Kiernan Shipka knows that ‘being a teen is not gonna last forever’ – that’s why she’s making the most of it. As she graduates into cult horror, she tells us why on-screen girlhood needs to be complex
Taken from the spring 2016 issue of Dazed. Vote for Kiernan on the Dazed 100 here.
Monday, 8.30am: an hour despised by 16-year-olds everywhere. Buzzers are sounding out across teenage bedrooms, followed by those internal distress signals that come with newly discovered zits or incomplete assignments as the realisation dawns that the weekend is over. Kiernan Shipka’s alarm goes off a lot during the course of our hang, which takes in an early-morning caffeine fix, followed by a hike in Hollywood’s Runyon Canyon. The actress grew up on our TV screens as Mad Men’s Sally Draper and will soon be terrifying filmgoers in February, as a schoolgirl possessed by the devil. But off-screen, she displays a sweet tranquility that would explain why she’s fast becoming the poster-teen for the modern age. She taps to silence her iPhone. “So many alarms,” she shrugs. She seems unfazed by the noise.
With a positive breeziness that banishes the tired trope of misunderstood teens into a deep, dark abyss, one morning in Shipka’s company convinces me that she’s the walking antithesis of the angsty-adolescent archetype. She orders us iced almond-milk lattes from her local, where she knows everyone’s name. I notice an open wound on her left knuckle. “Oh, that? I was punching in my Muay Thai boxing class and got lost in the moment.” Today, on a windy morning more reminiscent of her Chicago hometown than Los Angeles, she’s nonplussed by the prospect of scaling hilly heights with no one in sight, impervious to the blind panic of the locals (‘Brace yourselves, we have weather!’ etc). “We’ll be fine!” she says brightly, before thanking our Uber driver for being “nothing short of delightful”. Her mannerisms put most adults, never mind teenagers, to shame. “If I could have any superpower, I would want hyper-intelligence,” she offers at random, claiming that flying is nowhere near as fun. It seems obvious, now that Shipka says it, that hyper-intelligence is so much cooler than flying.
Shipka is prone to statements like these – equal parts goofy and wise. Either way, it’s easy to forget she only recently turned 16. “I’ve always been funny about ageing up,” she says, recalling the celebrations she had weeks earlier (karaoke and a good spread, FYI). “When I turned three, I was not happy about it.” As I listen, I try to remember how I felt about turning three. Nope, nothing. “But I came to terms with it eventually!”
To call Shipka a precocious talent would be selling her short. After making her TV debut at the age of five – as in, five months – on hospital drama ER, she went on to appear in ads selling everything from Campbell’s Soup to Build-A-Bears. It was an apt precursor to her role in Mad Men, the show that gave us a window on the world of a 1960s New York advertising agency over seven seasons. In the award-winning drama, Shipka’s young heroine, Sally Draper, held a mirror up to the sordid behaviour of the adults around her, while offering a glimmer of hope for future generations with her own worldview.
Shipka moved to LA after landing the role at the age of six, receiving the call while in the studio car park used for Jimmy Kimmel’s ABC talk show. She was a comedy-sketch regular there, notably impersonating a newly bald Britney Spears in meltdown mode in 2006. “Oh God, the Britney moment, so random,” she recalls. Unlike Britney, or former drug addict Drew Barrymore, or Macaulay Culkin, or Mischa Barton, or indeed any precocious success from the 1980s Brat Pack onwards, this child star hasn’t so much as had a public handholding, let alone a mental breakdown.
Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner described Shipka’s performance in the show as the work of a “prodigy”. There were, incredibly, eight boys who played brother Bobby Draper, but only ever one Sally. Shipka and her onscreen counterpart aged at the same rate, give or take six months. “I grew up playing someone who was growing up,” she says. “That experience is universal.” It hasn’t just bound Sally and Kiernan together – anyone who watched Mad Men saw the nail-biting stages of their own youth in Sally. When she shrieks at the news that father Don is taking her to see The Beatles, it’s the same shriek of a young fan who bagged Justin Bieber tickets online ten minutes ago. When Sally feigns knowledge of the birds and the bees, telling her babysitter, “I know the man pees inside the woman,” well, we’ve all been there.
“I’ve always been a feminist and I’m lucky to live in this time. The characters I’ve always been drawn to are real and flawed” – Kiernan Shipka
Shipka is always quick to insist that she is not Sally, though. As we wind our way up the dusty Hollywood trail, her brow never furrows, her lips never curl – as I imagine Sally’s would. Shipka isn’t the type to make her father cocktails, or smoke cigarettes with her mother. She hasn’t cut her own hair, or run away from home. She didn’t get caught masturbating at a friend’s house, then sent to a psychiatrist to cure her of her wayward behaviour. Shipka approached that powerful scene like she did every other. “I was totally connected to Sally’s experience and willing to go on any journey with her,” she says. That budding sexuality among young girls was a cause of shame on the show made audiences wonder if much has changed today (her mother’s response is to threaten to cut Sally’s fingers off if she ever does ‘it’ again). The episode remains a vital depiction of girlhood kept cruelly in check by the regressive moral codes of the elder generation.
