With AMC’s award-winning series Mad Men returning tonight, I recently had the chance to participate in a roundtable interview with John Slattery. Since the cast is always guarded when talking about upcoming storylines, most of the interview covered the big storylines of last season, what surprised him, the LSD episode and how they filmed it, how he’s directing two episodes this season, did he try and work in certain camera angles or a long tracking shot, deleted scenes, Roger and Joan’s relationship, how much does Matthew Weiner tell him in advance, and a lot more. Hit the jump to either read or listen to what Slattery had to say.
Before going any further…spoilers from previous seasons are discussed during this interview.
If you’d like to listen to the audio of this interview, click here. Otherwise the full transcript is below. Look for another Mad Men interview tomorrow.
JOHN SLATTERY: What a drag, I know… Well, some people published stuff that they promise won’t come out — or will publish after, and then that’s the only way to talk about it.
When you look back on last season, what were the twists and turns that really stuck out for you, like you were really surprised with?
SLATTERY: Lane Pryce, that was surprising. I didn’t think that was going to go the way it went. Roger on LSD. The whole thing started, “Zou Bisou Bisou.” I mean, there were some surprises. I didn’t see that character becoming that.
What about the Joan thing?
SLATTERY: The Joan thing, sleeping with the Jaguar… And people were surprised that Roger didn’t intervene or something. I mean, I think Joan’s probably done the same for less before, you know? A kind of unwritten agreement. You know, there was a flashback, I forget what season, with Roger and Joan where she — you know, it’s an affair but — where he gives her a fur. You know, there’s transactions that are… This was just a moral transaction that everybody was aware of and then seemed that much worse.
Was it a commentary on where their relationship was, though? Because if they were still together, do you think Roger would have…
SLATTERY: They’ve never really been overtly together anyway, so I think that for Roger it was like, what am I going to tell her, not to do it? On what grounds? This is something that could set her up for the rest of her life, and again it’s probably something that — if those two are straight with each other, which they are most of the time — you would say you’ve probably done this for something that isn’t going to set you up for the rest of your life, so I see why you would entertain the idea.
John, I’m not talking about anything that happens in the first two hours, so don’t get me wrong on this. But over the years when you get the scripts and there are these huge emotional moments that, if I’d seen the first one, work really, really well, do you have to prepare extra for that? Is there a place you have to go to get ready to go that deep?
SLATTERY: Yeah. They’re written as such. “Someone sobs.” I was just saying this, that’s a scary word to see on a page. Fuck, what day is that? “He gets emotional,” I can do that. Sobs? Yeah, you have to figure something out. You have to get it together, because it happens at, like, quarter of 11 on Tuesday, so by that time that’s what you have to come up with, or it’s a failure. I mean, pretty much. I’ve had a couple of those over the years. But how does that pertain to anything but the first [episode]? Look, I know, these things are always such a drag because what are we going to talk about? There’s nothing else to talk about except last year, and who wants to talk about that?
Could we talk about fashion? Men’s fashion? We hear it’s going to be really nice and exciting.
SLATTERY: Going forward? I’d say the women’s fashion. Men’s fashion in the early ’60s to me was the highlight almost. Janie Bryant does an amazing job, but going forward into the later ’60s, the women’s clothes were incredible.
Your hair seems different. You have the sideburns.
I love your character because the comedic relief is there. I look for that, I need that, because the episodes are so heavy and there was so much death, and even the stuff you said about death is funny, so could you talk about that at all? Or just being sort of comedic, is that accidental? Are you comedic in real life?
SLATTERY: No. It’s funny, I always feel like I’m in a comedy. With Roger, there’s a lot of funny stuff. But as evidenced in the past and in the first couple, you may or may not have seen, just when you think someone is one thing, it gets heavier or it gets lighter, or someone is capable of doing something that you didn’t expect them to do. And I think that’s what makes the show as good as it is. Just when you think that Roger’s just a prick who doesn’t care about anybody, he cares about somebody. Or is just a misogynistic drunk, he’s better at business than you think he is. He has something to impart to somebody like Lane Pryce, who then can’t execute the way Roger wants him to. Or Lane Pryce is caught red-handed and decides to do that. It’s just so unexpected. The storytelling is so good. So there’s more of that coming. You sort of know where we are headed culturally, too. The amazing thing is he’s figured all this out six years ago. Matt, that is. I mean, not all the particular steps along the way, but he knew that he wanted to do this, and that’s what I find amazing. He’s got one more, and I think he’s got it figured out.
I definitely want to ask about that LSD episode from last season. How much fun was it to film that one? And what was it like watching it when it was all said and done?
