Actor John Slattery

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.

John Slattery is one of Hollywood's most respected actors. Although he's had recurring and guest roles on such popular TV series as Will and Grace, Sex and the City and Desperate Housewives, it's his performance as ad exec Roger Sterling on AMC's Mad Men for which he's most widely known these days and that has earned him four outstanding supporting actor Emmy noms. The series has also given him behind-the-camera access as a director. Slattery launched his career in the late 1980s and has worked steadily since, on TV, on stage and in features. His film credits include The Adjustment Bureau and Iron Man 2.


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 gray 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 John Hamm. Great guy, great actor; he’s been here before, of course.

Slattery: Yeah.

Tavis: 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. 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 sent them up to Matt Weiner, and he said, “No, no, no. That’s Pete Campbell. This is an all three-piece suit, collar button, 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. Yeah, 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.”

Slattery: They’re all right. (Laughter)

Tavis: 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, Lion’s Gate, I think they wanted to cut some costs. There was some news about them trying to cut characters, so the people were predicting somebody was going to go.

Then Richard Speck, the guy that went up in the tower, that was featured. Then poor Jerry Harris didn’t make it. Yeah, I guess it was a pretty dark season, yeah, to answer your question.

Tavis: I won’t belabor this point, but since you raise it, because I was discussing it Matt Weiner when he was on the program when the season first started, this whole debacle and debate about the network wanting to cut a couple minutes out of the show.

I ask this question of you because you’re not just a star of the show, you direct some of the episodes. What was your take on that debate as a director trying to see a narrative through from beginning to end and having to lose some time to make that happen?

Slattery: Well, I remember watching Sean Penn on some show talking about how commercials, that he didn’t want to do television because of the commercials, and I never – I understand it now, directing something even more so, because it is an interruption and you need that time.

To tell the story, you have, what, 44 minutes, I think, with all the commercials. I know they turn the lights on and they pay the bills, but to cut into the story like that hurts the story. It hurts the flow. So yeah, you need what little time you have.

Plus the scripts are so dense, so just getting them shot in the eight days you’re allotted to shoot them is difficult, and then cutting them to time is incredibly difficult. We always leave them five or six minutes over so that Matt can then go in and make his final cut, and this season he and I had a conversation about how difficult it is to cut these things to time and not lose any scenes.

So yeah, there was some speculation that they were going to try to cut some expenses and do that, but he didn’t want it to happen. They were actually going to have two versions. It was going to be that version that went on the air, and then the DVD version would put the two minutes back in, but the issue went away.

Tavis: Right. Since we’re talking about “Mad Men,” the last time he was here, one other question about that visit, when he came on at the beginning of the season there was this poster with this mannequins. I’m sure they’ll pull it up here in a second. A poster with these mannequins on, and I was asking Matt to try and describe to me what that meant. All he would give me was by the end of the season, you will get this.

Slattery: Do you?

Tavis: I think I get it now. There are so many ways to read it. One of them would be the empowerment of women in this particular season. Women came into their own. I mean, this is a sexist era. It’s a patriarchal era to be sure.

Slattery: Right, right.

Tavis: You talk about one character leaving because she wasn’t respected at the firm, a character now owning 5 percent. So for those of us who are fans of the show, there are some things that have happened this season that do, in fact, speak to changing attitudes about women.

I didn’t know what to make of that naked female mannequin at first, and maybe Matthew didn’t even intend that, but I’m just trying to figure out what –

Slattery: Well, last night he actually – we were on a panel last night and he said that the poster, and I didn’t think about it. He said the poster was Draper trying to envision or construct a domestic life for himself.

So I guess I’m looking – the poster is a shop window with a female, with mannequins and – there it is. Yeah, and a guy sitting there in his pajamas, trying to envision a peaceful domestic life for himself, complete domestic life.

Tavis: So what Matthew meant, I got none of that. (Laughter)

Slattery: Yeah, I didn’t either until he said it last night.

Tavis: That’s why you love art. Art is so subjective. But the fact that you didn’t get it until last night on a panel where he explained it doesn’t make me feel so –

Slattery: (Unintelligible) get it now, looking at it closer.

Tavis: Yeah, I don’t feel so stupid or so bad now. (Laughter) But I read – that’s one of the things I love about art. It’s a great ad – it got everybody’s attention, so it worked. People tuned in, obviously.

Slattery: Yeah. I’m always amazed when you do something, I do anything and someone goes, “Well, it’s the imagery of this.” They read it, and that’s what it is. You put something up there, some canvas, and people are going to fill it in with their own misgivings or their own whatever, apprehension and –

Tavis: Insights.

Slattery: – insights, right. Fantasies.

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.

Slattery: Mm-mmm.

