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Kiernan Shipka on mastering the French inhale and playing a bad actor for Feud

Photo: Kurt Iswarienko/FX

The first moments of this week’s Feud may elicit a pang of nostalgia in Mad Men devotees. After all, it’s hard to see Kiernan Shipka smoking and not think of Sally Draper puffing away in a car with her mother. In the latest installment of Ryan Murphy’s anthology series, Shipka as B.D., Bette Davis’ daughter, demonstrates how to do a French inhale for Joan Crawford’s awe-struck twins. But even though Shipka, 17, has been smoking on screen for years, she admits she’s not very practiced at it. “I’m an awful smoker,” she says.

Over the course of Sunday’s episode, we watch B.D. wilt when she takes on a role in What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? that, while small, is far beyond her acting abilities. Her initial swagger dissolves as she struggles to turn in a good performance. The A.V. Club spoke with Shipka on the phone about having to act poorly and returning to the ’60s. During the interview, we accidentally almost called Bette Davis “Betty Draper” only once.


The A.V. Club: How did your role on Feud come about?

Kiernan Shipka: It came about in sort of a simple way. I got an audition for it, and I looked at the breakdown, and I looked at all the people involved. I thought, “That’s so exciting. Wait, don’t get excited about this. This is never going to happen. Just go in there and have fun.” I didn’t want to hype myself up too much. It was one audition—it was a super simple process. A few days went by, and I almost let it go, kind of forgot about it, and then I got a call that they wanted me, and I was like, “What? Are you serious?” And then I got very excited for it, and then I hyped myself up again.

AVC: B.D., in the years following the events of Feud, had a very acrimonious relationship with her mother and wrote a book about her, My Mother’s Keeper. What did you investigate to get into this character?

KS: I read B.D.’s book, and I watched as much video footage as I could of her. It is interesting playing a character whose fate has already been determined and that many people watching might already know. So [I tried] to capture this character in a point in her life where she didn’t know her fate, and play into a very present moment-to-moment approach instead of foreshadowing.


AVC: How did B.D.’s book influence you? Bette denounced it, and the series portrays her as a tough mom, but not the “worst mom ever.”

KS: Yeah, totally. I think what Olivia De Havilland [Catherine Zeta-Jones] says in the show about feuds in general—that they are not about hate they are about pain. I think that can be applicable to B.D. and Bette in a lot of ways, in that pain and love and just emotion heighten that already pretty complex mother-daughter relationship. I think it was just kind of a culmination of all of that together.

AVC: You have to act in the context of the show, but not act well. How did you approach that?


KS: That was so fun, to be quite honest. I love the chance to act so badly. It’s very kind of a rare opportunity to get to act about acting. I just ran with it. I’ve been doing improv at Second City for a while, so I always had some comedic bones. Most people don’t think of me as a comedy person, but I am. It was super fun for me. I had a ball. I just got to mess up all day.

AVC: When did you start doing improv at Second City?

KS: I think I was maybe 12 when I started, and then I joined a troupe when I was 13, and I’ve been in it ever since. I perform every week on Saturdays.


AVC: Many people know you from Mad Men, you’ve been existing in this time period—

KS: I know, I can’t get out.

AVC: Did re-entering the ’60s feel totally comfortable for you?

KS: It was funny because I was entering the ’60s at a different age. Sally was younger in ’61 and ’62 than my character was. I was going back as a different person, basically. I think B.D. looks a little more like Betty Draper than she does Sally. It was fun. It was super different, to be quite honest. I didn’t draw many comparisons or similarities while doing so. But it’s always fun to step into a different time.


AVC: Now you get to wear the gorgeous outfits that as a little kid you didn’t.

KS: As a little girl I always wanted to wear and I never got to wear. It’s like my childhood dream coming true, basically.


AVC: In the second episode, you have a scene where you get to tell off Bette Davis. What was doing that scene like?

KS: It was so great and rewarding as an actor. And also just to have such a sparring partner in Susan Sarandon was amazing, because it’s a difficult scene, and to have someone who is just the best of the best, it makes you better, and it adds an intensity. To get to do that scene, let alone do that scene with her, was awesome.


AVC: You’ve had these amazing actors playing your shitty parents for a while now. How do you think these people have shaped your acting and helped you grow with it?

