John Slattery is best known for playing the senior advertising partner and affable hound dog Roger Sterling on AMC's heady hit drama Mad Men. His latest project is the upcoming film The Adjustment Bureau, in which he stars alongside alongside Matt Damon and Emily Blunt. Slattery plays a member of a mysterious organization that secretly controls people's fates.
Unlike his character in the sci-fi romance, the real Slattery is less imposing. In the lead-up to his new film, the silver-haired Massachusetts native talked with AskMen about boxer shorts, booze and why he's always cast as a suit.
The Adjustment Bureau, directed by Bourne Ultimatum screenplay writer George Nolfi, hits theaters on March 4th.
A lot of the characters that you play are politicians, government officials or upper managers. Why do you think you play so many authority figures?
John Slattery: I have no idea. I have no authority over anyone. I have an 11-year-old, and he rolls his eyes at everything I say. I don't know. I think I gravitate towards people who express themselves in a simple and funny way. Somehow, lately, they've been a bunch of guys in suits. On Mad Men, it's a character who has the ability to sniff out a situation and decide on the appropriate or inappropriate thing to say and have the courage to say it in the moment. And it often gets him in trouble.
You're 48, but you often play characters that are quite a bit older. What do you have to do as an actor to inhabit an older guy?
JS: I wear really long boxer shorts. Really old-school ones.
A union suit?
JS: Yeah, I like to wear a union suit. I like to chew a plug of tobacco [Laughing]. No, particularly with Mad Men, it's just a scene-to-scene thing. I mean, I know it takes place in 1960-whatever, and this one [The Adjustment Bureau] is sort of an ageless character. But to me it's a moment-to-moment exercise. I don't necessarily adopt some period attitude. I don't think there is a period attitude. I think people were just as sarcastic and earnest and curious as they are today.
Do you feel any kinship with the character of Roger Sterling? How similar would you say you are?
JS: I think in the beginning, I don't know if they expected the character to be as funny as he is. I think the difference between someone who's funny and this character is this guy laughs at his own jokes. Which I think is really funny. The character is someone who just kind of gets a drive out of the whole thing. He's really entitled, and I guess the sense of humor is something that I get. Everything else about it -- the job, family, personal back story -- has really nothing to do with my life. And this character [in The Adjustment Bureau] somehow kind of reminds me of my father. Somebody who worked hard, had a funny sense of humor and just sees the world in a pragmatic way.
What did your father do for work?
JS: He was a leather merchant -- he still is. He's a very funny guy, but he's sort of a no-bullshit kind of guy and can size people up in an interesting way.
Mad Men deals a lot with the subtle power dynamics of an office where there's competition for jobs or for women and often between the younger and the older guys. Is that just the competitive nature of men? Is that what it's like on the set?
JS: No, actually, we all get along really well. I'm kind of fascinated by Vincent Kartheiser, who plays Pete Campbell, especially, because he definitely lives his life in a different way. He doesn't drive a car. And in Los Angeles that's something that has some repercussions. And Jon Hamm and I are very good friends. We all are of different generations. We pretty much mirror the show. And yet we all get how fortunate we are with this job. We all get that it's not really generational; it's just about finding an opportunity like this -- something that's as well written, as truthful, as well rounded, and as fulfilling as this thing is.
Roger often comes across as being a mentor to Don. Is it something of a father figure role?
JS: I think maybe at one time it may have been. But I think the character of Draper is wise beyond his years and in many ways has eclipsed Roger. Roger never had the talent that Don has, the creativity that Don has, and I think that he knows that, and there's some resentment along those lines. On the other hand, I think that Roger feels unappreciated for being as good at his job as he actually is, because he makes it look easy.
He seems to have an amazing talent for being unflappable. He has a crazy life, but it doesn't seem to pain him as much as the others.
