upfronts 2014

Mad Men’s Ben Feldman and Rich Sommer Talk About Testing for Matthew Weiner and the Grueling TV Pilot Process

Photo: Courtesy

Every actor will tell you that the TV pilot process is only predictable in its total and utter unpredictability. Last week, we ran a piece in which we spoke briefly to seven actors who had shot pilots that were up for possible series pickups at this week’s network upfronts. Now that everything’s shaken out and we know which shows are going to appear this upcoming fall, here are the extended transcripts of our discussions with Mad Men’s Ben Feldman (the recently departed Ginsberg), whose A to Z will appear on NBC, and Rich Sommer (Harry Crane), whose Good Session will unfortunately not be on CBS. The two, interviewed separately, talk about the pilot dance, what it was like starting on Mad Men, and what life might be like after the show ends.


Feldman as Mad Men’s Ginsberg Photo: Justina Mintz/AMC

A lot of people have compared the whole pilot season situation to dating.
Oh, absolutely. I came out of a test and I was talking to another actress, Leslie Grossman, and we were talking about going into a test where you essentially walk into a room filled with suits, who are super serious, and the spotlight is on you. And you have to impress them in like seven minutes. It’s like meeting a girl at a bar, getting wasted, going home, and sleeping with her. A test is sort of that moment the next morning where the lights come on and you awkwardly collect your clothes and you knock a bottle of wine over and fumble for the door. It’s such a weird and awkward moment. And that’s what happens in the room. You wave to everybody, and they’re silent and they just stare at you and you just sort of sprint out of the room.

When you are on a show like Mad Men for so long, do you think about maybe wanting to avoid anything that might be similar subject matter or anything that might mean you would be typecast?
Well, one thing that a show like Mad Men — I don’t know if it’s like this for everybody, but I’ve been a giant fan of the show since long before I was ever in their mind. You do a show like that for a couple of years and you’re a spoiled dick. You read other scripts and you become picky, and my agents were constantly saying “don’t be a snob about this, nothing’s gonna be like Mad Men, you just have to eventually go on an audition.” And I was like “oh God, I hate this.” Quality is really the thing that sticks with you, and either you get really lucky and you find something great, or you sort of sacrifice your standards.

You weren’t part of the original cast of Mad Men, so you weren’t part of that pilot. But how many pilots have you actually been on and how many have you auditioned for?
I think A to Z was either my sixth or seventh pilot. Maybe half of them have gone in different iterations. One was mid-season and I was a guest star, and then I became a regular on the show when it got picked up. A couple of them didn’t make it to air. The first one I ever did was what moved me from New York to L.A., and it was a half-hour on the WB, that’s how long ago it was. Adam Sandler was the producer, and it was about a kid who was the mayor of his own town. And I got a crash course on how Hollywood works, because when we shot it, everyone was like “This is gonna be a huge deal; you’re gonna be a star! Adam Sandler’s the boss. You’re gonna get all this attention.” And then it got picked up for mid-season, so everyone was like “This’ll be okay, it’s fine.” And then we shot our pilot and it was fine, and we shot our second episode and it was terrible. And I watched the craft service go from sushi to old chicken. And then it got canceled after Sandler convinced the network to at least let us finish shooting the second episode, and then it was done. I feel like I learned everything about pilots from shooting my first one, but I’ve done a bunch.

Is there a difference between network and cable?
I don’t want to knock anyone, but I don’t think it’s breaking news that when you do something on cable there’s a lot more freedom. When you do a major network show, no matter what, there’s gonna be a whole lot of cooks, and you’re getting opinions from a lot of people and you’re redoing stuff and a lot of people are visiting the set. Every single take, you’ll do a take and then afterward you’ll stand there while the director talks to the writer, then the director and the writer go over and talk to the network executive, then that executive goes and talks to one of the studio executives, and they finally come back like ten minutes later with a whole bunch of notes.

When you’re shooting a pilot, is there any indicator of whether it will be successful or not? Can you tell at all?
If you had asked me that at the beginning of my career, when I was doing my first pilot, I could tell you definitively, “I know everything about pilots. I’m the smartest person in the world. I know everything.” But the more pilots I’ve done, I’ve realized how little I know. And this being my sixth or seventh pilot, I’ve just come to the realization that I just have no idea. There’s no rhyme or reason to it. The greatest show during pilot season vanishes, the worst show gets picked up. This show filled with giant stars is terrible; this one with nobody is great. You just don’t know. It’s impossible to figure out. Unless they’ve already picked up the series, which happens sometimes.