KS: Growing up on Mad Men with so many incredible actors and then going on to other things with amazing people, I never had any formal acting training, but they are all acting schools, basically. Just watching and learning from the best is insane. It’s like having an internship and watching all these amazing people doing their work. You just soak it up like a sponge, hopefully. That’s what I’m trying to do.


AVC: What was the most challenging scene for you on Feud?

KS: That scene with Susan was definitely—I feel like challenging has sometimes negative connotations—but it was honestly such a positive, amazing scene. But at the same time so intense in a way where I wanted to make the scene feel real and grounded. They are yelling ridiculous things at each other. It was important to me to make it feel like it was real.


AVC: B.D. ended up being left out of Bette’s will. Did Ryan Murphy talk to you about what he wanted to portray about this relationship at this point in time?

KS: I think at the end of the day, people who are in the public light, people make a lot of assumptions about them, because they’re public figures and kind of decide what they did do and what they felt. I think one of Ryan’s missions with the show is to portray each character, who was a real person, as a real person and someone who is nice and who is mean and who makes right choices and a lot of wrong choices, too. And at the end of the day, we’re all just super flawed, messed-up human beings, and no one’s perfect. I think that’s what the show is saying in that regard.


AVC: Did you study B.D.’s scenes in What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? And what did you want to highlight from them?

KS: I did, yeah. The shooting for that because it was really loose. We did a lot of variations of a lot of different things. I got to see that episode the other day, and I was really happy with how it turned out. But it’s so funny because we did so many different ways of approaching it. We just did so many variations and slight improvisation when it came to filming the actual scene that they played up on the screen with Susan and Fred [Molina] watching it. We played around with so many kinds of readings and did it in chunks. To see it all laid out was really cool.


AVC: So it wasn’t really about recreating specific moments from the film. It was more about how it might have been on set.

KS: For sure, I think it’s all about the behind-the-scenes aspect of it that’s cool. I did watch the scene a ton of times and try to get tonal things and rhythm and cadences similar. That’s one thing that I did try to aim to do the same.


AVC: You’ve been smoking on screen from a very young age. The scene of Sally smoking in the car became a GIF that people use.

KS: It is a GIF! I’m a GIF, apparently.

AVC: It seems like you’re going to be a repeat GIF for the opening of this episode of Feud.


KS: Hopefully. It’s so funny. I had no idea what I was doing. They had to show me how to do a French inhale the night before. When I was on Mad Men, once I had to smoke, and I literally lit the cigarette the backwards way and almost frickin’ lit my hair on fire because I had so much hairspray.

AVC: How did they teach you how to do the French inhale, [where smoke from a cigarette leaves the mouth and goes up into the nose]?


KS: I don’t know. It [takes practice]. You have to do it almost blindly. It’s more helpful, I guess, to do it—I’m talking like an expert. I probably couldn’t do it now. It’s helpful to try to do it in front of a mirror so you can see the smoke go up under your nose or whatever.

AVC: What was it like being in a recreated environment of old Hollywood?

KS: Honestly, I think this is peak meta, this entire experience, in every capacity. It was really cool. They built a set within a set, and you never knew whether you were going to be in a shot or not. It was unlike any other set that I’d ever been on.


AVC: How so?

KS: Everything you see as far as them interacting on the soundstage, that was a soundstage that we were also filming all the other stuff in. So you could hang out in that area if they were filming something in the house. It was like a puzzle navigating that place, because you never knew what was real and what was not.


AVC: Did that ever trip anyone up, blurring lines between fiction and reality?

KS: It’s funny because, literally, it’s a more vintage set, and then on the outskirts you see everyone else with more modern clothing and stuff. It’s this very funny picture to see all the crew and cast in their old Hollywood garb and then 10 feet behind the crew and cast in our casual, modern day stuff [with] modern cameras.


AVC: You made a movie with Emma Roberts, The Blackcoat’s Daughter. Did she prep you for the Ryan Murphy universe at all?

KS: You know, we actually didn’t talk about it. I’ve been so programmed with Mad Men to be so secretive about everything. I don’t need to break the habit, but it’s so funny because I’ve just been taught and taught and taught to not be able to say a thing. So I didn’t even tell that many people that I was on it, and all of a sudden it’s coming out, and people are like, “You’re on that show?” It’s like, “Yeah, that’s what I’ve been doing. I didn’t tell you. Sorry.”


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