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The sound you heard at 11 p.m. on March 25 was that of Jessica Paré's career blasting off. The two-hour, Season 5 premiere of Mad Men had just aired, after a 17-month hiatus that had fans champing at the bit. A record number of viewers had tuned in: 3.5 million, 21 per cent more than for Season 4's debut. And the episode belonged to – revolved around, was dominated by – not enigmatic ad man Don Draper; not his jostling male colleagues; and not the triumvirate of women who'd previously provided the show's moral centre: Don's deceptively complex ex-wife Betty, striving copywriter Peggy, and guided-sex-missile secretary Joan.

No, suddenly, it was all about Megan, the new Mrs. Draper – and Paré, the stunning, 29-year-old Montreal native who plays her. "That first episode was something else, really," a bubbly Paré told me in a phone interview this week from Los Angeles, where she has lived for eight years. "The writers are secretive about what they're working on. When I saw the script, I was floored."

The actress possesses the savvy of a pro who's been working since age 15, a long list of credits (including the lead, at 18, in Denys Arcand's Stardom), the toothiest smile since Farrah Fawcett, and the body of Sophia Loren – with whom she co-starred in the 2004 telefilm Lives of the Saints, and who reportedly was intimidated enough by Paré's youthful beauty that she resisted posing with her in publicity shots. But Paré also has an innocent sweetness that comes through onscreen – and over the phone, where much of what she says has a giddy giggle in it.

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"I think that's glee you're hearing," says Matthew Weiner, Man Men's creator, also by phone this week. "Jess has been keeping a big secret for months, and now it's out. She first appeared in the second episode of Season 4, so I had 10 or 12 episodes after that to figure out what she could and couldn't do. And the fact is, she could do everything."

"What I love most about Jess is that you can't embarrass her," writer-director Jacob Tierney says. He and Paré have been friends since they were both teenage actors in Montreal – her father is a McGill University professor; her mother, a conference interpreter – and she played a small but significant part in his 2009 film, The Trotsky. "She's the first person to make a joke about herself. If you look like her, sometimes you only have to kind of show up [to find success] That doesn't interest her. She's worked her butt off to become the actor she wanted to be."

There were three "Whoa!" moments in Season 5's premiere, and they all revolved around Megan. First, viewers had to play catch-up at the office. Now married (Season 4 ended with a cliffhanger proposal) and a copywriter (last we saw her, she was a malleable secretary), Megan both stands up to Peggy and flashes her boss hubby her cleavage. All righty!

Moment two occurred at Don's surprise 40{+t}{+h} birthday party (he hates surprises), when Megan began to sing, complete with awkward/sexy dance moves. And oh, that song: Zou Bisou Bisou, a too-hummable French ditty first recorded in 1960 by 14-year-old Gillian Hills (whom her mentor, legendary lady-killer Roger Vadim, called "the new Bardot"), and sung in a film later that year by none other than Ms. Loren. The folks at Mad Men knew the number would have an impact – they had a vinyl 45 RPM ready to sell on their website – and they were right: The Twitterverse erupted in ZooBeZoos.

"I went on iTunes yesterday, and her song was the first thing that came up, ahead of Bruce Springsteen," Tierney says, chortling. "I've never had a friend go viral before. To me, the point of that episode was to reintroduce the world of Mad Men through Megan's eyes, and boy, did Jess rise to it. She got to do everything – the whole show was like a two-hour demo reel, and she killed it."

Paré's third wow moment occurred the next afternoon, when Megan "punished" her husband for his cold reaction to the party by stripping to a retro-sexy black bra and panties, and getting down on hands and knees to tidy their glamorously impractical white carpet. When Don, blood clearly rushing southward, tried to touch her, she first pushed him away, saying "You can't have this – all you get to do is watch," but soon moved from sweeping his floor to cleaning his clock. It was arguably the least expected, most adult married makeup sex ever shown on television.

"The challenge wasn't that it's sexy; it was that there's so much more going on," Paré says. "We're not used to seeing Don in a weak position. But Megan has power over him in that way. I think it's interesting that this is her way of regaining the upper hand.

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"You don't see this kind of scene on TV because women are rarely allowed to express themselves sexually without being put down for it," she continues, "that they're 'dirty' or 'bad' because they choose to express themselves in a physical, sexual way. Really, it's mostly prostitutes we see doing that."

Reaction – on the Internet and around the water cooler – was clamorous and polarized. Megan alternately was dismissed as "bad for women," an "underwear feminist" dependent on sexuality to get ahead; and lauded as a fresh take on a mid-sixties female, free of some of the sexist hang-ups, outside restrictions and self-imposed rules that have held back Betty, Peggy and Joan. Paré's take is, "She's a vibrant, naive woman with a real joie de vivre. She's a light person. A lot of the other characters are used to being sort of dark."

Some viewers hailed Megan as a precursor to feminism, even speculating that when the seventies roll in, she'll be hanging with Playboy Bunny turned feminist leader Gloria Steinem. Others decried the new Mrs. D as a foreshadowing of the postfeminist, we-are-our-own-worst-enemy backlash that occurred in the nineties, when women threw off the boxy suits, bow blouses and failed dreams of the eighties (no Equal Rights Amendment, no universal daycare, no shattering the glass ceiling) in favour of Pussycat Dolls-style empowerment: continuing to get ahead by shaking one's booty, but doing it more knowingly now.

