Matthew Weiner Was Very Meticulous About Casting Mad Men's Extras

Although "Mad Men" was a show that paid a lot of attention to detail, it did mess up on occasion. For instance, the writing on the sign on the Sterling Cooper building in the early seasons is in the Gil Sans font, a font that was not in popular use until the seventies! Boy, I really hope somebody got fired for that blunder. But for the most part, it's a show that successfully immerses its viewers in the crazy world of the sixties, with the clothes, slang, furniture, and the characters' values all consistently era-appropriate.

That pursuit of full immersion extended into the casting of the extras on the show, who also needed to look like believable upper-class people of the time. This created some problems for the casting directors, because it was often hard to find suitable actors in Los Angeles who met showrunner Matthew Weiner's particular standards. In season 3, he needed a background twenty-something ad man described as "Blond, doughy, British."

One of the casting directors, Carrie Audino, objected to this, saying, "That really limits us. We can do 20s and British or doughy and blond, but all four is tough ... A doughy British guy who's blond, in his 20s? There are two of them — maybe — in L.A." Weiner ended up settling for a guy who fit a new description: "I want him to be one of those guys whose only attraction is his accent." This turned out to be an easier limitation to work with. 

People who don't look like movie stars

In a flashback scene that featured a sex worker character in the Depression era, Weiner was adamant that the actress look either "skinny-skinny" or "heavy," but nowhere in between. "A real person," he clarified. "I'd like her to be harder-edged than these people usually are in the movies." He used the example of the "winsomely beautiful actress Katharine Ross" as the example of the type of person not to pick. "Want someone grittier. But someone who says believable."

This attitude extended to the non-extras. Yes, the core characters are still far more attractive than the typical person, but that didn't stop Weiner from giving Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) a receding hairline. Turns out, hair-loss medication wasn't around in the sixties, so no money in the world could protect Pete's scalp from the ravages of time. It's a realistic touch, one that required the actor to shave his head a little further back each season. It's a rare case of a show going out of its way to make an actor look worse, and the results were definitely entertaining.

Alan Taylor, who worked on "The Sopranos" with Weiner and was involved with the early casting for "Mad Men," said they were even originally hesitant to cast Jon Hamm in the lead role because of how good-looking he was: "There is a kind of superiority that goes along with that kind of casting — you know. Look, we're not casting a movie star, we're casting a great actor." The show is great in part because of its meticulous commitment to realism, regardless of how pleasant that realism is to look at. It's not the only historical drama set in the sixties, but it's no surprise that it's still one of the most beloved.