Catching Up With 'Mad Men's' Bryan Batt
Even if the cigarettes are herbal and he has to give back the sharkskin suits at the end of the day, Bryan Batt agrees: "Mad Men" is basically the coolest show on television ever.
And it's not just those impeccably tailored clothes, the spot-on '60s era sets and the unshakably hip vibe.
Batt plays Sal Romano on the show -- which will air its season finale Sunday on AMC -- Sterling-Cooper's closeted gay art director. Always available with a quick quip, but equally anxious to deflect attention from himself.
"I couldn't have been luckier landing this plum role in such a great place, created by the brilliant Matthew Weiner and to be a part of such a great ensemble of actors," said Batt via phone last week.
That may smack of sycophancy, but Batt means every word. A veteran of the stage who admits he's "paid his dues," Batt seems to have finally landed the role of a lifetime. His character, who struggles with his sexuality in pre-gay rights movement era, presents plenty of challenges for the actor.
"None of the writers on our show ever go to the simple, easy place. It's always going to be complicated and deeper. It's not ever pat or what the obvious choice would be."
And while Batt is proud of playing a gay character on TV, he does wish there were more. We talked about the dearth of gay leads, even in a world that loved "Ellen" and "Will & Grace."
"I'm a firm believer that if those shows who have gay characters sell tickets or get great ratings and the money's flowing in," said Batt, "they [should] make [similar shows] in a second. How many copies of "Friends" do we have?"
And the fate of "Mad Men" isn't necessarily set in stone either. According to one recent report, the show's production company doesn't have deals in place with any of the principal actors for another season and there are concerns that Jon Hamm, who's star-making turn as the show's lead could catapult him into a film career, may not want to continue.
Still, Batt is optimistic that the show will return and stay on the air long enough for his character to evolve.
"If the show continues as Matt [Weiner] wants it to we'll cover the whole decade, possibly to the '70s," he said.
When asked which 2008 presidential candidate would fare better at the '60s-era Sterling-Cooper, Batt replied, "I'd have to go for the progressive choice, so I'd say Obama. They're looking for new and fresh. That's the way the trend is going with Sterling-Cooper. So Obama."
Good answer, considering an August New York Times story that described a "Mad Men" DVD at Obama's elbow on the campaign plane. And, Roger Sterling himself -- aka actor John Slattery -- recently campaigned for Obama in Virginia.
After the jump, read the full interview transcript for Batt's thoughts on smoking on set, wrap time cocktails and those clothes.
Liz: Is "Mad Men" basically the coolest television show ever?
Bryan Batt: Yes. It is. Bar none.
At least in my experience. This is my first foray into series television and I couldn't have been luckier landing this plum role in such a great place, created by the brilliant Matthew Weiner and to be a part of such a great ensemble of actors. I'm very lucky.
Liz: Your character, Sal Romano -- tell me some of the things you like about him and the follow-up would be some things you don't like so much.
Bryan: I like that he's very very intelligent. I like that he's artistic. I like that he's well-versed. I like that he's a snappy dresser. I also like that he's very self-protective. He analyzes a situation and makes the right decision for himself for survival pretty instinctually.
The things I don't like about him? I do feel that there's a little -- well, I guess I'm projecting a 2008 mentality here, but -- it's sad that he can not be who he really is. That he can not tap into his natural sexual feelings and feels that he has to conform. But unfortunately at that time that was really the only thing he could do.
Liz: Right, though in one recent episode we had one of the other characters, Kurt, come out. So that was interesting and the camera panned to Sal to get his reaction. But can you tell us if there will be any changes in store for Sal now that this revelation has made its way through Sterling-Cooper?
Bryan: Not that I know of. I mean, my thought process at that -- and how it was written and played -- was that it pushes Sal deeper down in when he sees his co-workers' reaction to it. And everyone in the room's reaction that it was not whatsoever accepted.
Liz: Do you have much input into the portrayal of Sal and what makes him tick?
Bryan: As an actor you rely on your instincts, but Matthew is just so specific and it's so wonderful to have a creative force like that on set. He knows exactly what he wants. And another gift of his is that he's able to put it into words that actors can understand and get across what he wants. It's so great to have someone with a clear vision of the story they want to tell. It makes the actor's job so much easier.
But there are things I bring to it. There were a couple of takes in "The Golden Violin" [An episode in which we see a bit of Sal's home life. -- Liz] where we really wanted to make it clear that the actress who played Kitty and I do have a loving relationship. None of the writers on our show ever go to the simple, easy place. It's always going to be complicated and deeper. It's not ever pat or what the obvious choice would be.
Liz: I was reading in Entertainment Weekly about a new study from GLAAD about the unprecedented number  of gay characters on network TV. So, unfortunately Sal wasn't included [because the show airs on cable]. But Mark Harris at EW pointed out that despite having 16 characters, there aren't any shows where the gay character is a central character to the show. And he finds it surprising considering the success of "Ellen" and "Will & Grace."
Bryan: I am surprised at that mainly because -- and I've said this before -- Hollywood and the TV industry, the film industry, it's a business, a money-making business. And I'm surprised because "Will & Grace" did so well that there aren't other shows who have gay main characters. I'm a firm believer that if those shows who have gay characters sell tickets or get great ratings and the money's flowing in, they [should] make them in a second. How many copies of "Friends" do we have? All those great series that turned the corner or did something different? Everyone else ripped them off.
Liz: Right, and no one's emulating the model of "Ellen" or "Will & Grace." So, getting back to Sal, we've seen a lot of the secondary characters lives, but not much of yours yet. Do you think we'll learn a bit more about Sal in the future?
