John Slattery gets paid to do all those terrible, unhealthy things that the rest of us can only dream about. Chain-smoke in public buildings. Drink bourbon at the office. Have extramarital affairs with busty secretaries. Eat too many raw oysters and then vomit on his clients. Ask Sarah Jessica Parker to pee on him.
Okay, maybe just some of the things the rest of us dream about.
There was a time when having a fictional urine fetish—which he did so memorably on Sex & The City, playing Carrie Bradshaw’s dirty, dirty politician boyfriend—looked like it may be the best and only legacy for the 46-year-old actor. Prior to his near-golden shower TV debut, Slattery was known mostly for small roles in shows like Homefront, Will & Grace and Judging Amy, among others. But then along came a little AMC series called Mad Men, a drama about Madison Avenue circa 1960, where public drunkenness and blatant sexism still ruled the land. Slattery plays ad agency exec Roger Sterling, a guy who loves sex and booze almost as much as ignoring the symptoms of his many heart attacks. “I’ve been living the last twenty years like I’m on shore leave,” he once proclaimed. Bold words coming from a man whose complexion resembles curdled milk.
The third season of Mad Man —the finale airs on AMC this Sunday, November 8—has been a slow one for Slattery. But while Roger Sterling didn’t always have the biggest story arcs, he did have the best zingers of the season. “Let me put it in account terms,” he told an underling who had suggested to a client that they target ads to “negroes”. “Are you aware of the number of hand jobs I’m going to have to give?” Later, when a co-worker lost his foot in a lawn mower accident (“just when he got it in the door,” Sterling wise-cracked), Sterling surveyed the bloody carnage and remarked, “It looks like Iwo Jima in here.” And then there’s the already infamous story about his father, who drove his car into a tree during his fourth heart attack and was buried with one very manicured arm.
I called Slattery to talk about the vicarious thrills of playing an unapologetic misogynistic lush.
Eric Spitznagel: Your character on Mad Men has one of the coolest names on television.
John Slattery: Really? You think it’s a cool name?
Are you kidding me? Roger Sterling! He sounds like a British spy from the 60s.
(Laughs.) I never thought of Roger as a very cool name. How many cool Rogers are there? Roger Moore, I guess. And Roger Staubach.
There’s Roger Corman and Roger Clemens…
Yeah, yeah. All very impressive Rogers.
But then there’s Roger Ebert, who cancels out the coolness of everybody else.
Well, I don’t know. (Laughs.) As a working actor, I can’t say anything negative about Roger Ebert.
Do you wish Roger Sterling got to say his name a little more often on Mad Men? How great would it be if he just walked around the Sterling Cooper office, introducing himself to everybody? “Roger Sterling, at your service. Hello, have we met? You can call me… Roger Sterling.”
(Laughs.) That would be pretty amazing. I like to say it anyway, even when it’s not in the script. I repeat his name to myself all the time. That’s how I get ready to shoot a scene. I’ll be in my trailer, staring at the mirror and saying his name over and over like a mantra. “Roger Sterling, Roger Sterling, I’m Roger Sterling!”
So it’s kinda like that final scene in Boogie Nights, when Mark Wahlberg’s character is giving himself a pep talk in his dressing room before a sex scene?
That’s it exactly!
You’re saying “He’s a star, he’s a star, Roger Sterling is a big, bright, shining star?”
Word for word, that’s my pre-shoot ritual. I also slap myself in the face a few times, just to wake myself up and beat myself into submission.
At what point do you take out your penis?
Actually, I don’t do that at all. But I do have an equally large penis. Or at least Roger Sterling does, I should say.
Roger’s had at least two heart attacks since the show began. Did you piss off the writers?
That’s a good question. For a few episodes, I thought I was being written out of the show. I think Matt (Weiner, Mad Man’s creator) just had second thoughts about getting rid of the character. After the second heart attack, I said to Matt “Are you gonna kill off Roger?” And he said, “No, my uncle had seven heart attacks.”
Really? Jesus, was his uncle Dick Cheney?
Pretty amazing, right? So I guess Roger has another four heart attacks in him before I need to start worrying.
