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Sterling Work

The stars of Mad Men talk to ShortList

Sterling Work
19 March 2012

As Mad Men returns to our screens, John Slattery tells Lee Coan about the pleasures of playing Roger Sterling, and Vincent Kartheiser talks about that rat Pete Campbell

There are two antiheroes in Mad Men, and here’s the thing: neither is called Donald Francis Draper. In John Slattery’s Roger Sterling you have the chain-smoking king of the one-liner. Sterling has killed Nazis, survived coronaries and appreciated the curves and charisma of Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks). In Vincent Kartheiser’s Pete Campbell you have the ultimate bad guy, an insidious careerist, yet someone who knows the greater good. He’s a man supporting the civil-rights movement at a time when African-Americans still had to use service lifts. As Season 5 arrives, we celebrate two abominable but oddly delightful rogues…

John Slattery 49, plays founding partner of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, and noted wit and womaniser, Roger Sterling

You originally auditioned for Don, are you now glad that you got Roger?

These days, very much so, but at the time… Goddamn it, no, I was not happy at all. I went to the audition and they said, “Oh, sorry, we’ve got that guy, you can try for someone else.” In my arrogance I thought, “What? You haven’t got that guy, I’ll show you. You haven’t got that guy because I’m that guy.” When you’re a fool like me you think you can play anything…

Did you secretly hate Jon Hamm for much of the first season then?

He says I did, and not even secretly, but [laughs]… no, I didn’t hate him, deep down. The thing is, it was apparent from the beginning how annoyingly good he was in that role. I don’t think people appreciate how difficult it is to play something as subtle as he does. Trying to communicate so much from a guy who keeps his cards so close to his chest is almost an impossibility.

You valiantly came to the rescue of January Jones when she was deemed “unapproachable” by the 11-year-old actor who played her on-screen son. Now the implication is that she’s difficult. Does it annoy you when an incident like that spirals in the press?

All this comes from the word of a kid. The fact that the press went with it at all is really funny.

Why do you think she is misunderstood?

I don’t think she is misunderstood by anyone else but that one kid. Coincidentally, that kid doesn’t play Bobby Draper any more. Not because of what he said, but because… well, for other reasons. They’ve had about five Bobby Drapers and they can’t seem to find one who doesn’t look straight into the lens. But to get back to your point, I think the problem is that January is an incredible actress. She plays a formidable character, she’s not mother of the year, she has a hard relationship with that child and she’s horrible to him. It’s remarkable to watch her, actually. You look at her and think: this is an actual person, in this moment, going through all this. She becomes the part. That poor f*cking kid, I’m not surprised she scared the hell out of him. She’d scare the hell out of me.

Roger’s famous for his one-liners — can you reveal any gems that were cut and have never been heard?

There is one actually, from the very first episode. My wife and I have been out for dinner with Betty and Don, and you see them going home and talking about themselves. There was also a scene where we go home and talk about them — how disgustingly good-looking they are. I had this line, “Didn’t we see them on the top of our wedding cake?” after which I pass gas. It was such a funny moment. I think it didn’t make it because Matt [Weiner, show creator] had unexpectedly found this thing between Roger and Joan. He didn’t want to complicate that chemistry by giving my wife too much attention.

But your on-screen wife is your real wife, right?

Yeah. Now my on-screen ex-wife.

Was it fun to divorce her?

Well, erm… I can’t… man, how can I answer that question? What are you doing to me here? I guess it would be every man’s fantasy to pretend such a thing. To play that out. It’s funny, because I was reading the script, lying in bed next to my wife, and neither of us at that point had any idea the divorce was coming. I read the script, didn’t say a word other than, “Goodnight” — then shut the light off. There was no way I was going to be the man to break the news that she was being written out.

Roger had a heart op but still drinks and smokes an incredible amount. Does your constitution match up to Roger’s?

Not even close. I mean, whose does? That’s one of the things people love about the show. They watch it and wonder, “How did anybody actually get anything done?” I’ve met a lot of the 60, 70-year-old guys the show is based on, and everyone has their own opinion about the accuracy of what we do. The thing that amazes me is that they’re all like, “You’ve got it wrong. We drank much more than that.”

