns out, they were not: “They were sequined Louboutins with those round toes that everyone’s making these days,” says a friend of her mom’s. “You know, the type of shoe where you can barely tell which shoe is for the correct foot.”
Kiernan nods in agreement. Of course, she would know that: Like Hailee Steinfeld, 14, from True Grit, who put on a dress by Prabal Gurung at the recent Golden Globes, and Elle Fanning, the 12-year-old star of Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere, who wore a Rodarte dress to the New York premiere of the movie as it had appeared on the runway—with sheer Rodarte socks and gold wooden heels by Nicholas Kirkwood—Kiernan is a fashionista. “I follow fashion trends,” she says, tipping her chin a bit to the sky and speaking with the sort of elocution that would have her at the top of her class at Spence. “My closet’s full of Papo d’Anjo,” she continues. “They’re my main brand. I just absolutely love them because the quality is so amazing. Chloé has some amazing kids’ pieces, too, and I have a lot of D&G Junior. Grace Kelly is my fashion inspiration—a classic look, with beautiful pieces, and very pretty.”
Then she erupts in laughter. “I have the best idea: fashion Halloween!” she squeaks later, the words coming out in a torrent. “I’m always something like Catwoman, Cinderella, or Rapunzel, with really, really long hair, and we always decorate our house like crazy—we even have a fog machine. But this year, I want to have a fashion Halloween! We’ll have people dress up as Donna Karnage.” Giggle. “Michael Korpse.” Giggle. “Burbloody.”
T hese merry convulsions over “fashion Halloween” are a rare loss of equanimity by Kiernan, who is almost terrifyingly composed for an 11-year-old, much like her character on Mad Men, at least during the first few seasons. Part of the fascination for most of us about Sally Draper is that, like most kids from the sixties, she was forced to become a mini-adult early. In a lot of ways, she’s like the Greek chorus of the show, a watchful presence commenting on the action that other characters are too deeply involved in to perceive objectively themselves. But the strain of trying to understand adults eventually becomes too much for Sally, and last season, she started showing her youthful age: running away from home, hacking at her hair, hanging with a weird neighbor boy, and, of course, masturbating to The Man From U.N.C.L.E., the sixties TV series about suave spies, on a friend’s couch during a sleepover.
Erin doesn’t want Kiernan to know about some of these things yet. Erin usually meets with Matthew Weiner, Mad Men’s auteur, before the table read of a new season, and he fills her in on any upcoming “adult content.” Kiernan is shielded from some of this material. Erin usually watches Mad Men on her own on Sunday night and videotapes it for Kiernan to watch with her on Monday night, when she knows which parts to fast-forward through. Kiernan is fine with this agreement, for now. “When I’m 16, I’m going to sit down and watch all of the episodes the whole way through myself,” she declares.
Nevertheless, Kiernan has a good understanding of Sally’s situation. “If I was in Sally’s place right now, it would be hard, because I wouldn’t know what to do,” she says quietly. “There’s really nothing she can do. She can run away, she can do some crazy things, but really, it’s probably best to stay calm.” As far as her TV mom, Betty Draper, is concerned, Kiernan doesn’t have many kind words. “I think Betty’s not where she wants to be in life: She didn’t want to have kids, and now maybe the divorce isn’t the perfect life that she really imagined,” says Kiernan. “Also, Betty is definitely not a nice person in general. I think she just has a mean soul.”
On the other hand, the mention of Don Draper makes Kiernan, like the rest of womankind, go a little weak. “Don is always trying to be a good father,” she says. Then she reconsiders, perhaps thinking of his habitual philandering, if those parts didn’t get fast-forwarded. “Maybe he’s not the best person, but he always tries to be a good father—he may not succeed, but he always tries.” Jon Hamm, who plays Don, returns the favor. “Well, I think Don has a relationship with Sally, and like most of the relationships in his life, it’s very loaded and changes varying on the circumstances,” says Hamm. “Don loves Sally. I think one of his difficulties is in expressing that love unconditionally, or at least finding a way to have that love and that relationship exist outside the damaged relationship he has with her mother. This is one of the things Don finds refreshing and inspiring about Megan—the possibility, the excitement of unconditional love.”