What fresh atrocities are in store for Roger next year? Wait, wait, let me guess. Gonorrhea?
(Laughs.) My money’s on the flesh-eating disease. Actually though, I can’t tell you anything. I’ve been sworn to secrecy. You’re gonna have to use your imagination to figure out what happens to him next. Or just watch the show.
C’mon, give us a hint. You’re telling me a man sleeps around as much as Roger Sterling does and doesn’t get an S.T.D.? I ain’t buyin’ it.
I think he may’ve invented a few of his own S.T.D.’s. There has to be some strain of sexual disease out there that he’s responsible for. He was patient zero. It’s his namesake. His S.T.D. is a Sterling Transmitted Disease.
Roger Sterling seems just egotistical enough to take pride in having his own free clinic abbreviation.
Sure, but his ego is probably why it’d never happen. It wouldn’t surprise me if he gloves up. He has the courage of his convictions, but he also seems like the kind of guy who’d have a cool head under fire. So maybe he thinks “Okay, I’m going to do this, but I’m going to take all necessary precautions.”
Are you a method actor? Do you prepare for this role by doing a lot of drinking and smoking and extracurricular sex?
I’m sitting at my kitchen table right now with a shaker of martinis. I just feel like it’s my job to really commit to this thing. I’m on my second liver. I get a new liver every season. It’s in my contract.
Does it take a lot of practice to be so effortlessly hedonistic? In almost every scene on Mad Men, characters are holding lit cigarettes and sipping cocktails. It must feel like juggling.
When we’re in the middle of filming, you start to get used to it. But when we start a new season, it’s easy to forget how to do all that. There’s a rhythm to it. Lighting a cigarette and pouring a drink become like muscle reflexes. If you don’t think about it too much, it just kinda flows.
Are there smoking-related accidents on the set? It seems like cigarette burns would come with the territory.
Every once in a while people get hit in the elbow with a lit cigarette. And there are a lot of yellow fingers, because the cigarettes we smoke are herbal and they tend to leave a lot of yellow stains on everything.
Just like real cigarettes.
It’s worse, somehow. They’re supposed to be healthy, or at least healthier than a regular cigarette, but I don’t know. I can’t imagine what our insides look like. It’s scary to think about.
How do you prepare as an actor for Roger’s rampant infidelity? I assume you have lots of your own extramarital affairs, just to get into character.
(Laughs.) I do. I try to sleep around as much as possible while we’re working on the show. But during the off season, I give it a rest. When Mad Men’s not in production, I only sleep with my wife.
Your actual wife, Talia Balsam, plays your fictional wife on Mad Men. Does she ever confuse her on-screen husband with her at-home husband?
No, thank god. She’s been in this business a lot longer than I have. She started acting when she was a kid, so she knows the drill. It never gets weird. Although sometimes it isn’t the best idea to watch the show at home. One day we were in our bedroom and Mad Men was on TV and my son walked in. I forget which scene it was, but it was one of Roger Sterling’s many dalliances. And I just pointed at the TV and said, “I’ve never seen that woman before in my life!”
When Roger thought he was dying, he told his on-again-off-again lover Joan that she was “the finest piece of ass I’ve ever had, and I don’t care who knows it.” Were you channeling Will Ferrell?
Is that a Will Ferrell line?
No, but it sure does sound like something a Will Ferrell character would say. “You stay classy, 60s-era Manhattan!”
I think it was a great misdirect. He was still grave from having had a heart attack, he’s looking at the spot where it happened, and she’s helping him out by putting makeup on his face, to make him look healthier for clients. The bell has run on their affair and it looks like it’s over. You think he’s going to say, “I just want you to know that despite the fact that we can’t be together, I love you and I’ll always love you.” But instead…
“Hey sweetie, you’re a great piece of ass.”
Which for Roger, is almost a bigger compliment. He’s basically saying, “I’m not going to bullshit you by claiming that you’re the love of my life. If you were the love of my life, I would’ve left my wife. There’s obviously a reason we’re not together. But instead, I’m going to give you the highest compliment I know how to give anther person.” For Roger, it’s actually kinda romantic. It’s a little sad that their affair is over, because those two characters really saw eye to eye. They have a similar world view, I think.