Where Sally had to navigate her teenage years in the absence of guidance, Shipka enjoyed an abundance of positive adult role models on set. “All the women were such cool forces,” she says. They informed Shipka’s politics early, and made her savvier in an age of increased debate around the Hollywood pay gap and diversity both in front of and behind the lens. “I’ve always been a feminist and I’m lucky to live in this time. The characters I’ve always been drawn to are real and flawed. That’s not how women have always been portrayed. Now there are more roles for interesting, strong females. The more roles out there like that, the cooler.” Shipka realises that Mad Men portrayed a time that wasn’t favourable to women, but she drew strength from the show’s correction of imbalances off-screen via its impressive roster of female directors and writers. “It was such an important community for me,” she says. She doesn’t place importance on specific idols, but she does owe a lot to Sally. “She became this kind, smart person who wasn’t gonna do what someone told her. She inspires me.”
Now, Shipka is looking to forge her own path at a manageable rate. In 2014, she was named one of Time magazine’s most influential teens. She’s worked on small-screen comedy roles with Meg Ryan (Fan Girl) and on a sitcom co-written by Tina Fey, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Her chillingly demonic appearance alongside Emma Roberts in artful suspense horror February, due for release in the UK this spring, is directed by Osgood Perkins. “His dad was Anthony Perkins, who was (Psycho’s) Norman Bates,” says Shipka, thrilled to be starring in an ode to the genre’s classics. “It’s about feeling super-alone. It’s deep, dark and unlike anything I’ve played before.” Shipka plays Kat, who is waiting for her parents to collect her from boarding school one Christmas. Inexplicably, they fail to show up, and things go Suspiria-style awry in the abandoned school corridors.
Shipka is vague on where she found inspiration for her scene-stealing performance in the film. “I got into a headspace that wasn’t quite my own.” Part of her diabolical preparations included subjecting friends to a screening of Psycho – at the cemetery. “They don’t like horror so I was like, ‘Guys, this is the perfect opportunity to watch this movie!’” There was a photobooth there decorated in homage to that bathroom scene. “The photographer gave you a knife to do a pose,” she smiles devilishly. “Coolness.”
“I’m scared of Twitter. I’ll type something and think, ‘This is funny,’ then I’ll think about it for too long and go, ‘Nope, it’s not!’ Delete” – Kiernan Shipka
Unlike her character in February, Shipka is anything but alone. Her associations are with similarly put-together, world-wielding teenagers: Rookie’s Tavi Gevinson, The Hunger Games star and activist Amandla Stenberg, musician Willow Smith, acclaimed actress Chloë Grace Moretz, and pop sensation Lorde. The knives may have been out for young Hollywood past, but today’s rising stars are impervious to scrutiny. Shipka doesn’t go near swearwords, defaulting to an “Oh my gosh!” or “Oh man!” when expressing amazement or frustration. She hasn’t a bad word to say about anyone.
A clan they may be, but each of these girls is a firm believer in the power of individuality. “Friendships are this fun team,” says Shipka. “You get to have partners in crime. We all have different views but we get along well. It’s totally cool to disagree.” Hers is a crew renowned for pushing the envelope, respectfully. Tavi Gavinson has been showing up traditional media since the age of 15 with website Rookie. “Tavi has some of the wisest, coolest things to say,” says Shipka. Amandla Stenberg is a firebrand and advocate for diversity. “I couldn’t admire her more. She’s got strength and smarts, and she speaks from her total heart. Always.” Although her work on Mad Men all but ruled out a regular education, the high-school experience isn’t completely lost on Shipka, who has tagged along to a few school dances with her non-Hollywood friends. “I’ve done the semi-formal thing,” she says of the experience. “It’s fun, but there’s not enough dancing. Kids are hesitant to bust it out. As soon as someone puts on Drake, though, that’s a different story. Everyone gravitates towards the dancefloor.”
The importance of social media is recognised by Shipka, too. “Not being on social media is a bold statement. If you’re not on there now, people are like, ‘You’re not?!’ It’s insane.” she says. “I’m scared of Twitter, though. I’ll type something and think, ‘This is funny,’ then I’ll think about it for too long and go, ‘Nope, it’s not!’ Delete.” As detailed on her Instagram, she loves exploring her sprawling hometown. “I’m a big fan of LA,” she says, as we reach peak-hike viewpoint, taking in everything from the round Capitol Records building and the cluster of downtown LA where Mad Men was filmed, to the beaches of Santa Monica and beyond. “It’s one of the vastest, coolest cities.” Often, Shipka brings one of her pals when she’s out on the town. She avoids detailing her “random adventures”, but does reveal her ultimate fangirl moment. “Meeting Annie Clark was huge,” she says of her encounter with the St Vincent singer. “It involved me falling apart.”
