John Slattery's first screen credit is from 1988, on a drama series called Dirty Dozen in Fox's earliest days as a network. The show was filmed in Yugoslavia, a country that no longer exists, during the writers' strike of that year. "That was wild," he said in an interview this week in downtown Los Angeles, near the set of Mad Men. "The show itself was a bit of a mess, but I went from never having a real job to being with a bunch of guys in Zagreb, being paid."
Twenty-six years later, after an accomplished acting career in theater, on television, and in movies, Slattery is facing the end of his longest and most recognizable role — as Mad Men's Roger Sterling, whose good-time approach to work and barking familial style disguise that he is a complicated, decent man. We won't see the final seven episodes — the second half of Season 7 — until next year, but the show, created by Matthew Weiner, is wrapping up now.
Less than a year ago, Slattery began directing his first feature, God's Pocket, which is based on Pete Dexter's 1983 novel about a working-class, urban neighborhood. The movie is a crime story, and a character study: In the aftermath of the death of his adult stepson, Mickey Scarpato (Philip Seymour Hoffman) has to overcome a zillion obstacles in order to get the stepson buried and try to satisfy his bereft wife (Christina Hendricks). It's a comic drama, and it opens in theaters this weekend and on VOD on May 14. In an unexpected and tragic circumstance, God's Pocket will also be one of Hoffman's final performances.
Slattery and I discussed his years on Mad Men, what appealed to him about God's Pocket, and working with Hoffman.
Where are you in filming the final Mad Men episodes right now?
John Slattery: Almost done. We finish at the end of June. We're about halfway through shooting the second half of the final season. It's getting close.
What's it like as things are coming to a close?
JS: I'm going to a table read now, and it's at those table reads when there's another sort of hash mark, and it becomes more and more apparent. I can only speak for myself, but it's the kind of thing where you don't want to deal with it until it happens. It will be very emotional, I think. We've all been together for a long time. We all like each other, and have been through a lot in our personal lives throughout this period.
Did you ever consider moving out here? You've lived in New York the whole time.
JS: When we first started shooting, my wife was playing my wife on the show. Our kid was little, and it was shooting during the summer. We would come out here and rent a house. I've lived out here, and my wife went to school out here, and some of her family's out here. I loved L.A., but we'd been living in New York — school, and you just get dug in to a place. The commute is difficult. I won't miss that part of it. Everything else I'll miss.
How did you think of Roger when you first started playing him?
JS: Matt Weiner said I was in a bad mood the whole time, the whole pilot.
JS: I don't know. I guess I wasn't convinced. I mean, I was convinced of the whole thing, but not my part in it. That might be true.
You don't remember?
JS: I do remember having kind of one foot in and one foot out. I'm older than most of the people in it, and I had been in that situation before. They promise you the world, and then it's, Why did I do this? There wasn't much evidence of Roger. What was there was great, and the whole script was brilliant.
Slattery as Roger Sterling in Season 1 of Mad Men (left); Slattery as Roger Sterling in Season 7 of Mad Men (right).
How do you think of Roger now?
JS: I started out with no idea of what it was. And then years later, you go, it's a person. You've created a person. "You," meaning everyone. Everyone who had anything to do with it, between the clothes and the office and my contribution to it, and certainly the writing has been incredible.
In the most recent episode, Roger went to try to get his daughter from the cult. But a little story like that — it's why you want to watch a show for years and years. These characters completely evolve.
JS: I haven't seen that episode yet, but just the visual of it: Talia and I in these get-ups in this car, showing up at this place. We looked like birds. We looked like weird, exotic birds from the city. Context: The context is so completely full now, and everything everyone does has some significance, or some callback to some prior situation. It's like a crazy, 3D, Star Trek chess game that he's concocted.
You've directed five episodes of Mad Men. Had you always wanted to direct?
JS: I remember 20 years ago thinking, I would shoot this a different way, or asking questions: How come you don't do it like this? I was curious about it. Mad Men was a situation where it was going to be around for awhile, and clearly people knew what they were doing. If you're going to try, it's a good place to try. I asked, and they said yes. After awhile.
That sounds easy?
JS: There was a little bit of an apprentice program. You follow directors around, you spend time asking questions and learning the way that they want it done.
Matt Weiner is known for having a very precise vision. Does that play out while directing Mad Men episodes?
JS: Matt's vision is very precise, but I find that with that precision, it opens it up to interpretation. Its foundation is so strong that you can play those lines, those scenes, in about five different ways, and the writing will support you. They want coverage, they want it done a certain way, but they want you to put your spin on it.
I read God's Pocket a long time ago after I read Paris Trout, which won the National Book Award.
JS: Me too. Same thing.
Had it just stuck with you? Pete Dexter is kind of a forgotten writer these days.
JS: When I read it, I'd never had that experience specifically — I finished it, and I thought, This seems like a film to me. I did a little digging around, and I was told it was owned by someone else, and I forgot about it. Then, years later, someone reminded me of it, and I inquired again and was told it was available. So I thought I'll outline it first, and that turned into a draft. I thought, This works as well as I remember it working. I liked the story, I was invigorated by the process of it. I don't see myself as a writer, and I was daunted by that. I've tried to write various things over the years and never finished anything. For whatever reason. I'd edit myself, no discipline, lazy — whatever. So I wanted to finish it. Even if it stunk, I wanted to finish it. It was a great resource, that book, because the whole story was in there. I didn't need to do too much adapting.
