On a drowsy afternoon in a deserted restaurant near her Los Angeles home, Christina Hendricks is waxing lyrical about the old country. The actress was born in Tennessee, raised in Idaho and is best known for playing the epitome of sassy 1960s Manhattan cool as Joan Holloway in Mad Men. But she is actually part-English: her dad was born in Birmingham.
Has she ever been there? “I hear it’s not necessarily a relaxing weekend getaway,” the voluptuous 37-year-old says with a careful smile. I tell her that it is, however, the home of the Balti curry. “Really?” she exclaims. “Oh, I love a curry. OK, I would take a pilgrimage just for that.”
Hendricks no longer has family in Britain’s second city. But she does have relatives in different parts of the country, as well as other fond memories of the UK. Earlier this year, she shot her new film, Ginger & Rosa, in London. And long before that, while working as a model, Hendricks lived in the capital between 1996 and 97.
“I would love to know if my dad ever did have a Birmingham accent because that would be hilarious!” she laughs. “It’s such an extreme accent. But I think he moved too young. He was an army brat, so he lived in so many different cities.”
Which brings us neatly to Hendricks’s own very authentic sounding British accent. Of all the projects she might have undertaken in the brief annual hiatus from filming Mad Men, why choose a low-key, low-budget UK indie? After all, her last big screen foray, Drive, was a hardboiled thriller starring Ryan Gosling, while Ginger & Rosa (in cinemas from Friday 19 October) is directed by English arthouse film-maker Sally Potter, perhaps best known for Orlando starring Tilda Swinton. Seeing Hendricks in the tale of two teenage girls gripped by fear of nuclear armageddon in grim, Cold War-era East London will come as a surprise to many.
“I loved the character in the script right away,” Hendricks says, with immediate and obvious enthusiasm. “And I’ve been a fan of Sally’s for a long time.” Her character, Natalie, Ginger’s bohemian mother, is driven to her wits’ end by her adolescent daughter’s turmoil, and by the feckless behaviour of her rollneck-wearing, conscientious objector husband (Alessandro Nivola). “I thought it was going to be a challenge for me, and an incredibly different character than I’ve been playing on Mad Men,” she says.
Plus, for an actress locked into an annual seven-month shooting schedule in LA (even if it is on a show as consistently diverting and engaging as Mad Men), working with an avowedly non-commercial auteur in London for six weeks was a refreshing change of pace. Especially in light of the trials visited upon Joan in the fifth season (if you missed it, season five is on DVD from 29 October). The tour de force from Hendricks earned her an Emmy nomination but, alas, she was pipped by Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess of Grantham.
So , while Hendricks is certainly looking forward to resuming work on Mad Men (season six starts filming this month), she’s been equally thrilled by her collaboration with Potter. “I think each of Sally’s films has been quite different from the last,” she says, “and that’s what’s exciting about her as a film-maker. She is experimenting with new things each time, and whatever style of story she wants to tell. And I would have to say this one is, for lack of a better word, more mainstream than her other films.”
Five years ago the first season of Mad Men premiered. It was set in 1960, only two years before Ginger & Rosa. But the gulf couldn’t be wider. While the political backdrop is the same – the shadow of the bomb, the Cuban Missile Crisis on the horizon – Hendricks liked the fact that the film reflected a completely different reaction to events.
“I was intrigued by how East London and Manhattan were so very different. I really got to play a completely different side of how things were affecting – politically – these radical bohemian people. And it was fun to look through photos and research of London at that time, and what that community looked like and what they were up to. It looks very much like my neighbourhood – East London in the 60s looks like Silverlake right now!” she says of the grungily cool LA area in which she lives with her husband of three years, actor Geoffrey Arend.
Something that has changed over the years, however, is Hendricks’s hair colour. The televisual world’s greatest redhead is actually naturally blonde. Does she think her flame-red tresses have helped in her career?
“I think so. When I first started modelling I was blonde. Then I got a job and they wanted to do my hair bright red. I’d always wanted to, but the head of my agency was like, [shrewish French accent] you look terrible, it’s so ugly, you cannot have red hair. I came back as a redhead and couldn’t get my hair back to blonde for two days – in the meantime I had to audition. I booked two or three jobs, because there were a lot fewer redheads than blondes, and I was like, this is working for me, I’m keeping this!”
She shrugs, “I think it does make you stand out. People remember you when there’s a sea of faces. It helps.”