I’ve been corresponding with Rich Sommer for close to a year. Deb and I started this Mad Men blog; he’s got this charming blog, it was a whole blog thing. What you get from reading Rich’s blog is, this is a nice guy. This is a nice guy whose life just went from really good to Please, if this is a dream, may I never wake up from it. Lovely wife, beautiful baby, and the job of a lifetime.
So Rich and I have sort of ˜known’ each other for all this time, but had never spoken. This long-awaited interview/conversation took place the first week of November. A few weeks later he was back in New York City and Deborah and I met him, but at the time of this phone call, I didn’t know that was coming. Anyway, it is no surprise that Rich and I spoke for quite awhile, and that the conversation vacillated between formal interview and lots of off-topic, off-the-record yakking. I’ve been working on rolling it together as thoroughly as possible.
RKL: So, thank you for doing this. Yay!
RS: Absolutely! I’m sorry it’s taken so long.
RKL: It’s fine. You guys have been busy.
RS: Yeah, a little bit.
RKL: It’s very good stuff. Congratulations on everything. Saturday Night Live being quite a culmination.
RS: Thanks! Yeah it’s been pretty uhit’s been pretty weird. It’s been pretty fun.
RKL: I met with Elisabeth the other night and she explained how she was the last minute fill-in, as you know, and she was somewhat disappointed that she didn’t get to see herself portrayed.
Elisabeth was called in at the last minute to play Peggy in the Mad Men sketch, because Amy Poehler went and had her baby that day.
RS: Yeah. That was obviously a pretty unique experience. But getting to be on the show is, I mean c’mon! That’s pretty amazing too.
RKL: Yeah. It’s Saturday Night Live.
RS: Yeah. It’s an institution.
Rich writes about seeing himself portrayed on SNL here.
RKL: About Mr. Crane. The first thing I want to know about him is how did his marriage get repaired? What do you think went down?
RS: I don’t know. I think probably some redistribution of the pants, and maybe a couple [of] laws laid down. I think he and Jennifer care for each other. And he’s still at his root not as, quote unquote (and Vincent [Kartheiser] would kill me for saying this), bad a guy as some of the other guys in the office. He’s still at his core a good guy. He just, you know, fucked up. He got drunk.
RKL: It was plausible; there’s nobody that couldn’t see how that works.
RS: Right. I’ve definitely made stupid decisions when I was drunk. I haven’t cheated on my wife, but I’ve certainly made stupid decisions. And that was very easily relatable, I think for a lot of people.
RKL: It was interesting in the sea of all the ˜regular’ cheating; exactly what you’re saying; you’re not the bad one, you’re the good guy, you’re the one who talked about marriage the most respectfully, and the most contemporarily I think? And maturely.
RS: Yeah I think so.
RKL: And then to see that affair happen, [it shows] some [affairs] are like that. Some of them aren’t a matter of this guy’s being a dick.
RS: There was clearly an air of remorse the next day and I don’t think either he or”I guess I can’t speak for what Julie [McNiven] was thinking with Hildy, but I don’t think either he or Hildy were entirely lucid. And I think it’s come to light that Hildy perhaps has more feelings for Harry than Harry for Hildy, but I think it was just a boner move.
RKL: How do you think it [the affair] affects him in the aftermath? Or is it just, he’s just that much more watchful in his day-to-day?
RS: Yeah, I think he’s just a little more cognizant of that stuff. We certainly didn’t see him; like for example there’s a point this last season where they all go out to the strip club and Harry is conspicuously absent. I don’t know if that was an accident of the way the writing just kind of fell out that way scenically. But as you and I know, there are not a lot of accidents on the show. I think that if Harry’s infidelity hadn’t happened last year, he probably would have been at that strip club. And whether it was by commandment of Jennifer or just by avoidance of another potential slip up, he was not there.
RKL: And actually in the pilot he was in a strip club.
