A Conversation With John Slattery
The Mad Men actor talks about Roger Sterling's long, strange trip.
Slate: And does that include saying, “OK, so you’re looking in the mirror, and you see Don, and you’re feeling this.” Or is that more up to you?
Slattery: Well, I’m acting the scene, so I’m playing it, and then the director comes in and says, “That’s good. Now try less anxious.” Or, “Try one where you’re just having a conversation.” It’s really just a series of adjustments. But it’s interesting, the room for interpretation that everybody has—the actors, the directors, the cinematographer, designer. You know, everybody’s expected to put their stamp on it. So, that’s what we’re all trying to do while telling the same story.
Slate: At one point on that LSD trip, Roger is in the tub with his wife, and he starts seeing the 1919 World Series and bursts out laughing. Did you develop in your own mind some idea this as to why he was seeing some old baseball game—and why it was so funny to him?
Slattery: I mean, you have to find something that amuses you to the point where you’re pretending to watch the 1919 World Series, which I never saw, when you’re just pointing at the crew, basically, and laughing, in a bathtub of cold water with a few people staring at you. And, actually, we reshot that scene. Matt decided he wanted it to be funnier. He wanted me to be more amused. You know, he always has a really specific vision of what he wants, and I think since he had the chance to reshoot it—since the schedule has been different and our air date is further away from production, he’s had the luxury of changing things if he thought it was necessary—we reshot that scene.
Slate: Did that then change your own sense of who this guy is—or do you not think about the character in that way?
Slattery: There’s a core knowledge at this point—all the scenes that you’ve played as this person exposes a core knowledge, and there aren’t many wrong notes. I suppose the wrong notes sometimes come in direction, because the writing is fairly consistent. But sometimes when someone comes in and says, “What if we try it like this?” it doesn’t feel right. So I guess the knowledge of the character comes in when you think, “Well, maybe a character wouldn’t do this.”
Slate: When something like that happens, when a director says, “Let’s try it this way,” and you think, “Eh, that doesn’t really sound right to me in terms of how Roger Sterling would act,” is there room on the set for you to say, “Hey, I don’t know if that makes sense?”
Slattery: Yeah. Matt and the directors respect our input. However, a lot of the direction comes from a tone meeting or a discussion prior or an understanding between the director and the producer that this is what they want from a scene—so you know it’s coming not just from the director. But some directors don’t have as much experience with the show as we do, so you sometimes have to read between the lines and figure out what’s coming from where, and sometimes you have to protect yourself.
Slate: You’ve directed a few of the episodes yourself. Did you learn something from directing that was different from what you’ve learned acting in it? Did it provide a different kind of insight?
Slattery: It does give you a chance to see how well put-together it is by everybody. And it does illuminate the need for different interpretations from take to take. There’s no point in doing it the same way five times, because then you get in the editing room, and you’ve got nothing to work with. So you have to allow directors to have an interpretation—you’re the person they’re working through. So when someone says to try playing it a little less amused or a little more amused, you have to be open to that, because you’re really only part of the story.