Sweating the Small Stuff with the Big Guns: Working back to back on Silicon Valley and Mad Men

I’m a character comedy actress with a solid improv pedigree and some well-honed acting chops. Big deal. Believe the hype: it’s hard to get a job in this town. Let alone two jobs at the same time. But two recurring roles on two must-see Sunday night boutique network shows? Humblebrag or no, I’m beside myself (and myself.)

Right now I play “Marsha”, Peggy’s new secretary at Sterling Cooper & Partners, on the final season of AMC’s cult hit drama Mad Men. And I play “Patrice”, a senior VP at top-tier tech firm Hooli, in the freshman season of the HBO comedy Silicon Valley.

Two very different shows. But funny enough, two very similar characters.

Mad Men’s Marsha is a no-nonsense, does-as-she’s told, efficient-but-socially awkward desk secretary with a Dictaphone in one hand and a 50 pound electric typewriter in the other. Silicon Valley’s Patrice is a no-nonsense, does-as-she’s told, efficient-but-socially awkward senior VP with a Blackberry in one hand and the keys to a Tesla Model S in the other.

These two women are 40 years and 3,000 miles away from one another, but their DNA matches up in their finely tuned ability to grin and bear it no matter the turbulence threatening to destroy their respective bosses at every act break. Stephanie Drake, who plays Meredith on Mad Men, saw the pilot episode of Silicon Valley and texted me “She’s just like Marsha! But with cooler hair!” Well, Patrice also likely gets paid way more, so at least that’s a step forward despite those pesky labia.

I became Patrice first. We shot the pilot episode of Silicon Valley in March of 2013 and I can easily say of the 100-plus sets that I’ve been on, these were my favorite days of on-camera work ever. I’ve shot pilots in the past where fear of The All Powerful Network had juiced out all joy and passion from the writer-creators. Not in Mike Judge’s world. He and his co-writers John Altschuler and Dave Krinsky shrewdly cast a stacked deck of top shelf improv talent.

The jokes on Silicon Valley’s scripted pages were great. That’s what got the deal done. But these guys encouraged jokes on the fly and welcomed organic changes as the script gave way to the show. I loved feeling nurtured while still not knowing for sure what would happen next. At the end of every scene the camera just rolled, fully allowing the actors to play at one-upping each other until there were no more buttons to be pushed.

By contrast, my work on Mad Men is an exercise in specificity, subtext, and doing as much emotional work in as few words as possible. If Silicon Valley is free flow, then Mad Men is air tight. Matt says “It is written” and it is so. Really.

Details on the details: the batteries in Marsha’s dictation device work even though you’ll never hear what she’s listening to, nor the buzz of the machine. The typewriter she’s typing on has power coming to it and a fully inked ribbon even though you’ll never see what she’s typing. Her earrings clip on to my earlobes and you guys, they hurt. For real. It’s all real.

I’ve been a fan of Mad Men from minute one. Matt Weiner has the mind of a serial killer, only instead of using it for evil he’s using it for good storytelling. I’ve reveled in every inch of detail of this show, every trope that gets bent over backwards and spanked, every mirror that bends just enough that so we can look both back in time and at ourselves simultaneously. I. Love. This. World.

Silicon Valley is getting its footing while Mad Men is waving farewell. And Mike Judge is finding truth in the moment, while Matt Weiner is mapping it out for us (elevations and all.)

Working on Silicon Valley is an exercise in not just keeping the ball in the air, but lofting it as high as it can go. Working on Mad Men is more like a religious ritual interrupted by catered lunches.

So what happens from here? Maybe Patrice just drives off in her Tesla to an appointment for a celebratory hysterectomy. Perhaps Marsha decides she’s into Don’s secretary Meredith and talks her into a Boston marriage. As for me, I’m just thrilled to have been tapped on the shoulder by each of these visionaries, invited to either play along or follow the map, whatever the weather calls for.

  • http://160gotitfor12.blogspot.com Keli Daniels

    Well thanks for sharing Jill! Love your elequent insights and comparisons! I do believe that you are a writer as well as all of the above!! Happy Trails and see you in the trenches! XX,Keli

  • http://www.sarahtaylor.org Sarah Taylor

    Great writing and great insights. Thanks for this!