AMC has become one of the best channels on television in the last two years with such amazing shows as THE WALKING DEAD, THE KILLING, BREAKING BAD and the newest show HELL ON WHEELS.
It all began a few years ago, 2007 to be exact, a show called MAD MEN was introduced to audiences. The show sets itself in 1960’s New York with an advertising agency and those who work in it. Beginning with the main character of Don Draper played by Jon Hamm, he is the biggest in the business. Working at the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce Advertising Agency, he works both the boardroom as well as the bedroom.
The show has a huge and impressive cast including John Slatterty, Vincent Kartheiser, January Jones, Christina Hendricks, Elisabeth Moss, Jared Harris, Robert Morse, Rich Sommer, Aaron Staton, Joel Murray, Christopher Stanley, Kiernan Shipka, and Jay Ferguson.
The two-hour season premier of MAD MEN is March 25th and before that, hear from some of the cast as well as creator Matthew Weiner as they talk about being in a successful television series and the complexity of their characters.
Thanks everyone for talking with me today.
Matt: Sure, thanks for having us.
Not sure where to begin because I don’t want to leave anyone out. So, John I’ll start with you, do you feel pressure playing the role of Roger Sterling once again for the new season?
John: Its a privilege to do MAD MEN. I put this pressure on myself because I don’t want to screw it up. It’s a great character.
Is it hard to sometimes say the things you do that Matt has written?
Matt: John is so good about saying what I write. An example is I had this line about Richard Nixon and I know what can be said. I was outside and he was saying “that’s impossible to say” and I yelled it back at him. <laughing> So we started giving him harder and harder things to say but he is a Ferrari. He can do it all. The thing about the way he delivers the jokes is that he has a way of having the character say them. He nails everything.
Everyone got to be angry this season, like when the Japanese come in?
John: Yes, I remember I had my own take on that. But Matt had a specific take on how it needed to be delivered right into the man’s face and as inflammatory a delivery as possible. I remember how specific he wanted it done. It’s sort of made me get it. The scene after it was that much more resonate to me because I understood now how he wanted it. Right or wrong, to be in the situation that Roger was in WWII and have people killed in your present and carry on.
Matt: Also the indoctrination of hate as well and not see this other person as a human being.
John: It’s a flash of time. All of a sudden its fifteen years later and everyone is acting like it isn’t happening. Just when you think a character is a certain way there is a surprise.
Matthew: He had his heart broken in Paris.
John: There are changes to characters that you don’t see coming.
I have heard John’s character referred to as a douchebag. Do you think he is?
Matt: I think his character isn’t a douchbag – its just who Harry is. At the same time I feel like these characters only know these experiences. Does Roger know he’s privileged? Probably.
Rich really has become a different guy this season; do you get pleasure out of playing him that way?
Rich: I most definitely get pleasure out of playing him that way. I think that Harry is not that much different in how he would have approached a situation in Season One as in Season Four. I don’t know that there are many characters that have gone through much of a shift as this one. You see a guy that does seem very different and he’s gone through a natural arc over 50 episodes. If you took Harry from Ep. 1 and put him in the situation he is in now as the head of the department, I don’t think he would have been any different. He was under a thumb before and now he’s not and can be who he truly is.
Matt: He carved out a department for himself that has become important to the agency. He is very important because that’s where a lot of the players and media will come.
So are you gone to be a star next season?
Rich: I think it’s all about Draper.
I think of Pete as being the most evolved character and the most forward thinking. Do you like that about him?
Vincent: Yes I think its very interesting because he’s disliked in a lot of ways but yet the most evolved. He seems like he was raised by a nanny so he has a different relationship with the black issue.
Matt: He is a wealthy, knickerbockers and a tradition of not being racist in New York. Even the Rockefellers who were Republicans at the time, you don’t imagine that there was a patronizing at some level. Most of the colleges and such were all filled by people who thought they should share. It’s a tradition that goes with who he is. We have the conflict of our parents.
He has grown a lot too, do you think about that?
Matt: I think they all have their moments. I think Pete’s still has his moments of being childish. I think he’s stepped up more from Season One and Two.
You got an interesting scene with a relationship with your father that seems to be one person but turns out to be another, how did you do that?
That episode particularly informs about his background. I think that it’s why he is in American and enjoying America. It’s a desire to get away from that background and that phoniness. He’s representing that he comes from a background that he doesn’t and you can tell that he’s a social climber in England. He tried to belong to a class of people and when you see the people come over in Season Three where the guy gets his foot chopped off know that Lane doesn’t come from that background. His father, in a way, has schooled him in how to play the game. I feel a connection to that because I came to America for similar reasons. I’m not knocking the place but I wanted to find out who I was I came to America. Back there is quite rigid and your family decides a lot of the time what the personalities of what the children are. I didn’t like the one I was given.
