Near the end of Mad Men‘s finale Sunday night, the show spent some time with an unfamiliar face: A man named Leonard. He shares his story during a seminar at the retreat where Don Draper has ended up.
Leonard discusses his emotional isolation, despite a life with a wife and kids, and articulates his feelings by sharing a dream about being “on a shelf in the refrigerator.” After he’s done speaking, he breaks down in tears. Don, previously at his lowest low, moves to hug him.
Evan Arnold, an actor who has appeared on shows like The West Wing and Masters of Sex, played the pivotal role of Leonard. When Arnold got to the table read for the episode he immediately looked for his part in the script. “I’m rifling through it trying to see where my scene is so I’m ready and I realize it’s right at the end,” he told TIME. “I’m part of the last few pages of the entire script, which means the entire season, the entire series of Mad Men. I was blown away.”
Arnold spoke to TIME about what it was like to be part of Mad Men‘s final moments.
TIME: When you went into audition did you know that this would be in such a prominent place in the finale? Did you know really anything at all?
I was not given the entirety of the script, nor did I think I was going to be privy to that…I had auditioned for the show a few times before, always wanting to be on such an incredible show, and it hadn’t gone my way thus far and here was my last shot.
At what point did you realize what this speech meant in the context of the episode?
In terms of the context of the episode and the series as a whole, it was very intense, emotional, incredible. I was invited to a table reading. That’s when I had the opportunity to hear the script. I came into a room, a big conference table, writers and producers all sitting around, the cast. Matthew Weiner gives a beautiful, sincere, emotional speech, he seems on the verge of welling up with tears or perhaps he was thinking about how important this is to him.
I read that there was a fake out at the table read, and then Weiner pulled some people aside and gave them the real ending. Was that the case?
I’ve been holding on to this—signing an NDA and Matt Weiner gave a very clear speech about keeping the secret—for about nine months. I’ve been a good boy and trying to suppress it, trying not to think about it and not talk about it to anybody. But then as it got closer I started peeking at articles seeing if anyone was writing about it and I saw these articles and I started freaking out, thinking, oh my gosh, wait a second, am I in it? Was it all a ruse? Was it 20 pages of a different ending? How much of a different ending? Is that Matt messing with the media? What’s the bait and switch? Is there an additional ending? I started doing a slight, neurotic, anxious actor freak out.
Based on the script as I remember it from 10 months ago, it actually wasn’t an additional 20 pages with respect to what I saw put together on air last night, but I had no idea about the Coke ending. That was absolutely a surprise to me.
I was wondering how Matt Weiner explained that speech to you and how he worked with you on it both before and during filming.
I wanted to get the lines down perfectly way ahead of time so I could really be open and vulnerable and present so I could have access to my emotions and be able to be there for him when he gave me directions. We did the scene multiple times and it was a big challenge for me to have access to my emotion again and again and again, but I was very happy with the level of support and focus I felt there. Mr. Weiner gave me direction between each take: sometimes it was technical and very simple things like, hey, you were looking down a little bit too much, let’s see your eyes, look up a little bit more. Sometimes we just did some different takes where I started crying earlier, I started crying later, it was bigger, it was smaller…I felt they were minor adjustments because he felt that I got the character well enough. But there was definitely one moment where he came up to me and we had a little chat about what the speech means in terms of death.
Don’s reaction to that speech are such an important clue and part of the episode. What was it like interacting with Jon Hamm and playing to that moment with the hug?
He’s a big beautiful man. He’s a charming fellow. He was a consummate professional and he came over to me for that hug and he was right there in my ear and I felt his diaphragm against my diaphragm as he’s breathing and sobbing and crying himself. I have a lot of respect for him and his acting and how present he is. But we didn’t actually chat all that much before that scene in that moment because we didn’t have dialogue to practice.
What was your reaction to the speech’s place in the episode? Have you been a fan the whole time?
I’m still shaking. It is such an honor and an incredible opportunity and I’m reading a lot of nice things both about the speech and the perception of my performance… and that’s blowing me away. I have been a fan of the show the entire run… I had heard something about Mr. Weiner telling [casting director Laura Schiff] he wanted an actor who was pretty darn good and pretty unknown, definitely not recognizable in a significant way in the public consciousness at this point in time. I felt so honored that Laura thought I fit the bill.
I’m still very excited right now. It was just last night. I wasn’t at the cast and crew screening. I didn’t see this ahead of time, I saw it on the West Coast with the West Coast feed and I’m still processing it all right now.