Shipka is shielded from some of the show’s adult content. She’ll get to watch them all “when I’m 16,” she says.
So what does Kiernan think about Megan, Don’s wife-to-be and her new stepmother? “Well …” says Kiernan, her eyes widening as she considers the right way to answer. “If Megan and Don were to get married, I guess she would be a good stepmother.” (If?) Kiernan also loves the neighbor boy, Glen. “He is not creepy!” she says. “Back then, a lot of kids didn’t have divorced parents, and Glen was just showing her the ropes. I think he’s just a true friend of Sally’s. But now she’s moving. So it’s a true good-bye between them, not even like a modern-day good-bye.” She hangs her head. “They won’t be able to Skype each other or text or anything.”
A fter the bagels, Kiernan shows off her tae kwon do forms—“Hike up your skirt and go for it,” says her mom, encouragingly—and kicks a punching bag in the middle of her huge living room with resounding firmness. “My mom kept telling my dad that we needed a kind of sculptural centerpiece,” she says, smiling adorably, “and I figured that the punch-bag worked.”
She then moves to another room to begin her near-daily piano practice. “I’ve been playing since I was 5, but I wouldn’t say that I’m serious about the piano,” she says, before completing a flawless rendition of “On My Own,” Eponine’s lament from Les Misérables. “Someday, I’d like to write my own musical,” she says. What would it be about? She scrunches up her face. “I think that I’d like it to have the set from Annie, combined with the era of Les Misérables, with all the music from Chicago.” Okay!
Kiernan started doing commercial print work as a baby, and she hasn’t been in school since first grade. The actors on set are her friends, and though she says she understands they’re adults, so they’re not quite her peers, she says she feels close to Elisabeth Moss. Moss likes her a lot, too. “We consider Sally the fourth Mad Men woman,” says Moss. “And that’s largely because Kiernan portrays a full portrait of a person. She doesn’t seem like a child actor to me.”
To make friends her own age, Kiernan tries to perform in a lot of kids’ plays and musicals at a theater nearby. “I make most of my friends through my extracurricular activities,” she says. “A lot of them are just regular kids. I certainly know quite a few kid actors, but I’m not really friends with them. They’re all very nice people, but I just don’t run in the same circles. I’m more friends with people from my activities.” (“My favorite conversations with Kiernan are the ones we have right when we come back to start the new season,” says Hamm. “I’m constantly mind-boggled by how much that kid does when she’s not ‘working.’ Makes me feel lazy.”)
It’s pretty incredible: In the mini-adult sweepstakes, there’s no one who could beat Kiernan, not even Sally Draper. She sits primly on a cream-colored couch to answer questions about her favorite TV shows (Modern Family, Big Bang Theory), her favorite movie (An Affair to Remember), and her favorite food (sushi, particularly crab rolls and yellowtail sashimi). She likes to golf. “It is fun, though it can be stressful, when you think, Man, why didn’t I hit that shot how it was supposed to be hit?” She would like to go to Yale and Juilliard, and she also likes to cook. “I watch the Food Network all the time. I love baking cupcakes. I’m not really good at baking any sort of layery thing,” she says. “I love going to the farmers’ market for ingredients. I really love exotic fruits like litchis and rambutans.”
Then Justin Bieber comes up, and Kiernan goes wild. “I love him,” she squeals, her eyes lighting up with the same excitement she experienced when she came up with Burbloody. “I would love to meet him.” She bites her lip. “But I wouldn’t be allowed to date him. I can’t date until I’m 16.”
Styling by Bifen Xu. Hair by Jay Diola. Makeup by Sammy Mourabit at Art Department.