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As Depression-era farmer Archie Whitman, actor Joseph Culp exists in a different era than most of the Mad Men cast. We talked with Culp about the challenges that come with playing Don Draper’s father.
Q: Since you’re in Season 1 but not Season 2, were you surprised to be back for Season 3?
A: A little bit. I was kind of wondering what they had in mind. It was a bit of a surprise. And a happy one.
Q: Did you know Archie was Don’s father from the beginning?
A: I did not learn who he was until I already had the part and we were getting ready to shoot. I knew that he was a Depression-era farmer and I did my best to exude that. And Laura Schiff, the casting director, was someone who’s known me many years…so I think she had an idea that I could bring in an interesting character for Archie.
Q: Does it take much time for the Depression era members of the cast to get into makeup and costume?
A: The thing that probably took the most time was the special-effects makeup that was done for the death scene at the end of Season 3. That was where the horse kicks [Archie] in the face. You only see probably a short cut of it, but it was fairly gruesome. They actually replicated what it would look like for a hoof to smash a guy’s face in. I was walking around the set in that makeup. Mouths hung agape. That took quite a while to put that makeup together.
Q: How did the costume and makeup artists prep you?
A: When I go see the prostitute my hair is a little more semi-groomed, because that’s before Dick was born and that’s more the twenties style. And then in the Depression era, there’s my sort of farmer’s cut. So my hair had to be cut consistently every few weeks, where they shortened the sides extremely and it’s a little longer on the top. I was walking around town half the time with this hairdo that would not be of my own choosing, but it was all for the good of the show. So there was always a haircut involved and always using lots of dirt on the skin, under the fingernails, to achieve that sort of earthy and bronzed effect that farmers had. And my big ol’ pair of coveralls, which seemed to almost play a featured role in every scene.
Q: Was that real dirt?
A: We used something called Fuller’s earth, which is a very common makeup dirt. Frankly, I’m not sure what Fuller’s earth is made out of. I think it’s dirt, but you can use it on clothing, you can use it on skin, you can use it everywhere. I always insisted on getting black under the fingernails. No one can ever get that out if you work in the fields all day.
Q: Can you talk about the hallucination scene in Episode 7?
A: I love that scene, because it opens with a joke, and I was very excited when I saw that in the script. I said, “You’re finally letting me tell a joke.” The great thing is that Matt Weiner is always encouraging to go lighter at times with the character, even though it’s a pretty heavy character. That’s why I enjoyed the piece where he’s more like a hallucination. You get to see the frivolous side of Archie Whitman.
Q: You’re a filmmaker, producer, and writer, in addition to being an actor. What have you learned from working on Mad Men?
A: Well, one thing you learn as always with television is that you have to make strong choices in a short amount of time. You have to execute things in as efficient a manner as possible because you simply don’t have the time. You learn to try to do your best work in the moment and make educated choices. And Matt Weiner is a very, very talented man, and he’s very detailed. He really likes to oversee every detail of the show, particularly in the shooting. I would say I share that with him because when I make a film, my eye is always on detail. So I’d say it was reinforced by my work on Mad Men.