JS: Maybe that's generational. I don't think he sees the struggle. I think he says that at some point: "My generation drank because it felt good, because it feels better than loosening your tie. And you, your generation drinks because you're worried about this and that and all your struggles." They went through World War II, they came home, they put their work clothes on, and they got on with it. As we can see, that had a lot of psychological ramifications. There were a lot of people whose families were screwed up by that, because of the lack of therapy and treatment that those men received.
The show's creator, Matthew Weiner, is known for being very meticulous. Do you guys get to choose what your characters drink in a given scene? Or how does that work?
JS: Draper drinks Canadian Club, I think, and I drink Vodka. Pete doesn't smoke and some other guys do, and that's all determined. That's all written out. There was one period where I quit smoking and was just bumming cigarettes off of people, and then we lose the Lucky Strike account and we all start smoking Old Golds.
Whether you drink a vodka or, say, a whiskey is all in the script?
What's your drink when you're off the set?
JS: I like a martini from time to time, but I really like a glass of water with an onion in it.
Is that right?
JS: That's what we drink. I like an early morning scene with a fake cigarette and a glass of water with onions in it. It's really tasty. You should try it sometime. Onion water.
You were on 30 Rock recently in the episode "Brooklyn Without Limits," where you played a paranoid Tea Partier who's afraid of everything. What was that like?
JS: I don't know what that was. That was, like, a happy accident. I got the script I think on a Saturday, and we started shooting early Monday morning, and I had no idea what the hell I was doing. But I thought it was such a funny script that even if I get this half right it might work. And then I found myself standing in a park in Brooklyn in a diaper thinking, "I might have really f*cked this up."[Laughing]. It was like, "What am I doing with a rattle and a bonnet. Outside.”
That's got to be a real "How did I get here?" moment.
JS: Yeah. Career decision. Talk about free will versus fate.
What was it like working with Alec Baldwin?
JS: He's so talented that I was a little intimidated. He's an incredibly gifted guy and knows exactly what the shot needs, where it stops and where it starts. It's rolling the whole time, and he's starting over and starting back, so you've really kind of gotta hold your own with a guy like that. And I guess, fortunately, what I was doing was sufficient to keep him amused or at least in the scene with me. And Tina Fey too; that's an incredibly talented group of people over there, and I was lucky to be asked to do it.
In The Adjustment Bureau, your character, Richardson, is more or less the opposite of a zany conspiracy theorist. He's a company man who does his job and doesn't ask too many questions. Where do you fall on that spectrum? How much should we trust in authority?
JS: I think healthy skepticism is probably the way to live your life. I just watched the movie Inside Job, and it's kind of remarkable that the same people who told us that these financial instruments were too complicated for any of us to understand were the guys that got us into this mess and are still the guys running the show. And you go, “Well, how the hell do you not walk around as a skeptic?” On the other hand, was the world ever any different? You just try to make the best decisions you can make and get on with it.
Finally, a few people would kill me if I didn't at least attempt to ask you: 1. Will there be a reunion with Joan? and 2. How many oysters can you eat in one sitting?
JS: [Laughing] At least a dozen. And I hope so. You can decide which of those answers pertains to which of those questions.
John Slattery first acted in the theatre, but it was his role in the award-winning Tv series Mad men that got the world of film to notice him. George Nolfi's The adjustment bureau is about to be released, in which he plays against Matt Damon as an agent of a surreal psychogovernmental organisation entrusted with the task of making sure that every one of us follows a plan established by the authorities.
Slattery is a fully-fledged New Yorker even though he was born and grew up in Boston. His first memories linked with the stage date back to the time he got a dress-up kit for Christmas. "My cousin and I put together a show, but nobody seemed to pay us any attention, and he got mad at me and said it was my fault because I wasn’t following the script!" He laughs about the episode now that his face is known on the big and small screens, but in actual fact not much has changed since then.
Francesco Spampinato, L'Uomo Vogue, February 2011 (no. 418), p. 110-115
Italian english translation by Soget