John Slattery reflects on his many characters as he prepares for what's Next
From Sex and the City and The Cleveland Show to Mad Men and Spotlight, the veteran actor has been around.
Prior to his pivotal, Emmy-nominated portrayal of Roger Sterling on Mad Men, John Slattery was a classic "Hey, it's that guy!" actor, having amassed dozens of well-received roles on film, TV, and stage. From memorable arcs on shows including Sex and the City, Will & Grace, and Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp to award-winning movies Spotlight and The Station Agent, Slattery has made his silver fox mark.
It's been a particularly active year for the 58-year-old Boston native who starred as Fred Schlafly opposite Cate Blanchett in the Emmy-nominated FX series Mrs. America and now stars in the Fox thriller Next (debuts Tuesday, Oct. 6) as a troubled tech genius.
We recently took a trip down memory lane with the always wry and thoughtful Slattery to discuss some of the entries on his résumé.
Many first discovered Slattery on this gem of an ABC period drama and one of his fondest memories was working with Wendy Phillips as his love interest. "I was such a fan of hers. I think I had seen Midnight Run about 25 times before getting that part, so that was great because a lot of our stuff was together. I'm still close friends with Dave Newsom. It was a great cast of actors. Harry O'Reilly and Jessica Steen and, of course, Kyle Chandler."
“It’s good dramatically to be someone with whom basically everybody has a conflict,” he says of his character, union organizer Al Kahn. “He stuck his nose in everybody’s business, and as an actor, it gives you something to go at, which reduces your level of self-consciousness.”
"It was on for a couple seasons," he recalls. "It should have been on longer, but I think it was more about the showrunners not getting along with the network than it was about the ratings. Ratings today are so different. It had one of those audiences that was very fervent about it. I remember Bob Iger, who I believe was the head of the network at the time, told me that his mother was a fan of the show, and that's why he didn't cancel it."
Sex and the City (2000)
Aspiring city treasurer Bill Kelley had a specific bedroom request Carrie could not abide, so she flushed him. “There’s a parade of sexual deviance on that show that I luckily am not at the top of,” he says with a laugh. “I’m just somewhere buried in the middle."
"[Star] Sarah Jessica [Parker] was and is a friend. So that was good because that makes any kind of situation like that easy when you can laugh about it," says Slattery of their bedroom scene. "And [executive producer] Michael Patrick King, who I became friends with after doing that, is really one of the funniest people ever. But he told me that I was supposed to get out of bed naked in that show, and I had, I guess, unwittingly signed the contract without looking at it, which I usually do. The first thing I think, get the f— out of here. I'm not getting out naked and walking across the room. And he's laughing, but he's like, 'No, but that's what it says.' I'm like, 'Well, I don't care what it says. I'm not doing that. It's enough saying whatever you want me to say, but I'm not getting out of bed bare ass to walk across the room.' I didn't, and he didn't really care."
The reactions to that role definitely left an impression on the actor and he laughs when he says, "Thank God that some other things have come along that kind of pushed that to the periphery because believe me — I had a friend who asked if my parents were alive. She said, 'Yeah, I think so.' Her mother said, 'No, they couldn't be. He would have never done that if his parents were still alive.' That's the variety of reactions to that thing."
Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights (2004)
“I'm glad you brought that one up," he says with a laugh of the role in the Cuba-centered sequel in which he played fleet-footed Bert Miller. “That was really fun to be a part of. I took dancing lessons and I got into it. I mean, I’m Irish, so even trying to identify with anything below your belly button is impossible." He adds with another laugh, "Just hips is all I’m talking about. So just to get to do the merengue and the rumba, all those dances were pretty foreign to me, and we had really good teachers. Sela Ward who is really fun. Romola Garai was awesome. Diego Luna of course. We had a really good time. That's a good memory."
Iron Man 2 (2004)
Playing Tony Stark’s father, Howard, across four MCU movies (Iron Man 2, Ant-Man, Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Endgame) has definitely upped Slattery’s recognizability factor. “But,” he says with a laugh, “there are people that have no idea of me being in anything else. I mean, the Howard Stark camp and the Mad Men camp, there's probably not a lot of crossover. I don't know, maybe there is.”
But, he did it for the children. Or, specifically his son. "When that first came up, I had no idea about it and all I remember was how great [Robert Downey Jr.] was. But I wasn't a big Marvel fan or anything and I thought, 'Well, nah, I don't think so.' And [director] Jon Favreau called and said, 'Do you have children?' And I said, 'Yeah.' I think he was like five years old or something at the time. He said, 'Well, you have to do this, then. Are you crazy? I mean, your kid's five years old. You can't say at some point you had a chance to do this and you didn't do it to your son.' So I said, 'Oh yeah, probably a good idea.'"
