Jessica Paré’s not going to count on things automatically going her way. This fact is made clear by the frequency with which the actress—who during Mad Men’s fourth season started as a supporting player (receptionist-turned-secretary Megan Calvet) and later, in a shocking turn of events, became the full-blown breakout star (and the new Mrs. Don Draper) of season five—knocks on wood whenever she mentions some current or even hoped-for good fortune. Every purposeful little rap seems intended to ensure that her life and career stays in the sweet spot she settled into last year.

“I’m so goddamn lucky,” the 32-year-old actress says with an unusual blend of worldliness and wide-eyed wonder. “I can wake up at 4 o’clock, drive to work in the dark, and drive home in the dark, and there’s not one single morning where I’m [forcing myself] to get my ass out of bed into the shower, where I’m not so excited and grateful that I have this amazing job to go to. My drive to work is just this whole symphony of gratitude.”

Though Paré played one of the most talked about television characters of 2012, she’s mercifully able to move about her Los Feliz neighborhood mostly unrecognized, and when she is spotted, she frequently surprises sharp-eyed fans with an enthusiasm surpassing their own. “Nobody’s more excited about me being on the show than I am,” she laughs. “My friends and people I work with actually think it’s kind of hilarious when I get recognized, because I’m far more excited than the other person. At first it’s like, ‘You’re on that show Mad Men...’ [To which I reply,] I know! Isn’t it crazy? I get mocked a little bit, but I do feel that way.”

Like the devoted followers of AMC’s artfully executed examination of ’60s mores amid the high-powered world of advertising, Paré also had no early indication that her character’s prominence was about to be elevated with the impulsive nuptials—and when she did know, she kept her lips sealed, tightly: “I didn’t tell my best friend or parents that I was engaged to Don Draper,” she reveals. “They found out about it like the rest of the viewers.” As the fifth season got underway, she was aware that the audience regarded Megan with a skeptical eye, expecting her to be either an unwelcome interloper or an easily discarded plaything in Don’s serial-philandering romantic life. “As a fan of TV in general, I’ve often felt that way about other characters on other shows,” she admits. “I’m like, I don’t even know her—why is she coming into my life like this?”

But viewers were won over in one scene, thanks to a cannily crafted season opener written by the show’s creator and executive producer, Matthew Weiner. It featured an unexpectedly captivating sequence by Paré performing a mesmerizingly bold/coy rendition of the ’60s French yé-yé song “Zou Bisou Bisou” at her new husband’s largely unwanted surprise birthday party. The song melted his oft-icy reserve—and allowed audiences to fall as hard for Megan as Don had. “I felt like, You want to know what Don loves about this woman? Let me show you,” says Weiner. “He had chosen this young, forward-looking person who was a little bit more symbolic of another generation. The idea was that she kind of seemed like the type of woman that Don Draper wouldn’t like in a weird way, because she was completely fun-loving, youthful, and not depressed.”

In fact, Paré served as something of a muse for Weiner, who incorporated aspects of the actress into the fictional Megan. “Despite her physique and glamorous look, she’s a little bit clumsy; that’s very endearing,” he notes. “She’s kind of an introvert—I definitely took advantage of her shyness. I made her French Canadian because she is Québécoise. She’s a very optimistic and warm person, not dominated by neurosis. Her kind of openness and easygoingness was something that I thought was really good for the period and for Megan. When you pair that with someone like Don, who’s pretty reserved and closed off and certainly emotionally unavailable a lot of the time, it just felt like a great match.”

Paré reveals that it wasn’t just the combination of sexiness and vulnerability she conveyed in “the whole ‘Zou Bisou’ thing,” as she puts it, that facilitated her embrace: Weiner constantly subverted audience expectations by creating a friendly bond between Megan and her colleague Peggy, revealing her to be good at her job and having her instantly accept Don’s sketchy past as Dick Whitman. “All of those things really gave me everything that I could possibly need to make people like me, if that was going to happen,” she explains.

Then came the interminable wait to see if she’d succeeded, which she was pretty confident she had. “We shot it in August, and it aired the following March, so I was sitting on that shit for soooo long! Like the day after it aired, I was walking around the neighborhood, like, ‘Hey, guys—“Zou Bisou,” right? Hey? You know what I’m saying? No? What the f---? Really? Nothing?’ Nothing. But it’s the kind of show that people watch on their DVR and get off of iTunes, so eventually around June, I was getting into elevators where people would be talking, and it would come up and I’d be so suppressing the urge to break into song. And then I’d be like, Don’t be an asshole, Jessica.”

