Mad Men’s Bryan Batt seems capable of most anything — he’s a Broadway vet, designer (he and his partner own a decorating shop in his native New Orleans), activist, and the owner of a pretty amazing personal website. We were overjoyed to see the pivotal, ahem, exposure that his character, tragically closeted art director Salvatore Romano, got in Mad Men’s season premiere. Batt spoke with us about what we can expect from Sal going forward. (Spoiler alert.)
Sal’s reaction to the bellboy is pretty different from when he recoiled from the Belle Jolie guy’s proposition last season. What do you think has changed for him since then?
Well, I think some time has passed, and he’s also quite inebriated. And he’s out of New York. So there’s all these other possibilities in play. It is his first foray, shall we say, into that realm. But also, it’s very interesting, everyone hits on Sal. He really doesn’t go about seeking it; it comes to him, which is great because it’s just an innate attraction.
The moment on the plane when Don comes up with the “limit your exposure” idea for London Fog had us holding our breath! It was clearly inspired by the bellboy incident.
Ugh, my God, how great is that line?! I definitely think he’s speaking in a duality; he’s covering a lot of bases, he’s telling Sal exactly what he thinks Sal should do. Whether he knows something happened or just suspects it, since he really didn’t see anything, it’s nothing concrete, and they really don’t discuss it. It was very interesting when we had the premiere in L.A. last week. I was expecting such a reaction from the audience on the kiss, and they were really intensely into it, but the biggest reaction was when Don saw Sal through the window. That elicited audible gasps.
So do you think Don was putting him in his place? Or kind of silently showing some sympathy?
It’s up for interpretation. I think down the line, as the season progresses, it can be interpreted different ways. I took it, as it was directed, that he’s almost telling Sal, watch what you’re doing, but he’s not going to call him on it. But Sal kinda does breathe a sigh of relief after that. “I don’t want to see this” is another aspect of what Don is saying, without really saying it — so much is said in silence on our show! You have to watch it over and over to figure out how to interpret.
Do you think that now that Don and Sal share these two secrets, it will bring them closer?
I would like to believe that. We have no idea what’s happening from script to script! Speculation right now is at a fever pitch. And now we’re getting the scripts usually the day before the table read, and the table read is the day before we film the next episode, so there’s really no time.
Everyone in the office is in denial in one way or another. Do you think, because Sal is so deeply conflicted himself, he sees through to the truths of the other characters any better?
You know, yes, and no. I don’t think he bothers himself that much with it. He deals with his own issues, and doesn’t really worry himself with anyone else’s. When you have that kind of load on your back, living the life he does, I don’t think he’s worrying himself with everyone else’s secrets. But I don’t think he’s the office gossip — although sometimes the people with the most to lose are the most into everyone else’s gossip.
One of the great things about your performance is how, while it’s obvious to a modern audience that Sal is closeted, it’s believable that his co-workers at the time would have no clue. Did you decide on certain mannerisms you were and weren’t going to use to indicate Sal’s situation?
You’re so right! In the character description for the pilot, it was spelled out completely, very to the point, that he was clearly gay to a modern audience but not to the world of Mad Men in the early sixties. One thing I had to be very careful with, coming from the stage and my French background, I gesture a lot. And you have to pull that back for the camera. And he’s trying to fit in with that crowd, so he’s going to have to adapt at least a physical persona to limit or disguise any kind of signs. It’s really an innate kind of yearning to fit in, like in high school. But, I think, once in a while the way I hold my cigarette, or a turn of phrase, will give it away — but also could just be interpreted as very “artistic.” But he loves this world, his job is his life, and of course he’s going to do anything possible to maintain that and stay in it.
This role must be a huge change for you from the world of musical theater — is it an exercise in restraint?
[Laughs] Well, you know, the first couple episodes were. And then once the character gets under your skin, it just becomes second nature. But, believe it or not, the cut of the suits — everything is so constraining, the ties, the tie bars they actually had a tie that I wore once that had a button hole in the back of the tie to hold that little part in. Everything’s so fitted and tight, the armholes of the suits are cut much smaller, the pant leg — it makes you have better posture, it holds you in a very erect position. Which is perfect for the character. I can’t wait till we go forward and all that explodes! Bell sleeves and open-collar shirts! I do find, coming form the stage and all that, I’ve always been conscious of my posture and my body, but also the style aspect, I do find myself throwing on a blazer and a nice pair of loafers more often. Daddy always likes a new pair of Guccis.
