This interview contains spoilers for the mid-season premiere of Mad Men.
In the premiere for Mad Men’s final half-season, Roger Sterling makes one hell of an entrance: dressed to the nines in a crappy diner, with a pair of beauties on his arm and an extravagant mustache on his upper lip. He’s also berating a waitress. It’s a striking transition from the introspective Roger we’ve seen in seasons past — and not entirely a welcome one, as he seems to be slipping back into the ways of that past. We caught up with actor John Slattery during what might be his final press tour to discuss Roger’s mindset in Mad Men’s final episodes and what, exactly, that mustache represents.
Let’s talk about that mustache. Was it real?
You know? I’m not gonna tell you whether the mustache is real or fake. Then it becomes a “thing.” But I like that mustache. I wasn’t sure I was going to, but I think it’s really funny actually. It’s just another in a long line of attempts by Roger to reinvent himself.
He’s a peacock.
The ‘stache, the sideburns, the velvet tux, in a shitty diner. It’s a good entrance.
Can you remember the genesis of the mustache?
The ‘stache was gonna make an appearance earlier. Then it didn’t. The tricky part was the secrecy. People were encouraged to grow facial hair and then they would take pictures of it. Then some people were asked to shave facial hair and they would reproduce the exact mustache or sideburns or beard they grew, without actually having their own. They could take it off and not be seen walking around with it.
Do you think Roger enjoyed firing Ken in the premiere?
Probably. Ken is unpredictable and Roger tried to get Ken to go one way and bring his father-in-law into the business. Ken was his own man, and he never wanted to do it. I think Roger probably chose to do it, so he found some enjoyment in it. I’m trying to remember the premiere …
Are you getting that senior-year feeling? This is last time you might be doing this.
You think, “This is gonna be the last time I’ll do this,” and then they go, “Oh, no! Now we want to talk about the whole season after it’s aired.” So you go, “Okay.” I was thinking last night, “Is this gonna be the last one of those Mad Men panels that we do,” but probably not. You go, “How long did I shoot this?” I can’t remember what scenes are in what episode. People go, “Oh, yeah, episode 304,” and you’re like, “What? Tell me.”
When you took the role all those years ago, is this where you thought Roger would end up?
How could you predict this? I wrote and directed a film, and it was difficult. I said to Matt [Weiner], “I can’t imagine doing seven years of a TV series, with so many characters interacting. That seems impossible.” He said, “You can’t look at it backwards. You have to look at it one scene at a time.” It would be impossible to predict where this character would go, or where any of the characters would go. I knew Matt wanted to do the ‘60s, in however many years we had on television. You go, “Okay, what does ‘the ‘60s’ mean?” It means Vietnam and hippies and drugs and civil rights, but you forget how many people change interpersonally and how they change sartorially. What happens to people? Divorces, marriage, death, birth, all those things change people, and how much? Really subtle differences in a lot of people.
What surprised you the most about Roger’s arc?
I thought I was gonna die. Matt said last night that he was gonna kill this character off.
With the heart attack in season one?
Yeah. He says it was because I had another job, but I remember telling him, “I’m not going anywhere. If you’ll have me, I’m staying.” Then [Roger] had a couple heart attacks and I said, “Is this it?” and he said, “No! My uncle had six heart attacks.” So, you know, the biggest surprise? There are so many, but the biggest is that I’m still here.
This is the first season Roger’s operating without Bert Cooper, who’d been a substitute father figure for him. How is he dealing with it?
You see him taking Bert’s advice. Bert threw down the gauntlet: “You are many things, but a leader you are not.” I think he puts himself in that position and says, “I’m going to figure out this deal and I am going to lead this business into another chapter.” Roger’s pretty philosophical about life. I think for someone who’s led a fairly unhealthy lifestyle, he has a pretty healthy outlook on how to live fully, and how to not live with regret. I think his daughter is probably a regret, in the way she views him and the way she turned out to be a person and his responsibility in that. I think he just kind of gets on with it to the best of his ability.