Kiernan Shipka
Photo by Julian Ungano
Emerging Masters

Kiernan Shipka: “I was living those themes in my own ways”

Short Profile

Name: Kiernan Brennan Shipka
DOB: 10 November 1999
Place of birth: Chicago, Illinois, United States
Occupation: Actor

Matt Smukler's new film Wildflower, starring Kiernan Shipka, is out now.

Kiernan, how do you cope when a role you’ve played finally comes to an end?

I think I've actually learned to like goodbyes in a sort of melancholy way! I enjoy doing the work as an actor, and finishing something feels like a good kind of sad — or at least I think I've learned to make it that because otherwise I would just be destroyed all the time! It's intense, and I guess it depends on how long I played the part and what it was. I had played Sally Draper on Mad Men for so many years, and I didn't do too much work in between the seasons because it was important for me to live my life outside of that job. So going on to other film sets after that experience was so jarring, it was really an adjustment period afterwards, for sure.

Given that Mad Men was your breakthrough role, I can imagine that felt almost like starting over, or going back to square one as an actor.

You know what? I don't think I was thinking about it too much, I was only 14! And I think that my overthinking and anxiety has been a more of a recent thing. I was not overthinking stuff back then, I was really just enjoying the projects that I was doing. I sort of admire how much I really didn't psych myself out. But it’s different now, letting go of each character, because I feel like they still kind of live within me. I don't know if I ever really say goodbye to some characters and experiences. I think I always hold out hope you know that I’ll meet them again.

“It’s different now, letting go of each character, because I feel like they still kind of live within me. I don’t know if I ever really say goodbye...”

You recently described your experience returning to the role of Sabrina Spellman on a crossover Riverdale episode as “like riding a bike.” Was it also a bit strange to snap back into that character?

Oh, it’s really interesting! The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina had wrapped, but I went to Riverdale and did the crossover episode, and all of a sudden, I had this experience where I was reading the lines out loud for the first time and it was like… She was just there! I love knowing that these roles live within me somewhere because sometimes it can be hard to know what you take with you from each role.

Looking back now, are you able to recognize some qualities from each role within yourself?

Well, I know that with Sabrina, I took with me a lot of her feistiness, she was very outspoken, a very strong character. I took a lot of that! With my recent film Wildflower, my character Bea, she caught me at the right time. Her overwhelming love for her family, and their love for her… Those were themes that I could really tap into. There were these moments of pure and utter frustration and cynicism, balanced out with hope and joy and light and love. And I feel like in a lot of ways, that's life. It really felt like I was living those themes in my own kind of ways. But with someone like Sally Draper, it was really hard to know what was Sally and what was me. We were both growing up together, and I think she probably informed some of who I am, and I at some point gave her some of my outside experience.

Is it a goal for you as an actor to disappear into each role in that way?

There’s nothing better than getting lost in a scene. I don't want to have Kiernan thoughts while I'm playing someone else, I do want to be disappearing into their world. I want to feel like I’ve forgotten myself while I'm acting. That’s how I like to approach a role.

I guess what you give and take from each role also changes depending on how long you spend inhabiting them. You played Sally for almost eight years, and Sabrina for three.

For sure, there's a luxury to TV because you’re able to sit with a character and actually be them for such a long time. It’s funny, you hear a lot of actors talking about how when you take on a role, you want to build the life of your character beforehand. That’s so important, but I sort of did it with Mad Men just on screen. I mean, there’s not too many memories of your life before you're six years old. That was another crazy thing about playing Sally — I kind of did all the work whilst it was all being filmed. And now if I'm doing a movie, I like to map out who the character was before we meet them. It's more of an active effort that you have to do because you don’t have that luxury of playing them when they were a little child.

Was it difficult to navigate the journey of having a career at such a young age?

I definitely feel really lucky that I was always allowed to be a kid. Most of my friends were also theater kids, so it never felt like I was totally wrapped up in that other world. I was able to have a a childhood I can look back on and be really grateful for. But at the same time, I think I also liked playing Bea in Wildflower because she had to grow up quickly and do things that aren't asked of many people her age, which was something I could relate to in a way, you know? People always told me that I was wise beyond my years and things like that… I never really believed them at the time, but then I started to feel younger as I got older, if that makes any sense. I started to feel very professional at a young age, but then dealing with other life experiences was totally new to me. It was definitely unconventional!

“The more I live my life outside of work, the more excited I am to do my work because I have more life to bring to the characters.”

Was acting professionally always the goal for you? Or was it something you simply enjoyed doing and were good at from the start?

I mean, I started acting before I could really make a decision, I started doing the thing really young, and I always loved it. I was so, so obsessed. I was so excited to go to work every single day that I went to work — I didn't think of it as work, I was just so excited to do the thing. I never even thought about doing anything else, even when I was seven or eight. I was like, “I'm an actress.” Then I think there was a point in my life, maybe around 12 or 13, where I kind of went, “Wait, am I gonna do this forever? Is this the thing that I chose?”

Tye Sheridan also had a moment of grappling with his future as an actor, but he says persistence is part of what’s kept him in the game for so long.

Exactly, I just sort of kept doing it. And at a certain point, I just knew that this is what I want to do for the rest of my life, and every project that I took on since then just made me fall in love with it more, and I keep getting more into it, especially being older now. I think that makes performing feel a bit different, you know, having more lived experiences makes it richer. The more I live my life outside of work, the more excited I am to do my work because I have more life to bring to the characters. You wake up every day and think of it as a form of improving your instrument. And now, I'm almost pleasantly surprised by how much I still love it. I'm more excited than ever to do what I do.