If you’re watching the final half of the final season of Mad Men, you know that Paul Johansson’s character, the sleazy Ferg Donnelly, sort of encompasses everything awful about the McCann-Erickson world that Roger, Don, Joan, Pete and Peggy now have to live in. On Thursday, we spoke to Johansson about the show and his character, who he playfully defended, in a delightful, wide-ranging conversation that also touched on the Mad Men casting process, Matt Weiner’s obsession with secrecy, his days as a Canadian basketball star, modern technology, and hyper-Americanism, among other things.
UPROXX: Your character, Ferg Donnelly, appears to have driven Joan out of the firm and his terrible impression of Don may have been the thing that pushed Don to say “f*ck it” and walk out of the office in the middle of a big meeting –all of this after single-handedly kicking Ken Cosgrove to the curb. Those are pretty momentous accomplishments for a supporting character on such an iconic show. Congrats!
Paul Johansson: (Laughs) Well, you get the scripts and often you don’t know what you’re going to be doing. But sometimes you get them and see that you’re actually going to get to create a change, and you just light up. And I did, I just lit up.
All the scripts were very interesting and you could see that Ferg is immediately a presence, and that’s cool. It’s a great feeling.
Where did the Don Draper impression that your character did last week come from? What sort of direction did you get on it when you shot the scene? It was very Richard Nixon-esque.
Well, it was supposed to be Richard Nixon. In the script, it was supposed to be an impersonation of Richard Nixon. I don’t know how it came across, but I remember thinking, “He (the actor portraying Jim Hobart) just asked me to do an impression of Don.” Basically, (Jim Hobart) was saying, “Oh, he does impressions…here, he can even do one of you. Show him one.” But in the script, it doesn’t say I’m supposed to be doing one of Don. It said I was supposed to be doing one of Richard Nixon.
I mean, how do you do Don? How do you do Jon Hamm doing Don Draper?
Wow, that’s really interesting that it called for you to do a Nixon impression in the script. I wonder if that was some sort of trickery on Matt Weiner’s part?
It could be. Either that or I just failed miserably.
Well regardless it was hilarious. Jon Hamm/Don Draper’s reaction to it is pretty priceless. I rewound that scene five or six times just to laugh at the look on his face, which to me expressed something along the lines of, “Who are these people and how did I get here?”
That, or it’s Jon Hamm going, “Who let these guys on the set?”
The dialogue was all Richard Nixon. It was written for me.
How did you get cast in the show?
I think it was my body. I think Matt Weiner saw a picture of my physique and thought, “This is a good look for the 1960s, 1970s wardrobe.” No, I’m KIDDING, that’s not how it happened.
I went in and won the part the old-fashioned way. I auditioned for it.
Were you a fan of the show before you auditioned for it?
Huge. I was giddy when I got the call. I was beside myself giddy. All lit up and thrilled just to have an opportunity to go in and audition. I thought I was going to be interviewing with the casting director — Laura Schiff, who’s a lovely lady — and I had no idea that I’d be auditioning for Matt Weiner until I went in the room and there was Matt Weiner running the audition. It was just him.
There were probably 10 guys auditioning for the part, but he did keep me in there a long time. I did a couple of scenes and I did them several different ways with his direction, and then he asked me some very interesting questions about myself. Like, I told him that I was from Canada and he asked, “What’s that like? What’s growing up in Canada like?” I told him about how I have a cabin up in the woods that I go up to all the time and I take my son and I don’t bring my phone and we hike and it’s in the woods and we live off the land and there’s no electricity. And he was like, “Really?” and I told him, yeah, I want to know what that’s like and to remind myself that I’m a man, and I have resources and I want my son to have that feeling too. So I think he kind of dug that. Or maybe not, maybe it almost made me not get the part.
I suppose that him running the audition himself had to give you some sort of indication that this was going to be a significant part, that this was not just going to be a throwaway role on the show.
That’s true. But I didn’t really know for sure until they called two weeks later and they were like, “OK, it’s going to be a few episodes and we need to make sure you’re available.” And I was like, “Uh, YES.”