RS: Right. He was in a strip club in the pilot, and went to P.J. Clarke’s in the Hobo Code and he was at a lot more of that social stuff. And I remember saying in the off-season to a couple friends, because of course I didn’t know if Harry and Jennifer were going to make it. I assumed they would, but I didn’t know. And I remember saying to Aaron [Staton] and Michael [Gladis], I have a feeling if Harry and Jennifer make it through this ordeal, we’re going to have a lot fewer scenes together outside of the office.
RKL: Right, good call. Okay so being that ‘nice’ guy, he’s still”I mean in Marriage of Figaro he told that really horrible [misogynistic] joke, and he’s got his moments. How do you think that all fits in with him? The beautiful hand gestures to Lois explaining; where does that fit in?
RS: Well it’s all relative, first off. He may be a good guy in our eyes, but if you took him; you still may not necessarily want to pal around with a guy like Harry. I mean maybe you would but, at least nowadays, if he were exactly the same way he is in that office now, he would stick out like a sore thumb. And would probably be fired instantly. Not to mention what would happen to people like Ken Cosgrove. I think he is, [or] wants to be a good husband. But he also wants to be one of the guys. He clings to this sort of fraternity idea, as he and Pete talked about last year, in (I think) Shoot; he talks about how those were the days, and there were girls. I think he still sort of clings to that notion. But at the end of the day, [he] wants to be able to kind of put on his coat and go home and be a good husband, and hopefully a good father. He’s kind of towing that line. I said this in some interview last year, just how he definitely wants to be one of the guys but he also wants to be a man, and I think that’s one of the big defining characteristics between him and Paul, Paul kind of wants to be one of the guys but he also wants to be this like…
RKL: (laughing) Whatever the hell Paul wants to be.
RS: …whatever the hell Paul is. Ken wants to be one of the guys but he also wants to be an artist; a writer. I think they all want to be something outside of this sort of cavalcade of goofs that they’re involved in. And Harry’s is being a good man.
I asked Rich about Harry seeming angrier in Season Two. Rich felt that Harry isn’t so much angry as stressed, deeply concerned about not being able to step up as father and provider. Rich easily related to how much that stresses you out, even if you’re really happy.
We then detoured to a discussion about Bea, Rich’s spectacular baby daughter. This segued into a whole sidebar about his love for Matt Weiner, how Rich’s entire life has changed thanks to Matt. He said that the day he signed his Mad Men contract was the day he and his wife (The Lovely Virginia„) started trying to conceive the future Bea(vis).
We spoke awhile about Weiner. Rich adores him, and it extends far beyond loyalty. This was one week after our finale party and Weiner interview; he said, ‘You’ve just spent time with him, you know, he is the warmest most loving, papa bear (those are my words) genius insane wonderful person’.
RKL: How do you work, how do you do character work, what’s your method? I mean Harry doesn’t have tons of screen time, but he’s very, very full.
RS: For me it helps that obviously, the writers do about 90% of our work for us, and by sticking to the script”which is mandated”it makes our jobs a million times easier, because they create such full characters in the words. For us physically–for me the clothes certainly help and there’s a”one of my managers called me the other day and said ˜I’ve never mentioned this to you but I love Harry’s walk,’ which is like possibly the only real conscious choice I make with Harry.
RKL: Do you know that Deborah wrote a piece about your legs?
RS: Yes, there was some mention of Harry’s legs when he’s talking to Sterling. I mean, there’s certainly”below the waist is where I focus any sort of physicality for Harry, just because it’s easier. It’s sort of like Michael Flatley”that whole thing about how the upper half has to be presentable but that the lower half, that was kind of hidden by fields or whatever the hell it is, was movin’. That was sort of my thought with Harry. It’s not quite so articulated, but it is that he is presentable but that he’s always got a pretty tight ass and he’s got a pretty truncated step and he’s not a real confident guy in reality. He’s trying to put himself forward as that. In fact, the final scene with Sterling that he had, where he went in to talk to him about Joan in A Night to Remember, I made a conscious decision to sort of lengthen his stride a little bit and make him a little more confident, ˜cause he is the head of the television department at that point and he is talking to the boss about a personnel change that they are making together. It’s less about being nervous. So I did make conscious choices there. For me it’s purely stuck in the legs.
