Everybody has to start somewhere. In Firsties, we talk to some of our favorite pop-culture figures about the many first steps along the way to their current careers.
John Slattery has been a regular fixture on stage, TV, and film since the late ’80s, but his breakthrough role on Mad Men opened new behind-the-scenes opportunities for the actor. Since the show’s fourth year on the air, Slattery has sat in the director’s chair at least one episode per season, guiding sequences like the boardroom fist fight of “Signal 30” and Don Draper’s Los Angeles freakout in “A Tale Of Two Cities.” God’s Pocket, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival and begins a theatrical run May 9, marks Slattery’s first feature-length directorial effort. Based on the novel by Pete Dexter, God’s Pocket is a tragicomic ensemble piece centering on Mickey Scarpato (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his final onscreen performances), a small-time hood navigating assorted traumas and everyday inconveniences in the tight-knit, fictional Philadelphia neighborhood of the film’s title. With his first feature set for release, Slattery spoke with The A.V. Club about other firsts in his career, from playing husband-and-wife with real-life spouse Talia Balsam to pretending to make a very specific request of Sarah Jessica Parker’s Sex And The City character, Carrie Bradshaw.
Directing his first movie
The A.V. Club: What was it about the novel God’s Pocket that made you think it would be the right fit for your debut as a feature director?
John Slattery: I finished the book and it was just a very clear picture. I closed the book and said, “This seems like a film.” It’s bookended by Richard Shelburne’s columns—he starts a column at the beginning and ends with another column—about the people of God’s Pocket. So it seems packaged, to use a convenient term, like a film. Specifically, the characters and the tone and the setting and everything about it was so specifically drawn.
I felt like it had so much going for it on the page: There was character, there was a motor to the story, there was heart and humility and humor, and it was, again, specifically drawn enough that I had a vivid picture. I knew how it should look and I knew how it should sound and I knew that in order for it to work, you had to find people who were convincing in that world—the world of casual violence, of less-than-lawful behavior. That it all had to be un-sensational enough that it was rendered amusing. And I knew I had to find the right people, but I knew I could do all of that.
AVC: Could you see certain actors as the characters populating the novel?
JS: I didn’t instantly concern myself with who it should be. I had a mental picture of Mickey Scarpato, but that’s just because he’s physically described in the opening of the book. When Phil Hoffman decided that he wanted to play Mickey, it took me about a minute to re-jigger that picture, which was a chain reaction to everyone else. It was an exercise in trying to maintain the feeling and the tone that originally attracted me in the first place, but letting go of attachments like the specific way a room looked or the way a scene was going to be shot. Because, the reality is, somebody might not be available the day everyone else is available or the same day a location is available, so there are a lot of situations where you have to make due.
AVC: How does that compare to the process of directing Mad Men, where you’re working with a shorter timetable?
JS: There was a tight schedule on the movie as well; it was just a longer script so we had a longer period of time to do it in. The difference: There’s an infrastructure in place. There’s an actual structure in place on Mad Men that existed way before I directed it and after I directed it. It’s Matt Weiner’s show: You’re trying to execute someone else’s vision. As the creator of the show, he hands you the script and expects you to put your interpretation on that script, but, ultimately, it’s his creation. So that’s the main difference.
Day-to-day, the difference is that you have the sets and the people and the stages and it’s all very well thought out before you get there. There’s a different kind of pressure in that you need to maintain the schedule, you need to get finished on time, and you need to shoot everything thoroughly—but if you don’t, no one is freaking out because they’ll fix it. You can shoot it later; you can come back. It isn’t condoned necessarily, but it’s possible. In God’s Pocket, if you didn’t get something, it was unlikely you were going to be able to get all of those elements in the same room again. The people, the cars, the permits, all the extras, and all the clothing they were in—it was a real orchestration in that regard and, as a result, a different kind of pressure.
AVC: Were you glad that you had experience with that kind of pressure before doing God’s Pocket?
JS: Absolutely. I understand much better now when they say veterans that have experience in pressurized situations—it’s invaluable, whether it’s in a sports scenario or any kind of emergency situation. Having been through it or something like it before allows you to realize that you will survive it. It takes more time or more shots or you hadn’t thought of something and something slipped. You made a mistake and you still have to get through the day, you still have to get through the scene. And the second time or third time that happens, the whole thing can turn into a blur—and that lessens as you go through those kinds of situations, at least for me. I’m not saying it gets any easier; it just gets more familiar. You get more used to that pressure; you get more used to that tension.
