The Washington Post

'Mad Men's' Bryan Batt takes your questions

May 18, 2010

Actor Bryan Batt discusses his work on 'Mad Men,' if he will be back for Season 4, his activism and his new book, She Ain't Heavy, She's My Mother.

Seems like he could come on board at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, since they don't have the tobacco account, right? Yes, I'm a Mad Men geek.

They do have the tobacco account though -- that's one of the main clients they have. You'll just have to watch and see in July when the season starts.

What is your book about? It is completely autobiographical? What are some of the points you hope readers get from the book?

Well, I'm calling it a momoir -- it's about my mother, my wonder Steel Magnolia, Auntie Mame of a mother. She's battling cancer for the 4th time, she has her boxing gloves on, but she's got her nails done and her hair done.

It's just something that I wanted to do, it's kind of a tribute to her, but a very loving and laughing tribute.

What kind of reactions have you been getting for your book?

Everyone seems to like it. Thank God I haven't heard anything negative. Everyone from my mother to Michael Musto seems to like it.

I think it's interesting when people that know her read it and say it seems to capture her. And when people who don't know her or me at all are fully enthralled by her personality. She embodies grace under fire.

Did you grow up in New Orleans? If so, which part, and how do you think growing up in the Big Easy affected your outlook on life?

I did grow up in New Orleans. I grew up right on the lake, right across the levee. I was just actually at my childhood home yesterday, because I'm working on a 2nd book, called Mad for Design, and I'm shooting the foyer of my childhood home.

Now I live uptown in New Orleans, and my partner and I have a shop on Magazine Street. I've lived in NY and LA for many years, but I still gravitate to NO -- it's so unique and so European. There's nothing else like it in the country. It has its own music, its own food, its own style and its own way of life.

It's a lot less hectic than NY -- which I love! I love being able to enjoy the heartbeat, the pulse of NY, but then come to NO and enjoy a different beat. 

Tell us about your store in New Orleans. I've only visited the Web site, but it looks pretty cool. the next time I'm in NOLA, I plan to go.

Please do! I might be there. People come in all the time checking it out to see if i"m there or not, and they're very much surprised when I am, wrapping packages, dusting, whatever. I do all the jobs when I am there, and they're amazed.

My favorite thing about the shop is that we have things at all price points -- so there are some high end things, but great design does not have to break the bank.

We opened in 2003, right after a show I was supposed to in NY was canceled, and I had this window of time when there was nothing else going on. It was this most freeing experience -- nervewracking at first, because I didn't know the business, but thank god my partner did. 

But it was very freeing as an actor. If you're an actor, a doctor, whatever -- sometimes your job can consume and define you. But when I opened the store, I realized there was this whole other world out there. And I could connect with people in a way I didn't while in a Broadway show.

 

What are your thoughts on the recent discussions of actors being stereotyped, which has been an age-old concern, yet to the extent that some claim that actors we perceive as being gay are unable to be accepted playing straight parts.

Personally, while I am sure there are always a few people who prejudge actors in roles, but I do believe most are able to judge different performances according to the abilities of the actors. If not, it's their loss. There are numerous examples of people who have played divergent roles, even roles against their own rea life character, and they do so because they are professional actors.

What is your opinion?

I actually gave an interview to ABC.com about that; I was called after that ridiculous and homophobic and self-loathing article came out in Newsweek.

I'm a believer that everyone has a right to their opinion. But that article was so innacruate and negative.  I saw Sean Hayes performance, and he was wonder -- not for one second did I question if the was in love with K. Chenowith's character.

I refuse to believe that this is that valid anymore, this preconception that someone who is gay can't play straight. If Tom Hanks or Sean Penn can play gay...I mean, we're actors. 

My first criteria is not "who is someone sleeping with," it's what they are doing on stage and if their talent is coming across. You don't look at a painting and ask if the artist was gay or straight. I think it's irrelevant in any situation -- I don't care if my garbageman is gay or straight as long as he picks up the garbage. 

 

Hi Sal (I mean Bryan), will you be back for season 4? Can you give us any nuggets to tide us over until then? Do you think Don fired you because he's a homophobe or did he think you were bad for business?

 I honestly think that Don's hands were really tied. Although he does use the phrase "you people," the reason he didn't step in to save him was because of the fact that Lucky Strike could turn off the lights at Sterling Cooper.

If it was a smaller account, sure, he might have stepped in for me, but given that it's such a huge account, he had no choice. That's one of the great things about the writing on the show -- was it business or homophobia?