Tavis: Which means that you’re doing a good job acting, obviously, to make me feel that way.

Slattery: Thanks. (Laughter) Yeah. That’s all I’ve really ever wanted to be.

Tavis: A quintessential white dude, yeah.

Slattery: Yeah. Yeah, well –

Tavis: You’re sexist, you’re –

Slattery: Racist.

Tavis: – you’re racist, you’re, yeah.

Slattery: Misogynist, yah, 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: And 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 one of the – 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 in Roger’s “The Likely Messenger.” Yeah, 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, and people get it. I was worried – I’ve been worried a couple 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, when 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 would be surprised if it isn’t still happening. So you can’t really draw a line and say, “Well, I want to write the woman in her underwear singing cowboy songs, but I draw the line at blackface, I won’t do that.” Or stand there naked, having taken LSD.

Tavis: But because the audience gets it doesn’t mean that it’s easy or comfortable for you to play as an actor.

Slattery: No, no.

Tavis: So have you had misgivings about it?

Slattery: Yeah, who wants to stand there naked in front of a camera? I mean, some of you people probably do. (Laughter) But no – well, yeah, but what this cast is, among other things, is willing. They’re all ready and looking for it.

The more conflict, the better. The more challenging, the more dramatic, the better the story. So it may not be easy, and there’s emotional obligations to a lot of it, which is hard to do. There it is – you’ve got to stand there naked, you’ve got to cry, you have to do all kinds of things that you wouldn’t do in your life and have never done in your life, and you have to conjure up a way to be convincing in that moment.

That’s what you want as an actor. That’s why we all got into it in the first place.

Tavis: Since you mentioned LSD, let me follow you down that line of thought. One of the things I found fascinating about this particular episode where LSD is introduced, obviously, is that when we tend to think of drugs in that era, we tend to think of hippies and Woodstock and et cetera, et cetera.

Slattery: Right, right.

Tavis: Here you have a professional guy, exec at an ad agency, who’s doing LSD.

Slattery: Yeah.

Tavis: Which I thought was pretty interesting.

Slattery: Yeah. Again, surprising, but it’s also well-constructed. I know he doesn’t know any more than one season at a time, but I’m always amazed at how you scratch any part of it and it’s so well shored up by something, informed by something that happened earlier in the season or seasons prior.

This guy’s at a place in his life where he’s dissatisfied, he’s not in a happy marriage, and he’s probably in denial of a lot of it. Some dinner party, his wife says, “Don’t you remember, dummy, I told you we were going to do this.” He doesn’t know what it is, and he said, “All right, let’s go, let’s go,” and has this experience.

So it’s a great – it’s surprising, but it makes sense. It makes sense for that character in this situation, these people, at this station in his life, to have this experience, and propel him forward.

Tavis: To your point about conceding, at least, that you only know one season at a time, and then I’m told that Matthew keeps a lot of this stuff from you guys until the last minute anyway.

Slattery: True.

Tavis: How will you know, personally, when the end has come for you, for your character, and for that matter, even for the show, when we have run the course of stretching out this period, this storyline?

Slattery: Right. He says he has an image of the last. He says he has a final image. I don’t know what that image is. I think Hamm might know. They talk a lot. In the beginning of the season Matt lays out the whole season for John.

I’ve heard him say he doesn’t know how he’s going to get there. I think every season he’s more than nervous, I know, about what he’s going to, what the story’s going to be, and they arc out the season and then we’re told we’re going to do two more seasons.

But as evidenced by Lane Pryce, it could happen any time. My character’s had a couple of heart attacks and was sort of rudderless earlier in the season, and there was some speculation last year that I might, that Roger might jump out the window or something.

I hope it doesn’t happen to me, but nothing on that show happens without a reason.

Tavis: Speaking of having a couple of heart attacks, I read – I didn’t know this until I came across it in my research – but your hair, that beautiful color of mane that you have, went that color early on. So your hair’s not colored this way for the character, your hair turned that color when you were younger, and you’re not even 50 yet, so you’re still a young guy.

I wonder whether or not that troubled you when it happened, and whether or not in retrospect you’re glad that it happened. Your mane, this look, is so much a part of your character, and you stand out in a crowd and people know who you are.

Slattery: Yeah. It happened. It happened in late college or something, but slowly. It turned gray or whatever. It was confusing in the beginning for people who want to put you in a box. You’re the guy who plays the dad, but you’re too old – how old are you?

They couldn’t figure it out. So I would dye it a lot, and I still will dye it. When this thing is finished, I don’t want to be – I didn’t get into this to stand out in a crowd for me. I want to play other people.

