It was last year, during production of the season 5 finale of "Mad Men," that series creator Matt Weiner first hinted to Kevin Rahm there might be more in store for his character, Ted Chaough.
"He said, 'We have big plans for you next year. Trust me, you're going to want to do this,'" Rahm recalls via telephone, "but he didn’t tell me any of the details."
Luckily for the actor and "Mad Men" fans alike, Ted's newly prominent role on the series has been one of the unquestionable highlights of season 6. Once portrayed as an obnoxious prankster, Ted has proved to be a conscientious team player and all-around nice guy, a foil for booze-soaked cads like Roger and Don.
That may be why he's sent Peggy's heart aflutter, though. In a rarity for "Mad Men," he has remained faithful to his wife -- so far, anyway. Rahm spoke to us recently about Ted's evolution, his rivalry with Don and, of course, his feelings for the fetching Ms. Olson.
Now that he’s a regular character, Ted seems different than in earlier seasons when he was a more peripheral figure whose chief role was irritating Don.
The show is about Don Draper and we were seeing Ted only from a very small window. I never saw him as being smarmy or douchey, so when that was the response by the fans I was surprised. I always saw him as a competitor who wanted to get the best of Don, and obviously everything we knew about Ted up to that point was from Sterling Cooper’s point of view. I didn’t know the details, like he was a pilot. We knew he was married and that was about it as far as his personal life -- and he did a good Kennedy accent.
Was that a response you got? That people thought Ted was a jerk?
I have a friend who’s a writer and at the end of episode 11 of last season when I offered Peggy the job, he sent me a text that simply said, “Leave Peggy alone.” I didn’t know we were going to come back and merge, and I’m glad I didn’t, because I don’t know how I would have kept that to myself. Now having all the information, you learn this guy was just doing his job.
On one level, he seems like a foil for Don, Roger, Pete, etc. He's a stand-up guy.
He has a newer point of view. He handles things in a more modern way for the time, he treats Peggy as a comrade as opposed to an underling and I think he wants the best out of his people, and he goes about it in a very different way than the Sterling Cooper men did before he got there.
But even Ted’s “nice guy” image has grown more complicated. Do you think that’s fair to say?
Oh absolutely. Like I said, it’s all about point of view. That’s why I love that scene with Peggy a couple weeks ago when he says, “Don’t call me nice. I hate when people call me nice.” It’s because that can be perceived as weakness. And yet I think for him he sees it as a strength by being a little chivalrous and more open to other people’s ideas, he gets the best product.
What did you make of the conversation between Peggy and Don in “The Better Half,” where she said Ted’s interested in the idea and Don said no, he’s interested in his own idea, just like I am. Do you have a take on that?
I disagree with Don. I think Peggy is closer to the truth. We’ll find out as we watch but I’ve always felt like the way Ted handles his people, it’s about the idea, whether it’s his or Peggy’s or Ginsberg’s. He accepts that he can’t do it on his own and I think Don feels like he could.
In what ways do you think Don and Ted are alike?
They both want to be the best, but I think the way they go about it is different. I think from my point of view, Ted is a little healthier.
They also both have this amazing ability to shut down emotionally.
Yeah. Ted just doesn’t get drunk when he needs to shut down emotionally. I think that’s the only difference I see so far.
Don doesn’t know how to keep it in his pants, but Ted does.
It’s two sides of the same coin as far as how to handle the shutdown. I feel like Don, by opening his fly, shuts down. For Ted, zipping it up is his way to shut down.
There is so much infidelity on this show that sometimes it's like, "Enough." But with Peggy and Ted, you’re rooting for it to happen.
Yeah. You want to see the fall. I had a friend who had watched the show for the first time a couple weeks ago and he’s like, "Is that show just about people sleeping with other people’s wives?"
What do you think Ted sees in Peggy?
Obviously she’s an attractive woman, but I think she understands him and that’s a huge turn-on. I think it’s a lot about her drive and her talent. He doesn’t have the machismo thing, so for him to be able to work with a woman, that’s gotta be a little refreshing. And it goes back to the scene when he and Gleason were in the hospital and he’s trying to figure out Don – “I don’t get it, what is this guy doing, it’s just a waste of energy.” He never had that with Peggy. The minute Peggy joins Cutler, Gleason and Chaough she’s on the team; she’s solving problems as opposed to creating them.
It also seems like Peggy has been misreading Ted. She misdirects Joan on Avon because she thinks she knows how he will react, and she waltzes into his office after the breakup with Abe and expects him to profess his love again.
I think you’re right on the mark. There’s a lot of assumptions about how he’s going to react based on previous reactions but the information she doesn’t have is that he’s holding the ship together and so she doesn’t get his undivided attention like she did when she was the new kid at his office where everything ran the way it was supposed to run. This guy is busy. He’s literally getting on a plane to go solve the other problem and you’re bringing him business, he says, “Great, now do your job.” It’s a common theme so far this year -- people, do your job. What’s new to him, I think, is all the drama.
Are you as conscientious as Ted?
I hope so. I try to be. I don’t think anyone can always be that way but that’s a goal. I guess I tend to be aware of other people, sometimes to a fault.
How does it feel to be the new guy in school?
At the beginning of the year I felt like a freshman in high school and you kind of stay out of the way and don’t get stuffed in the locker but they are so welcoming and accommodating. I really felt like by the end of the year I was one of the team.
They didn’t haze you or anything?
No, I got hazed. At the end of the year my car got TP’d.
Jon Hamm brought you into his trailer and made you do shots.
And made me do his laundry. [laughs] No, everyone on that show is appreciative of what they have and it’s the only show I’ve ever been on where people come early and stay late.
Are there things about Ted we have yet to learn?
Yes. I think I can say yes to that…
We do know he’s a pilot.
How about that! If you go back two years ago, the first time you see the old office at Cutler, Gleason and Chaough was during the Honda pitch. There is a 6-foot wooden propeller in my office, on my desk is a stapler that’s in the shape of airplane, there’s a tachometer as a paperweight. I still don’t know to this day if that was the kind of thing where he said, “Oh, by the way he’s a pilot, decorate accordingly,” or if they decorated with cool pilot stuff and then go, “Hey, maybe he’s a pilot?” This is the information we don’t receive.
So some of the process is still mysterious to you.
Right, which is kind of fun. You read a script and you think God, I hope I don’t die in this episode. The one thing Matt kept saying this year, especially toward the middle, was “now be the boss.” That was fun, as we start to learn more that becomes more fun to play.
It’s probably the best thing that he could have done to get Peggy out of SCDP. Now she’s back.
And now she’s stuck between them. I love the end [of “The Better Half” ] where she’s standing there, two doors shutting on her. So heartbreaking. I told [Elisabeth Moss], “Best breakup ever.” And my favorite line is “Abe got stabbed.” It’s just the information you need.
Having Ted in the office really brings out another dimension in Peggy.
She used to have to only deal with Don and she would have to be a certain way to deal with Don. I think having Ted in the office opens her up, just watching her and Joan connive was awesome. That argument in front of the elevators [between Joan and Peggy], it was fascinating. I love that stuff. They’re so good together. Someone was telling me they want to see them open their own business.
I want to watch that spinoff.
Right? Well, it’s called “Rhoda.”