At 14, Kiernan Shipka Almost Got Busted By The Cops
The teenaged actor hid in the bushes as the police shut down a party — a party thrown by her boss’s son, no less.
By the time Kiernan Shipka was 14, television viewers across the world had been watching her for more than half of her life. She’d begun playing Sally Draper, the daughter of ad man Don Draper, on Mad Men when she was six years old, and was in the middle of filming the show’s seventh and final season in 2014. The actor had already earned her high school degree as an independent student — “I didn’t want to take summer breaks, I wanted to just get through the curriculum,” she says — and was suddenly confronted with the question of what to do next. It was, Shipka says, “a very existential time in my life,” a period of great transition that most people aren’t faced with until they’re a little older.
Luckily, she was well prepared. On the set of Mad Men, she learned about people from the show’s characters, fashion from costume designer Janie Bryant, and acting and leadership from her onscreen dad Jon Hamm — a masterclass far more illuminating than whatever she might’ve gleaned from a classroom. Listening to Shipka talk about the show, it’s clear that it didn’t just shape her early years, but informed her outlook on life. Mad Men, she says, “gave me the hall pass to be a really complicated person and for that to feel okay, for that to feel natural and normal.”
But even as Shipka was learning how to be an adult, her friends and coworkers took pains to keep her life as normal as possible. Instead of starring in movies during her off time, she did theater, played tennis with other kids her age, and found her fandoms. “That is the era of obsession, in my opinion,” the 22-year-old says. “I was probably on a Harry Styles kick. I was a One Direction girl through and through, and I think I was probably still in a Harry Styles [phase]... I still am.”
When Mad Men ended and Shipka faced every child actor’s dilemma — whether to keep acting or pursue something new — she knew herself well enough that she decided to stick with what she loved. In recent years, she’s proved her staying power in Hollywood with Netflix’s popular teen show Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. She’s currently starring opposite Diane Kruger in Swimming with Sharks, a Roku Channel series about the toxic relationship between a Hollywood boss and her assistant, and she’ll soon appear in the HBO limited series The White House Plumbers, where she’ll play the daughter of Woody Harrelson’s character. And though she still plays daughters from time to time, it’s clear her career will keep growing, as will her talent.
Below, Shipka speaks to Bustle about growing up with Sally Draper, working with Jon Hamm, and a house party gone terribly wrong.
What was your life like when you were 14? What were you thinking about and worrying about?
Fourteen is a fun age to talk about because that was the last season of Mad Men. Fourteen, in a way, was the end of an era for me. I had been working on Mad Men since I was 6 years old. It was a very existential time in my life because this major, massive portion of my existence, and something I identified with greatly, was leaving. I would say I was, emotionally, a little cracked open.
Did you think about going to regular high school or quitting acting?
When you are a child actor, there are moments throughout your childhood where you do check yourself and question, “Do I want to do this forever?” Luckily, I grew up in an environment that was very supportive of me doing whatever I wanted to do. If I wanted to quit acting and become an econ major, or if I just wanted to do something totally different and creative, my parents would’ve been supportive. So I never felt that pressure to stay, but I always knew that I wanted to.
I never went to a traditional high school. I always did an independent study program. College was something that I thought about attending. Enough of my friends went to high school for me to get invites to the parties, so going to an actual school was of absolutely no concern or desire [for me]. Too dramatic, kids were stupid and silly, and I would have to deal with boys and all that kind of stuff. I figured, why?
“I was going to the Emmys every year, but I really wanted to go to prom. That’s the child actor thing in a nutshell.”
I’m curious about how you learned to socialize. There must have been something kind of seductive about going out and getting to go to a high school party; it must have felt really foreign.
I was going to the Emmys every year, but I really wanted to go to prom. That’s the child actor thing in a nutshell. But also, my life wasn’t that different from other kids that I was growing up with, besides the fact that I was on Mad Men. I wasn’t taking movies in between Mad Men [seasons]. I wasn’t trying to hustle. It was my one thing and everything else was focused on being a kid. Once you have your friend group locked in growing up, you make your way to the parties and homecomings and things just fine without having a school.
I do remember, Matt Weiner, the creator of Mad Men, had kids my age growing up. One of them had a party while he was out of town and I was invited. I went and the cops busted it, and I was at my boss’ house at a party getting busted by the cops, and running in[to] a bush. I remember that feeling at the time [that] it sort of encapsulated my existence.
That is a very entertaining image to me.
Just being like, “Matt's going to find out!” Not my parents, but my boss!
