Joel Murray, Freddie Rumsen on 'Mad Men,' on Being Don Draper's Voice

One of the biggest surprises in the season opener of Mad Men was the return of Freddie Rumsen, played by Joel Murray. 

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One of the biggest surprises in the season opener of Mad Men was the return of Freddie Rumsen, played by Joel Murray. The ad man who, like Don, was once put on leave—his crime against Sterling Cooper involved peeing himself—is back acting as the voice of Don Draper.

Murray opens the episode with a monologue-length pitch for Accutron watches, inducting the viewer into the show's final season. "Are you ready? Because I want you to pay attention," he starts. "This is the beginning of something." For Mad Men it's the beginning of the end. 

The Wire got a chance  to talk to Murray last week about Freddie's return, and his time on the show.

How did you find out that Freddie was coming back? 

I got a call from my agent saying we got this check of availability for this thing and it doesn't even say what it is. It was a new agent that hadn't really dealt with U.R.O.K. Productions and Matt Weiner's company before, and I said, "oh, I think I know what that is." Sure enough a couple weeks later, they called and told me what dates I'd be working. It's a funny process in the fact that it's all so secretive, and I literally have to go in and I have to read the script before the table read, sign it out. I will get the scenes I'm in, but that's about it, and you don't know what's going on with the other characters or anything like that. They like to keep Freddie in the dark.

You've gotten these calls before, I presume. Did you know what was coming, as mysterious as it was? 

The actual part was quite a surprise from what Freddie usually gets to do. So that was kind of exciting for me. It's a nice vote of confidence from Matt Weiner to kick it off. It was a shocker.

Can you talk about the experience of filming that monologue that opens the episode? 

I'm kind of doing a Cyrano de Bergerac thing, so I was channeling Don Draper a little bit. It was a long pull-out shot in my mind when we were shooting it. We did only three, four takes of it, and it was a long pull out shot so you wanted to nail it. I worked on having the lines down really hard. Everybody's so good on that show. [Jon] Hamm seems to have a photographic memory. They're so good with their lines, and it really has to be word perfect. When you're sneaking in there you really have to have your act together because before you know it, there are a couple takes and you're done.

I felt pretty good about it, and after one of the takes one of the cameramen came up to me and says, "you know, you didn't blink." I said, "what? What kind of thing is that to put in my head right now?" He said, "Yeah, sure enough you went through that whole take without blinking, you were so entranced in this moment of pitching this thing to Peggy." When you actually see it now, it's cut up and it's close and it's back, but when we originally did it I thought it was all going to be one take just slowly pulling out. It's always interesting to work with Elisabeth Moss because she's so amazing and you can kind of get caught in a trance working with her. But at the time I was working straight into a camera so I didn't have to get fazed by her until later in the scene.

Can you talk about, especially that moment, how the atmosphere helps you get into it? 

It's funny you can show up in boots and a leather jacket or whatever. You can ride up in a Harley Davidson or whatever, but once you get your hair trimmed, you get the really authentic 1960s shirts they give you, that are unlike anything you get today, and you get the tie on, you look in the mirror you've transformed before you even get to the set. They had a running joke with Freddie since day one, where they think it's funny that Freddie's suits don't quite fit right. He's a little bit short on the funds and he hasn't updated his clothes like Draper and everyone else on the show has. Freddie's stuff is generally one or two full sizes too small for me. Once you get on the tight fitting suit the character kind of comes for some reason for me.

What were your expectations for the character? Did you have any sense that he would be coming back after the season two episode "Six Month Leave," where Freddie pees himself? 

I've had a few of these characters on different shows. I played Eddie Jackson on Shameless, Joan Cusack's first husband. When you don't get the script and they're like, "oh, you've got to get your script from [Shameless executive producer] John Wells today," you get that feeling like, "oh, crap here we go." And sure enough, you're jumping in an ice hole. With "Six Month Leave," it's like, yeah, you're script didn't get delivered, you've got to get yours from Matt today. Oh no, here we go again.

