John Slattery on 'Mad Men,' Philip Seymour Hoffman, and 'God's Pocket'
John Slattery thought the Mad Men pilot was brilliant, but it wasn’t until the show was well into its first season that he began to realize that he might be part of something truly great. “You shoot the thing very quickly, so it’s about a week-and-half and then you’re onto another story and then another,” says the actor. “I think it was Elisabeth Moss that I asked, ‘Is it me or do these scripts keep getting better?’ Week to week, with a rushed schedule, this thing just kept getting better and better and better — and year after year, I think it got better. I’ve never seen any show do that.”
Like Roger Sterling, Slattery has evolved during his six-plus seasons on Mad Men. He’s directed five episodes, including the Bobby Kennedy assassination episode “Man With a Plan.” The experience gave him the confidence to direct his first feature, God’s Pocket, based on the Pete Dexter novel about a Philadelphia man caught between a rock and hard place when he has to dispose of his crazy stepson’s body after a construction-site “accident” — without his wife knowing the truth. “Mickey I found a very endearing character,” says Slattery. “A guy who doesn’t feel sorry for himself, who doesn’t have the easiest row to hoe. And just tries to do the right thing for his wife, and can’t seem to get it to go his way.”
Dexter’s novel recreates a rough Philly neighborhood in 1978 with a coterie of Runyon-esque characters, but it was the relationship between Mickey and wife, Jeannie, that hooked Slattery. “It was the description of Mickey and his wife in bed, and how distracted she was and how hardworking he was,” Slattery says, with a chuckle. “He was on top of her, breathing into her ear, and the line was, ‘She could hear everything in there that didn’t belong.’ His nose is whistling and he’s trying to make love to his wife. It was about this guy trying to please his wife and his inability to do so, and I found it really endearing.”
Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays Mickey, is part of an eclectic all-star cast that also includes Christina Hendricks as Mickey’s wife, John Turturro, Richard Jenkins, and Eddie Marsan — but not Slattery. “I never saw myself in it,” says the 51-year-old. “I just saw the picture. It was so vivid to me, and this story is so well told, that even a director with as little experience as I have might have a chance at telling it right.”
The film debuted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, which served, tragically, as one of the last major public appearances for Hoffman. Slattery and Hoffman knew each other for years, as friends in the New York theater scene and then co-stars in Mike Nichols’ Charlie Wilson’s War. (You must re-watch this NSFW scene if you’re having a crappy Monday.)
Hoffman’s death on Feb. 2 hit hard, and Slattery still talks about his friend in the present tense. “Intellectually and emotionally, he has a real intelligence and almost an obsessive need to dig and find out Why,” says Slattery. “He has the most amazing ability — and the courage — to figure it out while the camera is rolling. It’s the reason he is as revered as he is. I find the performance that he gave incredibly vulnerable and yet, there’s no self-pity in it. I’d be standing there behind the monitor with my mouth hanging open going, ‘How the hell do you do that?’ He has a special talent.”
God’s Pocket opens May 9, and Slattery is in the midst of filming the final season of Mad Men. He hasn’t directed any episodes this season, and he doesn’t yet know how the show will end, nor what awaits his character. “Second-guessing or wishing things to happen to the character is futile because [Matthew Weiner] is a better writer than anyone,” says Slattery. “So anything I could dream up wouldn’t be as good. You just hope that you’ll continue — because obviously some characters haven’t. I’d like to make it to the end. I was there in the beginning on day-1, and I’d like to be there on the last day.”