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Veteran character actor Chelcie Ross discusses tackling a real-life figure for Mad Men and how the series triggers his own memories of the era.
Q: How did you feel about playing a real person on a fictional show?
A: I am pleased to be able to play that role. Even more so because the character is long gone. I don't know if any family members have weighed in about how he's being portrayed, but it makes it easier for me; it gives me some license. In the past, I have played historic characters who are still around. No one wants to think that's what they're really like. Case in point: I did Dan Devine in Rudy. I talked to at least 200 people who either played for or worked for the man, and I got a pretty clear picture of who he was, but Mr. Devine didn't care for it at all.
Q: Did you know anything about Conrad Hilton prior to the role?
A: I did not. As a matter of fact, I didn't know it was Conrad Hilton when I auditioned. That was being kept under wraps. I read it, but they changed the character name, he was "Victor" or "George." It wasn't until after I was cast that the casting director said, "This is hush hush, but the character is Conrad Hilton." I didn't know anything about him. I did a little Internet research and Matt provided me with the Time magazine article, and that was enough. I did want to read his book but I never found it.
Q: Have you stayed at any Hilton hotels?
A: Oh yes. I think you would be hard pressed to find people that haven't. I do voice-overs in Chicago, so I'm downtown quite a lot. I have monthly parking in a Hilton hotel. Every time I pull up to the sign, I say, "Here I am."
Q: How does working on Mad Men differ from the other work you've done?
A: I don't know how to describe it, but it's a different requirement. It's a scarier proposition than acting on most TV or movies; it's kind of naked acting. The show is shot to the technical standard of 1963, so you're not going to get quick jump edits, or steady cams, or any of that flash. In addition, there's no score. You can take any scene and tell the audience what you want them to feel with a good score. But there's not a score behind the scenes, there's incidental music. So basically what you have is a camera on a stick and two actors in a room. It's like being under a pop-up, there's no place to hide. And I like that. It brings out the best in everything.
Q: Have there been any Mad Men moments that have triggered any of your own recollections of the '60s?
A: I was a junior in college in '63 so the Cuban Missile Crisis and the assassination are very vivid for me. Anytime anything triggers those, I automatically think of where I was and what I was doing. The other thing, is when Carla talks about the Birmingham church bombing. I did a film in Birmingham called The Long Walk Home with Sissy Spacek and Whoopi Goldberg, and had the opportunity to talk to the extras who had witnessed first hand the civil rights movement. So, of course, I went to those memories of their experiences when the subject came up.
Q: It sounds like your memories are intense.
A: They're very vivid, very strong and very emotional. Because you're at the age -- in you're 20s -- when everything is heightened. You take in everything. The world is a mystery around every corner, and a surprise.