Smelling oddly like singed straw, the New York set of AMC's "Mad Men," which premieres Thursday, July 19, is buzzing. Everywhere you turn, someone is gushing about the show's amazing script, or raving about its "tops in their field" crew.
That infamous script, it turns out, is what got writer Matthew Weiner his choice job on "The Sopranos."
"I wrote it six years ago," he says. "And it's kind of become legendary -- oh, don't use that word; it makes me sound like an egomaniac!"
Chatting on the show's 1960s Sterling Cooper Advertising Agency set, Weiner is so excited that it's impossible to take him as anything resembling egomaniacal. Surprising, really, when you consider the fact that he went from writing "Becker" to writing for the acclaimed HBO hit based on the merits of this one script.
The backing of "Sopranos" head David Chase is no small thing, though, and his support ultimately led Weiner to this office building in Manhattan. In this 13-episode, one-hour drama, the professional lives and saucy after-hours exploits of the staff of a Madison Avenue advertising agency play out against the slick backdrop of New York circa 1960.
Decked out floor-to-ceiling in period gear, the set looks as though you've wandered off the street and gone back in time. And that's just the way Weiner wanted it -- all the way down to the culprit behind the set's strange and mysterious odor.
John Slattery ("Desperate Housewives") explains that his character, agency boss Roger Sterling, smokes like a chimney. Relaxing in the greenroom between scenes, he says, "I actually quit smoking recently, so I smoke these fake, herbal cigarettes, which are disgusting," he says, cringing. "They don't burn right. If you light one, it flares up and catches fire."
Joining Slattery in the reformed smokers club is co-star Jon Hamm, who quit when he was 24. When he signed on to play alpha male ad exec Don Draper, there was one thing he might not have considered. "My character smokes a lot," he says, laughing. "You don't have to smoke real cigarettes -- they're real cigarettes in the sense that they're really burning and you're really inhaling some smoke, but it's not tobacco and nicotine and all of that stuff. Not that my character would admit to anything being wrong with smoking cigarettes!"
So the set smells, a small price to pay for working with a top-notch crew and a cast packed with beautiful people. Coiffed ladies and dashing gents, disarmingly attractive in those tailored suits and just-so hair, wander around the set looking shockingly comfortable, especially considering that the women -- from the stars to the secretarial-pool extras -- are all sporting old-school girdles.
Elisabeth Moss ("The West Wing"), who plays naive new girl Peggy Olson, couldn't wait to talk about the costumes. "I love them!" she raves. "It's so exciting when you walk on set and there's all these beautiful women and gorgeous men in suits."
The whole picture, it seems, changes when the costumes go on. "Try wearing a girdle," Moss says. "That'll change your posture really quickly! But I cannot wait to take it off -- it's the greatest part of my day, taking off the girdle."
Taking a break from perfect-postured cross-stitching during her downtime, Christina Hendricks, whose sassy head secretary character, Joan, is working her way toward a home in the country, couldn't agree more.
"I feel like my posture is completely different," she says. "I walk differently, I carry myself differently -- but you won't see me traipsing around with a one-piece girdle on [in real life], I promise you that! Oh, my God, I feel like a whole new woman when I take that thing off."
Beyond the costumes and the cloud of smoke, "Mad Men" is unique in that it doesn't rely on the 1960s as a gimmick. The overall feel of the sophistication and mood of the era is an inarguable draw, but even many scenes conveyed much more than a pat cliche of the time. Vincent Kartheiser, almost unrecognizable out of his vampire-slaying "Angel" gear, sums it up best. "It's fantasy, but in a quiet way. It [is] really clever and subtle," he says. "It isn't 'smack you in your face with our obviousness with the problems of 1960,' or 'slap you in the face with the irony of trying to sell cigarettes' -- it's just simply there."
After a day on the bustling, beautiful "Mad Men" set, one would put up with some herbal cigarette stench to simply be there again anytime.