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by PATRICK PACHECO | April 23, 2012 | People
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After nearly three decades as an actor, John Slattery can look back on numerous honors, including two ensemble Screen Actors Guild Awards and four Emmy nominations. But the one that surprised him most came from the toymaker Mattel, in the form of a Barbie doll made to his likeness—or rather, that of Roger Sterling, the cocky and sodden executive he plays on the TV series Mad Men. His chiseled good looks, silver hair, and athletic physique, clothed in a sleek 1960s suit, are now captured in vinyl. Growing up in Newton and then Wellesley in the '60s, Slattery might have fantasized about ending up on a baseball card, as a player for his beloved Red Sox. But he couldn't have imagined he would enter the national consciousness on a television series about martini-soaked advertising executives, whose cutthroat antics would make even Fenway Park's most competitive gamesmanship look like child's play. Landing the Sterling role is a source of wonderment for Slattery, who marvels at how he "got lucky enough to be part of Mad Men."
But tenacity has had as much to do with Slattery's success as luck. He takes the glare of his new-found fame in stride, thanks to the work ethic his parents instilled in him, an actress-wife who keeps him grounded, and years of laboring in relative obscurity. But in a profession often unwelcoming to the late bloomer, Slattery, on the cusp of 50, is just hitting his stride.
"John is one of the great, great actors of his generation," says Sarah Jessica Parker, who has known him since the early '90s. She adds that she "begged" the producers of Sex and the City to cast him opposite her in the role of Bill Kelley, the suave politician with a kinky habit. "His acting appears effortless, which, of course, it's not," she says. "He's not a showoff. He really cares about the work." The South Boston-born playwright David Lindsay-Abaire lobbied for the actor to costar with Cynthia Nixon in Rabbit Hole, which won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. "John played a golden boy whose life is blown apart," says Abaire. "That emotion, anguish, and confusion is tricky to maneuver, yet he played it beautifully. He can be likable while playing the most caddish of characters. You can't pin him down, and that makes him eminently watchable."
For Slattery, his extraordinary range of roles—smooth politician, ambitious roué, tortured architect, drug-addled army vet, betrayed husband— is simply a part of the job description. He is drawn to characters who are mired in moral ambiguity, constrained by the circumstances they are born into or thrust into by some untoward incident. He notes that Roger Sterling may appear to have all the answers with his devilmay- care swagger. But no one can ignore the shuddering fault lines beneath the cool, sleek landscape of Mad Men. And, he adds, "There's nothing funnier than someone who thinks he has it right, who is so confident, and who really has his head up his ass."
Slattery's friends say there's no chance he has his own head up his aforementioned. Parker points out that her good friend is wise enough to know where the "land mines [of fame] are and how to avoid them." Slattery is also mordantly aware that an actor's life is always a process of reinvention, of moving forward but never really arriving, no matter what his personal Q rating might be. "It's an actor's fantasy to be in my position," says Slattery, who, prior to Mad Men, played occasional featured roles in movies (Mona Lisa Smile, Flags of Our Fathers) and guest shots on TV series (Will & Grace, Desperate Housewives). "You work hard to get to a certain place, then you get there, and it's not quite what you expected. That implies a certain dissatisfaction, which isn't exactly right, but failure can be a lot easier to rationalize than success. Maybe it's an Irish thing."
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That skeptical attitude toward success, says Slattery, was cultivated in a large middle-class household—two boys and four girls—led by his father, Jack, who was a leather merchant, and his mother, Joan, now a retired CPA. While the actor feels he acquired his "stubbornness" in part from his mother, he accrued a solid set of values, including a strong work ethic, from his father. "We had to do chores and take jobs—I was caddying by the time I was 10 and later worked in a gas station—but my father never really pushed us at anything, never stressed over it," Slattery says. What the family did stress over was the fate of their beloved sports teams, especially the Red Sox, whose fate they assiduously followed. His mother's cousin was married to Jack Rogers, the Red Sox's traveling secretary at the time, and the family enjoyed many perks at Fenway Park.
"We'd take the Rattler [the trolley] into town for almost every home game," Slattery says, adding that for sheer drama nothing beats observing world-class athletes in competition. "It's so heightened, so intense," he says. "It's do-or-die time, and sometimes you end up on the short end of the stick." There was far less at stake in the neighborhood games that were a staple of Slattery's youth and which inspired momentary dreams of baseball glory. "The older I got the more apparent it became that it wasn't going to happen," he says. "I was never a star, but I could play well enough to have fun at most anything."