You were spending a lot of time around adults, as opposed to other kids your age. What was that like?
It was great. It definitely shaped my personality and the way I have moved about the world. I remember [Jon] Hamm was extraordinarily protective of me and [made] sure that I wasn’t exposed to anything that I didn’t need to be exposed to. But at the same time, I never felt like I was talked down to or treated differently.
If anything, it’s carried on to my life in this way of just liking whoever I like and getting to know whoever I get to know, whatever age they might be, whatever line of work they're in. It made me very interested in people.
What did it feel like to be playing a character going through puberty while you were going through it yourself?
Sally was always a little ahead of me. She got her period before I got mine, I remember that. I remember being like, “Okay, she beat me to it, once again.” Always one step ahead, that Sally. It was interesting to grow up with this parallel human. I was always able to separate myself from her, but the idea of growing up alongside her was very integrated in my life, and I’m sure has made me the person I am in ways that I can’t even really describe. There was definitely a catharsis to growing up and then being able to put all my thoughts and feelings on growing up in another person. It did feel right.
The Valentine's Day episode in that last season of Mad Men felt like such a beautiful culmination of the relationship between Sally and Don. What do you remember about shooting that, and working with Jon?
I love him so much. I think he’s the best and was just the most incredible leader, and such a thoughtful performer, and such a good guy. I think that [the most] memorable [thing], shooting-wise, was probably those diner scenes. Just getting to knock those out, and sitting across from this person that you’ve built so much rapport with and so much energy with. It felt very satisfying to be able to just sit there and let all the work we’d done for the past eight or so years spill out into eight hours of a day. I think the conversations they have are more real than, maybe, other conversations that they had previously had. It just felt like this really honest, mature moment for both of them. It felt good as an actor, too. We all got so close to those characters that you have these reckonings with yourself and with the character in this very deeply personal way that is so, so, so rare.
Where she says, “Happy Valentine's Day, I love you,” [at the end,] I remember shooting that. It was [the] end of a long day. Obviously, from my perspective, Sally’s giving an honest but small gift to Don. But what stuck with me [watching the episode] was Jon’s reaction, which I never saw. I hadn’t watched the show until maybe two years ago. So [to] see that whole thing come together and to see me walk away — I remember what I did, but then to look at what he did, it came together in this beautiful way for me, too. I continually make sense of the relationship to this day.
Was there anything that you remember being fixated on in a formative way? I feel like that’s an age when I was really obsessively into things.
Yes. I was really obsessed with music when I was 14. I was a little snooty about it. I was a Pitchfork reader. I loved Animal Collective, and I loved more niche bands because I had a crush on this guy that had a band, but also listened to really grungy music. I just listened to all of it and I just loved it. If I was entrenched in anything at 14, it was probably listening to music. That was the way that I viewed the world, through the songs that I listened to.
And I loved restaurants in LA. Jonathan Gold was still with us — amazing, amazing food critic for the LA Times. He would write a 101 Best Restaurant List every single year in LA. I remember my activity, my very innocent, wholesome activity with friends was going to different restaurants that he’d reviewed. We’d try to get through the 101 every year, which was a feat, but we almost got there. That, to me, was definitely part of my childhood too.
I know you love fashion. When you were 14, how were you learning to think about clothes?
I thought about clothes from a very young age because Janie Bryant, who was our costume designer, was [a] genius. The thing that I think imprinted on me the most was less about the style and more about the fact that style could tell a story. I think that's what stayed with me. To this day, when I put on an outfit, sometimes there’s more of a story to tell with it than there is the actual outfit. I think that’ll stay with me forever. That’s always in the back of my mind.
As far as fashion goes, January Jones, to me, was the idol, the icon, the everything, as far as what she wore every day to set and what she wore on the red carpet. I was just so in awe of her growing up ... She is just one of a kind.
By 14 you were aware of the fanaticism for your show. Were you making the connection in your brain about the way that you were thinking about other people, and that fandom people had for Mad Men?
I definitely felt that in the later years of the show. It’s funny, because when I was younger, it was actually really fun going to all those award shows. I remember, when I got to the age where the shows that I was watching and loved were also being nominated at the Emmys and the SAG Awards and I got to meet all those people. That, to me, was thrilling. That was, obviously, toward the end of the run. I remember meeting [Veep star] Tony Hale when I was probably 14. Actually, I remember that was a big one for me. Meeting Tony Hale at 14 was the game changer. I’ve never been that starstruck. Truly, I was not coherent at all.
This interview has been edited and condensed.