Hubbub: John Slattery
The actor’s character on AMC’s Mad Men, Roger Sterling, is notorious for his chauvinistic zingers. It turns out that off set, the Boston native is just as often a target of barbs, courtesy of his three sisters (blame the hair). On the eve of Mad Men’s October 17 season finale, we caught up with the silver fox himself—and learned not to call him that.
You’ve been nominated for a supporting actor Emmy three years running but still haven’t won. What’s that been like?
You sit there and you start to get nervous, thinking, What am I gonna say? And then, of course, three years in a row I haven’t had to say anything. At this point I’d rather be nervous and have to say something.
So next year you’ll have your speech in your breast pocket, right?
I was watching Al Pacino, who was sitting next to me. I think he was writing out a list of names in anticipation of winning, and then he put it in his pocket. When he got up onstage, he couldn’t find it. I wanted to yell out, “Al, it’s in your right pocket!”
I know you’re from the Boston suburbs — where exactly?
I grew up in Newton, and then we moved to Wellesley. I make it back a lot, actually. My parents are in Newton; two of my sisters have places in Scituate. We shoot during the summer, so I haven’t spent a summer in Scituate in the past five years, which is too bad because I really like it there.
Roger’s such a misogynist on the show. Do you get a lot of flak from your sisters?
Not so much that, but I get a lot of comments on what I’m wearing or what my hair looks like. My sister said I looked like a triceratops at the Emmys because my hair was sticking up all over the place. Basically, there’s a running commentary.
I read that you hate being called a “silver fox.” Is that true?
It’s not that I hate it; it’s just embarrassing. I get shit for it all the time. My family doesn’t let you get away with anything, and all that silver fox stuff is fodder for them.
I was going to ask you about the Roger Sterling doll, but I assume that goes in the same category.
Somebody asked me, “How do you feel that they made an action figure out of your character?” I said, “Well, it isn’t an action figure; it’s a Barbie doll.” I have friends who have action figures, and it’s not the same. This is definitely a Barbie doll.
You directed a couple episodes this season. Had you done that before?
No, I had it in my head, but I never really found the right situation. And then I got into this, and saw how good everybody was at their jobs. I thought, Yeah, I can really learn something from everybody in this process. So I threw my hat in. Ultimately, it was a leap of faith by [series creator] Matt Weiner.
How did you do?
I think the first episode I directed was good enough for him to say yes the second time.
After such a long acting career, how does it feel to have landed a role that’s gotten you so much attention?
If someone told me 20 years ago, “You’ll kick around for this long, and then you’ll get a part that will probably be the best job you’ve ever had,” I don’t know what I would have said. If I were smart, I would have said, “That’s the best way for it to happen.”
I imagine you get recognized a lot more these days.
A little bit more.
A little bit?
I bet you get a bad martini joke every time you walk into a bar. Well, I do get sent drinks more than I used to. But, you know, I’m not gonna complain about that.
Is there anything you can tell us about the finale? Anyone’s foot going to get run over by a tractor this year?
I can’t tell you anything because I’d lose my job. Matt Weiner is pretty adamant about all of us remaining closed-lipped about what happens. It’s not dull; I’ll say that.
He seems like he’d be sort of tough.
Well, he has a really specific vision in his head. He wants what’s in his head to end up on the screen, which is difficult, given all the hands that get hold of it in between. [In the episodes I directed], you know, you think you’re doing something, you think you’re shooting it a certain way, and then all of a sudden the camera moves a little bit or the frame is different than you thought or you didn’t have time to get a shot that you needed. Getting that pure vision in his head to the screen, he has to overcome a lot of impediments along the way.
When you were directing, did anything you saw surprise you? Experiencing everything from a different angle, maybe? I think the surprise was how fast the time goes. The schedule is very short; it’s eight days. So we shoot an episode in eight days and it’s a lot of material that needs to be done in a very specific way. You really need to be prepared — and then you also need to be prepared for all those plans to go out the window and to have to improvise at the last minute. You know, it’s 1965, so you can’t look in a certain direction because you see a building that wasn’t there in 1965 or a telephone poll, or you know, traffic, or whatever the case may be.
Huh, that’s interesting.
Yeah, it’s definitely a different experience with how fast the clock goes. You know, you can sit there as an actor and go, “God, will this day ever end?” You feel like it takes forever, and meanwhile, the director who’s standing next to you is experiencing it in a completely different way.
One last question: Do you feel like your Boston roots come out in your acting in any way?
You mean a nice, sarcastic Boston delivery? You know, I think it’s actually an untapped mine of comedy. There’s a particular kind of Boston spin. So many people from Boston that I know, particularly my family, are pretty adept at knocking you down a peg in a very specific and succinct way. I think it’s a particular skill that people from Boson have, which I admire.