When John Slattery is asked one too many questions about the project he doesn’t want to discuss, our reporter gets a taste of the Lincoln spokesman’s inner Roger Sterling.
When Mad Men became the first basic-cable program to win the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series in 2008, it also made history for its stars. Actor John Slattery, for instance, received the first of his three Emmy nominations for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series that year, an especially impressive achievement considering he wasn’t even in every season-one episode. His performance as Roger Sterling, an arrogant, insensitive skirt-chaser, has eclipsed his other TV work-which includes Desperate Housewives and Homefront, plus guest spots on everything from Will & Grace and Sex and the City to The Cleveland Show and 30 Rock, not to mention an uncredited appearance on Saturday Night Live when his Mad Men costar Jon Hamm was the host. And despite performances in, among others, Flags of Our Fathers, Traffic, Eraser, and Iron Man 2, Slattery has yet to find that memorable role that takes him from character actor to movie star.
We expected that to happen with The Adjustment Bureau, a sci-fi thriller (out on DVD and Blu-ray this month) in which Slattery’s mysterious government agent stalks Matt Damon, but casting director Paul Ventura offers insight into the downside of Slattery’s headline-making TV gig:
“He’s a good-looking character actor who draws well-earned attention in everything he does. His part on Mad Men is so specific that he’ll probably want to sink his teeth into parts that go completely the other way. What will be most interesting is whether Hollywood will let him.”
In simple terms, describe The Adjustment Bureau and your role in it.
I play an agent of fate whose job it is to adjust people’s pasts through their lives once they get off the plan. My character gets to threaten Matt Damon in a lot of different and creative ways, so the film is constantly challenging the audience. I like it when you see someone menacing on-screen and you don’t know why they are the way that they are. You either freak out because you know they’re evil or because you realize the good guy has a dark secret, which may not make him as good or heroic as the audience is led to believe. That’s part of what makes The Adjustment Bureau such an exciting movie.
How much fun did you have threatening Matt Damon?
[Laughs] It’s the same fun someone below the title in a movie has when they get to make life miserable for the film’s star and there’s nothing his character can do about it.
What would your Mad Men character think of your character here?
He’d be suspicious of him. “Is this guy following me because of my extramarital affairs, or is he asking questions because of the company’s sometimes questionable business methods?” When you don’t know your fate or where or why you’re being stalked, your instincts tell you nothing good is going to come out of a physical encounter.
During the first season of Mad Men, what did you think when Don Draper called your character a whore and you responded with a happy salute?
That’s a dumb question. Figure it out for yourself.
You gained stardom relatively late in life. Had you ever come close before to getting such a signature role?
Hard to say what your signature role is. If I came close to it, I’m sure I’d know, and I’m not sure my role in Mad Men is it. You need luck and hanging around enough so people can see what’s different or special about you. Then, if you get your so-called signature role, you’d better not repeat yourself right away. For example, I almost didn’t do The Adjustment Bureau because he wore the same clothes as my Mad Men character.
Are the Mad Men characters amoral?
Depends on your moral compass, but no. Every character has a line that they won’t cross. There are things every character will do to be successful in the agency, but each one has their own special behavior pattern and code of ethics. They are completely ambitious, and often that results in them being amoral. Each character could survive in today’s world because they are so competitive.
What drives your character in terms of survival in the angst-ridden, high-pressure advertising world?
I don’t know. The character has survived two heart attacks and the loss of a $25 million account. Still, he’s kept his intelligence and humor despite being under intense everyday stress.
Mad Men is a sexy show with beautiful and talented female regulars. Why isn’t there any nudity?
I don’t know. I guess nudity’s not allowed on cable unless it’s HBO.
Why do you think HBO turned down Mad Men? Creator Matthew Weiner, a former writer on The Sopranos, brought it to HBO first.
I don’t know. Why don’t you ask him? Have you got any more questions to ask me about me?
Are dramatic films harder to get made than dramatic TV series?
I don’t know because I’m not a producer. I do know there are two different models of economics in Hollywood. Films need a famous person or a movie star to get them launched. That way they can try to hype the picture into an opening-weekend event and get traction for its initial run. If the film fails, an executive can say, “Well, it didn’t work because our lead turned out not to be a movie star after all.” In TV it’s all about your show runner, how talented he or she is, your time slot, and how much promotion the network gives you. The one thing this has in common with rocket science is, once the project leaves the launching pad it sometimes takes on an uncontrollable life of its own, which can be dangerous and exciting at the same time.
Is that what happened to Mad Men?
I thought I was doing this to discuss The Adjustment Bureau. At this point, from what I’ve read, the new season of Mad Men won’t begin until next March. [A few fellow New Yorkers stop Slattery to discuss Mad Men. The actor speaks to them for a few minutes, then gets back to the interview.]
It’s been reported that in order for Mad Men to return, Weiner must accept a few conditions of the show’s owners, Lionsgate and AMC, that allegedly include two characters being eliminated. Could the show survive that creative change?
My dog has done his business, so I’m done talking to you.
But I’ve got other questions.
Then answer them yourself.
[Editor’s note: That’s a bold proposition, Mr. Slattery, given that some people around the Penthouse offices will always think of you as the golden-showers guy from Sex and the City.]
A quick search on Amazon listed a full 178 results for John Slattery at this point a decade later. Even outside of the series, John has clearly been associating with a lot of mad men since this interview.