So this just happened to be where I was when I got this job, and it goes on like this. So it was a little confusing at first and I would dye it a lot, and yeah, you look a little younger with dark hair than you do with white hair, so I will dye it again, I’m sure.

It’s not my favorite thing to do, sit in the beauty parlor and get my hair dyed every three days because it –

Tavis: It comes real fast.

Slattery: Yeah. So yeah, it kind of is what it is at this point.

Tavis: To your point now, because there’s so much more that you want to do, and if it requires dyeing the hair after AMC, after “Mad Men,” you’ll do that.

Slattery: Sure.

Tavis: But if this were to be your, shall we say, magnum opus – there’s always the chance that when you get a series like this, this is it. This is the character, the role that you’ll be remembered for, no matter what you do in the rest of your career. If this were your magnum opus, would you be okay with that?

Slattery: I would.

Tavis: Yeah.

Slattery: It will be. How often –

Tavis: Well, it may not be, you never know.

Slattery: Maybe not, and I’m not saying I have –

Tavis: Hey, I just saw J.R. Ewing is back on – Larry Hagman’s back on “Dallas” again.

Slattery: Right.

Tavis: You never know how these things work out.

Slattery: Well, it’ll probably be front and center in my obit, this thing. I’m fine with it, yeah. How lucky am I, to have that? A lot of people don’t get that. You become known – just to be known for anything. The fact that anybody’s paying attention is okay.

Tavis: Fair enough.

Slattery: I’m so proud of this, every inch of it. Being given this part, having it get all this attention but the right kind of attention for the quality of the endeavor, and then to be able to be given an opportunity to direct it. Yeah, this is a good run. I’ve been having a good run.

Tavis: So does that mean that you want to do more of the directing thing?

Slattery: Yeah.

Tavis: Yeah?

Slattery: It is, it does.

Tavis: Not above acting, though?

Slattery: No, I don’t want to give anything up. I don’t know if I want to direct anything I’m in. That’s sort of distracting.

Tavis: Right. How weird is that?

Slattery: In the beginning the first one was a blur. But it’s really a time issue. You don’t have much time to shoot this thing anyway, and you have so – as I said, it’s very dense, and you want to give yourself options, so you want to do it completely.

If you and I are shooting a scene, then I have to go out of the room and look at the monitor and watch the scene, come back in and shoot it. Whereas if I’m just directing I will just go again and do another one.

So it takes twice as long to direct a scene you’re acting in. There are other considerations, too. You have to get your homework out of the way.

On the other hand, you’re making choices. So it’s not something I dislike at all, it’s just a little bit of a stretch.

Tavis: Fate plays 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 and were told that they’d already filled that.

Slattery: Right.

Tavis: With some guy named John Hamm.

Slattery: Right.

Tavis: You ended up with this. In retrospect, what do you make of that happenstance, that occurrence?

Slattery: I was told – 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 like the 65-year-old grandfather. That’s what I get. (Laughter)

I thought, really? Draper? It was an unbelievable part, and 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 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)

It was humbling, actually. When I saw Hamm I’m like, “Oh, I’m so not that guy, and I never will be.”

Tavis: Yeah, but you are so the character that you do play. It works.

Slattery: Yeah, and then Matt said, “Listen, I promise you -” and I was a huge fan of “The Sopranos,” and so he said, “This will be a great part, I promise you.” It was in the pilot, too. It just that there wasn’t that much.

Tavis: Speaking of “Sopranos,” we know what Matt was doing prior to “Mad Men,” but for those fans who became fans of yours because of “Mad Men,” what were you doing? What was life like for you as an actor? Where were you before “Mad Men?”

Slattery: I was doing some theater; I was doing TV of varying degrees of success. Some movies that no one ever saw or will see. (Laughter) I still do a lot of those. Like a million other actors out there I was kicking around, trying to make a living, and I was doing fine.

Yeah, and then this thing came along, and it’s so unlikely, these things. They just don’t happen. People by now know the process – the pilots and the series getting picked up but canceled and all that stuff.

This network had never done any television, original programming. They’d make a pilot – one pilot – and then five years later here we are, and the thing’s won every award you can win, multiply, and they only had one show. It wasn’t like they made 10 shows and threw them up in the air and see what stuck. So it’s crazy.

Tavis: Which means it was meant to be.

Slattery: Well, I guess so.

Tavis: Which leads me to my exit question, I guess. From your perspective, what is it, then, that has made this show work so well with the audience. So 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’s 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.

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 Pryce happens, and it’s shocking. The guy’s a 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:” Every community has a Martin Luther King Boulevard. It’s the cornerstone we all know. It’s not just a street or boulevard, but a place where Walmart stands together with your community to make every day better.

“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: June 13, 2012 at 6:22 pm