When we first saw him this season, Roger Sterling awoke free of clothes in a free-love stupor. But sexy hippies in his bed haven’t been enough to distract from being marginalized at work and watching his daughter abandon her son. Even worse? He only has eight more episodes to get his mojo back! (Let Buick be the start …) Filming on Mad Men ends once and for all the first week of July, and John Slattery is feeling its rapid approach like a Danny Siegel punch to the balls. “It’s starting to sink in,” Slattery tells Vulture. “You do a scene now with someone and you think, I wonder if I’m gonna see this person again. We’re all kind of standing here scratching our heads wondering how it’s going to end, and it’s bringing up all kinds of questions while we shoot.” Just days before we say good-bye to Mad Men for the year, Vulture caught up with the actor to discuss such topics as Roger’s love-hate relationship with hippies and hate-hate relationship with Harry Crane, acting in the nude, and directing the ’70s-set dark comedy God’s Pocket. The film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and opened in theaters last week, stars the late Philip Seymour Hoffman as a struggling trucker who works for gangsters in a blue-collar South Philly community, as well as Slattery’s Mad Men colleague Christina Hendricks.
Elisabeth Moss recently said that the episode you’re shooting right now is one of the best scripts she’s read.
I totally agree, and um — I’m trying to parse everything and not give anything away, but we just started shooting it, and it’s amazing. Each script now you go, Oh, that’s where we’re headed. At the table reads, the end becomes that much more apparent. You feel the weight of it ending. Now there are only two more of them. Holy shit.
In last season’s “A Tale of Two Cities,” an episode you directed, Roger shares some wisdom with Don. He says, “My shrink says the job of your life is to know yourself. Sooner or later, you’ll start to love who you are.” How’s that going for Roger?
As his shrink would say, he has basic character issues. That’s the hard-wiring. With that in mind, he’s still looking. He’s got a hedonistic bent, and within that, he’s looking. He’s trying to figure it out and make himself happy, as they all have been. That said, I think Roger’s actually pretty accepting of himself.
Having Don back seems to have re-energized him a bit. That and the fuel of his hatred for Harry Crane. Do you remember where that all began?
[Laughs.] It’s Harry’s lack of finesse. I just worked with Rich Sommer [who plays Harry], and it was so funny the way those two characters see each other. Roger holds him in disdain for his inability to talk around what he wants, which Roger and Don and Joan of course do well. They don’t desperately grab for what they want like Harry.
“The Monolith” was a sobering episode for Roger — and a great one for your wife, Talia Balsam, who plays Roger’s ex Mona.
I mean, she’s the best. Keep in mind, what she does is really hard to do — she’s always the new guy. Even though she knows everybody — the producers, the crew — she’s not as comfortable as I am, because I’m here almost every day. She loves it, but it’s that much more difficult to be funny and ironic and relaxed. But working together is really fun, and Mona is such a funny character. They complement each other really well, Mona and Roger.
There are plenty of people who want Roger and Joan to be together, but I really enjoy any time he goes head to head with Mona.
She can talk to him in a way no one else can. He’s walking around that office and people have to treat him with deference. Mona just tells him to shut the fuck up.
His daughter Margaret just did that too, and it was pretty devastating.
Totally. That speech at the end where she’s telling Roger the son she abandoned will be fine, and “Look how I survived, your secretaries buying me Christmas presents and you not showing up to any birthdays ever,” I mean, it’s horrible. To find out that’s the kind of father you are, and that’s the kind of person you raised who gives as little consideration to motherhood as you gave to fatherhood, that this kid is going to be motherless and it’s your fault, that’s heavy. He’s had a hand in screwing up the lives of more than one person.
He couldn’t save her from the dirty hippies! Mad Men hates hippies. Why is that?
[Laughs.] Roger doesn’t like hippies, that’s for sure. This utopian, free-love idea definitely appeals to him for a minute, and then Margaret sneaks off in the middle of the night with some guy, and he goes, Well, this doesn’t work. But I think the show’s attitude toward hippies is that of the generation prior — it’s not the generation of the ’60s, it’s the one before that. The guys who fought in World War II and took responsibility in that way look at this generation as one that’s entitled and well off and didn’t want to fight in the Vietnam War, whether that’s right or wrong.
Well, Roger seems to like the hippies who’d been crashing with him and having all-night bacchanals. Or he did.
You know, you get to be this age and the conversations you have with someone who’s 22 aren’t going to be as interesting. When it’s one-sided, you trying to describe some insight and that person isn’t there yet, it’s a limited exercise.
It feels like you get naked more than anyone else on the show. Has that been better or worse for you than the sobbing?
Nudity versus sobbing? I had to do a play once and I had to come into the scene — there was no dialogue, and I had to take off my clothes, sit on the edge of the bed and sob [laughs]. It was a naked silent scene of tears. That combination of nudity and sobbing, the degree of difficulty is high. Nudity alone is easy. You don’t have to do anything. You take off your clothes, now it’s someone else’s problem. Sobbing is definitely harder.
Are you going to direct any more episodes before it’s all over?
I was going to do two. I couldn’t do the first one because I was still getting God’s Pocket ready. The other one would have been the script we’re shooting right now, and I wouldn’t have been able to prep properly because my movie came out last week and I was involved with that. I would have just screwed up both so I bailed out. I’m sorry I did because this is a great script.
For God’s Pocket, I read that you wanted Philip Seymour Hoffman to play the local journalist [a part that went to Richard Jenkins], but he wanted to play Mickey, the hard-drinking lowlife whose mission in the movie is to make arrangements for his stepson’s funeral. What did he say about the role’s appeal?
He talked about this scene in some detail where Mickey is dragging the body of his stepson behind a funeral home. He said for him it was all about the struggle of this guy to do the right thing. The water keeps rising around him and all he’s trying to do, in a really tight-knit fishbowl kind of situation where people are out for themselves, is the right thing for his wife. He’s not doing it for himself, and I remember Philip said the simple humanity of that really appealed to him.
That scene with the body is also just really funny.
That’s the essence of the movie. Him dragging that dead body around, the body of the stepson he had a crappy relationship with, but trying to take care of it in the rain — that is the highlight to me. I thought it was hilarious. That was the other reason Philip signed on. He liked the dark humor of it. That was the whole battle really, finding people who get it in every role. Some people don’t, obviously. Not all the critics loved it the way [New York film critic] David Edelstein did, and he makes mention of that in his review. But this was Philip’s sense of humor.
You also cast Christina Hendricks against type as Mickey’s angry wife. What made you think of her?
I know Christina pretty well now, and I know she isn’t from a fancy background, so I knew she would understand the part. Physically, she was right. These two men in the movie are in love with her and you get why they would go to great lengths to impress her. And also, she’s just a great actress who I knew could be this woman who is not an angel, she’s no saint, and still make her sympathetic.
What’s next for you after Mad Men?
Not a thing. I’m going to finish all this and lay low for awhile, try to find something. No idea what the next thing will be, and that to me is always exciting. I have a house in Long Island that I’m going to go and hang out in. I’ve stayed only one night ever in that house. That’s my big plan.