June 15, 2013

Provocative, independent, frosty. Is it Betty or January?

It isn’t easy to coax a smile out of January Jones.

It isn’t easy to coax a smile out of January Jones.

What she offered instead was a credible impersonation of Betty Draper Francis, the sweet and sullen character she plays in “Mad Men” (10 p.m. Sunday, AMC), the role that has turned her into an emblem of glamour as wintry as her name.

She was dressed down in a T-shirt, hoodie and fashionably shredded MiH jeans. But easygoing as she appeared, you could be forgiven for confusing Jones with her starchy alter ego, the immaculate blonde married early in the series to the philandering Don Draper, then to Henry Francis, the politician who rescues her from a life of lies.

Viewers tend to ascribe to Jones the chilly detachment, questionable judgment and unsteady nerves that haunt and define Betty Francis. Jones seems in no hurry to set them straight.

At 35, she is not much inclined to draw back curtains on a private life that seems by turns hermetic and crazily exposed. In recent months she made waves, for a string of romances that have scandalized her critics, providing steady fodder for tabloids and blogs.

At an Oscars party this year, Jones was seen with the actor Liam Hemsworth, who was engaged to Miley Cyrus. She has been linked to Matthew Vaughn, her “X-Men” director, who is married to model Claudia Schiffer, and Noah Miller, the director of her latest film, “Sweetwater,” a Western.

The celebrity press has branded her as a coldblooded temptress, a homewrecker.

Who is the alter ego?

Actually, “she’s a little bit shy,” said Matthew Weiner, the creator of “Mad Men.” Yet this reticence, if that’s what it is, has succeeded in turning Jones, and her character, into objects of redoubled scrutiny.

Though Betty has appeared only occasionally on “Mad Men” this season, she remains a polarizing figure. Some see her as a victim, deserving of empathy; others as an archetype, the uptight suburban matron.

Jones regards Betty with compassion.

“She is really searching for something, but doesn’t know herself well enough to know what might make her happy,” Jones said.

Audiences have, on the whole, been less kind, some viewers dubbing her “fat Betty,” “selfish Betty” or “weird Betty” for her morose attitude and flinty behavior with her children, especially her adolescent daughter, Sally, toward whom she seems to harbor an unseemly mix of competitiveness and rage.

Such barbs are mild compared with the scorn heaped on Jones by the gossip industry.

“Her treatment is totally unfair,” said Natasha Vargas-Cooper, a pop-culture historian.

But she thinks she understands it: Betty, and by extension Jones, “represents the frosty girl in high school who inspired rage because she’s just untouched,” she said.

“Nothing seems to affect her. She is the popular girl who devastates lives.”

Red carpet provocateur

While guarded, Jones can be self-mocking.

“Women should have lots of secrets,” she said, a rare gleam of mischief in her eye. “It’s our right to have secrets. Otherwise, what would we write in our memoirs?”

She is forthcoming, though, about her appearance, which she has refined, she said, to counter Betty’s girdled period image.

“Most of my choices are my ultramodern and very thought-out,” she said.

On the red carpet, “I want to do things that are shocking.”

Critics dismissed the stiffly bibbed Prabal Gurung gown she wore to the Screen Actors Guild Awards in January, but “I wanted to go extreme in hair and makeup, like a Bowie character, maybe.”

But in many respects Jones is still the girl from Sioux Falls, S.D., who ventured to New York to make a name for herself but hung on all the while to a stern Midwestern pragmatism. She is frugal.

She is orderly. She was a straight-A student.

“But in high school, I started bucking the system,” she said.

Betty, as the series winds to a close next year, may never learn to embrace the joys of motherhood. Certainly, Jones suggested, life’s fundamental pleasures will continue to elude her.

“God forbid Betty becomes very happy,” she said. “Because then I’ll be bored stiff.”

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