I think the firing was mainly because the account was jeopardized, and also because it took place at work, which brought it very close and made it very dangerous for the company. I believe in my heart that Sal was fired for those reasons.

If Don had a problem, since he new from the first episode of Season 3, he could have tried to get rid of Sal in a different way.

Hello Bryan I've really admired your work in Mad Men and felt the show lost a lot when Sal disappeared. I'm curious if/how you researched your role--if you feel comfortable talking about it. This was the era of deep-closeted gays, e.g., J. Edgar Hoover, Rock Hudson, et al--and was wondering if you talked with or read about gays who lived and had to function in straight society at that time. Keep up the great work!

Thank you. I did, I did research, I actually met with ad execs who worked in that time period, a few of whom turned out to be gay. They had families, but eventually found happiness realizing who they were. 

I got to interview and meet with people from that very era, and ask them what it was like. That was my main research. I read as much as I could find, too, of course. And our scripts are so well-writen and researched -- it's a joy to perform them -- a lot of the times they've done a lot of the work for us in advance. We never have to say to each other "how am I going to make this work?" It already does.

Did you notice any differences in working on show aired on cable vs. a show aired on broadcast TV?

Not really -- Mad Men doesn't really use very strong, strong language, maybe once in awhile. And not a lot of nudity, compared to HBO or Showtime.

When I did "Ugly Betty" it was very similar to working on Mad Men -- great group of people in their own little world. But I don't really see a lot of difference.

Of course, on the cable shows, you can tackle subjects and be more specific, because networks have to appeal to the masses, but that's constantly changing and evolving.

Now, when I auditioned, I didn't care that it was AMC, it was my first pilot, and I was just grateful. I had one audition, and Matt Weiner is a guy who knows what he wants.  And the show wasn't tested or anything -- i think it's so great because it's the vision of one person. 

Hello from a fellow New Orleanian! I don't think people outside the south realize our history of strong, southern women. My grandmother certainly ruled my family. Can you expound on that bit of our history?

Yes! Like I said, those steel magnolias ruled the roost. My mother was always beautifully coiffed and dressed, and was raised to be this beautiful thing on my father's arm, but when push came to shove, she was the strongest thing. 

She was the reason my family survived, through our trials and tribulations. It's not just a Southern thing, but I think down here there's this veneer that women are supposed to be lovely. And in my mother's case, it's not a veneer, she is lovely, but she can tell you to go to Hell in a way that will make you say Thank You and ask for directions. 

How did you enjoy working on "Ugly Betty"? What are some of the similiarities and differences between working on "Ugly Betty" and "Mad Men"? Do the casts of one show or the other hang out together more?

Well, I only did two episodes of Ugly Betty, and I was told my character would continue, and we would have hung out a lot more, but the show was canceled.

I've known Judith Light for years, and hse is just the loveliest. And I'm friends with Michael Urie, and I just saw him in his off-Broadway play.

The difference in filming is, well there are a couple -- one is a drama and one is a comedy. In Mad Men, we are not allowed to deviate from script at all. On Ugly Betty, we were allowed to improvise, and some really fun moments come out of that.

Has your mom been well enough in the past to visit you on the Mad Men set and watch you film the show? I imagine that would be such a thrill for her to be able to do!

She did come last year to visit the set, and actually she was with me for the premiere of Season 3. 

While watching the premiere, I had forgotten to warn her about the big kiss with the bellman, and I leaned over to tell her and she said "oh honey come on, I can handle that."

Do you have any input to the wardrobe selection on Mad Men?

Only sock choices. Sometimes they'll put out an extra pair of socks or cufflinks, and then it's actors choice.

Otherwise I have been honored to let the goddess of all things costume, Janie Bryant, pick whatever goes on my back.

What is your favorite chapter in the book?

I must say Spring Fiesta or Rites of Passage. And I also love Bees. 

When you first read the script for Mad Men, did you expect it to become the classic television show its become (becoming)?

We had no idea. I'm so horrible at reading scripts, especially TV ones. It's so different than reading plays -- when you read a play, usually you don't pay attention to the stage directions, because the director will come up with them. 

But in a TV show or film, that's very important, it's part of the storytelling. So no, I had no clue. But when I saw the finished pilot, I knew we had something special, I just knew it. I just didn't know if people were going to see it.

Thanks for your questions, tune into Mad Men July 25, and in the meantime, I might be coming to a city near you, so get the book, She Aint Heavy, She's my Mother. 

In This Chat
Bryan Batt
Bryan Batt plays Sal Romano, the former art director of the ad agency Sterling Cooper on AMC's Emmy-winning show "Mad Men."
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