You’re supposed to hear back right before the upfronts, but do they give you a particular day or do you have to just wait by the phone?
You find out in relation to when your particular network’s upfronts are. I mean, I’ve been really lucky; I haven’t had to do pilot season in the past six years or so. Unless you’re doing some big deal show where the network decides way in advance it’s definitely gonna go, you find out when the rest of the pilots do, which is just this mad dash at the last second. I mean, people get calls Friday afternoon to fly to New York tomorrow because their network upfronts are on Monday. Usually the protocol should be your producers call your agents and your agents call you, but there are a lot of different versions of that. The producers could call you themselves. I did a pilot one year, while I was shooting this other show, and I showed up to set one day and one of the actors was like, “Oh man, I’m so sorry about your pilot.” and I didn’t know what he was talking about. But Nikki Finke had already called us dead on Deadline, so I learned from another cast member. You never know how you’re gonna find out. And then all of a sudden it’s just this explosion of news. It’s so much stress, and I loved it when I was in my early 20s, but it’s just too much stress now.

If your show doesn’t get picked up, then what?
If the show doesn’t go, producers call you, “okay, we’re so sorry, it was really good, the network is so stupid,” and then they go “don’t worry, we’re shopping it around,” and then you’re supposed to be really excited “oh great, hopefully another network comes and buys it.” Usually that doesn’t happen. Maybe it does nowadays, I don’t know, but back in the day it was kind of like a joke. And then all the shows that are picked up, there will be recasts of things, so then your agents will go “don’t worry, now everyone who didn’t work out in the pilots, they’re gonna lose them and cast you instead.” So then there’s that whole thing. And there’s a million other things — there’s Amazon, and Netflix, and every other cable network on the planet that’s not casting during pilot season. And then there’s movies and plays and everything else. So it’s not the most depressing thing in the world, although I’d really like my show to go.


Sommer as Mad Men’s Harry Crane Photo: Michael Yarish/AMC

Does having been on Mad Men increase your options or affect the kind of choices you make?
People do their careers in different ways. For me, I am not entirely convinced that I have the luxury as far as what my next job is. I have a wife and kids that we all sort of exist off this very silly acting thing that I chose to do. Ideally, in a perfect world, I would love to transition to another carefully and beautifully scripted drama. Or comedy. But I’m lucky that anyone is willing to see me for anything.

How many pilots have you been in?
I’ve been in two: Mad Men and Good Session. Mad Men was my first big TV job. I moved to New York in May of ’04 and we shot the pilot in May of ’06. It was my first pilot season. I only got to do that because I had had a small role in The Devil Wears Prada and that spun into a few more doors opening.

What is the difference between cable and network when it comes to pilot season?
For the auditions, there’s really no difference. It’s a lot of the same casting directors and same folks in the room. As far as doing a pilot, I can speak only to my experience on Mad Men. We did one read-through, and from what I remember, it was the writer and director and a couple of AMC execs. It was a very small room, is my point. It was an audition and then a callback and then I was in the show. My audition for Good Session was an audition then a studio test at Warner Bros. and then a network test at CBS with all the fancy folks from CBS and Warner Bros., and then a read-through, which all of those people attended. It was a huge read-through, and it was scary and intimidating and crazy. So already I can see that’s just a different sort of animal. I don’t know yet how that will manifest should it go to series. It seems like more hands on deck, which could be a good or a bad thing. I don’t know.

When you’re shooting the pilot, are there any indicators of whether it’s going to be successful or not?
The thing that every single person has said to me, from the director to the boom operator, is that you never know. All of these people have done more pilots than I have. And all of them say you just never know. It may feel great on the day and then it ends up looking like shit or vice versa. It could feel like “wow, that was wonky” and then somehow it’s a TV series. I think you go in and you do your best work, and you shrug and say I hope that fits what they’re looking for right now.

Do you remember what it was like getting the big phone call for Mad Men?
I was just a guest star in the pilot, so there was no guarantee that I would move on. But when I was cast in the pilot I got the call two hours before the read through. I wasn’t the first choice for Harry. I was literally sitting on my couch in my underwear watching Judge Alex. And they called and so it’s like “oh my God, yeah yeah yeah yes.” Shower, train, there. It was amazing.

