John Slattery looks terrible. “I hate to dash your hopes,” the 60-year-old tells me down the phone from New York. “I’m in sweats. I’m making a cup of tea. I’ve just exercised. I…” He pauses, grasping for the right word to describe his current ghoulishness. He sighs. “I look like s***.” I can’t verify the alleged horror-show that is his appearance, but I’m not sure I believe him. Not John Slattery? Not Mad Men’s impeccably tailored bon vivant Roger Sterling? But he’s the king of pocket squares! With hair as white and well-coiffed as a Dulux pup!
Slattery is ruining his public image while at home with his pet dog circling his feet, his voice, at least, just as we remember it – that smooth, honeyed cadence that makes him Hollywood’s go-to for raconteurs, statesmen and authority figures. Tony Stark’s industrialist dad in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The politician who tried to introduce the decidedly unkinky Carrie Bradshaw to golden showers on Sex and the City. The suburban mayor who romanced Eva Longoria’s character in Desperate Housewives before being impaled on a white picket fence.
Still, it’s Roger Sterling that looms largest. Not that he was particularly eager to play him back when Mad Men first went into production in 2007. He’d initially been brought in to read for the role of Don Draper, the impossibly good-looking, disgraceful-slash-damaged star of the show ultimately played by Jon Hamm. Then the producers asked him to read for Roger instead. He was momentarily bruised. “They said, ‘Here’s the thing – we have this guy’,” he remembers. “[Hamm] claims I was in a bad mood the whole time we shot the first episode because of this, but I don’t think that’s true.” He digresses. “Eventually I saw him, and I was like… ‘Oh – they sure do have that guy’.”
“When Hamm walked into a room in that get-up, people would just go catatonic,” he laughs. “Guest stars would sometimes walk up to him and their lines would go right out of their heads. They just wouldn’t know what to do. It happened on more than one occasion.” Other cast members got that reaction, too. “Christina Hendricks would walk into the room and people would s*** themselves – it was amazing.”
Let’s not be modest – he must have inspired his fair share of breathlessness? “Well… we were all sort of curated,” he concedes. “The look of it. I’m not being false humble, either. In that get-up, I certainly looked different to how I do walking around every day.”
Seven years after the series ended, Slattery and Hamm are real-life besties. To the extent that Slattery is basically doing interviews on his behalf. Both star in the comic caper Confess, Fletch, but it’s very much a Hamm vehicle – Slattery is, truthfully, barely in it. But with Hamm busy filming the third season of Jennifer Aniston’s Apple TV+ series The Morning Show, Slattery’s stepped in to talk it up. Hamm also stars in a movie he directed, next year’s dark comedy Maggie Moore(s), so Slattery “figured I owed him”. Plus he’d like to work again with Greg Mottola, the director of Superbad and Adventureland and the man behind the camera on Confess, Fletch. “If he does something else, I’m hoping he’ll go, ‘That guy’s a mensch! He did press for a movie he’s in for five minutes’.”
Five minutes of that Mad Men reunion aside, Confess, Fletch is a romp. Hamm is a journalist turned private eye, investigating stolen art in New York City. That is, until a dead woman is found in the place where he’s staying and he becomes the prime suspect in a murder investigation. Surrounding him are a litany of eccentric suspects, from Kyle MacLachlan as a germaphobe art dealer to Lucy Punch as a flighty lifestyle guru whose name may as well be Pwyneth Galtrow. Slattery plays Hamm’s former editor, or “a gruff, foul-mouthed drunk”, as he describes it. “I didn’t have to reinvent the wheel,” he jokes.
Confess, Fletch is adapted from the same Gregory Mcdonald novels that inspired Fletch, the Eighties comedy that helped turn Chevy Chase into a movie star. Well, at the time. I tell Slattery that as a British millennial with only the vaguest awareness of Chase, let alone franchises he starred in, I didn’t really know what to expect from the film. “Those of us of a certain age loved that movie,” he says. “I forget what year it was – do you know? Lemme look…” He consults Google. “Eighty-five! So about a hundred years ago.”
The Fletch of 2022 is very different from its predecessor, apparently – fizzier, sillier, more winkingly glamorous (Marcia Gay Harden is hilarious as a hyper-sexual billionaire’s wife whose exaggerated Italian accent makes “Fletch” sound like “Flayshhhh”). “I know they wanted to do something completely new and assumed – rightfully, clearly – that most of the people in the movie-going public hadn’t seen the original, which was fine with them.”
Slattery loved the original Fletch, just as he loved Chase in his prime. But he was a movie buff in general. When he cameoed as himself on the Tina Fey-produced sitcom Girls5Eva, he claimed he was “too busy fighting [his] five siblings for food to develop a single interest”. In reality, he calls his childhood in Boston “conventional” and incredibly undramatic. His siblings – four older sisters and a little brother – all got along, that Girls5Eva line being more of a comic invention than the truth. He played sports and compulsively watched TV and, eventually, “figured out that people actually act as a job – that what I was watching on TV wasn’t just happening”.
Like most of the cast of Mad Men, Slattery was a jobbing and generally under the radar actor for years before that show came along. Having moved to New York in the late Eighties, he spent nearly 18 months struggling to get any acting work, but eventually found himself being cast in plays and on television. He still remembers those days fondly, at least in hindsight. “Kicking around, taking the subway into the city from deep Brooklyn, trying to figure out how to live on five bucks a day… all that stuff sounds clichéd now, but that was really how it went down.”
For years Sex and the City was the project that people most recognised him from. Yes, because he was slick and handsome in it but, for mainly because his character very politely asked America’s Sweetheart if she would go to the bathroom on him. “Right after it aired, a friend of mine’s mother asked her if my parents had died,” he says. He explained that they were very much alive, but she still didn’t believe it. Her reasoning? “He’d never have done that if his parents were still here.”
In hindsight, though, he laughs at what a big deal that storyline was back in 2000. “Everything that’s transpired since then? Look at Donald Trump,” he chuckles – presumably in reference to the vociferously denied rumour of a presidential, um, “pee tape”. “What I did on Sex and the City was child’s play compared to that creep.”
Sex and the City may have opened doors for him – and encouraged him to avoid areas in Manhattan regularly scoped out by the Sex and the City bus tour – but it was around that time he discovered a different passion. “I’d be on sets asking lots of questions, and it occurred to me that I had opinions,” he says. Slattery realised he wanted to direct, too. Later he’d take the reins of five episodes of Mad Men, and direct 2014’s God’s Pocket – a gritty urban drama that, tragically, turned out to be the last film Philip Seymour Hoffman completed before his death.
The mention of Hoffman is the only time in our conversation that Slattery seems lost for words – like a maverick ad exec briefly stumped. He takes a deep sigh. “I’d never seen anybody able to mine emotional depths as he did, while at the same being so technically wide awake,” he says. “He knew where the camera was, where he was in relation to the camera, the best angles for himself. It was stunning to me.” On set, he’d tell Hoffman how great he was. “I would basically start crying after watching him do a scene.”
As a director, he admits to struggling to always command authority on a set, that he’s not naturally a leader of the pack. “Even in my own house,” he jokes. “But I suppose that’s where the acting comes in – pretending like you’re in control of everything.”
I can’t tell if he’s still being modest. I’m sure he can command a set, just like I bet he doesn’t look as beastly today as he says he does. But I’ll have to take his word for it.
‘Confess, Fletch’ is in cinemas from 18 November
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