Mad Men is back!
The rogue with all the best lines
Wednesday 21 March 2012 20.00 GMT
It was a "little surreal", John Slattery recalls, returning to filming on the fifth season of Mad Men, after a prolonged break while the show's producers, network and studio torturously hammered out contract details. "Lizzie Moss [who plays Peggy Olson] and I were doing a scene, and the two of us were looking at each other, trying to remember how we did it a year and a half earlier – smoking and drinking and talking at the same time."
It's a rather modest description of the once-in-a-decade alchemy that has made Mad Men a global cultural sensation, but Slattery, it is not really surprising to learn, has more than a little of the bone-dry wit that his scriptwriters lavish so generously on his character, Roger Sterling.
Some may drool over Draper, others appreciate the sass of Joan and Peggy, but for most Mad Men fans I know, Roger is the one. Sardonic and sentimental, lovable yet unpardonable, he has the best scenes (throwing up at the feet of new clients after Don makes him eat oysters), the best storylines (a heart attack while courting twins as a "treat" for Draper) and – sorry Betty – the best hair in the show.
He certainly has the best jokes, my favourite of which (there are plenty to choose from) regards the elderly Mrs Blankenship, dead of a heart attack but later revealed once to have been Roger's lover and a "queen of perversion of the highest order". "She died like she lived," he notes, aridly as ever, "surrounded by the people she answered phones for."
Slattery, as it happens, initially auditioned for the Draper role, before being offered Roger – and promised, despite a modest turn in the pilot, that it would turn into a great role. Does he secretly think he ended up with the best part in the show? "Not so secretly. Every time we have a table read I'll sit next to [Jon] Hamm and he'll point at the script: 'Look at that, three jokes a page! Another one for you!'
"I am fond of him. You could ... sum him up by saying he's crass or a womaniser, he does all kinds of things that I guess are reprehensible. But at the same time he is very human, he is understanding, a good friend."
When it comes to the "smoking and drinking and talking at the same time", the actor says, the scripts the cast are given are perhaps surprisingly prescriptive – with each drag and sip marked as clearly as their lines, which can be a challenge. "One of the scenes says he comes in, then makes a drink, and then you hand off the drink to someone by the third line ... I mean, it's impossible. A lot of the things they write don't necessarily take into account the distance from the door to the bar, the bar to the person." It all gets hammered out in rehearsal he says – but the directions are usually right.
The actor, now 49, had a distinguished career largely onstage and on television before Mad Men made him instantly recognisable across the world. For 17 years his partner has been Talia Balsam, who plays Roger's first wife Mona in the show.
He describes working with Balsam as "really fantastic". "Early on [in season one] there is a scene in the hospital, where I had had a heart attack." Roger keels over while with the twins but, in a lovely, delicate scene, breaks down in tears when Mona arrives at his bedside. "To see her come through the door makes the scene that much easier, to play it with someone you have that much emotional history with. It really takes a lot of the work away."
Producer Matt Weiner has hinted that Mad Men will finish in the present day, with Don Draper an old man. Where does Slattery see Roger? "Six feet under. I'm pretty certain ... Well, it's a guess, I have no idea." What is fascinating about the show, he says, is "to see people who are waiting for social change so they can jump on board, and other people who resist that, with the uniform they have worn and continue to wear through the years. It's anybody's guess what will happen."