Written by CANDICE FREDERICK
Believe it or not, when Christina Hendricks first read the script for Joan Harris on Mad Men, her immediate reaction was, “Oh God, Joan is such a bitch.” As she tells Playboy, this thrilled the actress—“That’s super fun to play”—but she was worried that the audience was going to hate her. It’s because Joan, the head secretary of a predominantly male advertising firm in 1960s New York City, didn’t mince her words, even around the other female clerks in the office who were stuck at the bottom rung of the corporate ladder. She expected excellence from other women and was fully in command of her own, even when she was not afforded the right to use it.
Of course, Joan came from an era when women’s likability and sexual desirability were largely considered markers of their success. (Come to think of it, not much has changed since then.) So her unapologetic and unflinching manner around men, who both ogled and were intimidated by her, was revolutionary in many ways. Hendricks ultimately saw Joan in the same way her fans did—as a feminist. “I don’t think she started out as one,” she explains. “I think it was feminist in her nature to be a working woman and move to New York City. But she very much kowtowed to what men expected of her and used her sexuality as a tool, which I don’t think is a bad thing, but she knew that it gave her power.”
This search for female power and respect by any means necessary—in a contemporary, judgmental world still governed by self-serving men—is also what fuels Hendricks’ latest role as Beth Boland on Good Girls, the NBC dramedy now in its second season. Beth’s relationship with her husband, Dean (Matthew Lillard), crumbled last season when she discovered that he had not only been cheating on her for years, but his negligence was also tanking the business that kept a roof over their and their four children’s heads.
Dean’s flagrant actions led Beth to make a few scandalous decisions of her own, first tag-teaming with her sister, Annie (Mae Whitman), and their friend Ruby (Retta)—all mothers struggling within the financial margins—to rob a supermarket for extra cash. Next up was engaging in business with Rio (Manny Montana), a seasoned criminal laundering money through the supermarket, who they now owe big. Beth becomes increasingly titillated by the opportunity to utilize her dangerous new skills and collaborate with Rio, inciting an unbearably hot cat-and-mouse chase between them that escalates in season two.
Playing Beth puts Hendricks at the center of a narrative that blends the lines of morality in a way in which male characters have historically indulged. “I think the whole thing has given Beth a sense of power,” Hendricks says. “In season one, she was like, I’ve been pushed in a corner. My husband’s cheating on me. I’m about to lose my house. I’m going to do this one crazy thing, then I’m going to get out. But in season two, she’s like, Maybe I kind of like this. There’s something that I’m good at here. Maybe it makes me feel turned on to be so good at something, and I’m getting this adrenaline rush. Her whole life has been turned on its head. I think she’s lashing out and discovering stuff about herself.”
Among those things she’s discovering is what excites her sexually, which is no longer her husband, who’s now sleeping on the couch, but Rio, the confident crime boss who treats her as an equal. “I think it’s a fantasy for a woman to be a good mom and go about her way, when all of a sudden this bad guy that she would never even dream of is in her life,” Hendricks says. “Rio’s energy is unlike anything else she’s ever felt in her life. He’s got this sort of calm, cool, collected, I’m not fazed by anything vibe, which is the opposite of anything else going on in her life. He looks her up and down and makes her feel crazy inside. There is something to be said about feeling powerful and feeling sexual. When we’re feeling confident and at a place when we feel powerful in our lives, we definitely feel more sexual—at least, I do. I don’t think Beth’s like, I’ve found my path. I’m blazing forward. This is how good I feel. I think that she’s ashamed of a lot of it, I think she’s scared and I think she’s proud, all at the same time.”
Allowing women to be antiheroes and to be uncertain—as well as make decisions others may scoff at, like Beth choosing to stay with Dean despite his infidelity—is precisely what inspires Hendricks. “People are human beings and make mistakes,” she says. “It’s not black and white. Dean is a good father. She’s scared and doesn’t know what to do, and she acts out. There are a lot of adult mistakes and behavior and thoughts going on, and it’s sloppy, and it’s borderless.”
Exploring female complexity and giving women permission to be in equal parts messy and heroic all comes down to one thing for Hendricks: honesty. It’s what she strives to bring to every performance, even when it scares her. “That’s my daily struggle and my goal every day when I go to work: to tell my truth through someone’s script, and hopefully it touches someone else,” she says.
Hendricks, who’s married to actor Geoffrey Arend, credits the love and support she has in her life for giving her the strength to walk in her truth and own her voice, as Joan Harris did long before her time and Beth Boland is determined to do today. “I feel like every woman has strength within her to draw upon,” she says. “I certainly watch the women around me. [Strength also comes from] me picking myself up each day and moving forward, sometimes when I feel like I can’t. It comes from the love I have with my husband and my dog and my friends and my mom. I think we find strength from different places, and it stems from the way we love and the way we protect, even when it’s sometimes ourselves.”