John Slattery, Interview

11 July 2011

Interview with John Slattery For The Release Of The Adjustment Bureau

Interview with John Slattery For The Release Of The Adjustment Bureau

During the scenes where the characters are going through doors into other spaces, were there any locations that you wanted to have shown that weren't?
I lived on Bank Street for a while. That's one of the places we were trying to chase him down and it was about two doors down from where I used to live. I knew the people whose house we were going into and through the CGI afterward they made it a field or a highway inside. So that was kind of funny shooting a block from where I used to live.

Do you like to control your life yourself, or your destiny?
Yes, I do. Who knows though if it just looks like you're making your own decisions? I feel like we're a product of our decisions. You make your decisions and take the consequences.

How much do you think it is really you making those decisions?
The options you have are based on the decisions you've made prior to that, so everything is informed by what you've done before. Now the decision is to take A, B or C, those A's B's or C's are only there because of the decisions you've made before. I think your whole life is a string of decisions, but when you start out you have to be fortunate to start out in a place where someone set you up by giving you an education, or you could be picking trash in a landfill somewhere. You really have to be lucky to be born into a situation where you can start in a particular direction, although a lot of people who built the world started in very disadvantageous situations.

Then you have to overcome adversity.
I think we all overcome some adversity, whether it's tragic or incidental.

What was yours?
I don't think I have had any great adversity other than just struggling in this business to get work and to fulfill myself creatively. It's a series of disappointments all the time. You want something, can't have it, then you move on. I'm fairly forward-looking in that. Especially in my business, you can look at someone else's career and say, "Why don't I have that? If I only had that." I remember thinking when I was younger that if you did one job, all I'd need is that one thing and I'd be set, and maybe that's just a young person's way of thinking. "If I had this, then everything would be perfect." But of course it's not. It never is.

What made you decide to do Mad Men, and what made you decide to do The Adjustment Bureau?
I decided to do Mad Men because the script was good. They asked me to come in and read for the part of Don Draper, so I went in and did my homework. I was really surprised when they wanted me to play that part because usually I get the part of the guy in the wheelchair because people think I'm like a hundred. I went in and read and then they gave me adjustments. "Okay, try it like this." It was very serious. It was Matthew Weiner and Alan Taylor and it was very quiet and very focused, so I tried to give them what they wanted. After that, they said, "Here's the thing. We already cast this part. We want you to play this other guy." I found out later that they lied to me because they didn't think that I would come in and read for the part [of Roger Sterling], which in the pilot was a very small part. I found that out later. It is a leap of faith a lot of times, especially in television. There are impediments to everything and by the end you just want to get it finished. Truffaut likened it to a trip on a boat; by the end, you just want to get to the other side. I took him [Matt] at his word. I'd seen his work, I saw how serious they were about getting it a certain way. With this [The Adjustment Bureau], I thought it was an interesting script but I almost didn't take it because of the suit and a hat and they'll just think it's the same thing. Then I thought, "That's okay."

The thing about Hollywood and the audience is that they want to see you in a suit and tie.
They do and then you realise I haven't done anything with a suit and a hat for 15 years. Then all of a sudden you do something like Mad Men that shows everywhere and they want you to be the guy in the suit and hat.

So if someone asked you to describe this movie, what would you say?
It's a romantic thriller with a little sci-fi thrown in. It's a hybrid.

What made you decide to do this movie with a first-time director and take that leap of faith?
I had known him a little bit socially and knew he had written some very successful movies and was about to write another one, one of the Bourne series. He's really smart and had been on a lot of very big sets with a lot of very knowledgeable people, plus he had Matt Damon. Matt has made some pretty smart decisions in his career, so for him to have faith in this guy was good. He had John Toll to shoot it, with Thomas Newman to do the score so you think who am I to doubt this guy? My part was good. He asked to do an experiment where he shot two scenes of the film. [One was] the scene when Matt's character meets Emily's character in the bathroom of the hotel. Two other actors played that scene and I played Terence Stamp's scene, where he describes free will when they are locked in that room. He wanted me in the movie, but he wasn't sure which part to give me yet and so asked me to do this. So we borrowed some clothes from Mad Men and he got a crew and paid for this location and so we shot this scene. He showed it to me a couple of months later and it looked like an expensive feature film. I was shocked. He knew what he wanted.

I directed Mad Men this year. They let me direct a couple of episodes this year and I have this feature that I want to make. You have to start somewhere and thank God there are people that let you try. I was going to direct a short and I figured I have to learn somehow.

Why do you want to direct?
I want to see my choices on film as opposed to someone else's. In directing Mad Men, it was good to see how little of a piece of the puzzle the acting actually is. With actors, it's ego, reverse ego or insecurity in thinking you have to be great in it otherwise it will fall apart - not really. They'll re-cut you or do other things they can do. I thought this is a place where everyone is so good at their job - the writing, design, costumes, acting, casting, the cinematography - that this is a place to learn, so I asked if I could follow the director around, so I did that for a while, then asked if I could direct one and they said yes.

