John Slattery—Emmy-nominated for playing Mad Men’s other irresistible cad, Roger Sterling—talks to The Observer about good writing (Katherine Heigl, please take notes!), cigarettes and the secrets he won’t tell us about in season three.
Are you getting sick of people gushing to you about how great Mad Men is and how excited they are for it to come back on the air? [Season three—for those who have just awoken from a coma —begins Aug. 16 on AMC]
My friend just called me and said, ‘I wish I could just find a place, someplace, where Mad Men is being publicized … I just can’t find any mention of it anywhere!’ (Laughs). And no, I’m not sick of it. It’s always good to hear. I like it, too.
I’ve seen the first episode of the new season and, as usual, I think you get the funniest lines.
Oh yeah, they write some pretty funny stuff for Roger Sterling. It’s good, isn’t it? Sometimes you feel like, man, I wish I was more in the thick of it … but then when I watch something, I always have to remember, you never think of it that way. It’s not always the person who is on the screen the most; it’s sometimes someone who comes in and makes an impression and sticks out.
See, I feel like you are in the thick of it all the time
That’s a compliment to the writing. People assume all actors just wants their face on TV more. There have been things where I have had to convince people to cut me out of scenes. I have no interest in just standing there and looking like an idiot, or trying to act a really badly written scene. This material is so good you just want more and more of it.
When you first picked up the script for Mad Men , did you have any idea the show would take off like this?
I did, I think. The whole script was so well written, it was something you wanted to be a part of. AMC had never made anything like this before, so we were a little dubious—not Matt Weiner or Alan Taylor, they were happy to be making it at AMC—but, you know, it was a channel known for playing old movies. It was a little worrying, like, well, here’s this great, well-written thing that will never see the light of day.
HBO must still be mad that they passed on it. …
What do they have to be mad about? They had it sitting right there!
You know someone got in trouble for that one
I think that is exactly what happened.
I’ve heard you’ve been shadowing the directors on the set. Are you interested in directing?
I am interested in it. Just to see this thing put together, and to see how good everyone is at their job—do you realize it’s just seven days an episode? Seven days! A lot of time people just want to get a paycheck and then go home. … You know, they’ve been working really long hours and want to see their families. But they really care how good this is. I’m always amazed to see Matt Weiner in action—he’s just firing all levels, answering questions, putting out fires. You can just see the wheels turning.
Has being on that side of the camera affected your approach to acting?
It has, actually. You know, actors beat up on themselves—the material is so good, you don’t want to fail the writing. But when you see it from the other end, seeing how a director looks to put all these pieces together, you just move on and don’t let it affect the next take. Generally, it’s much less pressurized seeing it from the other side. I was also so impressed with watching the other actors—January (Jones), Vincent (Kartheiser) and Christina (Hendricks)—it’s not like a play where you start the thing each night and tell a whole story. It’s all ass backwards. It’s pretty amazing to watch these people.
The cast is all so great—and seems to have such natural chemistry with one another.
We do and it’s not forced, you know? It’s not like we have to be pals or hang around and be best friends. We hang around socially when we’re together, but it’s really a case of people coming to work knowing what they want to do. They’re prepared. They’ve done their homework.
As a viewer it certainly feels that way. It’s so many small details.
Since I’ve been following the director, Phil Abraham, I’ve seen so much more of that. There’s a thing called the tone meeting where everybody—the assistant director, the editor, the director, the producer, Matt—goes through the script page by page and line by line asking every question there is to ask. How big is this cookie? What color is the interior of the car? You know, sometimes when a line feels funny, your impulse might be to say can we change this, and I think now I’d be less likely to do that. It’s incredibly well thought out.
So will you be directing any future episodes of the show?
I would like to. They haven’t committed to me, but they’ve allowed me to shadow Phil, which clearly has been a great experience. This is the first job I’ve been on where I want to spend the time. I live in New York and usually I just want to shoot and go home. But everyone here is so good at their job, it’s great to learn this much from these people.
Off topic, can you please tell me what the deal is with all the smoking?
We’re smoking herbal stuff. They’re not very pleasant, but they’re not addictive because I used to be a pretty heavy smoker. I love it. I miss it. If those things weren’t so nasty, I’d smoke those.
Can the real smokers smoke real cigarettes?
The people who actually smoke, they smoke those things and then go outside and have a cigarette. [laughs] You just don’t get the same zoozsh.
So I bet you’re going to say you can’t tell us what happens in season three.
You’re right, I can’t. O.K., I can say this: I was really shocked when I started getting wind of what was happening.
Come on, that’s an awful tease!
I’m not just saying that. I was like, what? Let’s just say it’s unusual … it’s unusual to do on a TV show.