What state are those guys in now?

Well, that’s the thing. The ones you meet are the ones who survived it. They’re the ones in AA now, and that’s the reason they’ve survived. People often ask me where I think Roger Sterling would be in the Eighties, or even the Nineties. The answer to all of those questions is: dead. The man would have been long underground.

As an actor, how hard is it to play drunk?

You never know if you’re doing too much. You don’t want to clown it up. It can actually help to be drunk yourself. It works for that scene, but then 15 minutes later you have another scene, a serious moment, and you’re still drunk. You don’t have time for such fun when you’re working on a show like ours.

How do you find the outfits on Mad Men? Are they getting more comfortable as the Sixties moves on?

As this show evolves and it gets later into the decade, it’s fascinating to see which characters change at the same pace as the fashion. Some characters are beginning to wear different suits, some aren’t. In that highly evolutionary decade, it’s fascinating to watch who changes and who doesn’t. That’s one of my favourite aspects of the show now.

Roger’s had a tough time in recent seasons — does he have a happier ride this time around?

[Laughs] Happier? You know, it’s funny, there is a line where Roger talks about happiness and how fleeting it is. I think that’s what it is all about with these characters on Mad Men. They’re all just looking for happiness. They want something and they get it — and then they’re disappointed. That’s the show in a nutshell right there.


Vincent Kartheiser 32, plays the ambitious, and quite conniving, Pete Campbell

Pete was almost likable in the most recent season. Do you think he’s becoming a more sympathetic character?

He’s calming down a bit, isn’t he? He’s being more friendly towards the show’s protagonist, whereas once he was trying his best to ruin the guy the viewer loves. If our protagonist, was say… oh, Ken Cosgrove [Campbell’s old rival, played by Aaron Staton], Pete would still be seen as a jerk.

How enjoyable is it to play such a rat of man?

Lots of people didn’t know who I was before Mad Men, but I’ve been in this business for 25 years. I’ve had periods where I’ve been stuck in certain roles: I was the wide-eyed kid, then all I was getting was angsty teenagers, after that I was moody protagonists in independent films, and now, generally I’m an asshole. It’s, erm… quite nice. It’s much simpler to be objective when you’re the bastard. And, therapy-wise, it helps me get rid of a lot of unwanted dirt.

Do people ever give you abuse in the street because of Pete?

No, not too much on the street. I think the kind of fan Mad Men attracts is quite intelligent. They get it, I’m not him. I was in a sci-fi show [Angel] for a couple of years and I got more hate for being in that — still do. Sci-fi fans take things a little too seriously.

That must have been fun.

The worst abuse I get is from people who don’t know who I am. I was in a restaurant and the waitress didn’t realise who I was. All she could remember is that she hated me. She’d spat in my food, but then was like, “Wait! I’m sorry! You play Pete Campbell! I thought I knew you!”

Were you worried that the show might not come back at all following the recent contract negotiations that delayed filming?

This show has given too much and has been too important for anyone to let it just go. To end it now just couldn’t happen, they shouldn’t have let it come as close as it did. As an actor, when you’re back home, not working, you start getting paranoid. You think it’s been so long that it’s not going to be the same, that people will have changed, that you’ve changed, that you can no longer do the role. The second you arrive on set, it’s just the same old thing. Nothing’s changed.

Mad Men’s set is known for being meticulous — what little detail has impressed you the most?

You can go anywhere in that office, open any random drawer on any random desk, open a letter, and not only is it all typed out, but it’s also an actual letter to an actual character, signed, with the right company letterhead to fit into that episode’s script.

The consumerism in Mad Men is in opposition to your own lifestyle [Kartheiser shuns the trappings of modern life]. We’ve read you don’t even own a toilet. How do you marry the two concepts?

You can’t completely isolate one from the other. At times, Pete can appear greedy, awful, piggish, but at the same time he has a level of stoicism and chivalry that has come more into my life since playing this role. I’m not sure that it answers your question, but this character and its popularity has undoubtedly changed my life and the way I lead it.

Mad Men Season 5 starts on Sky Atlantic HD on 27 March at 9pm and on mobile devices through Sky Go

(Images: Frank Ockenfels/ AMC)