A Mad Mad Mad 'Mad Men'

James Lipton discusses the intense preparation he (gladly) underwent to interview the cast of 'Mad Men.'

The title of this blogs tells the story. On May 14th you'll see the largest cast ever assembled on our stage. Eight -- count 'em, eight -– members of the Mad Men cast arrayed in front of me and our students and you the viewers.

If you've been watching our show you know we've interviewed casts before -- The Simpsons, Law and Order, Will and Grace, Everybody Loves Raymond, Modern Family, Family Guy, Glee -- but this one breaks the population record: Jon Hamm, January Jones, Vincent Kartheiser, Christina Hendricks, John Slattery, Jared Harris, Kiernan Shipka and the show's co-creator Matt Weiner, lined up and ready to go.

And bear in mind that when I have groups like this on stage, I prepare for each member of the group as if he or she were my only guest. Since it normally takes between seven and 14 days to prepare for a single guest, this show took. . .well, you can do the math. And you know what? I loved every minute of it. I normally watch everything a guest has put on film. In the cases of television series, I watch selected episodes from each season. In the case of Mad Men, I watched every frame of every episode, from their premiere to the night they walked on our stage -- 54 episodes. Not because I was obliged to do so, but quite simply because I was hooked.

In a little more than three years, Mad Men has won three Best Drama Emmys and three Best Drama Golden Globes, and for good reason. It's that good. The writing, the acting, the direction -- every element of the series is fresh, different, and constantly surprising.

Over the years, I've said on Inside the Actors Studio that nothing impresses me more than the ability of an actor -- or a dramatic work -- to stay ahead of the audience. What lay at the heart of Marlon Brando's great gift was the ingenuity and brilliance of his choices. You could never outguess him, never anticipate him. You simply surrendered to the utter unpredictability -– and ultimate inevitability -- of his choices.

For me, the collective creators of Mad Men possess that ability to first startle, then persuade us, drawing us deeper and deeper into the lives of the series' characters. And that's what Matt Weiner and his cast brought to our stage, laying bare their characters' -- and at moments -- their own souls for our students -- and you.

If you watch the episode you'll learn how alike Jon Hamm's and Don Draper's stories are. Look at the faces of his co-stars as he reveals the source of Don. Time and again the groups who've come to us have expressed their astonishment at how much they’re learned about each other on our stage, secrets they hadn't learned in years of intimate daily contact. This night was no exception.

There were lighter moments, too, as when Vincent Kartheiser revealed the similarities between himself and his character, Pete Campbell. Both, he lamented, "are creepy." Jared Harris described his stepfather Rex Harrison with a dry and revealing "He wasn't that fond of children." And Matt Weiner revealed -- to us and Jon Hamm -- that the reason Jon had to audition seven times for the role of Don was that someone at the network kept complaining he wasn't "sexy enough."

Twelve-year-old Kiernan Shipka revealed that she isn't allowed to watch any of the show's scenes but her own, for obvious reasons -- and for the same reason, she was confined to her dressing room with her mother as the cast and I discussed the events and storylines that would have made her presence on stage inappropriate. Since the cast, in their fervor, spent a generous six hours with our students, it was midnight before Kiernan was allowed to come to the stage to be interviewed -- whereupon she, in the words of Entertainment Weekly, stole the show -- by responding to my frequently expressed invitation to dance for our students with a balletic display that brought the house down.

There was more -- much more -- but you'll have to tune in on May 14th to see and hear it. Not exactly a hardship.

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