Actor-director John Slattery

The four-time Emmy nominee discusses the final season of his critically acclaimed series, Mad Men, and his feature film directorial debut with God’s Pocket.

John Slattery is one of Hollywood's most respected actors. Although he's had recurring and guest roles on such popular TV series as Arrested Development 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 supporting actor Emmy nods. The series has also given him behind-the-camera access as a director; he's directed five episodes and made his feature film directing debut with God's Pocket. 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.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: John Slattery is just about to wrap his last season playing Roger Sterling – say it ain’t so, say it ain’t so.

John Slattery: Sorry.

Tavis: It is so. (Laughter) On one of television’s most acclaimed series, “Mad Men,” which will conclude next year. Seven episodes this year, seven episodes next year, I got that down

He’s now tackling a new challenge, though. He has just directed his first feature film, titled “God’s Pocket.” It stars one John Turturro, Christina Hendricks, and Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his last movie roles.

“God’s Pocket,” which is now in limited release, is a dark comedy about some quirky characters in a working-class neighborhood in the ’70s. We will start with a scene featuring Turturro and Hoffman right now.

[Clip]

Tavis: So my team went back and forth and back and forth and back and forth (laughter) trying to find a clip that would do justice to the film, because it is so quirky.

So I don’t know if you like that clip or not, and I don’t know if it does justice to the film or not. What do you think of that clip?

Slattery: I like that clip. That was a clip, I think that’s, we’ve sent out a few, and that’s one of them. It’s hard to sort of – well, it’s hard to encapsulate anything -

Tavis: That’s my point.

Slattery: – you know, in 30 seconds.

Tavis: Yeah, but this film though is really, really -

Slattery: Well the tone is very -

Tavis: Yeah.

Slattery: Yeah. It gets heavy and it’s almost tragic, and then it’s absurdly funny, which is what I liked about it in the novel. When I read Pete Dexter’s book a long time ago, that’s what I liked about it. It gets absurd. Some crazy stuff happens to Phil’s character.

Tavis: Did you want to option that the first time you read it, or it took you a while to figure out that this is what you wanted to make your debut?

Slattery: I wasn’t really, it wasn’t that fully formed a thought. I read the book and I thought well, this seems like a movie to me. I called about trying to get the rights. I’d never directed anything, and was told someone else owned them, and I let it go.

I almost, I tried a little bit. I struggled a little bit and then they said no. Then about five years after that, somebody reminded me whatever happened to that book, and I called and they said, “Oh, they’ve reverted back to the author.”

So I outlined it, which was basically it took me about a month to – and then they said, “Oh, we made a mistake, the other people still own it.” (Laughter) So well, maybe if they’ve owned it this long, that was about 20 years at the time that they’d owned it.

I thought well maybe they’re not going to make it if I don’t make it. So I just kept working at it while I was doing something, while I was doing other things.

Tavis: What makes this – I’ve been fortunate to ask this question of a number of great Hollywood stars like yourself who are doing their directorial debuts. I’m always curious as to what it was about project X that made them choose it as – I remember having this conversation with Denzel when he did “The Great Debators.”

That was his debut. So everybody has these experiences – not everybody, but. Anyway, why did this one work for you for your debut.

Slattery: I think it was that specifically drawn, it was that vividly rendered. I read that book, I saw that world. The attention to detail, every character was specific unto him or herself, unlike every other character.

They were funny, they were capable, they were, this character – Mickey really is what drew me in.

Tavis: Tell the story. I’ll let you – yeah.

Slattery: The story is in 1978, or roughly, it’s a little later than that, but that’s where we set it; visually it was a little richer, Mickey Scarpato, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, he’s married to Christina Hendricks’s character his wife Jeanie.

She has a son from a former marriage who’s not a nice guy, played by Caleb Landry Jones. He’s pulling razors on people, taking speed, and he gets killed early on in the movie.

Everyone else is kind of like “good riddance,” and Mickey’s trying to bury the body properly, give the kid a proper funeral to sort of save his marriage to this woman, which is not so good.

She wants to know the truth, and he’s just trying to do the right thing. The water just keeps rising on him and he just can’t get it done. Everybody kind of wants – she wants the truth, he wants to get the body buried.

There’s a reporter played by Richard Jenkins who is enlisted to help her. He wants her. So everybody kind of has their own agenda, and it’s a very small place and a very sort of contained period of time. It just seemed like a very kind of a pretty linear story, really well-drawn characters, and I thought, I think I can tell this story.

Tavis: Yeah. I don’t want to belabor this, but I’m only raising it because I know for those of us who loved his work, we all miss him.

Slattery: Yeah.

Tavis: Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Slattery: Yeah.

Tavis: I feel a sense of pride about this – when he passed away, I think we had the record for the most sit-down conversations he had done.

Slattery: Is that right?

Tavis: He was on this show, in this chair, at least a half-dozen times. So a lot of people were quoting our transcripts, because we put together a nice tribute show to him featuring the best of those six conversations when he sat in that chair.

I’m raising that to ask now when you’re working on trying to bring something out and the guy is no longer with us, how did you emotionally kind of navigate your way through having directed this guy who was such a brilliant thespian.

