For ‘Mad Men’s’ John Slattery, another sterling season

John Slattery plays Roger Sterling, who had an ... interesting ... season on "Mad Men."
(Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles Times)

— Meeting “Mad Men’s” John Slattery at the Manhattan restaurant 21 makes sense: It resembles the kind of old boys’ club his , occasionally goofy character Roger would frequent. Roger is a veteran ad man who likes his drink and likes a little adultery on the side, but his wayward ways are not doing him any good this season — he has lost a key account, he is paying the copywriters to do his work and ambitious junior partner Pete is breathing down his neck. No wonder he took LSD.

Roger has earned Slattery four Emmy nominations, recognition that comes after nearly a quarter-century of every kind of TV and movie imaginable, and he’s enjoying every minute of it. At the restaurant, he accepted a vodka rocks (and three olives) for a photo shoot but kept the libation as the interview began. “Don’t want to waste it,” he says. So, making do with what’s put in front of him, Slattery shares about Roger’s wild season, directing a few episodes and keeping the lights on.

Who knew Roger would trip the light fantastic this season?

It’s surprising that he decided to take LSD. It means something to Roger, and he needs it. He was displaced, and it’s a very aggressive workplace. It’s not like people are lying down and waiting for him to figure out a way to revive himself. There are people who want to take up that space.


He’s often witty and in control, but there are times Roger feels buffoonish.

Well, he is sometimes. He makes choices and he’s not afraid to act on them, and then sometimes you play the buffoon. Matthew [Weiner, the show’s creator] shows characters warts and all, which makes them interesting. You don’t have to be likable all the time.

Now that you’ve directed three episodes, have you gotten used to giving notes to your fellow actors?

Lizzy Moss [who plays Peggy Olson] was in the first scene [I directed], and she was laughing because I was trying to give her a note, and I think I was still in costume from a prior scene. But that wore off, and I gave her a piece of direction she understood and we got on with it. It helps that we all like each other. It’s an interesting dynamic, having these professionals at your disposal. They’re the best tools in the business. It’s like being a rookie pitcher pitching for the Yankees; you don’t want to screw it up. But you’re getting a lot of help.

I thought you were a Red Sox fan.

I am. You know, put the Red Sox in there. The hell with the Yankees.

What’s the worst note you’ve ever received?

“Turn the light on.” With an English accent. I didn’t know what the guy meant. And immediately he said, “Action!” I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. There was no light switch. Right in my ear: “Turn the light on.”

Did your parents ever hope you’d have some other kind of career?

My mother wanted me to be an actor. I don’t know why; there are no actors in my family. But she signed me up for a theater major at the college I went to. She probably filled out the application too. I was not really on the ball. Your mother sees things in you no one else does.

And Dad?

He was a little more like, “Give it a shot for a while and see what happens.” He gave me good advice when I moved here. I got a job at the Intercontinental Hotel — I applied for a job as a bartender, but I wasn’t in the union. As I was leaving they said, “If you’d like to fill out an application as a manager, there’s an opening.”

[The bartender returns and offers Slattery another drink.]

No, thank you. What the hell time is it? Three-thirty? What are you trying to do to me?

Bartender: It’s almost cocktail time somewhere.

It’s 5 o’clock somewhere.

Someone had to say it. So, this hotel job?

I got the job. I called my father and he started laughing and said, “Well, I don’t know. Just remember why you’re there.” You know, you want to go on auditions, but you’ll spend all your time schlepping around the hotel. He had faith in me — he was like, this might not work out, but this is what you said you wanted to do.

Do you think you’d have handled things differently if you’d landed this role at 25?

I would probably have felt like I was entitled to it. But I was raised in a house where if you tried to get big for your britches, someone would put you in your place. I don’t think I could have appreciated it the way I appreciate it now. There are millions of actors who would love to be where I am. But it doesn’t mean you stop aspiring to do things that are creative.

What do you still find exciting about acting?

I still see myself and think I could do things more economically. Trust my own instincts more. Stillness is a quality that’s hard to come by. But then, I’d also like to do a play and run around and chew up the scenery. What excites me is what might come next — that email I might get tomorrow, or the script I haven’t read. When you go [snaps] “I know exactly how to do that!” Or, at least I think I do.

Do you have to use any tricks to get into character?

I listen to music, which isn’t really a trick. All kinds of music — from classical to Tom Waits. Listening to music gets me in an emotional state. That works for me. It’s what flips the switch.

Or turns the light on?

[Chuckles] Whatever turns the light on. Right. Maybe that’s what he meant: Get your head out of your ...