With AMC’s Mad Men now airing its final episodes Sunday nights, I recently landed an exclusive interview with John Slattery. During the conversation he talked about letting go of Roger Sterling and the Mad Men universe, what people always want to talk about when they meet him in real life, how the process of making the show changed during its seven year run, his thoughts on what the final season is about, and more. In addition, with Slattery returning to play Howard Stark in Marvel’s Ant-Man movie, he talked about returning to that universe and how he came to learn that he’d be back as Stark.
Finally, as someone that watches a lot of television, I’m extremely sad to say goodbye to the world that creator Matthew Weiner shaped. Making great TV is hard. The team that brought Mad Men to life made it look easy. You will be missed.
Question: How are you doing today, sir?
JOHN SLATTERY: I’m alright.
You wrapped last summer.
What has it been like letting go of Roger Sterling and the Mad Men universe? Or have you not let go?
SLATTERY: Well, I mean, if there was another season coming, we would have we would have broken for six or seven months, or longer, and gone back again. So that part of it hasn’t been that different. The knowledge that we’re not coming back is sinking in, but we’re still talking about it. We’re here, we’re doing another press junket, we’re talking about the shows that are upcoming, we’re trying not to give away any details. We’re doing what we always do. I think after these seven shows come and go, then it might sink in, in a deeper way.
I spoke to Vincent [Kartheiser] this morning and he said that he went out with you a few months ago in New York, and people just kept on coming up to you and want to talk about Roger or Mad Men. What’s it like for you.
SLATTERY: Did he tell you that I told them all to go fuck themselves?
(laughs) No. He said that no one recognized him or no one wanted to talk about Pete [Campbell]. That everyone wanted to talk about Roger.
SLATTERY: I’m the only one that wants to talk about Pete, and Vinny doesn’t want to talk about Pete either. Umm… what was the question?
What is it like going out and people wanting to talk to you about Roger? Is it something that people always want to talk about or is it just that they’re excited to meet you?
SLATTERY: They ask me what Joan’s [Harris] like, of course, and then they sometimes will buy a drink.
That’s a huge perk.
SLATTERY: Which is a perk. And, you know, they want to talk, and talk about stuff. It’s like the character that Chris Farley did, ‘Remember that time you did that scene? That was awesome.’ They just want you to stand there and tell you how they thought that this scene was cool and that scene was cool, which is a compliment. They just wanna say something nice, which is always preferable than people telling you your work is terrible, I’ve had that happen. But it’s always complimentary, it’s not always convenient. But that’s cool, you just keep going. I’m on my bike in New York, that’s how I get around, so it’s easy to just keep moving, ‘Thank you’ and just keep pedaling.
My friend said -who’s an actor- the key secret is to always, as you said, just keep moving.
SLATTERY: Yeah, ‘Thank you’ and keep going. Because everybody has a camera now, that’s why they want you to stop. If it was just that they want to shake your hand, you’d get from A to B much faster. It’s the stopping and taking pictures part, that’s the tricky thing to avoid.
I’m very curious about the making of the show and how it changed from the very beginning to the final season. How was it for you on the inside of it as the show progressed?
SLATTERY: It got a little longer because, as happens, you start to shoot a seven day schedule and then you realized that the show is a little bit successful, and they give you maybe a little bit more money and you get an eight-day schedule; and then the scripts become really ambitious and sometimes it becomes a nine-day schedule. Mostly it was eight days, we shot on 35MM when we started. We ended up shooting digital on the Alexa, which can change the time it takes to light a scene, or not so much light a scene but you can just keep the thing rolling. You didn’t have to worry about burning film, which is a big expense. You could walk in there in the middle of a scene and give a direction and you’re just filing up a card, change the card when it’s full. There’s a lot of advantages to that. I directed a movie digitally, as well. You have to light it just as well, but I think people are into the misguided impression that with a digital camera you can just turn the thing on and off the light, that’s a mistake. There’s practical changes, not all of which are great for the show, I don’t think. But like anything else it’s an evolution. It starts in one place and then it ends in another. You can’t really go back and pick and choose.
Without getting into any specifics of the show, because I don’t wanna know and also I know that you don’t want to reveal anything. But I do feel like the final season –I’ve seen the premiere– fells like maybe this season is a little bit more about mortality and life and death, and dealing with some real life issues. Did you find it that way with the first half of the season and the premiere?