Being gay isn’t the only thing that makes Sal a minority — he’s also Italian in the midst of an office full of Wasps. Will we see that touched upon at all this season, or is it a moot point in the face of his big secret?
I find it very interesting that it hasn’t really come up — there was one line last year during “The Gold Violin” when Aaron [Staton, a.k.a. Ken Cosgrove] says he didn’t know if he should call my wife, if that was accepted among Italians, which I guess was not even really discriminatory. In my research I realized in some social circles Italians were very discriminated against. There are certain things, I think you’ll find this season, that he’ll be excluded from — but that might also just be because he’s from the art department! I think the more important thing is his sexuality and identification that way, and coming to grips with it, if he ever does. This first episode is just a taste. One of the writers asked me, “Where do you see Sal going?” and I said, “Oh my God, anywhere you want to take him.” I did mention, though, now that he’s tasted blood, he’s going to want some more, but he also knows it’s backfired, so it could throw him back more into his closeted life. It’s a wonderful dichotomy; before, I guess he didn’t know what he was missing. Let’s face it, last season, he just got a kiss and a handshake, forgive the expression. Divine intervention, if you will, stopped what could have been a more steamy interaction.
So do you have hopes for where the character will go this season?
You know, I learned within the first couple of weeks in the first season, don’t even try. What they’re going to come up with is so much more brilliant and fun — why bother? Though between seasons one and two, I did ask Matt to let Sal get married, and he did! First episode last year, there was Mrs. Romano.
Do you think you’ll get a story line not related to Sal being gay at some point soon?
I would love that. Maybe to have it deal more with artistic conflicts. As the ad world progressed, it was a great time of change in the profession — I hadn’t even thought about that. Sal can have more issues! Bring it on! Cornucopia of Sal drama!
Last season, Sal’s wife had a mini-blowup at him, indicating she might have a clue about what’s going on. What will we be seeing of her as the season goes on?
Oh God no, I really don’t think so. There isn’t enough evidence. Something not right, you sense that. She’s a good little Catholic girl, what is she going to do in 1962? If there’s one thing about the writing, the characters do what they’re supposed to do.
It seems like season three has only jumped forward a few months since the end of season two. Why do you think Matthew Weiner made this choice? [We thought the original plan was to have a few years between each season.] In what year do you think Mad Men should end? Can it go on past Woodstock?
Well, we never knew what would happen either, and Matt never confirmed this. We all thought it was going to be ’64, but he wanted only a few months to pass, I guess. I would love the show to go into the seventies, just to show how completely the generation did a 180 within one decade. It was so tumultuous on every level, with civil and women’s and gay rights. To be able to be free, that was the beginning of that, and we have a lot further to go on that freedom aspect. Just to see how that pans out in the Draper household alone — does Betty burn her bra? Does Sal go to Stonewall one night and then end up on Fire Island in a caftan?
Well, we’d definitely like to see THAT.
[Laughs] Yeah, so would I.
What do you think of the new characters? Who do you hope to have some scenes with?
Oh, gosh. I would love to have more to do with Kurt and Smitty — there was a very interesting scene last season when Kurt came out in front of Sal, and it scared him in another way. Having them around, it’s this reminder of what’s blooming underneath Sal’s skin. That could make for some great drama.
Do you watch the show? Will you be watching Sunday night’s episode — and if so, what are your plans for watching?
Oh gosh, I’ll be in Times Square! Watching on the Jumbotron! Some friends were planning a screening, but now we’re going to Times Square — we only ever see our own scenes, onscreen, before airing. If I’m in New Orleans, I’m at my friend’s bar Wino, the Wine Institute of New Orleans, or I watch with Rich Sommer and some of the other guys at his house in L.A. And then sometimes we have cast parties. Actually, tonight I’m in New York and I’m skipping decades to go see Hair for the second time!
Speaking of musicals, do you think Sal will ever have a musical moment on the show?
Oh gosh, all the time I break into song! The song from Calamity Jane, “Once I Had a Secret Love”! If only Sal could! There are many Broadway songs that apply to moments on Mad Men, and I sing them on set all the time.
Thank you, and please please please, if you need art, please do not use this one photo that everyone uses of Peggy and Sal at this party where I’m eating or something and wearing this awful maroon sweater in which I look fat and ugly — it’s just really awful. Thank you!