When Matthew Weiner cast Montreal native Jessica Paré as a pretty assistant at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, only a few people knew that she would eventually become Mrs. Don Draper. Initially, Paré was not one of those few, so even after a moon-eyed Draper proposed to her during the final episode of season 4, she understood that her next scene could very easily include her resting peacefully in a casket. But Weiner had other ideas, and in the long-awaited season 5 premiere, he unveiled a whole new show dynamic, with Don and Megan’s relationship at the heart of it. “I said it as a joke, but the story of the season for me is that Don and Megan are soul mates,” says Weiner. “They are one person and that person is Don. And right in that first episode, there’s a line from Roger where he says, ‘They’re all great until they want something.’ As soon as Megan starts to separate from him by rejecting advertising and pursuing her acting career, it’s very hard on them. It’s very hard on him.”
In that two-hour premiere, titled “A Little Kiss,” the seeds of the season’s tension were ingeniously planted with one amazingly hypnotic song and dance number. Harry Crane wasn’t the only member of the audience who was mesmerized by Paré’s sexy rendition of Gillian Hills’ playful 1960 single. “Zou Bisou Bisou” was practically trending online before the episode concluded, and the catchy tune would reverberate for weeks. Below, Weiner reflects on the kernel of the idea that sprouted into an unforgettable moment for the Emmy-winning AMC drama, and Paré describes the terrifying challenge of bringing it to the screen.
MATTHEW WEINER: It would be a lie to say there wasn’t a showmanship aspect to it. We’d been off the air for 17 months — against my will — and I really wanted to make sure that we gave the audience some bang for their buck. It wasn’t the major thing, but it’s certainly where some of it came from. For me, the origin of the idea was that Don had proposed to this woman, and the audience didn’t even know if he was going to marry her. And the audience didn’t know anything about her. And I kind of wanted to give her a character moment, especially if the whole season was going to be about their relationship and what it meant to Don — to sort of introduce her to the audience and to the other characters through her personality. What I thought was, it’s one of the old saws of all entertainment — the surprise birthday party — and I loved the idea that this woman was very different from the people at the office. That she was younger, that she had a different set of rules, that she was more fun-loving, that she was extroverted, and that Don’s intense, almost-pathological privacy was going to be broken by this woman’s personality. She is throwing the surprise party — which means he has no say in it. No one knew at that time she was going to become an actress, so what better time to show her do this song for him, in front of all his “friends.” I mean, it was story: this is who this woman is. I think people thought that the whole story was going to be about him hiding his past from her, but you find out right there and then that she knows it all. So where is the show going to go? Well, whether you realize it or not in that episode, you just witnessed the major conflict in their relationship. That she has her own personality and Don can’t control it. She is expressing her sexuality out in front of everyone.
I love music from this period. I didn’t know it was a genre, but I was raised on a lot of light French movies. There was a lot of this music in the Pink Panther movies and things like that, American movies with a little bit of European flair to them. So I was looking for the right sort of sexy song for her to sing, and for some reason or another I found this song, realized I’d heard it before, and it just had the perfect mix of childishness and sexiness that made it a socially-appropriate strip tease. The other thing was I wanted it to feel like a real person doing it. I didn’t want it to feel like it was some big, rehearsed choreographed number. I wanted to feel like it was somebody who had just sort of practiced it a few times in their house and had the guts to do it.
JESSICA PARE: I never heard “Zou Bisou Bisou.” It was completely new to me. I loved it. I think it’s so of that time and that place. It’s really a very French, very silly song, which was so en vogue at that point. And I loved that it was in French because I like using that part of my brain. But what happens immediately with that song, and why I think it’s such a brilliant choice, is that you hear it once and it’s stuck in your head for two weeks. And I think that has a lot to do with why it was something that captured everyone’s imagination.
WEINER: I cast Jessica to be Mrs. Draper, and we just started to see that she looks, to me, like a French movie star from this period. And I just loved that feeling of sophistication that she has. Even though she’s from Montreal, we exploited that as much as possible — this European character. I didn’t know she could sing. I was a little worried about that. I asked her. I always ask — when I have an idea, I’m like, “Can you do this?” I think I called her and talked to her about it. And then we sent her the song. I’m very lucky because I have a good relationship with everyone who works on the show, and they express their anxiety and their excitement to me. So, um… I talked her down a little bit. [Laughs] You know, they don’t want to fail. No one’s afraid of embarrassing themselves; they’re more about they don’t want to fail the show in some abstract way. You just have to say to them, like, “I really think you can do this.” And then the sleepless nights are their problem.
PARE: In the first season, I had nothing to lose. All of a sudden the stakes were going to be a bit higher, so beginning the season with a song and dance routine, which aren’t comfortably in my wheelhouse, was a big challenge. I like to sing, but so far it’s been limited to my car, and the shower, and the occasional family bonfire. Before this, I never sang professionally. I got to go into a real grown-up studio, and it was so cool to be part of that whole process, but it took me like five takes before I could even breath because I was very anxious.
WEINER: Dancing is more tough. Jessica is very athletic and was slightly self-conscious about it.
PARE: I’m not a dancer. I mean, I like to dance — I took ballet until sixth grade, I think, like every other girl in the world. I have to say, my first experience with the choreographer was pretty frustrating because Mary Ann Kellogg is an incredible dancer, and it’s just so effortless for her. Everything just seemed so overwhelming and so complicated for me. I think we had three or four six-hour rehearsals. It’s long and it’s hard if you’re not a dancer. Mary Ann is a lot of fun, so that helps, but I would break down and eat a Snickers bar in between and cry. [Laughs] But then we just broke it down into elements in the song where we could bring in these ‘60s dance moves. So we just ended up doing it that way, finding a few videos online that we really liked and trying to find where we can fit them in, and sort of filling it in around that.
WEINER: Of course, what it becomes about is that this woman is actually a character, and deciding what kind of character she was, we do it the way we always do it. What had she done that we knew of? She had gone to New York to be an actress and failed. That already requires a certain personality. She had gone to work in that advertising agency. She had gone after Don, to some degree. And then, when the opportunity was right and he asked her to marry him, she said yes, so she’s impulsive.
PARE: We would rehearse and every couple of hours, Matt would come down with the whole writers room and just sit there and watch me to do this dance. I was like, “It’s not fair! We’ve only been working on it for two hours!” But it was extremely helpful because there were pieces that got cut immediately, and there were pieces that were elaborated upon, and there was an element of performance of bringing “Megan” into the dance more. Because when you’re working with a choreographer, they just want to put a dance together. Matt was there to remind us that this isn’t a professional dancer; this is a woman doing a sort of sexy dance for her husband.