Matt – I think it’s exactly what we talked about. I was so excited to have Jarrod on the show and I had a vague idea of what it would be. I literally found the conversations that I had with him that we agreed on what his character was. I love that he loves America.
There is that scene where he thinks Lane doesn’t like him, that’s an interesting moment?
I put a lot of work into that. I also think that he’s on some level a political animal; you have to be in business. He’s looking for allies I imagine. He’s trying to forge relationships with these people and some people he’s finding it difficult to do. Pete was important to the company as well and they were in a tough situation and they needed someone to go out there and be pro-active. Roger had that one account and that was it and he was going to sit on it. Lane understood that and the longer it went on the more precarious it was going to be. I think he thought he had a connection with him. Pete says all these terrible things about Lane behind his back. <laughing>
Your relationship with Pete has been pretty interesting – you called him out?
I thought it was interesting two because of seasons past. Ken had to come and accept a lower status with no discussion. I think that something that was exciting for me about this season along those lines and learning about Ken was in Seasons prior people who ask is he oblivious? Is he shallow? What’s the deal? At times I wondered the same thing. I know things come easy to him. This season to find out that his happiness is buried a little further and he’s not obvious but it just doesn’t penetrate. In a struggle like that it’s easier for him to accept its frustrating, wash it off and come to work the next day.
How did you come up with that Matt?
Matt: I don’t know how they become how they become. They changed agencies so Aaron knew the season before when they blew up the agency; our thought was how do we get him back in the agency. So where was he out in the world? I just loved the idea that when we see him for the first time in the big scene he has with Pete, you get the sense the guy as been in the world and the job isn’t everything. To me it was the disillusion of Sterling Cooper was the first slap he’d had in his life. Its specific to the age and there circumstances. Its cool to me.
Suddenly he is unhappy, was that part of it?
Matt: I think everybody gets slapped in the face in life and some people it doesn’t affect them. It’s all grades of tragedy and there are people whose lives are worse than ours. When Ken was folded into the agency he was going to have to deal with the fact that the job wasn’t going to be the means of his happiness. Like when he says to Don “I’m not going to my father like the way Pete does”.
Did you always conceive of him that way?
Matt: It just happened that way. It seems to me the character, that’s all I can say.
Jay, how is it being the last person to come aboard?
I thought the douche torch had been passed to me. For me personally, to just come on board in my 20 something years of experience, this group, this show and these new friends and co-workers I have made are second to none.
Matt: Are you resigning? <laughing>
Stan is a ton of fun to play because I think his arrogance and chauvinistic ways are something that I was never a part of when I was younger. There were those guys in school and even though you didn’t like their ways they had a weird confidence and although not deserving they had it. Once you broke through that exterior you found out their barks were harder than their bits.
Like when Peggy dares him to take his clothes off?
For Peggy I don’t think there are any disillusions of how tough Stan is. I think Peggy is a tougher man than Stan.
Was that your first day at work?
How was that?
Wow, if I wasn’t terrified and intimidated enough that sealed the deal.
Matt: You see the fear in his eyes!
Its very authentic <laughing> they give you these things to wear when you shoot those things. These things that are flesh colored and you have to wear them. Not the underwear – the sock. It was extremely uncomfortable and we’ll leave it at that.
You play a rigid character, you refuse to change, is that what you like about Burt Cooper?
Robert: I have such respect, deep respect for the writing team and the actors. When you get something and you don’t understand it, which is daily for me, I am amazed at the depth of most of these people who get their characters. They have such capabilities! When I see six lines I go crazy, I don’t have that ability but that’s okay. I’m use to a play or something like that. Television isn’t easy. I must say when Matt says I can’t tell you why but you don’t have shoes on…
Matt: Lets be fair, I said this character doesn’t wear shoes and you said why and I said well he has characteristics of the Middle East and again you said why. He kept saying why. I give him answers he’s just not satisfied with them <laughing>
Robert: Its my problem, I just don’t understand English. All I know is they took away my office anyway.
Jon, has there been a scene that you didn’t get?
Jon: Not really, Matt is incredibly open and available and when there is a question he’s there. Second of all, I mead the decision early on in the process to trust the fact that this was the person in charge of telling the story and shaping the season. He shapes the season and runs the show for however long that will be. When I read the pilot seven years ago I thought this was an amazing piece of television and jumping off point. I put my trust in him and after the pilot I was sure he could do it 90 more times. I thought what could go wrong. I generally take a lot of the twists and turns in Don’s world on faith and they are done for a reason. That faith has been well founded.
