Interview: ‘Mad Men’ star John Slattery discusses Roger Sterling’s long, strange trip

04.04.13 6 years ago
In yesterday’s first interview of “Mad Men” week, Jessica Pare taught us about the challenges of promoting a show that you’re not allowed to preview at all. Of course, she also talked about Megan’s gifts as an actress and about the allure of Dark Don. I still like the interview, even if she wouldn’t admit she was in Hawaii.
But not all of the “Mad Men” interviews I did focused on the future or on things the actors couldn’t talk about.
A four-time Emmy nominee, John Slattery saw Roger Sterling go through some changes last season, fighting back from the brink of obsolescence with the help of enlightenment gleaned in one of the great LSD trips ever captured on film/video. Where does Season 6 find Roger in his journey? Well, without spoiling specific details, Slattery was able to give some insight into the character’s progression.
In addition to acting on “Mad Men,” Slattery has also become a key part of the show’s directing stable, helming the exceptional “Signal 30” last season, as well as “Blowing Smoke” and “The Rejected.” Slattery directed two more episodes this season and we talked about his learning curve behind the camera and the unique challenges of achieving the writer-specific “Mad Men” vision. 
Click through for the full interview, which manages to be thoughtful and interesting without spoiling anything at all…
HitFix: Last season it felt like we saw Roger go through a process of reexamining his position as something of a class clown at a relatively advanced age and realizing that it may not be a satisfactory life. Has it been fun to play that introspective side to the character? 
John Slattery: That’s an interesting way to put it. I think maybe he is a late bloomer. Yeah, maybe he’s at this stage trying to figure out something that’s going to sustain a little more interest than just the things he’s been up to before… through this inadvertent acid experience. I think he’s opening. I think he’s willing to change or willing to do what he has to to find some sort of sustained meaning in the whole thing. I think given the focus on youth that exists now, that existed probably more then, and being the age he is, there are all kinds of things that enter into the question and I think he’s interested in something new.
HitFix: This realization could have been negative, but the way you’re explaining it sounds like you take it as positive progress?
John Slattery: I do! I think it’s positive. I think having possibilities and being open to them is really all you can ask for and I think that’s what he’s arrived at. When he talks to Marie, Megan’s mother, about, “I had this experience and I arrived at this realization that it’s too early to give up,” so if that’s the case, then you’re going to soldier on and then what are you going to go after? And what are you going to look for? And I think that’s where he is. He’s trying to figure out what he’s looking for.
HitFix: That’s an optimistic prognosis for Roger. It feels like as we left last season and begin this season, Don is unraveling a bit and Pete is unraveling to some degree…
John Slattery: Yeah! Well, I think Roger had his unraveling. I think everybody’s on their own timetable. I think all the people struggle — Peggy, Joan, everybody in the office, they all do. Kenny. Harry Crane. They’re all trying. And it’s cyclical and it’s somewhat liquid and when you think you’ve got it all figured out… Look at Pete. He gets out to Larchmont or Scarsdale or wherever the hell he lives and he’s got it all — He’s got the clients and the pretty wife and the kid and the dog and the pool. And he couldn’t be more miserable. If Don’s unraveling and Roger is trying to sew it back together or trying to move on from his last unraveling, I think it’s just where they are. I don’t think it’s an endgame for any of them at this point. He hopes not.
HitFix: You could hope for a happy ending for the character…
John Slattery: I don’t even know if I want it “happy.” It’s gonna end, soon. I expect based on what’s come before that it will be unexpected and complicated. I think they’re very fully drawn characters. They go through all kinds of stuff all the time.
HitFix: What was your reaction to the LSD episode when you saw that script last season?
John Slattery: I thought it was brilliant. I thought it was brilliant to choose Roger to have this experience, the guy who was probably the most, you could argue, shut-down and where he’d come from, that he’d lost this account and it looked like he was gonna be marginalized permanently and rendered pretty much irrelevant and then he’s the guy who has this experience and awakens to the fact that there’s something else to be considered. That’s really smart storytelling and I’m glad that it landed on me. It was fun to do.
HitFix: Did you know immediately how you wanted to play it?
John Slattery: No. I didn’t. In fact, we reshot a couple scenes, or at least one scene, because the tone that Matt [Weiner] wanted wasn’t there. He has very definite ideas of what it’s going to look like and what it’s to be played like, but we’re not all in Matt’s head, so sometimes it isn’t that way. Sometimes that’s OK. We all add things to it, but sometimes it needs to be readjusted. So no, the answer is that I didn’t have a definitive idea of how I wanted to play it and there were a lot of pieces, so you do one piece and knock that off and then do another piece and it cuts together a little more organically than it actually is played.
HitFix: Can you define what the difference was in tone from the original playing of that scene and the way Matt wanted and refined it?
John Slattery: The scene I was referring to was the scene in the bathtub with Jane and I was looking at the 1919 World Series in my head, or out in the bathroom somewhere, and initially he wasn’t happy with the set and then he decided that he wanted the tone to be less sorta stoney-y, more lucid and just that you’re having this picture and it’s actually happening, so that it isn’t like you’ve had too many drinks. It wasn’t that. It was something a little more lucid that he wanted, I think, a little more astonished and amused that this was actually happening right in front of his face.
[Slattery talks directing on the next page…] 

