Silver-haired John Slattery, 48, received his third outstanding supporting actor in a drama series Emmy nod for the role of Roger Sterling, the dapper, devilish ad exec of AMC’s “Mad Men.” The Boston-born actor made his directing debut this season, capping a career spanning TV, film and Broadway and such roles as Will Truman’s brother, Sam, on “Will and Grace,” Gabrielle Solis’ defunct husband on “Desperate Housewives” and one of Carrie Bradshaw’s many swains on “Sex and the City.”
You’re busy directing your second “Mad Men” episode. Was this something you’d wanted to do for a while?
I didn’t necessarily want to direct television. Because usually, the set up is it’s the producer’s show, and directors come in on a weekly basis and they do the bidding of the showrunner. Where’s the creative room in that? But maybe it’s just that I’m older and I realize there’s a lot more that goes into it than that. I decided that if I’m going to have this experience, then this is the place to do it, because everybody is so good at their jobs that I thought I could learn something from each and every one of these people.
So I asked [creator/Executive Producer] Matt [Weiner] if I could shadow one of the directors — Phil Abraham. He created the look of the show, he was the cinematographer for the pilot and first season. Then somewhere in the middle of the winter, he called to say I could direct the fourth episode. I was shocked and surprised. Then the second one, there was a slot open — someone had to leave to take another job. And I just threw my hat in. He didn’t hate the episode I did — he ended up saying yes.
Was the experience what you expected?
It was 100% education, but there was no element that was totally foreign. I just took a common-sense approach to it, which was just try and tell the story of the script. Once you set that task for yourself and you’re armed with such good material, it was like being thrown into pitch relief for the Yankees. It’s scary, but you have the Yankees behind you. I should say the Red Sox.
What was the most stressful part about it?
There was one point where I was acting and directing at the same time, and people were coming in and out of the room in different directions. And I had a complicated joke to land, and we’re shooting it and I’m in it and I’m trying to remember to tell somebody to do something different in the next take than what they’re doing right now as I’m watching them, and I’m trying to remember what’s my line and how long have we been working on this scene and I was falling behind schedule. And literally the camera’s rolling, and I’m going, am I sweating? I thought I was only thinking it and I said it out loud.
So who’s more suave — Roger Sterling or John Slattery?
Definitely Roger Sterling. I mean, who could come up with those lines? Roger sees opportunities to say things, and he looks around the room and goes, “Really? No one is going to say this? This is too good a moment to let pass.” We’re sitting down to a meeting and he says, “I heard one of our colleagues made a Yetta Wallenda-size misstep.” And the guy says, “Who?” I say, “You know, the tightrope walker. They got her off the sidewalk with a hose last week.” One of the Flying Wallendas. And we’re trying to land this guy’s account.
Do you know whether Roger is going to stay dapper throughout the hairy ‘60s?
I don’t know. It changes as the season goes on. Subtle differences have been there since the beginning. Janie Bryant, the costume designer, is tireless in the research to find out what was exactly authentic and when something came in and when a collar changed or how much stuff they had in their hair. Yeah, it’s changing — the times and the characters along with it. I think it would be a riot. In the second episode, someone makes fun of my office, and I say, “It looks like an Italian hospital.” My 25-year-old wife thought I should get with the times, so she designed my office, and there’s white leather furniture. The line I say is, “With my hair, you can’t even see me in here.”
How does it feel to be a Barbie doll, and do you happen to know how you’re selling?
I don’t know. I have the feeling there’s a remainder shelf filled with Roger Sterling dolls. The Betty, Joan and Dons will be flying off the shelf, and you’ll get a two-fer deal with the Roger doll. They’ll be sold at Big Lots.
What was it like for you and your wife, Talia Balsam, to play a married couple — she’s Mona Sterling — on “Mad Men”?
It was great. There’s definitely an emotional shorthand to working together. There was a scene where I had a heart attack and she comes into the room. It’s certainly evocative to have somebody you know so well and you love playing your wife in such a dire situation. I wish we could do more of it.
I read that you occasionally have real liquor in those bottles on set. Is that true?
No. I probably said it. I was kidding. You’re shooting that stuff in the morning. It’s colored water. The best acting in the show is drinking a glass of water with an onion in it, and making it look as though it tastes good. Fake cigarettes and onion water, that’s the glamorous world we live in.