How long do you think this will go on?
Matt: we are planning for seven years and we just finished season five. My whole plan is that I don’t want to overstay our welcome. It is really hard to do that. Once you get deeper into that show you run into places you’ve been over and over. You can add new characters but you don’t want to repeat yourself. I just don’t know. Seven years sounds like the right amount. We have talked about how we can string it along. There isn’t a master plan.
I always feel like this is could be the last one, would Don be happy if it did?
Matt: I always feel like we owe the audience to tell the story, as it should to the very end. I want the audience to say I want answers and I want more. This is the first season where we know there is going to be more. We are telling the story per season and commit to the end and at the end of the season you have that story told. People ask me a lot about it as if we have a plan. It’s my honor at this point, take my word for it, I know everything and how it’s going to happen.
Matt, why did you finally let us into Don’s head?
Matt: I love that episode and I’m glad you enjoyed it. A friend of mine’s father kept a journal in 1965 when this show takes place. I was given a few scrapes and then had it taken away from me. He was in the same state Don was in having a reflective moment. Being the writer Don is, this was a chance for him to get as close to therapy as Don is going to get. My idea was lets let Don get all the way down into the suitcase – he’s trying to deal with divorce, his wife has moved on, his kids may not get to know him – why not let him to think about that for a moment. It is a great rebirth which you don’t associate with summer but it’s the way we structured the season. It’s an unusual way to tell the story and it’s a way for him to climb back. He actually stops short of having an affair with Faye.
Jon: It was right in line with that characters. It was refreshing to actually get to say those things and go through those emotions for the character that had been rung out. I’ll be 41 on Saturday and when we shot that I was at a certain point in your life and I’m close to Don’s age. I mean he went through a marriage dissolving, children, what’s going to happen with your work and living in a shit-hole in the village. It’s kind of a midlife crisis but several crises at once. This is as close to therapy as the character is going to get and its very effective too.
Matt: I like that he got to say he got to be a better person. I know there was some objection about the voice over in the show. By the way, he’s super good at it!
Matt, when you sit down to break a story can you tell us the process?
Matt: My writing staff is amazing. It is a group process and it has to do with the free exchange of ideas. If you can imagine that where you are abused for failing out loud, imagine a really big dinner table <laughing> I’ve talked about it elsewhere and it’s too long to talk about!
As you plan the seasons, how much of the production and cost go into the decision of bringing characters back in?
Matt: I’ve never made a decision about being in the show based on money. Its based on being tired of them and I don’t like them <laughing> No, it doesn’t happen that way. It’s not THE SOPRANOS so there aren’t any murders and stuff. I have cut down the number of speaking parts on extras and stuff. I do work on a budget and I have to bring it in on budget.
What made you decide to bring Mitch back?
Matt: I wanted to do a story line and part of it was she was a painter. I love Rosemary DeWitt and I always felt that this character was on a trajectory of being a drug addict. I felt that’s where she would end up. She’s an open-minded person and it became a way for Don to realize that he had to make this bold stand on Lucky Strike. I can’t even explain verbally how they are connected but emotionally him seeing her and being caught in the middle of that tussle – that would be a reminder to him of things he needed to handle.
Hi January, how complete is the character of Betty Draper?
January: Downward spiral? I think its so interesting that everyone is after Betty since she’s become more independent. Sally also is her own person and I think she’ll be fine <laughing>
Matt: Betty is trying to be a better person. The sad thing is that she didn’t want to move for herself or the kids. The child like moment is pulling the plug on Carla and saying basically she is so angry about this boy being in her house. You have a 9-year-old girl who is hanging around with a 12-year-old boy who kept a lock of your hair and ran away – and you told your nanny/housekeeper not to let him in the house. That’s grounds for firing!
Some directors are fanatical about the background of characters are you like that?
Matt: No. We all had conversations about it. You create characters and there back stories feather in and some is from fiction and some is from the actors themselves. I remember having a call with Roger (silver haired guy) telling him this was going to be a good character and I was going to take care of him.
John: There wasn’t that much of Roger, nor was there a Betty. I was a huge fan of THE SOPRANOS and sure enough I was right.
Matt: Everyone one of the actors are part of the back-stories of these characters. I don’t think we’ve ever embarrassed anyone I don’t think.
And as soon as we start talking the conversation comes to a quick end as the stars and their MAD MEN creator get back to work. This season promises to be filled with angst, conflict and the usual office escapades.
Take time to tune in to the two hour season opener of MAD MEN on AMC, Sunday at 9: p.m.