SLATTERY: It was more fun watching it than it was filming it because filming it was like a bunch of little pieces — the little cigarette gag, and the mirror had to be just the right angle and Hamm had to be at the right thing, and I couldn’t see him and he couldn’t see me. Most of it was manufactured, and it was two in the morning and we were running out of time and everybody gets stressed. So the practical application of it wasn’t that… You know, the vodka bottle with the music, there was actually somebody pumping music on the set, that was fun. And I was trying to mess with him, putting the thing on differently, and he was right there the whole time. So that was funny. And we reshot the scene in the bathtub because initially it was a set issue and then it became a performance issue. It wasn’t exactly the tone that he wanted — Matt, that is — so we reshot that. Like most of the actual execution of it, it’s not as much fun as it looks. I mean, it is fun in a creative way, but it isn’t… Scenes in bed, all that stuff. You know, there’s 60 people around you telling you to move an inch. “Do it like this, only make it organic, but keep your arm like this when you do it.” Tricky.
So what was your reaction seeing the final product?
SLATTERY: I thought the tone was actually just right. The thing I thought that made it interesting was that it was low-fi, kind of. It wasn’t a lot of special effects and it wasn’t super-stony or anything. I think that’s what he wanted to pull us back from. I think I might’ve done that in the first bathtub scene. And he said, “No, it’s more lucid.” It’s just watching someone convinced that they’re having these visions or having this experience that is seemingly very lucid. So I thought it was well done.
SLATTERY: Oh, I ate a shitload of blotter. I was so high the whole time.
John, you have a car commercial now.
SLATTERY: I did have a car commercial.
I just saw it the other night.
SLATTERY: You couldn’t have, because then they owe me money. No, they pulled the plug on that. And they came for those keys. When that thing ended, “Knock knock,” and I was like, that can’t be… And they were like, “Keys please.” They took those keys fast.
When you film a commercial now, do they want to talk to you about advertising, like they think that you know it? And as an actor having played someone in advertising, does it change how you think about deciding to take commercials?
SLATTERY: Well I only did the one recently. I started out doing them when I was younger, but I’ve only done the one. I do voiceovers, but being on-camera and selling something? I wasn’t really interested. And then I thought, well, wait a minute. Everybody’s selling something. When you turn on the tube… And then if you go to Europe or Asia, everyone is selling something. All the guys that don’t want to be seen selling something here are selling something there. So I thought what the hell? My friends were producing it and directing it and it was a kind of a no-brainer a little bit. And I enjoyed it, but I don’t know very much about advertising. I know what appeals to me, and you see it everywhere. So good advertising is remarkable, and some of my friends are in that business. But you know despite how long I’ve been doing this television show, it’s really just a television show about advertising, about which I know squat.
SLATTERY: People think I do, but those are the same people who believe that this television show is real. They’re the people talking back to the TV during Downton Abbey. Like me.
Are you allowed to say if you’re directing again this season?
SLATTERY: Yeah, I did two. I directed two episodes. I just finished shooting one, then I start editing on Monday.
I’m always curious if there’s certain camera angles that you’ve been wanting to do that you maybe were able to achieve this season.
SLATTERY: Interesting. No, I actually asked that question because there’s a low angle to the show and it’s a very sort of late ’50s, early ’60s kind of a Douglas Sirk vibe — that I always interpreted as such. And the closer you get to the ’70s, it’s more vérité and the style changes. I asked that question, is the camera ever going to rise up into the ’70s? It wasn’t really answered definitively, but I don’t think Matt sees it that way. It’s just a look that we established for the show and it isn’t necessarily period-relevant. And so I’ve asked to do things, to shoot things in certain ways. I’ve pitched things — I can’t get into it, but one of them was accepted for this season — but you just basically throw it out there and they’ll say, “Nah, I don’t want to do that” or the cinematographer will say, “You know what? This is closer than we ever go” or “This is wider than we should ever be.” And they anticipate that if you’re going to spend a lot of time on this, it should be in the show, because we don’t have a lot of time. So you don’t want to waste time shooting something that won’t be used. And that decision isn’t up to me.
SLATTERY: If you notice, we don’t move the camera very much, but it isn’t a hard and fast rule. But it’s a sort of consistency, so if there’s a long tracking shot there better be a reason for it — and there might be a reason for it. I mean, out of necessity you have to move the camera, but you don’t want to do anything unnecessarily. You try to tell the story as simply as possible, and the writing and the performances and the sets and all that stuff give you all that. You don’t need to unnecessarily CSI it up, which I find distracting anyway.
Without talking about specifics about the first two episodes, it must’ve been kind of a thrill for you to get the script and see you’re starting off the season with a bang. Like real Roger-centric.
SLATTERY: Yeah, yeah. I love this character.
How could you not?