Do you like Roger?
I like Roger very much. He does and says things that I certainly wouldn’t, but I think that’s a good thing. Some actors think it’s important to love their characters, but I don’t necessarily think that’s true. You have to find a way to understand the motivation behind even the most abhorrent behavior. I think what’s remarkable about Mad Men is that there’s an inevitability to these people. They really are fully-written human beings. After spending enough time in Roger’s shoes, I realize again how difficult it is for people to change. A person’s circumstances might change, but the ethos of who they are doesn’t really change. I think it’s difficult if not impossible for somebody to fundamentally change who they are.
Is there an inner self-destructive Roger in you?
Yeah, I think so, sure. Doesn’t everybody have a little of that sabotage inside them? Just when things start to feel okay and comfortable, you want to stand up and say something wildly inappropriate. Maybe it’s an Irish thing, where second place is often a better place to be than first place. Failure is a lot easier to rationalize than success.
You have a lot of reasons to be thankful for Mad Men, but are you most thankful that the show has made the rest of us forget that you once played a politician who enjoys water sports?
(Laughs.) If that’s my only achievement, then I’ll take it. Maybe people will stop coming up to me and asking me to pee on them, thank god.
Are you being serious? Did fans of Sex & The City really recognize you as the guy with a golden-shower fetish?
They did. It was a testament to how popular that show was, because it would happen all the time. It’s gratifying when people stop me on the street now, because they usually want to talk about Mad Men. As an actor, you’re not always proud of everything you’re in. Sometimes a movie or TV show doesn’t turn out as well as you’d hoped. In the case of Mad Men, it’s the opposite. It turned out better than I hoped.
To the best of your knowledge, do most politicians suffer from urolagnia?
(Laughs.) Most that I know do. I can’t speak for the current president or his administration, but I know for a fact that the Bush administration was very fond of that practice. Most of the time it took place in a prison situation.
Are you referring to Abu Ghraib?
You’ve seen those pictures. I think it’s safe to assume that a little urine fetishism might’ve gone on there.
The name of your character on Sex & The City was Bill Kelley. It’s not a big leap from Bill Kelley to Bill O’Reilly.
(Laughs.) Again, I wouldn’t be surprised. I’m not surprised by anything people do anymore. I did hear that the character was based on a politician, but I can’t remember who it was.
Because of your white hair, people usually assume that you’re much older than you actually are. Do you prefer being described as a “Silver Fox” or a “Mougar”?
What’s a Mougar?
It’s shorthand for “male cougar”.
(Laughs.) Well then a Mougar, definitely. Because a Mougar is just such a ridiculous and silly thing to be called. I hate Silver Fox. I absolutely hate it. It just sounds so… (he shudders)… so slimy and embarrassing. But a Mougar, well, that’s confusing and stupid, so I like that much better.
When you’re not acting, you’re an avid surfer. Can you give us any surfing tips?
Try not to hit anybody in the head with your surfboard. I learned that lesson early. Some poor bastard was paddling next to me and I flipped off and my board hit him right in the teeth.
What about shark attacks? Are you on constant alert for fins?
I saw one last year. It was pretty far away and I chose to believe it was swimming in the other direction. But they’re definitely out there. You kinda have to figure that they’re swimming under you all the time.
What happens if you lose an arm to a shark? How confident are you that you’d keep your job on Mad Men?
I don’t see why not.
You think they’d find a way to explain Roger’s missing limb?
I don’t know where the sharks would come from on Madison Avenue. Maybe the Aquarium. I guess Roger could get drunk and fall into the shark tank.
You can do better than that. C’mon, a man like Roger Sterling? He’s bound to sleep with somebody eventually who’s little too enthusiastic with the biting.
(Laughs.) You mean like a John Wayne Bobbitt kinda situation? I guess anything could happen. He could lose an arm, a leg, any number of legs. Or, you know, something that’s a little less easy for him to let go.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VanityFair.com.)