It’s been four-and-a-half years since Salvatore Romano was last seen on Mad Men — unemployed and cruising for some down-low affection in a public park at the end of the third season.
Actor Bryan Batt has not kept such a low profile. Recent years have seen him publish two books, appear in a slew of films (12 Years a Slave) and marry his longtime partner. And though the fan-favorite has never reprised the role of the closeted art director, he still has a slew of Mad Men stories to tell. Batt, shooting a new TV series down in his native Louisiana, recently spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about his time on the show, the best (and worst) case scenarios of his AWOL alter ego and his Broadway take on the Mad Men musical numbers that came after him.
How was reuniting with everybody at the premiere?
It was bittersweet, it really was. I didn’t even stay that long, and usually I’m the last one to leave the after-party. I just wanted to go and say goodbye. I still see my friends from the cast, I ended up being very close with Christina [Hendricks], Rich [Sommer], Aaron [Staton], Michael [Gladis] and Janie Bryant the costume designer. Her work this season, every season, is just brilliant.
What do you think of the ’70s aesthetics on the show now?
The beginning of a decade is the quintessential look of the prior decade. When we started the show in 1960, everyone looked like it was the 1950s. I remember 1970, that’s the scary thing. I remember my parents going to London, and all I wanted was a pair of bell-bottoms — but they didn’t make them for kids yet.
Do you think Sal would have adopted any of the more extreme facial hair we’re seeing now?
Sal could have gone either way. He was either going to explode out of the closet or remain so closeted and never have that aspect to his life, that deep longing, satisfied. I think in the world of Mad Men, it’s probably the latter, sadder, more tragic one [laughs]. But since we don’t know what happens, I like to take the more positive route. I like to think later down the line, Sal finally realizes, “I can’t do this anymore… as much as I love you, Kitty.” Then, he puts on the kaftan and gets a Yorkshire Terrier.
Hopefully, he’s not still cruising in Central Park.
It’s so bizarre that it’s still going on. I just recently read that police were targeting this area in Baton Rouge where men would meet up for these carnal liaisons. The fact that these men think they have to get married to a woman. How horrible is that to do to yourself — but how much more horrible is it to do to another person? In this day and age, for it to still be happening, I can’t wrap my brain around it.
Have things changed for gay actors in the business?
In Hollywood, it can be very limiting when people know too much of your life. Things are changing a little bit, but it still lingers. I think there’s still a celluloid closet.
What did you think of the way Mad Men tackled the gay storylines?
Nostalgia can be a tricky thing. We always look back and want to see the good old days. We kind of gloss over the flaws. And what Matt [Weiner] did was hold up a mirror and say this is how it really was. Women were treated like secretaries and wives, and that’s it. If you weren’t a white, Anglo-Saxon, heterosexual, protestant male, you had a hard road for the most part. Right after the first season, with the writers strike, there was a possibility that one of the major networks was going to air the first season. They were looking for product. But they decided to air Dexter instead, and it was because of the smoking and the drinking. I don’t know how true it is, this is what I was told, but it’s very telling that we would rather see a serial killer.
You smoked a lot on the show.
We smoked herbal cigarettes on the show, but most of the cast then started smoking real cigarettes. We’d smoke the fake ones on set, and then go outside to smoke the real ones. You always knew where to find the Mad Men people. That sensation is addictive. It wasn’t everyone, but I know I did. It got bad. Thank god I was written off the show, because when I stopped showing up, I put down the cigarettes, and I haven’t had one since. I don’t mean to tattle on Hollywood, but it’s a big smoking community. They’re almost as bad as ballet dancers.
Have you kept up with the show?
I have to catch up a little. There have been a few I’ve missed, but I’ll go back and see them.
Do you think it will end well for Don?
We always would joke, “What do you think is going to happen? Well, whatever it’s going to be, it’s going to sad.” Matt is so brilliant, and he’s known so much for so long. I remember at my hair and makeup test for the pilot, Matt said to me, “Do you know what’s going to happen to Sal?” No, I had just been cast [Laughs]. He said, he’s going to go on business trip with Don. Don’s going to bang the stewardess, and Sal is going to bang the pilot or someone else. Don’s going to find out, and it’s not even going to matter. It wasn’t until the beginning of season three that even happened. He planned so much so far in advance, but didn’t let too much be known about the characters. He let them grow organically through the story. It was just heaven, as an actor, because all you had to do was show up and deliver the lines in character as honestly as you could. You didn’t have to worry about anything else because it was all taken care of. The audience knew more than you did. I never felt so safe, because I knew we’d always be taken care of. They’d never let us look bad.
What was the conversation like when you were written off the show?
It was odd because my character was fired and we didn’t know anything until we get the next scripts. There was a possibility that I’d be in episode 13 [“Shut the Door, Have a Seat”] when they start the new agency. And when I read the script, I wasn’t in it. It was handled on the up and up. Matt called me, and we talked. What turned out to be my last day of shooting was really great. I will say it’s difficult, to be written off such a hit show, but nothing can take away the first three years.
Rich and I went out for drinks on my last day, and we both agreed that if we don’t do anything else in our careers, at least we were on this show. It doesn’t happen a lot. I’ve played a roller-skating train and a cat on Broadway.
What’s your take on some of the show’s bigger musical moments that have happened since you left?
Oh yes, I loved all of that. Bobby Morse is my favorite. We sang that song together when we bumped into each other on the red carpet at the premiere. The first season, we had this wonderful opening night at Friars Club in L.A. Jeff Goldblum and his orchestra played. We were talking on the side with Maggie Siff, and he asked Maggie to sing with the band. She said, “Oh, I don’t sing, but Bryan Batt does.” I think I had a couple martinis in me, so I got up and sang “Night and Day.” And the next afternoon, Bobby Morse came up to me and said, “They don’t know what us Broadway kids can do. We ought to do a Christmas special.”
What are you doing in Baton Rouge?
It’s Scream, based on the Wes Craven movies. I’m really excited. It’s only just started. I haven’t gotten slashed yet, but I’m holding my breath.
Who are you playing?
I play the mayor. His name is Quinn Maddox, and I’m one of the lead girls’ dads.
Mayors don’t last long in horror.
I hope I don’t die the first season, but it is a slasher series [Laughs]. Some people have already gone. If I do meet my demise, I hope it’s bloody, gory and memorable. I’ve never had the opportunity to do anything like that, so I’d be interested just for the experience of holding my entrails as they fall out. I wanted to be in that scene in [Mad Men episode] “Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency” with the lawnmower going over that man’s foot. I wanted to be in that shot just to be splattered with blood.