Weiner welcomes the debate – "It's the kind of engagement you dream of as a writer," he says – but refuses to enter it. "The people on the show are not symbols or historical paradigms, but fleshed-out humans that we take seriously. To me, Megan is optimistic, smart, and navigating interesting waters.

"Look at right now," Weiner continues, referring to an America in which women who advocate for equal pay are called "feminazis," and those who fight for health and reproductive rights are dismissed as "sluts." "Any woman at any point in history could have done what Megan did on that rug."

Love Megan or hate her, she's made Paré a household name. "Last Monday, when I would say to people, 'The reaction seems positive,' they would kind of snort and go, 'Uh, yeah,' as in, 'Big understatement,' " Paré says. "But listen, I've heard the song enough times now that even I feel a bit like, 'Somebody please shut that woman up.' I'm sure there are people who are over it."

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It's a long way from Paré's audition for the series, when she found herself in a room with dozens of hopefuls, dressed near-identically in pencil skirts and blouses – "I think everybody who auditions for Mad Men wears that," she says – angling for a part described only as "female brunette." "I was like, 'So I'm perfect for it!' " Paré remembers, giggling.

After two more auditions, Weiner agreed. "I knew her work, I'd seen the Arcand film, but I also cast from my gut," he says. "She's magical. And she looks like a 1960s French actress from one of my favourite films, [Claude] Chabrol's Les Bonnes Femmes." He immediately decided to make Megan a bilingual Canadian, and plucked her last name from a Montreal B&B he'd stayed in, La Maison Pierre du Calvet. "That fit right in with the story I'm always telling about Manhattan, how people from everywhere gravitated there," he says.

When a script arrived at Paré's door the night before her first table reading, she "freaked out" with happiness, and pored through it for Megan's lines. She found one. " 'Yes, Joan,' – that was it," Paré says. "I was a bit disappointed, I'll admit it. But I came around – 'If I have one line, so be it. It's the best show on TV, I'm really lucky.' Happily, it turned into much more. But throughout this whole experience, I've really tried hard not to get ahead of myself. And so far, what Matt and the writers have come up with is a lot better than anything I ever could have anticipated."

Paré has been trying to write a script of her own for years, but "it's really not easy," she says, ruefully. "I want to get something going with my fellow actresses. I want to hear more women's voices. I'd like to direct a short. But to be honest, I still have that feeling when I'm finished a job that I may never work again. So I've been pretty happy being busy."

Uh, yeah.

"I really love what I do," Paré sums up. "I don't want to do anything else, and hopefully I won't have to for a while. But after working at it for 14 years, what I've realized is: It doesn't just take one break; it takes a series of them." She laughs again. "One Cinderella moment after the next." They don't come much more fantastical than this.

The Paré cachet Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner gives Johanna Schneller his behind-the-scenes take on the newest Mrs. Draper and the woman who plays her.

When did Paré know that Megan would marry Don?

The writers knew much more than she did. We had our plan and didn't tell her.

It's a gift to find talent that's not superfamous, so that people can accept her as Megan. I sensed she was open. The actor is not the character, but there are always some similarities. I don't like an actor to have to put on an entire personality. I observe what they can do. Does Jessica have an edge that Megan doesn't – yet? Yes. At one point, the costumer fitted her for a ring. She said, "What does this mean?" I guess that's how she found out about the engagement.

Megan's character is polarizing. How do you feel about that?

I invite all speculation. It shows people's attachment to the show. As far as what will happen, you have to watch. To me, Don's choice was very clear – he chose to be with a person with a youthful attitude, who says, "You can be anything you want," as opposed to someone older, who might say, "Accept who you are." Both are valid, but his choice was true to Don. And to men.

There's debate about whether Megan is "good" or "bad" for women.

The people on the show are not symbols or historical paradigms, but fleshed-out humans that we take seriously. To me, Megan is optimistic, smart, and navigating interesting waters. I love the fact that she considered the surprise party a normal, beautiful thing, but his reaction was, "Don't let those people into our private life."

The sex scene on the rug was interesting. We don't usually see married couples' sex lives portrayed that way.

It should be obvious that Megan and Don have a sexual relationship – they've been married six months. Sex is an important part of that.

It's about human behaviour, and human behaviour is not historical. I had a class once, someone asked the professor, "When do you think the blow job was invented?" He said, "Eight seconds after the discovery of the penis." [Laughs.]

How does Jessica fit in with the cast?

I feel very paternal about her; I get to introduce everyone to how amazing she is. She showed up that way, and no one got to see it until now.

She had to sing and dance in front of everyone in that scene, and she hit it out of the park. I brought her into my office beforehand to show the scene to her, because she didn't want to watch it for the first time in front of everyone. Her heart was in her throat. She could see how pleased I was. Then she asked to see the sex scene. I said, "I'm not going to watch that scene alone with you." [Laughs]

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