I've always been optimistic because I didn't kill myself, I wasn't shot, I wasn't technically fired, I was just put on leave. I came back in the fourth season and I was all excited because here I was sober and Don was almost at his worst drinking. And I thought well, here's this counter balance to how bad he's going down the bottle, this is great, they are going to have me around. I did the first couple of episodes of season four and I thought, I'm going to be around all the time, and then poof I was gone until I think the final episode or something like that. And then season five I think I just came up to tell Peggy in the luncheonette "One day that you should try the waters and go out there and do it, it's what anyone else would do." It was an interesting scene for her story arc, and the old guy comes back and gives her some wisdom even though he's not really thought of as a wise man. So that was a nice touch. I love just having one episode because then I get invited to all the parties. There's no party like a Mad Men party.

How so? 

Well, from the get-go they've always been a riot. We've had many a party at the Chateau Marmont now that have gone late into the night, and it's really a hoot. That's the thing about working on the show too. [John] Slattery and Hamm are two of the coolest guys you'd ever want to hang out with, and the whole cast is that way—they all love hanging out. They hang around like they're at a summer cottage and it's a rainy day. They hang out six, eight hours after they're done working. They just love being with each other. I feel a little bit weird because I'm kind of a peripheral outsider insider. You feel weird hanging out, but then it's like, "what do I feel weird about? You were wrapped eight hours ago and you're still hanging out." They've got wine and whatever. You can see them as it's getting towards the end they're really going to miss this summer camp they've been on for seven years.

You mentioned working with Elisabeth Moss. The Freddie-Peggy relationship is really interesting. He set her on this path to where she is now, and she's the person doing the evaluating of him. What has that relationship been for you, and seeing that change in her performance?

That's kind of been coming all time. When I came back in season four there was a scene where I was smoking a cigarette and eating a roast beef sandwich and pitching her stuff, and you can already see that I'm old school and my ideas are hackneyed and done and that she has taken over. It was always kind of headed that way, but it is nice to have this interpersonal character arc between the two of us. It's more of a paternal relationship because, you know, she's slept with a lot of people on the show. Not Freddie. We have more of a father-daughter kind of thing going on. I'm interested to see where that goes myself, because I'm still in the dark on the final season. That's part of the other odd thing about all the years working on the show. One week you're completely privy to everything going on, and the next thing you're a civilian and you're looking forward to watching the next episode on TV.

What was your reaction upon reading the script and finding out there was that Cyrano element? 

Well, again, I was so excited about the counter balance of me being sober and in AA and Don being his drunkest. I see it as, "Oh, well, I'll be in every episode, what a wonderful thing to play off of." I thought, what a neat thing, for my character to sneak back and to be respected all of a sudden with these great ideas he's having and a little rebirth. Then the sensible side of me is, yep, wait until you see what the next one is. Who knows? I'm not sure where that's headed. I say to him, "why don't you quit this whole thing and get us both a job. Get a real gig. Get me some steady work." I feel that same way in real life. Get me a steady gig.

Can you talk about channeling Don Draper in that monologue that we see, and what the thought process was setting up that performance? 

I thought actually about slightly imitating him, and I think somebody said that was probably a bad idea, Joel. There are certain cadences that he speaks in when he's pitching, and I kind of tried to pick up on that kind of thing. I knew I wasn't going to look as good. I wasn't going to go for anything vocally, I thought about doing that at one point, just slightly. [Jon Hamm's] amazing. For instance, there was a day when— I think it was season four—he was very down. Usually you kind of joke with him between takes, and he was really down and he was preparing for a scene. It was a group scene. There were a lot of people around, but it wasn't like he could go away because we were going to shoot again in a couple of seconds. And I sat down next to him on a couch and it was literally like five degrees colder next to him. I was saying to myself, he is so depressed and down in this scene that he's actually changing the room temperature. That's how good he was. He just had this vibe that was chilling. So I tried to steal some of his cool vibe in pitching it. I have to see it again, because it was a little jarring for me. Wow, my head is enormous. Jeez, I'm fat. I've only seen it once. I'm still in the actor's insecurity spot with it.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.