Made Man

John Slattery was an easy sell when pitched to play an ad guy on 'Mad Men'

John Slattery remembers the night he lay in bed, reading the latest script for his AMC series "Mad Men," when he had the shock of his life: His character, Roger Sterling, was about to leave his wife.

That would have been fine, except for one thing: Mona Sterling was played by Slattery's real-life wife, Talia Balsam. And there she was, lying in bed, right next to him.

"I was looking at her going, 'Oh shit!' Is she off the show?' " he recalls. " 'She is so good and she works so hard. How am I going to tell her this?' I think I just slipped her an Ambien!"

His eyes wrinkle up and he laughs at the memory. Sitting at the bar of the London West Hollywood hotel, dressed in jeans and a plaid shirt, Slattery is the antithesis of his ultra-intense, sly ad-man character, whose motto is drink, smoke and be merry even after suffering two heart attacks.

Slattery is both funnier and more compassionate than his onscreen incarnation.

"The hardest part of playing Roger is staying cool and composed," he says, leaning back, his white hair catching the sun. "I'm looser and goofier."

True. But Slattery isn't quite as goofy as he claims. Talk to him about his wife, his character and the show itself and there's a deep seriousness underneath.

That's fitting, given that Slattery has drawn on his most personal memories to create the character, not least, growing up with his father -- a man he calls his hero -- who was a salesman himself.

"My father was a leather merchant, so he would buy and sell," he explains. "He'd go on the road; he'd go out with clients." Like Slattery, he was funny; and, like Sterling, "He sizes up people right away." But, he adds, "My dad is a much kinder person. I would never confuse my dad with Roger Sterling."

Slattery says he first regarded Sterling as a demon on the shoulder of Don Draper (Jon Hamm). Now his view is much more nuanced and he sees Sterling as Draper's ally, his cohort in crimes of passion.

"There is a symbiotic relationship: Don needs Roger and Roger needs Don. Roger is pure Id, he goes after what he wants," Hamm explains. "There is no guilt in Roger -- he comes from where he comes. Don is much more conflicted."

Slattery came to Sterling somewhat unexpectedly, given that he was initially considered for the role of Draper.

"I felt John was older than I imagined Draper -- and not because of his gray hair," says the show's creator Matthew Weiner. "It was more his patrician charm." On the other hand, he continues, "He seemed too young for Sterling. But I loved his ability to be serious and yet comic, and I thought he would add something unique to the role."

He adds, "John has a way of inhabiting Roger Sterling that is both honest and carefree. He takes jokes that sound like jokes and transforms them into witty conversations. He has an incredible appetite for the outrageous."

This has helped make both the character and the show must-see viewing. But it has also led people to conflate Slattery with Sterling himself.

"I think they get a laugh out of it," Slattery says. "I think I am somewhere in between. He has strong convictions, I think I do -- I get a stubborn streak from my mother."

But Slattery punctures any full-blown confusion between himself and his character quickly by constantly teasing and joking in a way Sterling never would.

Asked what he thinks of his co-star Hamm, he says: "He's a jerk. A damn fool."

Then he adds: "I'm just kidding. He is somebody I hit it off with right away. He is younger than I am and I think he has handled all this really well. I mean, he's there first, he leaves last. He works like a dog and he's just a great guy to have as the face of the organization."

Hamm says Slattery was one of the first people he met on the show. "John is hilarious -- he's Irish," Hamm laughs. "He has countless stories; I could listen to him all day. He has been around a long time, but he is not so old that he starts repeating himself."

This other face of "Mad Men," Slattery himself -- a frontrunner to get an Emmy nomination after his previous nom last year -- is in the midst of negotiating a new multiyear contract.

And that is just part of his busy life. He also has feature film projects in the works: His success here has led to a role in "Iron Man 2," the sequel to last summer's blockbuster, hitting theaters in May 2010. His eyes flash mischievously: "But if you look down to get popcorn, you'll miss me." His past feature roles include "Flags of Our Fathers" and "Charlie Wilson's War."

Born in 1962 into a Boston Irish-Catholic family of six children, he studied theater at Catholic University in Washington. He started his career in commercials, then went on to act in the New York theater.

His got his big Broadway break in 1993 when he co-starred with Nathan Lane in Neil Simon's "Laughter on the 23rd Floor."

When he got the call from Weiner and AMC, Slattery was appearing on Broadway in the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Rabbit Hole." When he read the script, not even quite sure what AMC was, he says, "It was pretty apparent that it was not like most of the other stuff coming in during pilot season, which is really a lot of crap."

He credits his family with giving him an ability to navigate the tough political terrain of ensemble dramas like this -- as well as "Sex and the City" and "Desperate Housewives," both of which he appeared on as a guest star. (He played Sarah Jessica Parker's politician boyfriend with a urine fetish, and Eva Longoria Parker's politician husband).

Slattery likes working with women. "I have four sisters," he explains. "I hung out a lot with women when I was a kid. Generally (working with guys) would not be my favorite thing to do, because it gets to be a 'bro-deo.' It's a lot of bros and that's not my favorite thing. But these ("Mad Men") guys are not like that; they're funny and they're smart."

They've also offered opportunities that would appeal to just about any "bro" -- especially when it came to one recent scene.

"I thought, wow, I get to go to bed with a 20-year-old girl," Slattery grins. "But at a table read, Matt (Weiner) jokingly told me: 'There's no sex scene.' " He pauses. "I think I fell on the floor."

He might not have gotten the precise sex scene he fantasized about. And he still doesn't know what will happen to his wife next season. But Slattery is in love with his current gig.

"It is the best job I have ever had," he says. And then he can't help adding. "I just told myself, 'Don't buy a Mercedes. The show is on cable and the pay is terrible!' "
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