Slattery laughs recalling how secretive the films are and trying to wrangle script pages saying, "'You do realize I'm in the movie?'" But overall he loved being part of the universe. "Every time I've done that with those guys, it's been exhilarating and really fun. And satisfying, because you don't stop until you get what you need."
Mad Men (2007)
The part that transformed his career. “It was the best," he says with evident affection in his voice. "It’s hard to top that one as far as everything about it. The writing, the cast. It was the experience of a lifetime." And he isn't looking to top it. "Nothing else has to actually measure up," he says. "If you talk about a script or take issue with some scene and say, 'Let's get this thing in better shape,' they go, 'Well, it's not Mad Men.' I've heard that so many times. I'm like, 'No, it doesn't have to be Mad Men.' I'm not looking to recreate that experience or moaning that anything isn't that. I had that. I feel lucky for having had it and I'm totally fine doing other things. We're all still friends. Yeah, it was the time of my life."
The Cleveland Show (2011)
He’s played a number of politicians in his 30-plus-year career, but none as hilariously profane as Mayor Larry Box. “[Co-creator Mike Henry] was my next-door neighbor in L.A. I bumped into him on the street and he just said, ‘Hey, I do this show. You want to do it?’ I was like, ‘Sure.’ And then I did a couple of them. I never saw it.”
For this Oscar-winning film, Slattery got to know his real-life counterpart, former Boston Globe editor Ben Bradlee Jr. Soon after he was cast in the role he emailed Bradlee to pick his brain. “Ben said, "What are you doing tomorrow for lunch?' Got on the Amtrak and went to Boston, had lunch with him, went to his office, and that started this communication that went all the way through the movie. He came to the set, was in the film. Couldn’t have been more generous with any and every aspect of his history, family life, anything that I found helpful to know or ask about. Nothing off-limits. That was really helpful in building [the character]. I thought I'd be nervous when he showed up on the set, but it was kind of the opposite. I really felt that he was this guy I could look off to and kind of get an indication as to whether I was in the right ballpark.”
Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp (2015)
“That was just me sort of listening to Amy Poehler say stuff and nodding and kind of just hanging on to her shirttail...that was so much fun. It was so goofy and hilarious,” he says of his time thespian-ing as Broadway vet Claude Dumet. Slattery loved working with the improv-minded gang “and just trying to keep up." Although his costar Michaela Watkins did give him pause one day. "I remember doing something that [co-writer and co-star] Michael Showalter asked me to do and he sort of describes it, and then I did what he asked. I said, 'That was really, really cringey.' But in a good way, I guess? That's what sometimes those guys like — the more awkward the better. So I did this really awkward sort of half-scream growl thing after describing something I wanted in the performance of the play. I came off stage and, I think it was Michaela Watkins maybe, and she goes like, 'Have you ever had a moment in a thing where you do it and then they yell, 'Cut,' and then you go, 'I think that my career might be over if anybody sees that?' I go, 'Yeah.' And she goes, 'Yeah, that might have been it right there.'" [Laughs] "She so funny."
Mrs. America (2020)
As Fred Schlafly, husband of the famously polarizing Phyllis, Slattery was in heaven playing opposite Cate Blanchett and reteaming with showrunner Dahvi Waller, who had written several Mad Men episodes that Slattery directed. “The costume designer made these clothes with this little dumpy T-shirt with front fat and back fat. Everything about it was so much fun. I had some fake teeth and Cate had her fake choppers and we'd have to kiss occasionally. So we’d be laughing, bumping our grills. She’s hilariously funny.” He would joke with her on set that they should do a 30-minute comedy spin-off called The Schlaflys à la Three's Company's the Ropers. "Yeah. It's going to be good. We're going to do it. I'm not sure Cate's going to sign on. I'm going to do it without her if she won't do it."
“It’s pretty timely,” he says of his new Fox series about AI gone rogue. “The part is someone who is, again, an agitator. He’s created this computer company and then figures out this AI. Then it goes haywire. He gets kicked out because he recognizes how dangerous it’s going to be. And then it finds its way back to him through the FBI and then he realizes that someone has gotten hold of his code and let it out. Now it's God knows where doing God knows what to potentially everybody on the planet. But he also has this brain disease so he’s slowly going crazy while telling the world a really crazy story. No one knows whether to believe the guy or whether he’s just a crazy a—hole.”