The Emmy-nominated actor discusses the fifth season finale of AMC’s Mad Men, the evolution of the show’s depiction of women and life before fame from the award-winning series.
Actor John Slattery
Tavis: John Slattery is surely living an actor’s dream these days, playing a colorful and memorable character on one of the most critically lauded shows on all of television, “Mad Men,” a role that has earned him now four consecutive Emmy nods for best supporting actor.
The ’60s-era drama has just wrapped up its fifth season on AMC, and so here now, a scene from “Mad Men.”
Tavis: No three-piece grey suit today.
John Slattery: No, but if I had known there would be a long shot I would have worn the pants to the suit at least. (Laughter)
Tavis: I was telling my friends the other day when we were discussing your coming on the show, I love Jon Hamm, great guy, great actor, he’s been here before. But for my money, you’re the best-dressed guy on the show. Whoever the costume designer is –
Slattery: The great Janie Bryant.
Tavis: Janie Bryant, you’re doing a good job, Janie.
Slattery: She does an amazing job. (Laughter) We had some fittings, initial fittings, and they were hours long. The first fittings, where you’re trying to determine the look of the character. I pulled all these suits, like sharkskin suits and different, and sent them up to Matt Weiner and he said, “No, no, no, that’s Pete Campbell. This is a three piece suit, collar, the whole thing.”
I was a little resistant at first, but he had that specific point of view on everything, like the costumes too.
Tavis: Since we’re talking about it, how much of the costuming – this is one of those award categories that so many of us don’t really pay attention to, but for a show like this, the costuming is so terribly important, I would think.
Slattery: Incredibly important. They have to find all these vintage outfits, or make them, or replicate them. Yeah, Janie does an amazing job, and she has assistants, and they have to search far and wide to find this stuff. The women’s clothing is unbelievable.
Tavis: Yeah, it is, and so are the women who wear the clothing.
Slattery: The women are unbelievable. They fill them out pretty well, don’t they? (Laughter)
Tavis: I digress on that point, but if we’re going to shout out the clothes, we’ll shout out the women in the clothes on “Mad Men.” Fair to say that this is the darkest season to date?
Slattery: The times are getting a little dark, aren’t they? It’s getting to that point in the late ’60s. Yeah, I guess there was a lot of death imagery. People were predicting that someone was going to go. With AMC or the studio, Lionsgate, I think they wanted to cut some costs.
There was some news about them trying to cut characters, so people were predicting somebody was going to go. Then Richard Speck, the guy that went up in the tower, that was featured. Then poor Jared Harris didn’t make it. Yeah, I guess it was a pretty dark season, yeah, to answer your question.
Tavis: Let’s talk about your character more specifically as we’ve been talking about the show more broadly. To my mind, and I watch the show regularly, you are like the quintessential white dude of that particular era, and that’s not altogether a compliment.
Which means that you’re doing a good job acting, obviously, to make me feel that way.
Slattery: Thanks. (Laughter) That’s all I’ve really ever wanted to be.
Tavis: A quintessential white dude.
Slattery: Yeah. (Laughter) Yeah, well –
Tavis: You’re sexist, you’re –
Slattery: Racist, sexist –
Slattery: – misogynist, yeah, philandering drunk. (Laughter)
Tavis: And you love it.
Slattery: It’s fantastic, yeah. (Laughter) Yeah, it’s great. Yeah, I’ve had some misgivings along the way about I had to sing in blackface at the country club.
Tavis: I recall that, yes.
Slattery: Thinking, what the hell? Oftentimes he’ll break a story, Matt, that is, and tell you about it, or he’ll tell some of the actors some stuff, whatever they need to prepare. Vinnie Kartheiser this year, they shaved his hairline back, so at one point, just in passing, someone says, “Is he going bald?” and they laugh.
So he had to know that was going to happen, but yeah, so he says to me, “You’re going to sing ‘My Old Kentucky Home’ in blackface at Derby Day at this country club,” and I go, “Great,” and get in the car and drive home and go, “What the – what did he just say?”
That’s the message, and Roger’s the likely messenger. He’s the – that’s the time period. The logical guy to say half the stuff that he says is me, is Roger. So it’s not – it’s great to play. It’s dramatic, there’s a lot to play. People get it.
I was worried, I’ve been worried a couple of times that you get a lot of grief from people who go, “That’s the most reprehensible thing I’ve ever seen,” but people get it. They get that it went on. When we found out – they did research on that Derby Day thing. They said, “Do you think this was likely to have happened?” and they said, “Oh, it happened.”
Tavis: Likely? (Laughter)
Slattery: It happened, all right, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it isn’t still happening.
Tavis: Fate plays such an important role in life, and certainly in this industry, as you well know. If I’ve read this correctly, when you went in to read for this, you went in originally to read for the Don Draper character.
Tavis: And were told that they’d already filled that.
Tavis: With some guy named Jon Hamm.
Tavis: You end up with this. In retrospect, what do you make of that happenstance, that occurrence?
Slattery: I was sent the script and I was told the role of Draper, and I actually called my agent back and said, “Really?” Because I get a part and it’s the 65-year-old grandfather. That’s what I get. (Laughter)
I thought, really? Draper? It’s an unbelievable part. They said, “Yeah.” So I did my homework and went in and read, and they were very serious. Walked in the room and it was Matt and Alan Taylor, who directed the pilot, and you could tell they were like, “Let’s go. Let’s not screw around here. Let’s get going.”
So I did my thing and then they gave me some notes and did it again, and that was what, when I look back on it, I’m like, why did you keep making me do it? (Laughter)
Then they said, “Okay, here’s the deal – we have that guy already. This is the guy we want you to play.” So I was a little, I don’t know, irritated, but then I got it. There were only a couple scenes with Roger in them in the pilot, so they assumed I wouldn’t come in and read for it, and they wanted me to.
Then I met Hamm, and then I thought, well, they certainly do have that guy. (Laughter) That was not – it was humbling, actually. When I saw him, I was like, “Oh, I’m so not that guy, and I never will be.”
Tavis: Yeah, but you are so the character that you play. It works.
Slattery: Yeah, and then Matt said, “Listen, I promise you,” and I was a huge fan of “Sopranos,” and so he said, “This will be a great part, I promise you.” And it was in the pilot, too, it just there wasn’t that much.
Tavis: From your perspective, what is it, then, that has made this show work so well with the audience? You laid the back story nicely that stuff just kind of lined up, but what’s made it work so well these five seasons?
Slattery: I have to say it’s the material, it’s the actual writing. I said that recently and Matt said, “Well, it’s the people.” I’m not trying to be false modest. We do a good job. It was cast well, it’s shot well, all the designers and producers do a hell of a job.
But it’s the writing. I had an acting class once, and the guy said – and he was a great teacher. But he would do this basic repetition, this Meisner thing, and someone said, “Why don’t you teach an advanced class,” and he goes, “Because you think you’re pretty advanced, and then you do something else and you’re not so advanced.”
Without these scripts, we wouldn’t be so advanced. I think it’s the storytelling. These people are all so complicated. They’re unexpected, it’s never predictable, you’re never ahead of it. People think they are. They predict all kinds of stuff, and then Lane Price happens and it’s shocking. The guys are great, and those writers are great storytellers. I think that’s it.
Tavis: Well, it’s working, and I’m glad it’s working, because a lot of us love watching it. I’m glad to have you on, John.
Slattery: Thanks, glad to be here.
Tavis: Nice to meet you, man.
Slattery: It was fun.
Tavis: Glad you finally made it. John Slattery of “Mad Men” on AMC. That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, thanks for watching and keep the faith.
“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.
“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.
“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.