SLATTERY: I know, I know. He’s so funny. It really is great. Hamm and I sit next to each other at these read-throughs and we’re just cackling because it’s so funny. And then he’ll point out how many jokes I have, and I’m like, “Yeah, but look at the women sitting across the table who are playing the women that you’re going to be in bed with.” It’s just a great series of good fortunes that this has been, and it’s going to be over soon, which is just dawning on all of us, doing this, because it’s coming on again and then next year will be it. Because we’re almost done with the shooting for this season.
SLATTERY: It’s almost as bad as “sobs.” Or worse. I don’t know which is worse.
Do they ask you ahead of time or do they just say, look…
SLATTERY: No, they don’t ask you.
And can you demand a butt double?
SLATTERY: I wonder if that would be the case with… I don’t know.
But that was you, right?
SLATTERY: Yeah, that was me. I suppose you could. Or they could see your butt and then reshoot. “Wait a minute, that’s not my ass.” You know, in those Lincoln [car] commercials, the first time they did that. While you’re shooting the… I forget, the first one was walking around the car inside this long, white hallway or whatever. They’ve got a car off to the side and a whole other unit shooting the features of the car. They’ve sliced the roof off the car, cameras pointing in over someone that has my color hair and is having his hands on the steering wheel and stuff and pressing buttons, intercut with me saying, you know, whatever wood paneling. And the dude’s hands, his fingers were like E.T. fingers, and I got more texts from people going, “Are those your fingers?” And those were not my fingers. He had these big, long, weird fingers.
A lot of people think that Joan and Don should get together, but I sort of think that Roger and Joan might be actually each other’s real loves. Do you ever see that, at the end, that they could end up together?
SLATTERY: Yeah, sure. They understand each other, as seen in a bunch of different scenes, but I don’t think that means that they can live together — or want to. I mean, who knows, there’s a million reasons why you’re not actually with the person you’re meant to be with.
Do you think Roger can actually live with anyone? Is he really capable of actually settling down and being satisfied? Faithful?
SLATTERY: Faithful? I don’t know. I hope not. Because he really does appreciate people, I think. Mona, I think they have a great relationship. I think they sound like each other, Mona and Roger. And Mona and Joan sometimes. They sort of have a way of cutting through the bullshit and pointing something out.
Mona knew about Joan, right?
SLATTERY: I wouldn’t… Probably. But not that she’s ever said.
How much do you find out in advance or talk to Matt about the way the season’s going to go, and how much do you want to know?
SLATTERY: I don’t want to know anything. I think only Jon knows. They have a sit-down in the beginning of the season and he kind of lays it all out. None of us know anything. I mean, he’ll tell us sometimes, and you’re sitting around the writers’ room if you’re directing one and some stuff will come up, but everybody is conditioned to silence — the writers, everybody. Everybody’s really secretive about it. So the answer is I don’t know anything. I don’t know what happens in the last two episodes of this season.
SLATTERY: Yeah, but even then I don’t… You will sometimes get a note that says, “Feature this conversation. Make sure you cover this conversation because this person might prove significant next week” or whatever. Or “This is a moment that leads up to something.” But very rarely will you get the whole puzzle.
Well how early are you getting the information about Episode 10 in terms of breaking it down and stuff?
SLATTERY: Eight days prior to shooting it. You’ve got eight days of prep to figure it out — locations, cast it, the guest people whoever they are. And figure out how to shoot it all. It’s fast.
So Episode 9 was a busy time for you.
SLATTERY: Very busy. And the one I directed I was in heavily. That’s the one thing I don’t necessarily enjoy as much, is being in the episode that I’m directing because it takes twice as long to do everything. Because you have to come out of the room and then go around and then look at the replay — we have to hire a video playback person — and then you have to watch the scene. You’re inevitably watching something. I’m better at it than I was before, but that part of it I wouldn’t… I have a film that I’m going to make hopefully in the spring and there’s a part. Everybody keeps asking, “Are you going to play that part?” No, because it’s too difficult. It’s too stressful, is what it is.
How do you decide what episodes you want to direct?
SLATTERY: They just give you the ones that you… The thing is they have us under contract, so if we know we start in October and we finish in April, then they own us basically for that period. So myself and Jon Hamm are the only two people that direct, and we’re there anyway. He usually directs the first one, but not this year. But because he’s in every scene, pretty much, so it’s really hard to prep. The eight days prior you hope to have little to do acting because if you’re out scouting something they have to drive you back to the studio so you can get suited up and go act in a scene. So that’s really hard for him. I’m not in as much as he is. Anyway, to answer your question we’re there anyway, so they kind of fit us in and around the other directors’ schedules. The other regulars. There’s Phil Abraham and Jennifer Getzinger and Chris Manley and Scott Hornbacher, one of our producers, but he’s there too, and Chris is there, the DP. There’s some people that come and go, probably they try to work around their schedules.