Bryan: Season three! I was told by some of the writers that people have been writing in and blogging and are very interested in Sal's story line. I would love it. I just want to be in for the long haul. Because if the show continues as Matt wants it to we'll cover the whole decade, possibly to the '70s. And I think then is when Sal -- I'm just predicting and speaking off the top of my head because none of this has been talked about -- but I think maybe then he might be able to come to terms with it. You know, after Stonewall, after the gay movement started. I think he's so far -- I mean, just the Catholic guilt alone and add to that the Italian guilt -- but back then everyone held their cards close to their chest. You didn't say how you were feeling. Everything wasn't an Oprah episode, you know?
Liz: And you have a long career in the theatre as well. Any plans to return to the stage while you're on hiatus from "Mad Men?"
Bryan: I would love to. A friend of mine who interviewed me for BroadwayWorld.com, Richard Alexander, said have your agents call over to "Chicago" to play Billy Flynn in the long-running version of "Chicago" for a few weeks. That'd be great. I'd love to do a play or something in the hiatus next year if this all works out. I do miss being on stage. TV and film are very different [from stage]. I do love doing eight shows a week and having the arc from the beginning to the end and the chance the next performance to do it better, or at least attempt to. Half the time when you're shooting the series, you're driving home and all of a sudden it hits you, "Oh, I should've done that line this way."
Liz: Characterize for me what the mood is like on the "Mad Men" set. Is it manic? Controlled?
Bryan: I've said this before and people didn't believe me, but it really is a very easy-going set. There's such camaraderie amongst the actors and the crew and everyone involved because we know what we have and we're seasoned enough to appreciate it. It's not like all this success has been thrown at someone who hasn't paid their dues. Everybody connected to this show has worked for a while as actors and they know the good, the bad and the ugly and this is definitely above and beyond the good.
For the opening night, I invited one of my friends who writes on "CSI," David Rambo, and he said, "Your cast has the most amazing camaraderie." It's something that doesn't occur all the time. We like to get together when we're not shooting. So we're very, very, very lucky, but it's a very relaxed environment. However, when we are filming it's very serious. We don't waste time and play around because it's very expensive and television is difficult. There's very little rehearsal, if any. So you have to know your stuff. It's a job.
The hard thing for me, coming from theater, was learning how to pace myself during the day and turn it on and off. Sometimes you're called at 6 o'clock in the morning and you work all the way to 9 o'clock at night some days, so you know, in the theater I prepare and you get to the theater and you're ready to go. At 7:30 you're ready for an 8 o'clock curtain, but you know it's going to come down at 10:30. This [TV] you never know. Your daily schedule can change. So being ready to shoot at 6 o'clock in the morning, you may not shoot until 8:30. Whatever. So it's allotting the time and monitoring your energy usage.
Liz: Here's another question I'm sure you've been asked before. You could almost say that cigarettes are another character on "Mad Men." They're in almost every scene -- are you a smoker in real life and if not, what's it like being surrounded by smoke at work?
Bryan: I hadn't smoked consistently since I was right out of college, so that was a long time. Unfortunately, when we started with the smoking -- we smoke these herbal cigarettes -- but I do believe there is some kind of addictive behavior between the hand and the mouth and the action. It's something to do with your hands. And I picked it up a little bit and when I left L.A. I put the cigarettes down and said, "I'm done," and I haven't had one in quite a while. But it is easily addictive, unfortunately.
Liz: So, same question about the booze...
Bryan: That's another story! No, it's all colored water when we're shooting. Sometimes after we shoot we do have a little cocktail together outside of the makeup trailer -- a little glass of wine. Wrap time wine.
Liz: So you talked a little earlier about Sal being a snappy dresser. Do you get to keep the clothes?
Bryan: No, we don't. Most of it is vintage clothing and then some pieces are made for us. I should see if I can get my agent to get an outfit to keep. It would be fun. But a lot of times now for different events different designers dress us, like Brooks Brothers Black Fleece. It's a little retro and a little pushing the envelope, but very evocative of the "Mad Men" era. I'm also going to a Theory event and they're giving us stuff to wear.
Liz: Are you getting recognized more easily on the street since "Mad Men?"
Bryan: Quite a lot. I've been recognized more. I was just up with my family. My mother just had hip and knee replacement so sometimes I get a wheelchair to make it easy while we're going from theater to theater and I was trying to help my mother get into a chair at a theater and I get this tap on the shoulder. And this woman says, "I just wanted to tell you...," and she wanted to have a full-on conversation about how much she loves the show. And I'm trying to be as gracious as possible, but I had to say, "I kind of have to help my mother into her wheelchair, do you mind?" But that was the only time it was like that. Usually it's so nice to have people watch your work and appreciate what you do. It's very heartwarming after all these years pounding the pavement doing all the Broadway shows. But more people have seen this than any other show I've ever been in.
Liz: Who do you think would fare better at Sterling-Cooper? Barack Obama or John McCain?
Bryan: Wow. Ya know, I would think -- since season two is coming to an end, season three would be 1964. So we're kind of like getting really close to the civil rights era. And in the last season there was a reference that there was a young black man that was brought in to McCain-Erickson advertising agency.
So I'd have to go for the progressive choice, so I'd say Obama. They're looking for new and fresh. That's the way the trend is going with Sterling-Cooper. So Obama.
Liz: Well, then maybe he'll have a future in adverstising if the politics thing doesn't work out.
Bryan: Well, I'm told he loves the show.
Liz: Thanks so much for talking to me today, Bryan.
| October 21, 2008; 10:33 AM ET
Categories: Catching Up With..., Celebrities, TV
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