Interview: ‘Mad Men’ star John Slattery reflects on Roger Sterling’s journey

03.31.15 2 years ago


The following article contains a spoiler about the upcoming second half of the “Mad Men” season. It's not a big spoiler. It's about facial hair. But I feel like warning you anyway, given how secretive Matt Weiner and the “Mad Men” team are about even the least significant of spoilers.

The last seven “Mad Men” episodes begin to roll out on Sunday, April 5 and other than that facial hair spoiler, there's no point in trying to get anybody to talk about where things are headed. But we were able to talk about where we've been, so if you haven't seen the 2014 episodes, that's spoiled here.

Instead, when I sat down with John Slattery last week, we talked about where we left Roger Sterling last year, a seven-episode arc that saw the death of his professional mentor, the emotional loss of his daughter to a cult and the character's finale business decision that  may or may not end up looking like a deal with the Devil by the time we're done. 

While Slattery was a steadily working and well-regarded character actor before “Mad Men,” the AMC series has earned him Emmy nominations and expanded his career with a number of admired directing stints. We discussed those directing experiences and also the challenges of looking at post-“Mad Men” scripts. 

Click through for the full Q&A, but maybe wait until Sunday if you don't want to know about facial hair…

HitFix: So is all of this needing to be introspective and looking back, is this a good thing for you or is this your nightmare having to go back and list your favorite moments over and over and remember all the sentiment?

John Slattery: Well, the sentiment is all pretty great. The finding a best moment, just my memory isn”t that encyclopedic. There was a minute there where they had Roger in the show was writing a memoir and then they had an idea, “What if we actually wrote a memoir for Roger?” and then it turned into really just a collection of quotes, “Sterling”s Gold.” And when I looked at it, when it came out I was amazed that there were like 200 pages of eight, 10 quotes a page. Half of them I didn”t remember saying and I mean maybe I have dementia but I think it was just because there was such an embarrassment of wealth and riches in that regard. So in scene-wise it”s similar. There”s so many good scenes and so many different reasons that it”s hard to pick one favorite.

HitFix: How often when you read a line of dialogue do you go, “Okay, I know this is gonna stick and hit with people” and how often are you surprised when you hear that people are percolating it through the world?

John Slattery: Well we do table reads every week and, you know, I”ve said this before but Hamm and I would sit next to each other and he”d be like, “That”s like four jokes in one page.” And the lines were so cast iron that you couldn”t screw them up. I mean you could and sometimes I did, but eventually you make them work. You never know what”s going to hit with people or be memorable or whatever, but I know what good writing is and it was so consistent and it”s so consistently funny for this character and in such a specific way. That I”ll miss.

HitFix: I looked over my notes on the things that are embargoed and I was pleased to see that Roger”s mustache is not, in fact, embargoed specifically. [It's not.] Tell me about the genesis of the mustache.

John Slattery: [You sense he's deciding whether or not this is a secret worth keeping.] Well we tried a mustache before and I don”t know for whatever reason, they didn”t want to do it. Matt did want to do it. I think I showed him – I”ll show you this [he reaches into his wallet for his driver's license] – I think I showed him at one point, I had this and I showed it to him and he was like, “What the hell is that?” And I said, “I was making a movie and I had to get a new driver”s license.” [Slattery's driver's license features an Alex Trebek-esque mustache. It should be noted this is not Roger's “Mad Men” mustache.]

HitFix: That”s just with you forever now.

John Slattery: Yeah. He”s like, “Oh, that”s interesting.” But everybody grew a mustache in 1969, so I”m told. I mean all the guys that”s what they did, you know, especially people who were less or more rather conservative. That was their foray into the kind of trying to look hip and young. I don”t think that mustache makes me look any younger that”s for sure. But I think it”s funny and I think it”s a good part of the story.

HitFix: In the sort of mid-season finale or finale Roger made a decision that seemed to be at least potentially viewable as selling his soul to the Devil or selling the firm”s soul to the Devil as well. How did you look at what he did there?

John Slattery: Well I mean it was either that or it was all gonna dissolve. This was a way of saving himself, making money moving forward, bringing Don back into the fold. A sort of subsidiary of McCann so it was, yes, selling your soul to working for the devil, but being able to keep your own shingle out at the same time. I think it he stepped up and did what he had to do at the prompting of Bert Cooper. 