The first time he knew he wanted to work in TV and film
JS: I was in high school, maybe junior high school, and I came in one evening and turned on the television and I, Claudius with Derek Jacobi was on PBS. This BBC production with these muslin flats that would shake when people walked through the door; the production quality by today’s standards was not very rich, shall we say. I don’t know if I stood there or sat on the edge of the table, but for about two-and-a-half hours I didn’t move. Shortly after that—or at least it is in my memory—Hamlet was on. It was a Derek Jacobi marathon or something, and I realized that people do this for a living. I was a movie fan my whole childhood. I would drive my family nuts staying up all night in 6th and 7th grade, when I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning because I’d stayed up till four watching some Cary Grant-Katharine Hepburn movie. But it wasn’t until I saw those productions [of I, Claudius and Hamlet] where I was like, “This is something else all together.” Maybe it was because the production value wasn’t any good and it was sustained so remarkably by an actor just standing there and talking.
AVC: And did you go out for any plays or musicals after having your I, Claudius experience?
JS: We didn’t really have any in high school. I went to a small, private school and they had no theatre program. They had a couple of classes at a school down the street that a couple of us would take, but that was only so we could get off campus and get out of school. So it wasn’t really anything I got to practice—and yet, I never considered doing anything else. I never thought to do anything else. It wasn’t that I was just so drawn to being an actor; it was just that I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and that I liked film and television.
Auditioning for his first regular TV role
JS: The first television job I ever got was for a series on Fox called The Dirty Dozen, which was short-lived and shot in Zagreb—which was in Yugoslavia at the time. It was in 1987, I think, and I remember reading for whatever part I was reading for, and then I was given new sides [side-reads, in which an actor is given a few pages of a script cold at an audition] and told to look at them and come back. It was a weekend, there was nobody in the place; I went into the bathroom and started looking at these sides and I had a pretty good memory and I looked at it a couple of times and knew it. So I went back in there and took a stab at it, trying not to look at it. And I got the job. I think part of it was that I could I remember it that quickly.
AVC: This was a series based on the movie and book of the same name?
JS: Loosely. In capitals. It was just a bunch of guys running around and shooting stuff up and trying to be heroic. It wasn’t very well done, but it was fun.
AVC: It must have been a wild experience to do your first TV job in a foreign country.
JS: It was amazing. I think I left the audition and the producers said something like, “See you in Yugoslavia” or something like that. Of course, being in show business, it wasn’t that easy. I had to test for it. It was the first actual screen test I’d done where they put actual film in the camera and shot it instead of just putting me in a chair and shooting me with a Handycam or whatever the hell they had back then. Or doing a live test for a television show, which I don’t understand. How the hell are they going to know what you look like on film or whether you can actually act on film by having you act in front of a room full of suits? It’s antithetical to what acting in the vehicle is going to be like. All that is, is an exercise in controlling your nerves.
I went out to Los Angeles and went to some studio and they had a set and cameras set up. They’d do a wide and a tight [shot], probably, and then you did the scene twice. It was effective and it probably cost more money and that’s why they don’t do it anymore. But you get a much more accurate idea of what someone looks like on film, and if they can actually play the character. Plus, it helps you focus on the material, as opposed to all of these people in this room who are about to decide your fate.
His first time on a New York stage
JS: The first real job I had was in a Terrence McNally play called The Lisbon Traviata with Nathan Lane. And I had to be naked in the play. I remember getting the call—and no one had a cell phone—so I went to a pay phone on 8th Avenue to call my agent and he told me I got the job and it wasn’t until I hung up the phone that I realized, “Holy shit, I have to be naked in this play!” I had to make my entrance on stage fully, bare-assed naked. And that [Laughs.] was an experience. God, that was really horrifying in the beginning, but the horror goes away. In the audition, I didn’t have to take my clothes off, but the director said—smartly, I thought—“If you had done this before, I would say wait until we get into the theatre and then we’ll just do it then. But I think you should pick a day [in rehearsals] and then you should do it then.” So then I said, “Okay, how about three weeks from today?” [Laughs.] “Just something as far down the line as I can schedule.” Sure enough, that day sitting in the rehearsal room, they were getting to my entrance and I was frozen in fear. I just slowly started taking off my clothes and I stepped over the taped line to say my lines—and it’s amazing how the basic skills of acting go out the window when you’re standing there naked. How to open the door, how to say “Hello.” But you get used to that stuff. And after that I did it a bunch of times.
AVC: It must’ve made it easier to begin Mad Men’s seventh season wearing nothing but a well-placed telephone.