SLATTERY: Well, we lost Bert [Bertram] Cooper and that bell was rung again with Lane [Pryce], I started out having a couple of heart attacks and kind of talking about the idea that life is finite and now we’re down to the last seven shows, which is no secret. So yeah, there’s an existential quality to this last season, sort of A and B. But I think that kind of popped its head up all over the place with everybody on the show, you’d have one of those moments where everything would go to shit for your character, and then the character would sit there going, ‘What am I doing. This is my life? Do I care about this? Do I even want this anymore? Do I want this person anymore?’ I think that’s what was so good and adult about this show, is that no one stays in one state for very long. As in life, you know, you’re satisfied and then all of the sudden you’re bored. You’re happy, and then everything changes. So the evolution is what makes it interesting.
I’m sure you hear it all day and I’m sure you hear it from everyone… is such a great show. It’s…
SLATTERY: It’s great writing, it’s great writing. And the thing that’s good about these last seven shows is that the context is so ripe. Now you know who these people are, you don’t know everything about them, because you find thing out but you’ve been with these people for so long now and you get to see how they walk off into the future. It’s kind of an amazing multilevel reality.
Before I run out of time with you, I have to bring up the fact that you’re playing Howard Stark again in Ant-Man. Did you ever think you were gonna play the character again, and what was it like when Marvel called?
SLATTERY: I never thought I was gonna play the character in the first place. My kid was like eleven years old or whatever at the time, he said, ‘Are you crazy?’ That’s what Jon Favreau said, ‘Do you have a kid?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, a young son’ and he said, ‘Well, then you have to do it’ and that was like a day, and then when they called I was surprised, yeah.
When did you find out you were doing it and was it more than a day this time?
SLATTERY: It was a little more than a day, not much, and it was… I don’t know. I get a call from the usual root, my agent called and said they called and said, ‘would you be interested in coming back?’ and Dominic Cooper had played it. You know what? There was actually a moment there when they were doing the Captain America films, or they’d done two, and they had made the decision that I had to have my hair dark and to do Stark in the ‘60s so that twenty years prior to that it would make sense to have someone younger play the part. But that’s really the only kind of discussion, they go, ‘Dominic Cooper is going to play the guy’ and I said ‘Ok’ and then, ‘No, now you’re gonna do it’ then ‘He’s doing it’ so it’s kind of bounced back and forth and we’ve never met.
I’m very much looking forward to Ant-Man and I’m very curious about your involvement, I’m looking forward to see Howard in the film. I’ll move on to the next thing. You’re part of the Wet Hot American Summer Netflix thing, what was it like making that? I’m assuming you’ve wrapped.
SLATTERY: I have. It was fun, in a word.
It has a crazy cast.
SLATTERY: Yeah. I mean, all kinds of people. Most of my work was with Amy Poehler, and that’s really all you need to say.
That’s very tough work.
SLATTERY: Basically, all you need to say is Amy Poehler, and it’s like, ‘Ok, I’m in!’ David Wain and Mike [Michael] Showalter, –a lot of those– Michael Ian Black I worked with on Ed, I’ve known [Christopher] Melone and Amy, [Bradley] Cooper, [Paul] Rudd, and all those guys in a social way for years. So to get back to hang out with all of them was great, it was very loose and funny. And then you just get to watch Amy Poehler do whatever she does and you go, ‘Wow’ I mean, besides being funny it’s just remarkable the way she works.
Yeah, her skillset is impressive.
SLATTERY: It’s really impressive.
I want to definitely ask about how where the scripts. Are they really funny, are fans going to be incredibly happy? Was it very loose in terms of an outline and then here’s some improv?
SLATTERY: No, it’s a very complicated story. You know, it’s all those people. They were very well considered. I mean, loose in that that’s the way that those guys work, but it was a solid story and it was a real juggling act. Because you can imagine how busy all those people are collectively, so from finding time to get everybody in the same room or at least a couple of people in the same room at the same time was tricky.
My last thing because I have to go. You’ve directed recently with Gods’ Pocket. Are you looking at scripts?
SLATTERY: No. In fact, I thought I had made further strides on one story but legally it’s proven to be a pain in the ass. No, I’m looking for stuff. I like the process of adapting a book, and I’d like to do that again, and I found one and I’m trying to work it out.