Slattery attended all-boys St. Sebastian's School in Newton, his father's alma mater. Armed with a healthy skepticism toward authority, he and his buddies enjoyed wreaking havoc at the school. "We turned it into a zoo," he says. It was during his cut-up days at St. Sebastian's that Slattery discovered the appeal of acting. At night he would channel surf and stop at scenes that hooked his imagination, like those from I, Claudius, the BBC TV miniseries starring Derek Jacobi about the machinations of lust and power in ancient Rome. "The production values were cheap, but the acting was so good that I would be riveted for hours," he says.
It dawned on Slattery that he might take a flyer on an acting career, and after graduating with a fine arts degree from The Catholic University of America in 1984, he headed to New York. "My father said, ‘Give it a couple of years,' but I never put a time limit on it," he says. "I had no plan B." His ascent was incremental, marked by the insecurity of where the next job would come from but also buoyed by growing critical acclaim in such plays as Terrence McNally's The Lisbon Traviata and Richard Greenberg's The Extra Man, Night and Her Stars, and Three Days of Rain. It was in the latter 1997 production, opposite Patricia Clarkson and Bradley Whitford, that Slattery earned the best reviews of his career, as "a taciturn architect" whom he played with a quiet, deeply wounded intensity.
Featured Broadway roles were also in the mix, including Neil Simon's Laughter on the 23rd Floor and a 2000 revival of Harold Pinter's Betrayal opposite Juliette Binoche and Liev Schreiber. With a slew of good notices and numerous offers for featured parts in film and TV, Slattery seemed to be on a career arc that commanded critical acclaim and respect—but not much money or fame. Then, in 2006, Rabbit Hole changed his life. Matthew Weiner, Mad Men's creator and executive producer, saw him in the play. Shortly after catching the performance, Weiner called Slattery to audition. What appealed to the producers was how he managed to bring a wry and baffled masculinity to the Sterling role that makes the character sympathetic, despite his overt selfishness and sexism. "I like Roger," says Slattery of his Mad Men alter ego. "He may say and do things that I find abhorrent, but I understand him. We are all trapped, to some extent, by our choices and the consequences of those choices."
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Even after the success of Mad Men, now in its fifth season, and featured roles in the films Iron Man 2 and The Adjustment Bureau, Slattery can't shake the insecurity that shadows most actors. "The series will go on for a couple of seasons, and then what?" says Slattery. "Not that I want it to go on forever. That's part of what I like about what I do—the unpredictability of it all."
Slattery is happy to spend his current capital on adventurous, often small roles in independent films, such Liza Johnson's Return, where he plays a flinty, Oxycontin-snorting Vietnam War vet, or in Brian Savelson's In Our Nature, about a father who finds himself accidentally holed up in a remote cabin with his estranged son and their respective girlfriends. They both came out earlier this year, and Lance Edmands' Bluebird—which Slattery recently finished filming, playing a logger in the north Maine woods whose job is threatened by the closing of the local paper mill—is slated for release later in 2012. Irrespective of billing or box-office draw, says Slattery, "You look for things that you have an emotional and intellectual connection to, roles that excite you."
Slattery has also branched out into directing, having done so on a couple of episodes of Mad Men, and is hoping to direct his own adaptation of a Pete Dexter novel, God's Pocket. Though the latter is set in Philadelphia, the characters are small-time hoods who remind Slattery of the Boston wiseguys in films like The Friends of Eddie Coyle and The Departed. "They were menacing men who didn't have to show it because they were so thoroughly who they were," he says.
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Slattery appears to be "thoroughly" who he is as well. An actor, for sure, but also a husband for the past 13 years, to the actress Talia Balsam (who was once married to George Clooney and who played Sterling's bitter ex-wife in earlier episodes of Mad Men), and a father to their 13-year-old son, Harry. Slattery says that Sterling's flaws have helped him realize just how difficult change is. Nonetheless, he hopes to avoid the same fate by evolving as an actor. "There's a line in this season of Mad Men that goes, ‘Happiness is the moment before you need more happiness.' Which is true. We're not satisfied as human beings, and that's good and bad: ‘If I have this, can I have that?' But it's not the having that's worth it. It's the opportunity to create. That's the satisfaction."
photography by RAINER HOSCH; Styling by Cannon for Judy Casey; Grooming by Joanna Pensinger for Exclusive Artists Management