What was it that kept calling you back to writing if you don't consider yourself a writer?
JS: Maybe I'm just a lazy writer. I've been given a lot of writing to speak. A lot of good writing. I read a lot of fiction. I know what I like. Oftentimes, you're in the middle of a job, and you think, I could do better than this. Not oftentimes, but sometimes. You want to have some input. I thought I'd have more input if I just did it myself. And I have visual preferences. I have movies that I like, I have my own tastes. It's never what you want unless you do it yourself.
How would you describe your taste?
JS: Somebody asked me, "What do you want to do after you finish this?" And I thought, "A Noel Coward play would be interesting." When I was a kid, I was glued to the TV, but it wasn't because of any one thing. I would get a little pop of this, or that — The Odd Couple, or Derek Jacobi on I, Claudius. Adam's Rib or My Man Godfrey; Raging Bull and The Godfather — every time that comes on, my day is ruined. This story just had it. It was visual, it was detailed, it was character-driven. And yet there was a ticking clock, as it were — Mickey's mission to get this kid in the ground and save his marriage had a shelf life. It seemed like a contained period of time and place.
I read that you thought Philip Seymour Hoffman would be interested in the part that ended up going to Richard Jenkins, but he actually wanted to play Mickey. Were you surprised?
JS: I was surprised at myself for not realizing what a good idea it was. You have these notions in your head. I thought, "Of course." Physically he's right, temperamentally he's right. And he's an imposing figure — that's what I needed. He's not the kind of person you trifle with.
Had you known him?
JS: Yeah. We lived near each other. We'd see each other around. New York's kind of a small town, the New York theatrical community. We had mutual friends. And I worked with him once in Charlie Wilson's War, which was fun.
Obviously, you've worked with Christina Hendricks for years, and this is a very different part for her. What did you think she'd bring to this?
JS: The most attention she's gotten is from Mad Men. But I've seen her do other things, and I know how capable she is. Physically, she was right for the part — I needed someone who could cause that kind of commotion. And I needed someone who could look like the queen of wherever she was. But also, I needed an actress who could play slightly less than 100% pure of heart. She's not an angel. She decides to use the power she has to get what she wants — she wants to find out the truth. I find that part maybe the trickiest part in the whole thing, because there's a danger she'll come off like a broken record. I don't think she does. Plus, she's also someone you project onto. She has that kind of a face that good movie actors have.
The character of Mickey is a sad person —
JS: I don't know if he's sad. It's a difficult place. But I don't see him feeling sorry for himself. That's the first thing we talked about — he has no self-pity. He's just trying, he's just struggling. Which is to me where the hope comes from. I don't think it's an entirely hopeless place; they don't think that they're in the worst place in the world. They're not. It's just a place. I didn't want this guy to be a sad sack. He's trying to hang on to this marriage to this woman. There's a line in the book that says, "If he lost this woman, he knew this would be the last woman he ever got that he didn't pay for."
What other conversations would you have with him about the character?
JS: Everything from hair color to clothing to gait and walk and the way he'd sit and stand. Did he smoke, did he not? It was an amazing experience seeing someone you've admired for so long put it together like anybody else would. Then at some point along the way, that unnamable thing flashes — he puts all the pieces together. I was just looking at one of those ESPN 30 for 30 things, and they were talking about Bo Jackson, and the coaches were, like, "You can't tell people how to do those things." With Phil, he had all kinds of skills and abilities.
There's obviously a weight to the movie that you didn't intend and couldn't have anticipated. What is it like to watch now?
JS: Yeah. Well, it isn't what I thought it would be. It's still shocking. I watch it less and less, because I've watched it so many times now, and it's soon to be out. I go to screenings, and I see a bit here and there, but I haven't sat through the whole things in a couple of weeks. Every scene, I've pieced it all together — I have all kinds of memories of shooting it, and cutting it, and all that. I talk about him in the present tense. Yeah. I don't know. I don't even know what to say about it. I don't know. Everything sounds corny. Everything sounds like a bullshit cliché. I've read stuff that I've said about it, and I sound like an idiot. I don't know.
Are you working on something else now?
JS: No. I don't have a clue. Don't say that I don't have a clue! No, I don't have a story. I'm looking.
You'd want to adapt something again?
JS: Yeah, I like that. Because it allows you to personalize it. Even if there's not much adapting to be done, spending that kind of time with the material, you vet it that much more thoroughly. In my brief experience, I've had some pretty good material to direct. If you can get that kind of material which then attracts the kind of people to execute that material the way you see it, there's a lot less work to do.
Is there anything else you want to talk about?
JS: No. I just want people to go see the movie! We just screened it, and Elvis Mitchell said how funny the movie was. And I was grateful to him, because given the circumstances, I don't want the humor to be lost. It was intended to be funny in a lot of places. Obviously, it's not funny in some places — but it was intended to be darkly funny. And of all people, Phil knew that. Phil was a producer on the movie. He's the reason it is funny. And I don't want that to be lost.
This interview has been edited and condensed.