'Mad Men's Ben Feldman on the nip-snip heard 'round the world
Non-Mad Men watchers at NBC’s upfronts presentation for A to Z this week may have been a little baffled by all the nipple talk surrounding clean-shaven star Ben Feldman. But for fans of AMC’s prestige drama, on which Feldman has played the squirrelly Michael Ginsberg for the past three seasons, a shocking bloody nipple was all anyone could talk about.
Ginsberg had always been a little off, mentally; it was part of his unique charm. But the agency’s installation of a giant IBM computer represented an existential threat to him, professionally and psychologically, and he began to believe that the computer’s subversive waves were turning the office’s men into homosexuals. His efforts to fight back by impregnating Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) were rebuffed, so he did the next best thing: remove the “valve” that conducted the “waves of data” into his brain. The “valve”? His right nipple, which he
thoughtfully insanely placed in a gift box and presented to his boss, Peggy. The last we saw of Ginsberg in Sunday’s episode, he was handcuffed to a gurney and presumably destined for the psych ward.
Feldman has had several weeks to reflect on the culmination of Ginsberg’s downward spiral, but he wasn’t prepared for the reaction, which continues as more and more fans catch up with the episode. “I’ve been getting these kind of delayed horrified reactions,” says Feldman. “I figure I’ll continue to get them for the next couple of weeks.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Are you ready for bathing-suit season and an endless supply of bad, “Hey, your nipple is back” jokes?
BEN FELDMAN: Well, you don’t know that it’s back. I may have really committed to that. Bathing-suit season may be a bunch of people coming up to me, going, “Oh my God, are you okay?”
That would be great if you could wear some kind of makeup that would give people that impression.
Just a little bandage so that people are like, “Oh my God, I’ve heard stories about Matt Weiner but I didn’t know it was like this.” Yes, indeed I am ready for bathing-suit season. But you know what I’m really ready for? A show where I can wear clothes that will occasionally look good.
Yeah, Ginsberg always dressed in drab, 1940s outfits that were way too big.
There’s some area in this giant wardrobe warehouse — I think it’s called something creepy and ominous and dark like the Shed — where the creepiest, oldest, most disregarded clothes are sort of laid to rest in a corner somewhere. And that’s where they go to get my stuff.
They probably have labels on the tags that say “Don Knotts” or something.
Yeah, exactly. Or HAZMAT.
Tell me about the 30 minutes of your life on Sunday night after TV audiences saw what Ginsberg had done to his body.
It was this really weird timing for me, because I’m here doing the upfronts for this new show, which is just a completely different world away from Mad Men, and Sunday night was like the big kickoff party. So it’s all this celebration and then in the midst of it, I’m getting all these horrified texts and emails referencing nipples. I feel bad for the people who hadn’t seen the episode yet, because if you stand near me the past couple of nights, someone is going to ruin it for you. Because people just come up and want to talk about nipples all day long.
I know you didn’t watch it with your wife Sunday. Has she seen it since?
She and I have both seen it separately. She left New York yesterday and smartly did not download to watch on the plane, because I feel like anybody looking over her shoulder would be just as creeped out. But she watched it at home and I watched it at my hotel room here. I needed to see it because everybody wants to talk about it and I felt like I didn’t know. I felt like everybody was in on something that I wasn’t.
When Matt sat down with you a couple weeks before you shot the episode to share his plans for Ginsberg, did he explain it in a way like, “Isn’t this great?” or was it an arm around the shoulder, like, “So, Ben, it’s been fun.”
I think Matt may have been, and I could be very wrong — I often am when I’m trying to guess what’s going on in Matt’s head — but I think he was maybe trying to read the situation and figure out if I’m the kind of person who’s going to be really bummed about this or really excited. And I was really excited. I’d much rather have something like that happen then just be relegated to the background and sort of fizzle out in the last season when all the really important characters need to be wrapped up. I was just lucky that I got to do anything that exciting and ridiculous. So we had a really nice talk about it and he explained everything that was going to happen, and we both just sort of geeked out, in like a sick nerd way about those scenes.
Did you look at him twice when he said the nipple part, like, “Are you f—ing with me?” Or did you get it right away?
I guess I got it right away because I would expect nothing less crazy, ridiculous, twisted, or brilliant to come out of Matt’s head. So at no point was I like, “He’s messing with me.” Plus, he comes from The Sopranos world too. So a little bit of sudden blood, gore, and weirdness out of nowhere doesn’t shock me as much.
Once the rest of the cast knew your fate, what was the feedback from your co-stars? Was it morbid? Was it high-fives? How does everyone treat someone when they know when they’re leaving — or at least having something like this happen?
Well, this whole season is the last season. On and off set every single day, there’s something that’s either bittersweet or melancholy or exciting or strange. Nothing feels completely normal this season on Mad Men, so I think that was just par for the course. Although everything I think to us is a little bit funnier on set than it comes across on TV. So I think people probably just thought it was hilarious — just like watching Aaron Staton walk around with an eye-patch for a whole bunch of episodes, which is also hilarious.
The show is so densely packed with pop-cultural and historical references, and people that recap the show and read extensively about the show are always looking for significance, whether it’s 2001: A Space Odyssey or Sharon Tate. Does the cast analyze the plots as closely, or do you chuckle about the extent that we place significance on every single decision?
Well, yes, I’ll start with the latter. Yes, I think everybody is amused and entertained at how amused and entertained everybody is with us, or with the storylines and references. I think it’s different for each actor. Some just come in and do their job, and others nerd out. They’re doing so much research and studying in the writers’ room. I don’t think anything’s an accident anymore. I stopped believing in accidents after I joined Mad Men, because everything is so unbelievably well thought out. My first year, I did all this research on 1966 or whatever, and I was telling Matt and some of the writers, I was like, “Do you guys realize that so-and-so did this and this happened this year, blah blah blah.” They just looked at me like, “What do you think we do all day, Ben? We know all of this stuff. You’re not going to tell us anything we don’t know.”
If Ginsberg is truly gone, I’ll be greatly saddened, because he had been killing it this season, with some of the best one-liners of the show. I had even joked about a spin-off for he and Roger based on The Apartment, just because both characters seemed to be nailing every great joke and aside.
They could throw Roger and Ginsberg into Better Call Saul. Just do a combined spin-off of Breaking Bad and us.
I would watch that forever. Do the events of the last week make you nostalgic and, if so, can you remember your first day on the set as Ginsberg?
Oh, 100 percent. My first day was a trip, because Jon Hamm was directing. This is my favorite show — my wife and I watched it from the very beginning in real time. We watched the first episode on the first Sunday night that it aired. I was a giant, giant fan coming into this show. So absolutely everything was surreal. I had never walked onto a set of something that had already existed in my life, you know, as a show that I was obsessed with. So it was crazy. It was a trip. And then to have Don Draper directing it, and to have Matt Weiner down there and to have an incredible scene with Lizzie Moss. I remember that day vividly, and I was terrified the entire time and I’m sure I left sweat stains everywhere.
Mad Men airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on AMC.