What’s the most takes you’ve allowed yourself to have?
SLATTERY: I’m trying to think. The most takes I’ve ever shot… I don’t think I’ve even gotten into double digits. Once you start getting six and seven, you’ll hear it from somebody the next day, like, “Why did you…” You probably give yourself less. You just look like, “Am I in the right chair? Are my pants on? Can someone fix my hair please? I look like an idiot.” I’m better at that, too. You actually do kind of skate by your own stuff sometimes. It’s always surprising, though.
You mentioned you’re going to do a film in the spring, or you’re hoping to do a film in the spring.
So you’re waiting for a contract to dry? Waiting to sign something?
SLATTERY: I’m waiting for deals to be finished and budgets to be OK’d and that kind of stuff. We’re into it a little, pre-production-wise. People who are going to be in it know they are, so we’ll come out with it soon. I did a movie, though, Bluebird, that opens the Tribeca Film Festival. I think that’s the first feature in the festival, maybe. It’s good.
So Roger had a near-death experience, he had a heart attack and he almost died. Has he learned anything from that? Is he any healthier? Does he think before he…
SLATTERY: Healthier? No. I mean, he smokes, I suppose. Drinks. Resigned, maybe, to the fact that it’s got to end sometime. But I think the whole acid thing and going forward, he’s trying to find some meaning in it, you know? In the experience.
I like the line he had, “We sold death for 20 years and we ignored it.”
SLATTERY: Yeah, right. I mean, he’s not without introspection. I just don’t know if he suffers as much as some of the other people.
Is there a character you wish Roger had a little more screen time with? We saw him kind of interacting more with Peggy at the end of last season, the stuff with Betty sort of way in the past…
SLATTERY: Those two, actually. Because they’re great. All of them. Pete… Who do I really act with? Hamm, those are fun. Yeah, Elisabeth I’ve had a few scenes with, she’s great. And January’s great to direct, too. She really has a way of making it look like it’s all coming out the first time and you don’t know what’s going to happen. I’ll take any of them. And directing them all is kind of amazing because you don’t really have to do anything. You just have to go, “Well try it a little more like that” or “How about this?” And they just can do anything, it’s amazing. Very technically adept too.
Which do you prefer, acting or directing?
SLATTERY: I don’t know. They’re just so different. I like directing. I haven’t done it in very long and it’s exciting, and I feel like I’m at that point where I’m getting a little confidence that I’m not completely without ability. You know, at the beginning you’re like, I don’t know what the hell I’m doing, but you pretend you do because there’s a hundred people looking at you wondering what you’re going to do next. And then, you know, you get a little confidence, so I’d like to do more of that in the near future.
With the ones you’ve directed, or just in general, are there a lot of deleted scenes? Or is it pretty much everything you shoot ends up on screen?
SLATTERY: No, that’s what I was saying before. Whatever you’re going to shoot is going to be used most of the time. The scenes, there will obviously be takes that are not chosen, but rarely do we shoot stuff that we don’t use. Things are trimmed and you’re expected to leave the episode long, and Matt will go in and make his changes and finish it. But we don’t shoot that much stuff that we don’t use. Which kind of makes it more critical. Like if you know that this scene might not make it in anyway, you kind of spend less time. But you never know what’s going to make it in. Most of it makes it in.
What is Matthew like in terms of being on set all the time? Is he there a lot? Is he not there?
SLATTERY: It changes throughout the season because he becomes more busy with post-production. Once episodes get finished, then he takes more time in editing — color-timing, sound-mixing, music, I mean he’s involved in all of it, so the further that we get into the season, the workload for him; he’s still writing and it kind of crescendos for him. And then the writing is finished and then he can concentrate. And then he has to direct the last one, so that’s crazy. And then production is finished and he can focus on post-production. So it gets to a point of madness, you know? He has to be everywhere at the same time. It’s difficult.
There was a period where Roger was worried about how relevant he was at the firm. Has he gotten over that? Or is that something that he just never really gets past?
SLATTERY: Well I think the realization that he got, one of them, with the LSD that he says to Marie is that he realized you’re never too young to give it all up. So yeah it was a blow to lose that account and get kind of usurped by Pete Campbell, but I think he’s smart enough to know that it’s cyclical and that it’s not beyond him to get another big account, so he has to double down and get his shit together and get some business, which is the only way you stay relevant. I mean, I think they all suffer these crises and I think they’re all on these separate life rafts. They can’t really help one another. And sometimes you’re up and sometimes you’re down, and they’re all just kind of existing in the same pond. Or ocean. Ocean.