HitFix: Bert”s demise – what do you think that leaves Roger without? What was sort of the role that he was occupying for Roger in the end?

John Slattery: It leaves him without a father figure certainly. That”s what Bert was and I think the enjoyable part of those scenes was that he really wasn”t my father, so I could be irreverent with him in a way that maybe I couldn”t be with my own father. And I think those, I miss those scenes with Bobby Morse. We”re from the same home town and he”s a great guy and a great performer. That”s the kind of a bucket list check-off item, being able to work with him.

HitFix: And I believe his last scene, the song and dance number was just with Don. Did you come to set for production on that day?

John Slattery: Yeah, we all did. Everybody did. Everybody was bawling. And he did it over and over and over. It was unbelievable. I got there and he did this once and I was a wreck. And then he just kept doing it, because for whatever technical reasons, they moved the camera around and he did it again and again. And then yeah, but he could do that stuff. And I don”t know how old he is? He”s not a kid and singing and dancing like that take after take is really a remarkable thing.

HitFix: And Roger had the great episode in the first half with the cult compound and with his daughter and with his wife. Where do you think emotionally that left him and are those family dynamics, do they come back into play in the last half or was that a stopping point?

John Slattery: Well I can”t say whether they come back in, but the thing that I liked about that was that he, in kind of in keeping with the whole show, he drives up there for one reason, then Mona leaves and he sees that this place, this might be alright. I mean there”s a lot less boundaries. There are a lot of pretty young women running around and you could basically do whatever you wanted or that”s what they said. And then he realizes after speaking with his daughter and getting the whole picture that of course it”s not as utopian as they”d like it to be and his daughter is not leaving and she”s selfish and she”s not concerned with the welfare of her kid. And a lot of that has to do with the way she was raised and the example that he provided. So not only has he screwed up his daughter, he”s a s***ty father and now it looks like there”ll be a kid without a mother. So he kind of sees the ripples and that”s hard for him to take, I think.

HitFix: But do you feel like that changes him?

John Slattery: Yeah, I mean it changes him because I don”t think Roger”s ever thought he was perfect. I don”t think any of these people – that”s the part that I think people identify with is that nobody”s perfect and you get on with it. You know, “Yes I screwed that up and that”s never going away. I have a daughter who doesn”t like me because I didn”t raise her the way I should have because I was too busy entertaining clients and doing what I had to do. And now she”s gonna raise this kid as an absentee mother and that”s gonna play that forward. But I”ve got to get up, put my clothes on and go to work.” That”s what people do. That”s what life is. You sort of live with the consequences of your decision-making. 

HitFix: And you also had the chance to direct a number of times. Did you direct at all in the last batch?

John Slattery: No, I couldn”t. I had this movie come out and it seems like forever ago but I was promoting the movie and now I regret it. It was too bad.

HitFix: Is there a different perspective that those experiences give you as you look back? Above and beyond the acting part of the “Mad Men process” but the directing sort of part?

John Slattery: Definitely. You really see the whole process and as an actor, in a show like this with the writing to the standard that it is, you put a pressure on yourself because the show is… whatever. Whether it”s because the show”s been as critically well-received as it has, there”s a pressure, “I need to do this the right way.” You realize that all you have to do is kind of get close and you have to do things differently. Don”t do two takes the same way. It”s pointless. And then they can cut it together and everybody has a hand in telling the story and it isn”t just you so there”s a relaxation that happens when you realize that.

HitFix: Do scripts read differently to you now? Both because of the directing experience but also just because of the, as you say, getting these wonderfully written scripts every week. When you read things for future projects is there kind of an ashes-in-your-mouth taste to it?

John Slattery: Well no. I mean I don”t expect anything to come… You know the thing about this show is it was so specific. It”s a world. You look for projects where there”s a world created that you don”t necessarily – not even, maybe one you”ve seen before but not from that particular angle or that specific point of view. So I look for that anyway. 

Yeah but practically speaking, yeah. I mean I know what exposition looks like because there”s so little of it in “Mad Men” and I know what if they say, “Oh, there”s a hovercraft in that scene” you”re like, “Really, there”s a hovercraft? We”re going to shoot that in… No we”re not.” So things get written into scripts and then you decide to sign on and then the things you liked about that script tend to get pared away and then you”re stuck with something that you didn”t sign on for. So I”m a little more equipped, a little better equipped to avoid that.

“Mad Men” returns to AMC on Sunday, April 5.

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