But they really didn’t tell me much. And I have to say, no one from any show I’ve worked on — and I’ve been in this business for a very long time — has been so, so clear that there were to be absolutely no leaks. There was to be no discussion with anyone about what was going to happen on the show. I was basically told, “Not a word to your wife, not a word to your friends, or I will cut you out. And we will sue you.” Those words were used.
I mean, in no uncertain terms were we allowed to talk about anything. But I don’t mind it because (Matt Weiner) is protecting his brand…he’s backing up what he likes, what he loves. And I love that passion, by the way.
Well, I guess I won’t ask you about anything that’s going to happen in the final two episodes then.
And frankly, I don’t want to know.
Well, here’s the thing — for those last two episodes, there were no cast script readings. For seven years, they did script readings where the cast was all brought in. So, I have no clue. You only got the script for the scenes you were in and that was it. Things got very tight.
Looking at your career history, I first remember seeing you as a frat boy, as I recall, who got Steve Sanders into some trouble on Beverly Hills 90210.
Geez, what generation are you from?
I’m from that generation, the 90210 generation, baby.
That’s going back, man.
And I know you played something of a villainous character on One Tree Hill.
He wasn’t villainous, he was a complicated character.
Yes, complicated, that’s a good way to put it. But Ferg is a dickhead, let’s face it.
Ferg’s not a dickhead! Ferg is a man of the times. Ferg, and every other man of that era, believed that there was some type of entitlement to being a powerful man. If he’s a powerful man and (Joan) works in the company then she should just hand it over. (Laughs)
I guess there’s an argument to be made for that, but I still think he’s a dickhead.
(Laughs) Everybody else was doing it.
I’m curious though — do you find yourself being typecast to play these frat-y/overgrown frat-boy dickheads?
You’ve had me on the phone for about 15 minutes now and wouldn’t you immediately cast me as a dickhead?
No, I wouldn’t! You strike me as a really good guy. And I’m not blowing smoke up your ass. You’re the proverbial guy I’d like to hang out and drink with.
I find it all quite funny, actually, because I’ve played a lot of lovely characters. I just finished doing a movie in Canada where I was a father and my daughter is about to get married but my wife, who’s played by Teri Polo, and I are about to get a divorce and we have to hide it — it’s a big romantic comedy and it’s super fun, and I’m so not a dickhead in the movie. What you hope for is to get to play many different types of characters. But the more successful shows I’ve done have had me often playing characters that had nefarious intentions, so people remember that.
Yeah, that makes sense.
And by the way, for many, many years I thought that Kevin Bacon was great at playing dickheads. But the truth is, I’m a dad and I play a lot of basketball and I don’t get into any trouble and I’m hardworking and always looking for the next opportunity. These roles, I mean, I would have taken any role they would have offered me on Mad Men. I would have played a stapler.
You mentioned basketball — I read somewhere that you were a pretty good basketball player when you were younger, so much so that you were on the Canadian Olympic basketball team.
Yeah, yeah, but I didn’t actually get to go. I was a member of the national team in ’86 and ’87 and I toured the world with them, and I made the team for the ’88 Olympics, but I didn’t make the traveling team. There were 18 players chosen for the team, but they cut six to actually go to the Olympics, and I was one of the six. But I got to help us qualify. I played in a lot of tournaments around the world, and I think I made a big contribution to the team, but I was also the youngest guy on the team. That was ’88. The Olympics were in Korea. It just didn’t work out for me.
Well did you at least come away with some great stories from that time?
I’ve got fantastic stories from that time!
Let’s hear one. What’s your best story from your time as a basketball player?