So you're saying that in this business, the director's vision is most important?
In a film, yes. In television, no. It's a producer's medium where he gives you the script -- "Here's how I want this scene to go, here's how I want this scene to go, this is why I wrote this". You have these tone meetings, then you write it all down. You shoot it and try to get all those in. There's room for interpretation. I think in a solid structure there's more room for interpretation, especially if it's well-written. But in a feature, it's my script and I cast it, and I cut it the way I want to cut it. The studio will probably have final cut because I've never done anything [before]. They can cut it [in]to something else, but it will be something I shot. I want to see what it's like to make all the creative choices.

Which director would you like to work with?
The guy who directed Animal Kingdom. Did you see this? It's an Australian movie. It's a fantastic movie. I worked with Steven Soderbergh. I would go anywhere with Steven Soderbergh. The Coen Brothers. There are so many people. The list is too long really. I would probably like to take a little rest from television for a little while after this [Mad Men] is finished.

It's a golden age.
It really is. It's a serious obligation, and you don't know when it is going to come back and you have to wait. It's hard to take on something that's entirely different and change yourself because in a few weeks you have to go back and look the same as you did before. There are obligations to doing television that are constricting.

Is it more challenging as an actor to play a character in a TV series or in a film?
I suppose ideally features would be better because you decide to do a certain character. You have some time to prepare, maybe rehearse and set it up where you know the emotional arc of the thing. Then it's finished and you move on. The disadvantage of the television series is the time commitment. You're there; you're playing the same character. The good thing is, in playing the same character is that you don't have to establish the character anymore. If I walk into a room and say something, there's a context because you already who know this character is. The audience is informed by where the character's already been and there's something about being in front of a camera every day that's good for you.

How easy is it to go away and make movies if you are committed to a TV series?
It's not easy scheduling-wise. I don't have a job. I thought we would come back pretty soon, so I've been writing this [feature] script to get it set up to shoot sometime after we finish this next round of Mad Men, which takes about five months to shoot. Now there's no date to pick it up, so I need a job. Anybody got a script?

Why is Mad Men so successful?
I think it's so specific that it is universal, like any good story. It's so well written and has characters that you haven't seen before and actors you haven't seen a lot of before. I think it's the unpredictability of it. Obviously there are the clothes and the sets and it's a seemingly glamorous period, but then you scratch the surface of that and it is a lot of disappointed, disaffected, unhappy people that are trying to get what they want. It's complicated and always unpredictable. You think it will go one way and it goes another way. He's not afraid to tell new stories. I think there are many reasons it's popular, but I think mainly it's about the humanity of these people. They look iconic, and you think it's about the period in the United States with JFK and the promise of America, but really it's just about a Tuesday in someone's life. Or the day when Marilyn Monroe died, somebody still had to go to work. And the day that JFK was assassinated, someone still had to get married the next day. It's the small, human moments in this period where you know the end. You know how the '60s ended, so it's an interesting contradiction.

As an actor, how is it to be a part of something that is not only a great series but a pop culture phenomenon?
It's amazing. To travel the world and find that this thing translates to all these languages and cultures is amazing. It's a privilege. You hope it doesn't end up in you not being able to get anything [else] work wise. This is a very small slice of what I think I'm capable of doing, so I'm enjoying every minute of it.

Have you thought about how this series changed everything for you and how will it affect you moving forward?
I think you have to be smart in what choices you make after you do something like this. I don't see the point of going and doing another television show right away. When you do something like this, what's the point? I feel like I have more choices, but [in] making the right ones I have to consider what to do next.

This movie asks the question "what if"? Have you ever had a "what if" moment where you considered if you made a different choice where you would be?
I'm here in this moment. I sometimes wonder when I first started - no one was in show business in my family and I come from a work-minded background - so when someone would offer me a job, I would take it. Creatively it probably wasn't that smart. I would do television shows that were not very good and not very well written and I would do television commercials and whatever somebody gave me, because I couldn't believe that somebody was going to give me a job. It wasn't until about 10 years in that I realised that I didn't have to take every job that someone would give me, so the only regret I have is the time spent doing those could've been time spent doing something else. Then again, it turned out okay.

How did you end up doing acting in coming from such a different background? Do you think it was fate?
I don't know. I was obsessed with television and films when I was a kid. I would stay up all night and then I couldn't get up to go to school. I would watch everything. Not just movies, but comedies and anything. I would flip around, but mainly old movies. The Thirties. My Man Godfrey. Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant. Even Derek Jacobi in the BBC production of I, Claudius, with the sets that wiggled around. Twilight Zone. Gomer Pyle. I don't know what I was looking for.

How old were you? Why did your parents allow you to stay up that late?
I don't know. I have four older sisters and by the time they got finished with them they said, "Pfff, do whatever." I have a younger brother, too, and he got away with murder. They were too exhausted by the time [we came along].

The Adjustment Bureau is released on blu-ray triple play and DVD on 4th July 2011


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