We shot the show in May and it was probably about August when we heard the show was picked up. And it was maybe October when Matt Weiner called each of us personally and said, “we want you to come to Los Angeles and do the show with us.” I got together that day in Union Square Park with Michael Gladis, who played Paul Kinsey, and Aaron Staton, who plays Ken Cosgrove. We had become fast friends from the pilot and we hung out a lot. We knew the calls were coming so we decided to meet up that day. And Michael and I proceeded to pretend to Aaron that I had not been cast in the show for about a half an hour. It was awesome. Aaron was just like, “I feel so bad.” I was like, “I mean, we knew that we weren’t all going to make it.” Then we told him and it was great.

That’s unusual. Apparently, it’s only people like Matt or Joss Whedon that do the direct calls like that. 
Yeah, but I think it set a tone for how our relationship was going to be with Matt for the rest of the series. And he’s made himself incredibly available and accessible. He’s never been a figurehead; he’s so deeply involved in the show and in our relationship with the show. He’s synonymous with Mad Men for me.

If you weren’t the first choice for Harry, who was?
He was an actor who was in a play and didn’t want to abandon his castmates and totally made the right call. I’ve described it in the past as in Texas Hold ‘Em, when you’re dealt a two-seven offsuit, which is the worst starting hand you can have in Hold ‘Em. You fold because that’s mathematically what you’re supposed to do. But then somehow, three sevens come up on the flop or two twos and a seven. And it’s like, “Shit, I should have stayed in.” But no, you made the right choice. It just happened to randomly be the thing that would have been the right thing. He totally made the right choice. Mad Men was a basic cable show on a network that had no track record and there was no guarantee of him going on with the show even if it got picked up. And he chose to stick to the commitment. It just ended up being three sevens on the flop.

Wow. I feel bad for the guy. But it worked out for you.
It did work out for me. I’ve thought about this often, Harry Crane’s involvement in the show. We supporting characters are sort of on the outside of the story. The most we can hope for in any given story line is that we maybe set a ball for one of the leads to spike. Harry says something to Don that ends up inspiring the carousel speech at the end of season one. That kind of thing. And also, so much of the characters are based on us. It’s funny to think about. If another guy had been playing Harry Crane — and from what I understand, physically we were very different — if he had been Harry Crane, and Harry Crane had been a different type of guy, it’d be a whole different show. It’s like the butterfly effect. He would have flapped his wings and it would have reverberated through the whole show. It would just be a totally different story. It’s fascinating to think about.

Did you ever meet him or talk to him about this?
Michael Gladis once met him. I remember the interaction was simply, the actor said, “I don’t watch Mad Men” and Michael said, “I don’t blame you.” It makes sense to me.

If you get the call for this pilot, what would you like to do to celebrate?
We probably would leave town for a minute. Frankly, the celebration has sort of happened. We were really scared about what life held after Mad Men because it’s become a very comforting place to be. It’s a very tight-knit group. It’s very strange to think about all of us sort of being cast to the wind, and for some of us, we don’t know what is next. I’m not Hamm, I’m not Lizzie, I’m not January, I’m not Christina or Slattery, those people that are clearly going to go on to the next thing. My wife and I have the same birthday, and somebody gave us a very nice bottle of champagne last year. It was Chris Lloyd, the co-creator of Modern Family. He’s a bit of a wine connoisseur, and he gave us a beautiful bottle of champagne that we had been waiting for the right moment to open. And when I got the pilot, we chilled that champagne and had it. It was just breaking past that was the cause for celebration. I think we’re hopeful that there will be something even if Good Session doesn’t end up going. And I really, really hope it does. But if it doesn’t, I feel slightly more hopeful for what’s to come.

If you don’t get the call, what do you hope or plan to do for the rest of the year?
Just audition. I’m back in the mix, where I haven’t been for a long time. I recently had to turn down a play that was a very exciting opportunity because it conflicted with Mad Men, which is about the nine billionth thing that I’ve had to turn down career-wise and socially, weddings and things that I’ve had to miss because I’ve been on a TV show for seven years. But that’s totally a champagne problem. Golden handcuffs. It’s not a thing to complain about. If Good Session doesn’t end up going, I would like to see my family a little bit and maybe go on a trip. I haven’t been on a vacation in a long time. I might try to utilize some of this free time, but not much, because I’d like to start auditioning again pretty quickly.

Mad Men’s Feldman and Sommer on TV Pilot Process