Slattery: Well the bottom line is he was extremely proud of the movie, pleased with it. We were partners, producing partners on the thing, and he had been there at rough cuts and gave notes, extensive notes.

Then we went to Sundance and sold it together. It’s certainly not the experience I thought I was going to have. I thought we’d be sitting in the back of a theater, laughing at the audience’s reaction, or just experiencing that a little bit.

But it makes me feel good that we’re releasing a movie and distributing a movie very soon that he was so proud of, and he’s fantastic in it.

Tavis: That he is, yeah.

Slattery: Yeah, so.

Tavis: This is inside baseball, but let me ask anyway. What have you figured out as the primary differences, the things you like or don’t like, about the distinction between direction episodes of “Mad Men” or TV and feature film?

Slattery: Well on “Mad Men,” the show is Matt Weiner’s show. The vision is his. You’re facilitating his vision. You’re given the script; you’re given your marching orders, as it were.

You’re expected to put your thumbprint on it, but that’s about – but the rest of the DNA is Matt’s, and everybody else -

Tavis: That’s all Matt wants to -

Slattery: He doesn’t -

Tavis: I’m being funny, I’m being funny, yeah.

Slattery: It’s true. (Laughter) You hear the stories, but it’s all because he has that vision, that specificity, which to me is everything. Well in this, I wanted to make the decisions myself, and the difference is that “Mad Men’s” very well set up, it’s very well structured.

It’s a six-month period, there are sets and stages and clothes and people, and they’re all there for a period of time. So if you make a mistake directing that show, chances are you might be able to fix it, you might be able to – he’ll watch it, Matt will watch it, he’ll go back and say, “We should re-shoot that,” or get an additional piece of this or that.

On the movie, it’s a tight schedule, 24 days. There’s 40 people in it, there are 28 locations. It’s period; there are cars and clothes and people, and all those actors are in for three or four days, five days.

They’re all busy. So if you didn’t get it, if you don’t get it when it’s, chances are, putting all those elements back together is unlikely.

Tavis: Yeah. Want to do it again? Liked it enough to want to do it again?

Slattery: Yeah. Took me a little while to even want to consider that, go outside. I was like – but after cutting it and finishing it, I’m very pleased with the way it turned out. Yeah, if I can find a story that I liked as much as I like that one, that’s the thing.

Tavis: How do you think “Mad Men” is going to be regarded in television history? It’s made such a mark.

Slattery: Yeah it has, but beyond sort of its second run, or any television show – “Seinfeld” is on all the time. But then once it kind of cycles through again and then it goes away – look at how influential “M*A*S*H” was or how widely watched it was, but it’s not exactly on everybody’s lips all the time now.

So I don’t know, I don’t know how long, what the shelf life is of a television show, regardless of its influence and impact. So you can’t really get much more impactful.

I’ve certainly never been involved in anything that’s had that kind of foothold, but who knows? I don’t know.

Tavis: So looking back – you’re not quite there yet – how do you regard – because it’s one thing to ask how you think the show is going to be regarded historically.

As you look back on your work, your part of it, how do you regard that as part of your larger corpus of work?

Slattery: It’ll probably end up at the top of the list. That’ll be what’s in the first -

Tavis: Sizzle reel? (Laughter)

Slattery: Yeah, sizzle reel, obit, that’ll be it. Picture of that guy. Which I’m proud of. I couldn’t be more proud of it. You don’t get a chance to see the evolution of a character unless the TV show lasts this long.

You see all kinds of sides of a character and you learn all kinds of things about it, so yeah, it’s prominent in my -

Tavis: what’s your definition of success on your directorial debut, or have you already achieved it just by getting it done? How are you processing this now?

Slattery: I had a premiere the other night in L.A. and I invited all my friends and family and people that I go back with in show business in Los Angeles for a long time, and the people I started with.

The response, it was a beautiful theater and it was everything I could hope for. Then we did the same thing in New York a couple days ago. You know people that you respect and whose opinions you care about and kind of the people that you make it for, really, and they really responded positively to it, they all loved it.

So the other shoe will drop, the critics will write what they write, and I can’t control that. I made it, I’m happy with it, I’m proud of it, and I don’t know, we’ll see. (Laughter)

Tavis: You’re so cool about this.

Slattery: Well I’m not, really.

Tavis: Of course, you’re always cool.

Slattery: I’m not. You know, what can I do?

Tavis: Well if you’re not cool, then you’re a great actor. Of course you are a great actor; you’re just acting cool. Is that what that is?

Slattery: Yeah, maybe.

Tavis: All right. (Laughter) It’s called “God’s Pocket.” It is the directorial debut of one John Slattery, who we get a chance to see for a few more months, actually into next year, as “Mad Men” eventually wraps.

But I suspect that you’ll be back on this program again with another film, so I look forward to that conversation.

Slattery: Thanks, (unintelligible).

Tavis: As I always do.

Slattery: Thanks, man.

Tavis: John, good to see you.

Slattery: Thank you.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

[Walmart sponsor ad]

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

Last modified: May 13, 2014 at 3:13 pm