Emmys 2011: John Slattery Is No Silver Fox

1:09 AM PST 08/11/2011 by Merle Ginsberg
Michael Yarish/AMC

The "Mad Men" actor and avid surfer is OK with being a dark-horse contender.

Silver Lake might seem an out-of-place location for a chat with John Slattery, whose Mad Men alter ego Roger Sterling epitomizes the urban-slick sheen of mod style. But the New Yorker feels quite at home in hip-cool California, where he lives while shooting AMC's three-time Emmy-winning drama. Here, Slattery talks with THR about his chances for a win this year, last season's pregnancy shocker and how he still hasn't gotten used to smoking "fake cigarettes at 5:30 a.m."

The Hollywood Reporter: You had nearly a year off before starting season five of Mad Men this month. Is it strange getting back to the grind?

John Slattery: Yes, this is our first week of shooting. But the only thing that's strange is getting back to the 5 a.m. mornings. We shoot on the east side of L.A., and I've got a place in Santa Monica. Thankfully there isn't a lot of traffic on the freeway at 5 a.m, but that's the only thing good about waking up at that hour.

THR: With last year's supporting drama actor winner, Breaking Bad's Aaron Paul, not eligible this year, do you feel your chances are improved for a first victory?

Slattery: The competition is still nothing less than formidable right now, which makes for good television but a tougher awards process. People do bring up the fact that Mad Men has not won any acting Emmys, but I don't think the cast is all that surprised. You can't predict; you'd go crazy if you tried. But I do hope Jon Hamm wins this year. He deserves it. And Vincent Cartheiser? I don't know how the Academy hasn't recognized his performance yet.

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THR: Speaking of Hamm, his contract was recently extended for three more years. So you're essentially assured of three more seasons of Mad Men, right?

Slattery: That doesn't mean any of us can't go tomorrow, trust me. A character can die, move, get fired. Matt [Weiner] doesn't let us know what's coming. We get a script for the next episode, we sit down at a table read -- and we're all pretty excited, because the plot is new to us, too. Then it takes eight days to shoot an episode, at least 12 hours a day and often more. Not even Jon knew Don Draper would be getting married again! I remember when I had to tell my real wife (Talia Balsam, who plays Roger Sterling's ex-wife) we'd be getting a divorce on the show, since I got the script before she did. That was strange.

THR: Roger had a lot of intense scenes last season, getting drunk and increasingly fed up with his young wife. How difficult were those?

Slattery: Playing drunk isn't the way I think of it -- I'm playing the scene. And trust me, it's all in the stage directions on our show. What's comforting is that we're in such good hands. Even if a plotline is disconcerting -- like when Roger wore blackface -- you know Matt Weiner has a good reason for it. Roger is drinking more, but he's pretty resilient. He has staying power -- at least I hope he does! It is pretty interesting, drinking water in a highball glass and smoking fake cigarettes at 5:30 a.m. in those clothes.

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THR: And even when Roger is drunk, his words are still sophisticated and urbane.

That's what makes this show: the subtlety in the language. No one ever says what they're really after. You watch these characters chasing satisfaction without wearing it on their sleeves. Last season, when Roger got Joan pregnant, he'd married Jane. You wouldn't have predicted that. Joan and Roger are both married, but their attraction just won't go away. I'm always surprised by what happens.

THR: In the past year, you also appeared in the feature film The Adjustment Bureau and shot two indies.

Yes. The film Return went to Cannes, and I just finished shooting another indie, Family Tree. Adjustment Bureau was another man-in-a-suit part. I almost didn't do it for that reason! But with the caliber of talent, I couldn't not do it.

THR: Last season you directed the episode of Mad Men where Peggy goes to that downtown party and we got the first glimpses of 1960s counterculture. What was that experience like for you?

Slattery: Matt was very generous to let me direct. It's a real leap of faith. You don't want to be the one to screw it up. I'm going to direct an episode this season, too. When you direct, you're involved with tone meetings, dealing with the studio, producers, all the way through editing. Needless to say, it's very difficult to act in an episode you're also directing.

THR: People may be surprised to learn you're an avid surfer, especially surprising given the fact that you're a New Yorker.

Slattery: Yes, there are spots there for surfing; you'd be surprised! But it's hard to talk about it without sounding pretentious.

THR: You seem a little embarrassed when Mad Men fans refer to you as a "silver fox" and that women see you as a heartthrob.

Slattery: I think some of that's left over from being on Sex and the City and playing one of Sarah Jessica [Parker's] boyfriends. I'm not complaining. But how do you respond?

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