JS: It’s like I said about the experience of getting in a chair and directing. Experience is everything. It’s the best part of getting older—it’s the only good part of getting older. You have experience with situations that are foreign and they’re less frightening. Less alien.
His first meeting with Matthew Weiner
JS: My first meeting with Matthew Weiner was to audition for the role of Don Draper. That’s what I went to audition for. I still think they made a horrible mistake. No, that’s a joke.
I’ve told this story a lot, and it’s true, but I think Matt had seen me in Rabbit Hole on Broadway or something and he thought I’d be good for the part of Sterling, but there wasn’t much of Sterling in the pilot. So he called me in to read for Draper and I actually called my agent and said, “Really?!” Because by that point I was reading for young grandfathers and I thought they’d made a mistake. And he said, “No, that’s what they said.” The script was amazing; the part was one of the greatest parts I’d ever read. So I did my homework and I went in and did my audition and they said, “Well, actually this is the part we want you to play.” And as a result of that, Matt said I was in a bad mood for the entire pilot. [Laughs.] Which I think is bullshit, but I think really what it was that I just didn’t know. “Well, I have a couple of scenes in a show that’s good, but it’s on AMC”: There might have been some reticence. You get told “This will turn out great,” and the show was that elaborate in the initial going. You look at the whole script and you go, “If the part turns out half as good as any of these parts that are more elaborately drawn in the pilot, then I’m in.” So maybe I had one foot in and one foot out, but it didn’t take long to realize that I had made the right decision.
AVC: When did you get the feeling that Roger was an elaborately drawn, essential part of the Mad Men universe?
JS: I think it was probably the second episode. I did a scene with my wife—my actual wife—playing Mona, with January Jones and Jon Hamm, and it was just clear. From reading the script, it was every bit as good, if not better, than the pilot. Then the next one was better than that, then the next one was better than that. It was unlike any other television I’d ever done, where the pilot is so well considered and so thought out—because they’d had so much time to think about it—and has been so minutely pored over before being bought and shot and then picked up. By the time the first episode gets written in a week, the quality drops off a cliff—understandably, sometimes. But this was the opposite of that. This kept getting better and better. And it wasn’t just Roger. All of these characters just started to show all kinds of sides to themselves in unexpected ways and it became clear: It was not ordinary.
His first scene opposite his wife, Talia Balsam
AVC: You and your wife were both on K Street before Mad Men, but was that scene between the Sterlings and the Drapers the first time you’d acted on screen together?
JS: We might have been in the same shot in K Street; I was going in as she was coming out or something. But Mad Men was the first time we’d done a scene together. I’m looking at a picture of us right now.
AVC: How was that experience?
JS: It was great—except when we finished it, we’d realized we had been sitting on the same side of the dinner table and didn’t look at each other but maybe once. If you’re having a conversation with two people sitting across from you, you don’t really necessarily crane your neck and look at the person next to you, so we did the whole scene and were like, “Did we look at each other at all?” [Laughs.]
There was a scene of the two of us in a car on the way home after the dinner; we never shot it, I guess for time, but I wish we had because it was really funny. Roger and Mona go their way and Don and Betty go their way, as you do, debriefing each other after dinner. And I [as Roger] said something that I think was used later about how ridiculously attractive Don and Betty are: “Didn’t I see them on top of our wedding cake?” It’s just a funny scene with Mona and Roger, a really well-written exchange between the two of them with all the history of a long marriage. I wish we had gotten to play that because, having been married for a time, the best part was we didn’t have to fake that. The further we’ve gone, the more we’ve gotten to dig into that. You don’t have to create that history, because it’s there.
His first impression of his Sex And The City character’s golden-shower fetish
JS: Sarah Jessica Parker and I were friends, and I think she mentioned a part to me—but I don’t think that specific part [Laughs.] came up. And I believe—it’s been so long now—that they’d cross-board two episodes at a time so you would shoot the whole thing as if it were one episode. So it was just a lot of fun. Michael Patrick King claimed that I had signed a nudity rider and then I said, “Oh, no I’m not doing that.” Because I think he wanted me to get out of bed naked and walk across the room, and I’m glad I didn’t do that. I think he also said that if he had known how well [my character Bill Kelley and Carrie] got along, he wouldn’t have had him have that golden-shower fixation. Because once we had that enter the picture, there was no way the guy could stick around.
AVC: He’s doomed from that one line.
JS: As soon as he said that, he was out. It was only a matter of time. And it was too bad, because I would have liked to hang around there for a while.