It was the culmination of a long, occasionally thwarted trek toward potential stardom that began in her native Montreal. The daughter of once-aspiring actors—her father ultimately became a university professor, her mother, a conference translator—Paré’s dramatic career launched in high school and quickly built steam with a steady progression of film and television roles that eventually opened doors in Hollywood. She gained particularly good notices in 2004, playing a young woman destined to become a future first lady in The WB’s high-concept sudser Jack & Bobby, but the series was short-lived, and by the time she squared away nagging green card issues, any career momentum she’d gained had been spent and it was back to persistent auditioning. Surprisingly, she says her confidence never wavered before Mad Men finally came along in 2010.

“I think it’s helped me that I have a level of sort of self-delusion,” she says. “As actors, we kind of need to believe that there’s something out there for you and you can just keep plugging away. And if you’re not right for a part, it doesn’t mean that you’re a bad actor. It just means you’re not right for that. Thankfully, Matthew Weiner also, I guess, thought that to be true. I hope that he still thinks so.”

He does, emphatically. “She has this European quality, this exotic quality—in a way she kind of looked like an early-’60s French movie star to me,” Weiner says. “In terms of her acting ability, she was completely overqualified for what she knew to be the role. And as I started giving her bigger and bigger pieces of work to do, I started seeing exactly who she was.” He’s thrilled that both actress and character have been so well-received. “It’s been an absolute joy to see the public get to see something that’s like you almost discovered a treasure, even though she was right there in front of them the whole time.”

Embodying a free-spirited Mod in contrast to the other ’60s sirens of Mad Men—Grace Kelly–chic Betty Francis (January Jones) and bombshell-bodacious Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks) foremost among them—Paré also knew she’d likely be considered something of a sex symbol. “I don’t hate it,” she confesses. “I’m not against sex—I quite like it. It’s a big part of my life. It’s not everything. I feel like that summation doesn’t define me in the slightest any more than being Canadian does. But yeah, it’s certainly not a bad thing.”

She concedes that initially she had concerns that Megan’s fashion sense, with her short hemlines and color blocking, might not suit her personally. “I’ll admit when I first started trying it on, I didn’t see it,” Paré says, telling the show’s celebrated costume designer, Janie Bryant, that it really wasn’t flattering. “But then when somebody did a piece putting the still shots of me in costume in the show next to actual Vogue fashion shoots from 1966 or ’67 side by side, I was like, Oh, you know what? These costumes are kind of me!” When she’s out on the town offscreen, her own tastes run toward designers like L’Wren Scott, Chanel, and Jason Wu, a friend who custom-crafted the black-belted, one-shouldered, cloud-white Grecian-goddess gown she donned for last fall’s Emmy ceremony.

There’s an eclectic aesthetic about Paré. She pops into the laid-back café where we met chicly dressed after coming from an AFI luncheon, yet blends in seamlessly with the casual vibe. And while she’s famously pretty, her beauty has a groundedness about it that doesn’t attract an overabundance of attention. She fits in well with the character of her Los Feliz stomping grounds—“my all-time favorite neighborhood,” she gushes, after sampling life in nearly a half-dozen LA areas before settling in a simpatico enclave. Its quirks suit hers (i.e., she plays the ukelele, and though she tries to avoid smoking as a habit, she occasionally indulges in an e-cigarette to keep her from starting up for real again. “How’s that going?” we ask. “On Mad Men? Terrible!” she laughs).

That little French ditty she warbled had an unexpected fringe benefit: Suddenly she’s getting music-oriented invitations—including singing a few songs with Scotland’s alt-rockers The Jesus And Mary Chain during a couple of summer tour stops—“which is so appealing to my rock fantasy,” she says. A lifelong music lover and self-confessed “nerd” for pre-punk rockers like Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, she’s quite eager to see what musical doors might open for her. “It’s all within my reach right now,” she says, rapping her knuckles against the wooden bar once again, another acknowledgement of aligning stars and their fickle nature.

Consider her character’s seemingly charmed existence, which may soon prove distressingly fragile, in true Mad Men style: “I love Megan so much,” says Paré, who remains steadfast in her vow to stay completely mum on sixth-season details but grants that distressing hints about the future of the Drapers’ union may have been planted in the fifth-season finale. “The indication, where Don sees two women at the end of the bar, really hurt my feelings!” she says. “How can he do that to Megan? She’s so good!”

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