HitFix: And this season, how many times did you get to direct?
John Slattery: Two. I start editing Monday on my second one.
HitFix: And this is now the third season you’ve directed and the second season you’ve directed multiple episodes. Is there a “John Slattery” episode at this point? Do they target certain kinds of episodes for you?
John Slattery: No. I would say that’s definitely not the case, because my schedule is, as is Jon Hamm’s, we’re here. They know that they have us from October to April, while the other directors come and go. Initially, I was supposed to direct two episodes earlier in the season and then 7 and 10, that was where I ended up. So now, you really get the scripts you get. I think they consider thoughtfully whoever’s going to direct the first show. You want somebody who knows what they’re doing. I’m getting to the point where I feel confident that I… I mean, I get through my day and I can bring my little spin to it, but it’s pretty obvious what the intentions are. By the time we shoot it, there aren’t a lot of questions as to what it wants to be. It’s whether or not you can bring something to it that’s yours and still tell the same story.
HitFix: Do you have more latitude now that you’ve done this a few times and you’ve proven you can be trusted with the material?
John Slattery: I wouldn’t say that. You can pitch things and you can be denied or they’ll be accepted, but it’s still scrutinized and there’s definitely an ongoing concern that it be done in a certain way, which is good. And then you find your way. You figure out how to shoot it. No one’s gonna tell you necessarily how to shoot it or how to talk to the actors and get the performances. So you have these meetings and the intention of the scene is described or is explained and then you go out and, you know, if you get that, you can get whatever else you feel like you can add to it.
HitFix: As you look towards a Season 7 and hypothetically directing more, are there people you haven’t gotten to work with or dynamics you haven’t gotten to play with that you’d like to try your hand at?
John Slattery: I haven’t worked that much with January Jones. Well a little bit, but I really think that she’s terrific. She has a way of making it look like it’s all really happening in real time while we’re shooting it and it’s sorta wild to watch. But they’re all great. Vinnie. Jon. Lizzy Moss. They can do anything. Christina. And at this point, we’ve shot these rooms a lot, we’ve shot these sets a lot, we’ve all worn these clothes before. We’re not repeating ourselves scene-wise, but we’ve been playing these characters long enough that they all know how to play the characters, so you’re just offering them an idea or some kind of hopefully organic adjustment to what they just did, so you give yourself some options. But they all know what they’re doing.

HitFix: Do you give yourself little projects each time you direct? Something new you want to learn how to use or something you’ve never tried before behind the camera?
John Slattery: Inevitably something comes along. There are big groups of people or exteriors with period cars or a crane, there’s always something that you think to yourself, “I have no idea how to do this” and yet there’s 100 people looking at you going, “What are we doing now?” So there is some element of it where you’re inevitably flying by the seat of your pants. You have a plan and then you realize shortly upon arrival and the plan’s not gonna work and then you figure it out, but a lot of people that really know what you’re doing are standing around you, though.

HitFix: That was going to be my next question. Is that “seat of your pants” quality even quite the same when you’re working with the same DP, the same costume designer, the same production designer, etc etc.
John Slattery: Yeah, you go, “I don’t know. What are we gonna do?” You know what, actually? I would have to say that at this point, I have it all worked out in my head, but then rather than say that to someone, I’ll get into the room and go, “OK. So let’s rehearse the scene” and they’ll rehearse it and leave open the possibility that I may want to go from the other side of the room or do some other thing. And sometimes that happens and sometimes you look at the DP and you go, “OK. It’s obvious we have to shoot like this.” So he’ll offer his solutions or suggestions. I enjoy it. It’s stressful, but I enjoy it.
HitFix: And you’ve done this and Jon’s done it. Is there anyone else from the cast who you think out to dive in and direct an episode next season?
John Slattery: With this material and these people standing around you, with Chris Manley, the cinematographer, and Dan Bishop and Janie Bryant and all these people, the art direction, the lighting… They could all do it. They’re all smart. They’ve all been standing on a set for 20 years. They could all do it. You have to want to.
HitFix: And it sounds like it, but are you viewing this definitely as being a penultimate season?
John Slattery: I am, yeah. I think we all are.
HitFix: Well that’s obviously what the contracts say as of now, but you’re taking it as being definitive?
John Slattery: In all the conversations I’ve had, there isn’t any indication I’ve gotten that it’s going to go any further than seven seasons. That’s how we speak of it and everybody talks about it like that. And it makes sense to me. How long are we gonna do this? We’ve told the story of this group of people really well, I think. I don’t know. It’s really not up to me, obviously. I haven’t even thought past the end next year. I haven’t thought past the end of today. Because I don’t know what’s happening in the last two scripts. We’re up to No. 11, so I really have no idea how this season’s gonna end. I just hope I make it to end of next season. If we do a seventh season, which we will… Well, someone will. I hope I’m included!
HitFix: Are you talking John or are you talking Roger?
John Slattery: Well, without one, where goes the other?
HitFix: Well if *one* had a heart attack, the *other* could still direct an episode.
John Slattery: I suppose I could. Hypothetically speaking. He claims to know, Matt that is, where it’s going or how it ends. He says he has a final image. I’ve read that.
HitFix: Oh, you’ve read about him saying that. But he doesn’t tell you this. He doesn’t try to reassure you on this.
John Slattery: He doesn’t say anything about me. He says he knows how *it* ends. We’ve seen… You know, you lose a guy like Jared Harris and you think, “Oh shit. That could be me.” Because actors don’t come much better than him. I think we all miss him. And everybody knows that. But the story dictates that someone has to go and it was him. 
“Mad Men” returns to AMC on Sunday, April 7.

Around The Web