February aside, Shipka has been reticent about throwing herself into too many projects, a conscious decision to avoid smothering her teenage years. She wants to do the things other 16-year-olds do. She’s just learned to drive. She loves to read. “I check The New York Times every morning to balance out my Instagram obsession.” She fantasises about travelling. “Paris was life-changing. I would love some Barcelona action.” Then there’s food, which is a main fixture of her Instagram. “I think about my last meal more than I should. I’ve always found French food delicious. But then there’s pasta, know what I mean? It’s an ongoing debate in my mind.” She digs new band recommendations, and currently enjoys Girlpool, Waxahatchee and Radiator Hospital. She’s learning electric guitar and would like to start a band – potentially with Stenberg. “Forming a band is a milestone thing. Being realistic about our resources, it would have to be in a garage-punk vein.”
“Forming a band is a milestone thing. Being realistic about (mine and Amandla’s) resources, it would have to be in a garage-punk vein” – Kiernan Shipka
In the hierarchy of Shipka’s teen hobbies, there’s one that trounces the lot: clothes. According to Janie Bryant (Mad Men’s costume designer), style is intrinsic to who “Kier” is. “She has that naturally chic gene,” says Bryant. “She was born with it.” Today, Shipka puts my mismatched array of hiking odds-and-sods to shame. She dons an adidas by Stella McCartney tracksuit, with a Jimmy Fallon t-shirt underneath. She attends fashion weeks, and not just in New York. Last year, she celebrated the fourth of July in Paris at a special Miu Miu show presented as a one-night-only discotheque, inspired by the irreverent spirit of 1980s club kids – for Shipka, it was simply “incredible”. Joining film-world names like Stacy Martin and Elle Fanning, she’s one of the youngest talents in Miuccia Prada’s clique.
Shipka’s love of fashion is more than fabric-deep. She took a history of western dress course as part of her independent studies. “It was fun,” she says. Bryant recalls Shipka’s first fitting on Mad Men. “She was twirling around in a Laura Ashley dress, and I asked what she wanted to do with her life. She said, ‘I want to be an actress and a fashion designer.’” When I put a rumour to Shipka that the future may contain her own personal line of clothing, she says, “Oh dear! I tried to make a dress once, but by the time I’d finished I’d grown out of it. That was the end of my career as a designer.” The struggles of a – quite literally – growing fashionista.
For Shipka, style is a series of moments, her biggest to date being the 2015 Emmy Awards, where she dominated the red carpet in Raf Simons-era Dior couture. There, she embraced the ultimate statement of elegant power: a pair of black trousers. Was she nervous? “A month earlier at the fitting I was like, ‘Are we really doing this? Are we going to go for the pants?!’ But I didn’t care. I was in love. My only worry was how hot it was going to be that day,” she laughs. She was too excited to even contemplate the reactions. “You’re gonna make mistakes out there. Look back and laugh at them,” she says, talking like a red carpet look is the equivalent of throwing something on to nip out to the supermarket. “Just be goofy and be you.” In a fashion world full of pretence, her girlish flair is refreshingly authentic. “Fashion is an incredibly expansive outlet to express yourself,” she says. “That’s what’s so cool about it.”
Our hike at an end, Shipka and I reach the park gates at 11am – no alarm required. “I have to study for finals,” she says. She raced through school and is already working on her ‘freshman’ exams before even setting foot in a university. (She’ll be fielding questions on French and Buddhism, among other things.) “I never took a break. Now I’m assessing whether I want a bricks-and-mortar kinda sitch,” she says. Those questions you get at the age of 16, the ones about where you’re going to be in five years’ time, seem even more redundant in the case of Shipka. “Everything is so unpredictable,” she says, nonchalant. “One minute you think you’re gonna do something and the next it’s out of your control. Whatever happens, you have to do a lot of hard work. So you may as well do things that are enriching and cool. If you can.”
The phrase ‘coming-of-age’ suggests that youth is a rite of passage to something greater. But Shipka has no intention of waiting around for what’s next. Most of her own youth, after all, was spent on the set of a hugely successful TV show. To go where Shipka goes isn’t to go backwards or forwards, but to be self-assuredly at home in the present. That’s where the coolest stuff always happens, after all. “Sometimes I stress about the future, but I like the age that I am. Being a teen is not gonna last forever. Who knows what I’m gonna be consumed with next?”
February is released in the UK in spring 2016
Hair Rutger at Streeters using Bumble & Bumble, make-up Benjamin Puckey at D+V Management, nails Chelsea King at Celestine Agency using Revlon, photographic assistants Jack Symes, Geordy Pearson, fashion assistants Louise Ford, Katy Fox, digital operator Devin Doyle
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