'Roger Isn't Who I Am': An Interview With John Slattery of 'Mad Men'

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The actor, who directed this week's episode of the Emmy-winning show, on what it's like to play Roger Sterling

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Actor John Slattery is directing this Sunday night's installment of Mad Men. As regular viewers of the series know, Slattery plays the irrepressible advertising executive Roger Sterling. Roger is a World War II Navy veteran, husband, father, and founding partner of the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce agency. He's a man who loves the chase. "Sometimes it doesn't work out," Roger says in season two. "Those are the stakes. But when it does work out, it's like having that first cigarette. Your head gets all dizzy, your heart pounds, your knees go weak. Remember that?" After watching Roger over the past four seasons, one gets the sense that he may have secretly helped Hugh M. Hefner write the Playboy Philosophy.

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Slattery is marred to actress Talia Balsam, who plays his now ex-wife, Mona, on the series. He lives in Manhattan—but as he'll tell you, that's where the similarities to Roger Sterling end.

This is Slattery's first time directing since he got behind the camera to helm the "Blowing Smoke" episode from last season—that's the one where Don Draper breaks ranks with Big Tobacco, signaling a deeply personal transition as well. I caught up with Slattery on the phone in New York where he told me that Sunday's episode, entitled "Signal 30," is equally as monumental in the life of Mad Men.

 


Jon Hamm, who plays your business partner, Don Draper, directed an episode that aired two weeks ago. Does the competition between the characters of Don and Roger now extend to the making of the series as well?

Not really. I thought Jon's show was well done, and I'm thrilled for him. We direct these episodes, turn them in, and Matt Weiner, our executive producer and creator, makes the edits. Mad Men is Matt's show.

So you haven't seen the final cut of your episode?

No. I just have my director's cut. You learn pretty quickly if you fall in love with your edit, you're bound to be heartbroken because it will all be re-cut.

Isn't directing a TV show that you're acting in an exercise in vanity?

Well, in my situation, having been in every episode, I feel like I know the show better than a director off the street. A full-time director probably is better than I am, but I know what went into making Mad Men. That plays out to my advantage.

When actors direct, they're often very economical. Clint Eastwood gets the take and moves on. David Fincher, on the other hand, reportedly films dozens of takes of a scene.

I'm somewhere in between. I like to try the scene over and over, but given the confines of television, I don't have that option. We have eight days to shoot an episode. I acted for Clint in the movie Flags of Our Fathers and he does one take because he thinks the scene is better before the actors begin to make choices that can deaden the life of the scene. On Mad Men, I have a bit of an advantage because I know who gets better as they repeat a scene and who's best at the beginning.

 

What kind of leading man did you imagine yourself to be?

When I was coming up, everybody wanted to be Tom Hanks. There was always Robert De Niro and Al Pacino—they were the heavily dramatic stuff. I always had a foot in both camps. The hardest thing was to resist the advice to be like someone else. It took me a while to figure that out.

What would the 20-year-old John Slattery have thought of playing the Roger Sterling character?

Well, if anyone would have told me this is what it was going to be like, I suppose I would have been happy. But the path you end up on means that you have to close a lot of doors, too.

Playing Roger has to be a blessing and a curse. You're on a series that's part of the national conversation, but viewers and moviegoers may never trust you on screen again.

That's right. People can't get a certain something out of their heads when they see that person. I guess I feel like I'm below the radar enough to move around and do other things.

You have a son who's 12. What do you want him to understand when he looks at this character?

He gets the character. He understands Mad Men isn't a documentary. Roger isn't who I am. This is my job.

Because Roger Sterling is a pretty untrustworthy guy, you know.

You've said that twice, and I don't know whether I agree. Roger doesn't go around stabbing people in the back. He doesn't go against his word. Once Roger says something, that's pretty much what he does.

He wasn't trustworthy as a husband when he was married to Mona.

Neither was Don when he was married to Betty. But Don's trustworthy as far as his relationship with Peggy goes. Every character on Mad Men has their own code of ethics. The way Roger is about certain things—his war experience, his affection toward Joan—is ironclad.

In this season's debut, Roger says, "The only thing worse than not getting what you want is someone else getting it," after he watches Don's wife, Megan, seductively perform a song for Don's birthday. Based on that remark, when Megan overhears Harry Crane expressing what he'd like to do to her sexually, we can pretty much assume that's what Roger wants to do to Megan as well.

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John Meroney is completing a book, Rehearsals for a Lead Role: Ronald Reagan in The Hollywood Wars.

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