OK, so my father was an NHL hockey player. He played for the Red Wings and he retired to Spokane, Washington, but he’s a Canadian and my mother is also a Canadian and they were living in America when I was born. So I had both an American and a Canadian passport. So we later moved to Canada and I was raised there and became a basketball player and I made the national team and we went on a trip to China, to Beijing — this was in 1986, no, 1987, right before the Olympics. We were preparing for the Olympics, the team was all traveling together, and we went to China to play in a tournament. But they didn’t want to let me in the country because I had an American passport. The U.S. and China weren’t the best of friends at that point, but the Canadians were fine. So I had to fly in to Tokyo with another player who had an American passport to get a special visa to be able to get into China. So we flew into Beijing, and officials stopped our plane on the runway. Then they took myself and the other player that had an American passport off the airplane and out onto the runway at gunpoint.
I was, like, 20-years-old, I think, 19-years-old, something like that. So they took us into a room and sort of pretended to be upset and finally released us to the team, but I think it was all a big show to try to intimidate us. Because they were going to broadcast this game live, between us and the Chinese, to the whole country. This is China, a closed Communist country, and there’s like a billion people there. So we go to our hotel from the airport and it’s like 11 at night and we’re tired and we’re starving but we have to go to bed because we have practice early in the morning. We check in to the hotel and all of our rooms were facing the same direction, so we’re all on the same side. Strange, right? And there’s no curtains in our rooms. None. So then all of a sudden this big, huge truck pulls up to the front of the hotel we were staying in with a huge spotlight and it starts shining into our rooms, back and forth, and then a band started playing in the back of the truck. A band!
This is all true. Jay Triano (former head coach of the Toronto Raptors) was on the team, he was my roommate. So all night long they had a spotlight shining into our rooms and had a band playing outside until like, six in the morning when they finally packed up and drove off. So we got up for practice, we had a terrible practice, and the facility they provided us was terrible, the floor was dirty. So then at three o’clock we go to the arena, this huge arena, to play in front of a packed audience. Half the audience was wearing military uniforms and they were screaming for their team. And when we got to our bench they didn’t have any water for us — they had warm beer on the bench for us.
Get the hell out of here.
I mean, we weren’t going to drink it…but we still beat them by 30, 35 points and they stopped broadcasting the game to the country at halftime. So none of it worked.
That’s insane, that’s incredible. Steve Nash came along a couple of years after you, right?
Yes. Nash came later, but he heard a lot of stories about our team, and about me. I ran into him at a big Canadian fundraiser that was held at the Ritz next to the Staples Center about a year ago and he was like, “So you’re Paul Johansson.” He heard a lot of stories about me.
Well, if I ever interview Steve Nash I’ll have to ask him to share one of these stories about you.
Yeah, he’ll tell you the story about how I refused to go home when they cut me from the team. I tried to not let the coach cut me. I was like, “Nope, sorry, Coach, I’m not going home. You’ve made a mistake, I’m not going.”
So you were sort of like George Costanza on Seinfeld, who kept showing up for work after he was no longer employed.
Yes. That’s exactly what I was. I was George Costanza. Holy sh*t.
(BONUS: At one point during our interview, Paul’s phone dropped the call, which led him to unleash a humorous little diatribe about technology when we connected again. Figured I’d share that as well.)
Sorry about that.
You know, this doesn’t happen in Tokyo, it doesn’t happen in Singapore. But it happens all the time in America, and I know exactly why. It’s because our phones are two generations behind the phones in Europe and Asia. And they do this intentionally, because every generation of phone has to pay for itself. (The mobile-phone companies) have three or four generations above the current phones that they won’t sell us, so they can release them slowly and incrementally to maximize profits. It’s just a huge game. It makes me sick. It makes me mad. Because we’re behind Europe in every single way and here we are, we’re supposed to be the innovators of the world — that’s a spoonful of garbage we’ve been fed. It’s not true. It’s just not true.
Yeah, that’s the dirty little secret that anyone who’s been to Europe or Asia in recent years knows. The infrastructure, transportation, technology, etc., is so far advanced from where we are.
Oh God, how about the streets? And everything in those cities runs and it runs on time and it runs smoothly. It’s the Big Lie. I hate the jingoism where people rah-rah-rah about how great we are when we’re actually not doing it anymore.
(This interview was condensed and edited for length.)