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Sexy cool

January Jones takes her image as a mysterious beauty from 'Mad Men' to 'X-Men'

January Jones and Liam Neeson costar in the thriller “Unknown.’’ “We were really looking for the new Grace Kelly,’’ says director Jaume Collet-Serra. January Jones and Liam Neeson costar in the thriller “Unknown.’’ “We were really looking for the new Grace Kelly,’’ says director Jaume Collet-Serra. (Warner Bros. Pictures)
By Lynda Gorov
Globe Correspondent / February 13, 2011

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LOS ANGELES — The ice queen is cold.

Tucked beneath a thick, creamy throw, her famous legs stretched along a chaise longue, January Jones shakes her head at her own thin skin. She’s South Dakota born and bred, after all. When she talks about going home, the talk includes shoveling snow and shooting trap.

Now she’s a TV star with movie aspirations, just another LA resident who cannot remember to bring more than a little jacket to ward off the winter weather. “I’m a big baby about it now,’’ she says.

Jones says this with a laugh that is simultaneously inviting and aloof. It’s Betty Draper’s laugh, more “Mad Men’’ era than modern, and also a bit awkward. Jones may have the physical confidence of a great beauty — her Barbie-like TV character now has its own flawless Barbie doll for the adult market — but she’s a little self-conscious, too, as if she is used to people expecting that’s all she is.

“Noooo . . . ,’’ the former Dairy Queen counter girl says, laughing that laugh, when asked if she was the local beauty growing up. “We’re kind of late bloomers in the Jones family, so we didn’t get cute until pretty late, as my dad will say, we were kind of ugly ducklings. But all my cousins and stuff we always had a lot of fun. It was better if you were a great athlete or, you know, smart.’’

Jones plays smart in her newest incarnation, as Liam Neeson’s wife — or perhaps not — in the identity thriller “Unknown,’’ which opens Friday. He plays Dr. Martin Harris, a botanist in Berlin for an international conference, who’s lost his memory in a taxi accident, and it’s unclear for much of the movie whether she’s a dupe or duping him. She conveys this confusion with relatively little screen time, few lines, and a steamy shower sex scene with her costar, who is 58 to her 33.

“We were really looking for the new Grace Kelly, a Hitchcockian woman who was able to be sexy and be cold at the same time, and I think she has that naturally,’’ says “Unknown’’ director Jaume Collet-Serra (“Orphan’’). Her limited onscreen time is “part of the mystery. We wanted to make her really an enigma. . . . The movie is not about her, so in that aspect, it’s more of a European approach, where you don’t have to answer every question.’’

For her part, Jones gives too much away when discussing her character. She’s a fat spoiler alert in a super thin package, and one with bones as delicate as Bonsai branches. What can be repeated is that, yes, she’s playing another wife, as she does in the upcoming “The Hungry Rabbit Jumps’’ opposite Nicolas Cage, but that doesn’t define her role. No, she doesn’t feel pigeonholed as the little woman. And she is comfortable with the ending of “Unknown,’’ which should not and will not be disclosed here except to say it involved her having a full body cast made, “which was too freaky,’’ as she puts it.

“I really hadn’t done an action movie before and I just thought that the character was interesting, sort of indefinable, where you didn’t know where she was going, if she was a good guy or a bad guy,’’ Jones says.

“When I had my first meeting, they said, ‘Just so you know, we’re not set on the ending, if you’re not comfortable getting [ending deleted], we can talk about alternative endings,’ ’’ Jones says. “I personally thought she should go with [ending deleted] to be realistic to her character. . . . She’s not going to chicken out at the last minute. As she says, [plot twist deleted]. So I wanted to make sure she [ending deleted]. . . . Otherwise it would be too Hollywood, letting the audience have what they want instead of what I think the character would do.’’

Jones’s past movie characters include mostly small parts in movies and TV series. On AMC’s “Mad Men,’’ set in the ’60s, she broke out as the gorgeous, pinafore-perfect mom and put-upon wife of serial cheater-adman Don Draper. The show’s success opened casting doors. Now she’s filming Emma Frost in the Matthew Vaughn-directed “X-Men: First Class,’’ which comes with her own action figure. That’s two dolls in one year.

To get in character, Jones says she steeped herself in “X-Men’’ everything. While “Mad Men’’ has its fans, she knows “X-Men’’ has fanatics. She’s nervously confident she won’t disappoint, starting with the costumes. Jones describes her wardrobe for the comic book franchise that hits theaters June 3 as “crazy’’ tight and revealing.

Then again, Jones’s wardrobe for her recent Versace print ads consisted mostly of skin, killer heels, and a well-placed purse. The luxe designer label also provided the leave-little-to-the-imagination red dress Jones wore to last month’s Golden Globes. She followed that up with a body-hugging but graceful black-and-gold Carolina Herrera gown at the Screen Actors Guild Awards.

As it turns out, Jones styles herself. Born in January, but actually named after the character January Wayne from Jacqueline Susann’s “Once Is Not Enough,’’ she says she has always adored fashion and considers it another form of artistic expression. She doesn’t want a professional dresser getting in the way of her own taste, although she does use one to pull pieces together for press tours such as the one for “Unknown.’’ On this day she’s wearing makeup carefully crafted to make her look fresh-faced, a turquoise tunic over black leggings, black ankle-high boots, a thick copper watch, and tiny studs in her ears. Her blond, blond hair is pulled back and choppy around her chin. She looks cool but less chilly in person.

“I really enjoy going to runway shows and collaborating with designers and making my own mistakes,’’ she says. “I don’t get coerced into wearing anything. . . . My personality changes on a daily basis so it’s really a way for me to express myself. . . . It’s like a script. I love the story. I embellish it with what I do with it, hair and makeup.’’

The clothes, of course, are their own character in the highly stylized period piece that is the “Mad Men’’ phenomenon. Jones says she loves that people are so interested in what she’s wearing on screen and off. Some of the other attention the show has brought her has been less welcome: publicity about a June 2010 crash into three parked cars and her personal life (former boyfriends include Ashton Kutcher, singer Josh Groban and, most recently, “Saturday Night Live’’ cast member Jason Sudeikis, plus alleged linkage to lots of others).

Still, Jones claims she can’t remember the last time a man asked her out on a proper date. “Oh god, I’d love to go on a date,’’ she says. “I don’t even know if I’ve ever been on an actual date. People don’t really date, do they?’’

The problem, Jones says, is that she has lived for years now in a “Mad Men’’-created bubble. Before that, the former model made splashes but few waves, in “American Wedding,’’ “Anger Management,’’ and “Love Actually.’’ Her 2009 stint hosting “SNL’’ was a mess, with critics slamming Jones for giggling her way through the monologue, reading off cue cards, and stumbling over dialogue. Still, the following year she got an Emmy nod for lead actress in a drama.

The cable hit since 2007 shoots just 13 episodes over four months each year, giving Jones the freedom of time, stardom, and income. She says all three have allowed her to be pickier about the projects she chooses, and that she plans to take her time after “X-Men’’ and maybe book that beach vacation she has wanted for a while now. She would also like to find a “really cool dark comedy.’’ Forget aloof. For once she would like to play laugh-out-loud funny — not the one who sets up the jokes but the one who is in on the jokes.

“I’ll probably have to write it myself,’’ she says.

Lynda Gorov can be reached at lgorov@aol.com.

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