December 21, 2012 at 05:00 AM EST

One song. That’s all it took. We’d known Megan simply as the fetching, good-with-kids secretary who started at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce’s front desk before advancing to Don Draper’s station and then onto his arm after he proposed to her in the season 4 finale of AMC’s Mad Men. But then she threw that surprise 40th-birthday bash for Don in season 5’s premiere — and in the process, her own coming-out party. She entranced and titillated the on- and offscreen audience by seductively serenading her spouse with the French pop hit ”Zou Bisou Bisou,” only to follow it up by anger-cleaning their apartment in her bra and underwear, punishing Don, and tempting him to devour her.

”No one is more surprised than I am at the turn that it took,” says Jessica Paré of her suddenly central role. ”Nobody knew the character in season 4, nobody knew me. The stakes were higher in season 5, so I was definitely more apprehensive going into it. And after the first episode, I felt like I really put myself out there, so I was like, ‘Well, might as well throw it all at the wall now.”’

It stuck. The 32-year-old Canadian actress (Hot Tub Time Machine, Jack & Bobby) infused Megan with passion and compassion, purity and purpose, making her Don’s optimistic, fiery, and orange-sherbet-averse foil. Playing the young wife who rejected an advertising career to chase her acting dreams at the risk of alienating Don is proving to be a dream job for Paré. (”That’s putting it mildly,” she says.) And she’s even accepting of Mad Men fans who’ve reacted negatively to Megan. ”Being a person that feels…feelings,” she quips, ”it would be great if everybody just adored me. But I am also a practical and realistic person, and everybody’s entitled to their opinion.” Pause. ”But how can you hate Megan?” C’est impossible.

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