John Slattery is much more than just Roger Sterling. Sure, he’s also the guy in the Lincoln ads before Matthew McConaughey took over, and he’s the quirky Doctor Norman in the fourth season of “Arrested Development.” But Slattery has done what seems impossible — he’s transcended an iconic supporting role on one of television’s landmark programs.
He’s no longer just Roger Sterling or the actor who plays Roger Sterling: He’s a writer, director and comedic, dramatic, supporting, lead and every other identifier for actors. In short, “Mad Men” may be ending, but Slattery is just getting started.
Before Season 7 premiered, Indiewire sat down with Slattery to discuss Roger’s state of mind, what the characters are looking for and what got him hooked on directing.
How did you approach his mentality in the seventh season? How do you think he looks at himself within the company and as a person?
I think at this point what Roger maybe has gained is the knowledge that nothing is forever. Not only the finite quality of life, but the state of being. Like Don said, “You know what happiness is? The moment before you want more happiness.” I’m trying to remember — relationship-wise — where I left off. You know, divorced his second wife, he’s been hanging around with younger women, he’s been experimenting with drugs, he’s been kind of dabbling in the counter-culture, because I think he’s looking. As he says to Megan’s mother [Marie, who Roger is now seeing], “I realize that it’s never over,” basically, to paraphrase. It isn’t over ’til it’s over, so if you’re going to keep going you might as well find something that interests you. I think that’s what he’s trying to do. He’s trying to find what keeps him interested, both work-wise and personally.
Do you think that’s something that he’s always been going after, or do you think there’s a point in the show where it really hit him that it’s not going to end, like you said?
Well, I mean, Bert Cooper says, “You’re many things but not a leader of men,” and I think that prompts him to figure out that deal. Are you going to do nothing or are you going to stand up and try to figure something out to save yourself and the people that you care about?
Which he does.
You know, how long does that last? How long does, any of those states of satisfaction [last]? I think that’s what it is; these characters are looking for some kind of satisfaction. Whether it’s happiness or gratification of some kind personally or professionally, that’s what they’ve all been looking for the whole time. You know, “Where do I fit in?” And then you have those moments where you look at the whole thing and go, “This is my life? What have I done?” Those are difficult moments, you look back and go, “This is all I’ve put together?” And then you get less reflective and face forward and keep moving. And I think that’s maybe what he’s learned, is that it’s only going in one direction so once you wake up to that I think he is better off.
How does Don play into that for Roger? I mean, Roger humbled himself last season and asked Don to come back. […] He stood up for him and that was an important thing, that was a big decision for Roger. So what is it about Don that means so much to him that he’d do that for him? What’s their relationship like?
Professionally speaking, Don is the ace of the staff. He’s the guy. You know, if I’m the gallery owner he’s Monet. He turns the lights on. Whatever he cooks up, that’s why everyone wants to work with him. That’s why he’s the star he is. And Roger’s good at what he does because he recognizes that. Roger’s not the creative force behind this agency. You know, he can make a deal as well if not better than most, but you have to have the horses. And they’re friends, and they get each other.
And I think that’s what’s really interesting to me, because everyone else seemed ready to abandon Don, and Roger was the one who was standing by his side. So there was something more than just business; it felt like there was something more than just the need for one another.
Yeah, I mean [Roger’s] telling jokes to people, and they don’t get the joke and it’s sad, but really he was part of the group that fired Don in the season prior because he wasn’t doing his job. When Lucky Strike went out the window, Roger wasn’t able to do his job and he was marginalized as much as Don’s marginalized. You have to be able to do the work, whatever the [situation]. You’ve got to do your job, and if you don’t, you should be expected — and I think Roger gets that — you should be expected to be cut. But once he makes it clear that he’s ready to come back there’s nobody better, and that’s what they all forgot.
That was one of my favorite parts of the first half this season; just that kind of need. It felt emotional and it also felt professional at the same time. They just kind of recognized it, and it was kind of a beautiful moment. There’s so many of those throughout the show.
Well, it was such an evolution to the show. That’s what I think good shows do and that’s what is poignant about it is that they evolve. You don’t come through this journey without getting banged up. You’re not perfect at the end, and you’re not pristine. You gain things, you lose things, and I think it’s that evolution that… I had a good point and forgot it. [laughs] You know, to me there’s a philosophical quality to the whole thing. You know what you need to survive. If you can figure that out, it becomes kind of what it is.
I read that as the season was wrapping and as characters were filming their last scenes you guys would be bringing in champagne and saying goodbye. And maybe Matthew Weiner would step up and say something about the person who was leaving. Did that happen with you?
Do you remember what he said about you when it was your last scene?
No, I can’t really remember. [laughs] He said something about that what I was doing never should have been as palatable. Something to the effect that I made what was abominable palatable, something like that.
[laughs] That’s a good way to describe Roger.
Yeah, I think that’s part of the charm of Roger, is that he gets away with a lot. Likeability is a bullshit television executive term, but as Roger says, a lot of this business is just about, “You know, I don’t like that guy.” That’s a fact. You want to do business with people. The older I get, there’s that “life is too short” list and people keep being added to that list. I’m like, “You know what, I don’t want to spend time away from the people I like in order to go work with that person.” It’s just, life’s too short. So I think Roger’s one of those people that is entertaining.
Absolutely. There’s no way around that.
Plain and simple. He’s witty and he likes to have a laugh and he likes a cocktail, and he’s used to the finer things. Who doesn’t want some of that, at least? It sounds pretty good.
You got into directing on “Mad Men.” Did you ever ask for or talk about trying to direct one of these last episodes?
I was offered one, both in the last [seven episodes and the first seven], and I couldn’t do either of them. I had a movie that I directed and it came out. I was finishing the movie in the first seven, and I was promoting it in the second, so I couldn’t. And I regret it, it’s her fault. [laughs] Because then the schedule changed and I could have. It would have overlapped. I mean, I would have been away from home for too long, and that was hard. But yeah, I wish I had.
Was there something that you really liked about directing — especially on “Mad Men” as opposed to the acting component — that drew you to it in the first place?
The thing about directing [is] people want to do it because they want their vision of it to be the one that people see. All I can do is show you how I see it, and someone else’s vision of it might be more effective. But being given that opportunity is very fulfilling. It’s very stressful, it’s difficult, you never have enough time, it’s never perfect. But given all the tools that this show has in its toolbox — you know, the writing and the physical production and those actors — it’s pretty amazing to be able to go, “Hey, try it like this,” and any one of those people can do it 10 different ways. It’s pretty great.