Q&A: 'Mad Men' Star John Slattery on Roger Sterling's Struggle

Actor talks shooting grisly scenes, faking an LSD trip and growing as a director

mad men roger
Frank Ockenfels/AMC
John Slattery as Roger Sterling in 'Mad Men.'
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Roger Sterling took one hell of a beating on Mad Men this season. After losing his career-defining Lucky Strike account, his role at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce was almost completely usurped by junior partner Pete Campbell, and his second marriage crumbled under a haze of LSD. Through it all, though, he's managed to roll with the punches. Actor John Slattery, who plays Sterling on the hit AMC drama, stopped by Rolling Stone after Season Five's wrenching penultimate episode aired (warning: spoilers below) to talk about his character's evolution, faking an LSD trip, growing as a director and more.

After last week's episode, Jared Harris [Lane Pryce] said in in an interview that you have a knack for finding out plot developments before anyone else. Is that true?
I'm not always the first. I've directed a couple of episodes, so I learned who gets the script in that process. But we all know where they're hidden! It's just who's first to uncover them.

He also mentioned that when you all filmed the scene where Roger, Don and Pete discover Lane's body, they made sure that none of you saw him before the shoot in order to generate a more natural reaction.
When he was in the harness hung from the ceiling, when we pushed our way into the room, it was totally shocking to see that. So yeah, whether or not it was the first time we actually laid eyes on him, once he was put up there in the harness, it's really jarring.

The loss of Lane is a major one, both for Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and for Mad Men. How do you think it will change the dynamic among the characters?
The thing that makes the show so good is that it never forgets. Everybody is informed by what happened. And you wouldn't get over that very easily. And personally speaking, [Jared] is the best, so we all loved him and we're sorry to see him go. You hate to lose an actor like that, because he's fantastic. He can do anything. And he's just a great guy to have around personally, too. So it's a big loss to all of us.

Roger and Pete's rivalry has been one of this season's most entertaining plot lines. Did you approach your character any differently this time around? He started out on the pathetic side – with Pete riding high – and now he definitely seems to be getting his groove back, businesswise.
Absolutely. I think it was Matt [Weiner, series creator]'s intention to show someone who was in a fallow period. [SCDP] is intense and it's competitive and they're smart people and they want what they want. Especially Pete Campbell. He makes no bones about it, nor should he. So when Roger loses the Lucky Strike account and he kind of falls into a – well, I won't say a "pit of despair," but he's disillusioned, he's rudderless, he doesn't have the function he had before, his marriage has been revealed to be less than ideal. So, yeah, he was struggling. But he did struggle. That's the key, I think, to all these characters – that they struggle through it. One of the themes for this season was "every man for himself," as Matt has said. You can bitch and moan about all your problems, but in that place? No one cares. Because they all have their own! Like in life. There are sympathetic ears, but you have to make your way in this world. And Roger above all knows that.

Have you personally received any backlash from critics or fans of the show who were like, "Why did Roger let Joan prostitute herself?"
I read some stuff, like [that] there's a difference between a – what do you call it? – a sociopath and a scumbag. All you can do on my end is try to identify. Play the character, play the scene. Certainly there's been all kinds of stuff Roger's done that on paper you go, "Holy moly!" And you play the scene and it makes sense! I wasn't that taken aback that his reaction was, "Does she want to do it? And if she says she wants to do it, then what am I gonna do?" It would be fairly hypocritical of Roger to say, "Wait a minute, you can't do that! You can't go sleep with someone else for material gain!" I mean, of all people.

We also had the "Roger takes LSD episode" this season, which was definitely one of my favorites. Any personal experiences that you drew from for that scene?
[Laughs] Yeah, like I'm gonna admit that!

I'll rephrase then. How did you approach that scene?
It was very specific. There wasn't a lot of imagery I had to come up with on my own. I mean, obviously you have to act like you're tripping. But the images that Roger sees and the reasons why, like everything else, it's so well dug-in and so well-constructed and explained that your task is to make that seem convincing. It was very technical, looking at the mirror and having Don behind me, and special cigarettes, special effects. It was, like, four in the morning, and it wasn't easy.

Did it feel very bare-bones when you were shooting it because a lot had to be added in post-production?
Yeah, the half-black, half-white hair, and Don in the mirror had to be added in. And in the camera, they would shoot an extreme close-up and then a reveal. It was a little like sausage grinding, which is what it is anyway. If people came and watched, they would see, "Oh, it's a little less magic before it's put together."

When I interviewed Vincent Kartheiser [Pete Campbell] and Rich Sommer [Harry Crane], they could not have praised your skill as a director more. Do other directors come to you for advice when they're directing an episode of the show?
I've never directed anything before Mad Men, so I don't feel I have any advice for the other directors. I used to feel egoless about what I don't know, but now I think of myself as an auteur [laughs]. Because I have a big head [laughs].

No, I'm kidding. I do have passion for it! That's why I wanted to do it in the first place. And I see the episode the way I think it should be. You try to realize the image in your head; I think every director does that. I think they have an image, and then you deal with the practicality of getting it on film and allowing the other collaborators to do what they're meant to do. And then hopefully somehow get back to the complete vision of it that you had. So I'm just happy that someone lets me do it.

And finally, I have to ask: What can you tell us about the season finale of Mad Men?
I'll tell you everything! You know what happens? Nothing. Nothing happens. It's just a blank screen.