RKL: I want to hear about [your improv experience], specifically because you mentioned the script and how tight it is. How does your improv inform your work, particularly because it’s so not improv?
RS: I have been asked that question in perhaps 80% of the interviews I have done and I have yet to come up with an answer that I feel is satisfying. I don’t really know how it does, [but] it must. It certainly informs it in the way that Matt [Weiner] has talked about how he’d wanted [to cast] comedians. That almost every actor in the show is at their base comedic. You know, Jon Hamm is ridiculously funny and everybody luckily got the chance to see [that] on SNL. And Aaron [Staton] and Michael [Gladis] and Bryan [Batt] and Vinnie [Kartheiser]; all of us are much more fun than we get to let on in the show. I think that certainly improv had something to do with that for me, but as far as how it informs me throughout the show, with as tight a script as we have, I’m not sure. It does certainly because it was literally half of my training. Honestly I wish I had a better answer. Because I think it’s actually a good question; it is obviously a good question because I don’t know the answer. It has to have informed it somehow. I could quickly tap how improv maybe helped me get parts, it helped me to be quickly directable, but as far as the final product that you see in the show, I’m not sure.
RKL: How many years did you do improv?
RS: I started improvising in 1994. I did it kind of more on than off ˜til probably 2006.
RKL: How much better do your skills get by really working it?
While answering the next question, Rich had a brain freeze, and pointed out that the Sweet Bea has not yet adapted to the recent end of Daylight Savings Time, and Rich himself is kind of sleepless. But he got back on track quickly.
RS: My opinion is, it’s like an acting class in fast forward. For me, I went to grad school for acting and improv was sort of touched on, like once. Possibly two days did we touch on improv. Improv in terms of performance improv; you’re always doing some sort of improv; if you’re doing any acting exercises there’s some sort of improv. But I was continuing to pursue it on my own. And it helped me in the acting classes just by having a little more contact with myself and a little more access to a range of emotion. It’s important when I go teach acting at some college, which I will do at some point, improv will be the foundation for it.
RKL: Do you have one improv philosophy or method?
RS: It really depends on what your end goal is. I don’t really have an improv philosophy. There are sort of the basic tenets of improv like Yes, And, and Don’t ask questions and all that stuff. But even that stuff doesn’t even mean anything; it’s all so rudimentary and you get past it so quickly, or hopefully you do. I studied improv in a bunch of different places: At Comedy Sportz in Minneapolis, and at the Brave New Workshop in Minneapolis and at the Upright Citizens Brigade in New York. Each one goes at improv in a totally different way, and the end result is completely different, and each one was just as important as the other in shaping me as an improviser and as a performer. Unfortunately, the back wall and I became very good friends on the improv stage and I reached a certain odd point where I had this major fearlessness for so long and then all off a sudden I got nervous to step off the back wall. And I haven’t really stepped off the back wall since then, which is why I sort of stopped improvising. But still, all of those things can compliment each other in a number of different ways. And there is no real single mindset”single methodology”of improv.
RKL: I did a five day workshop with Alan Arkin, and his methods are a bit contrarian and fascinating. His take on Yes, And; he was like, You can say no. And everybody was like, What? And it has permanently turned it on its ear for me, for looking at it differently.
RS: Well, obviously you know his history, that he was with Viola Spolin back, back, back in the day, when he was like 12 years old. I did a week-long workshop with Paul Sills at his farm in Door County, Wisconsin. He was Viola’s son, and that was one of the most interesting things for me because when i started at Comedy Sportz”that was my first one back in 1994”it was all Spolin-based, leading into short form improv, kind of like Whose Line Is It Anyway stuff. And I had then branched off and gone into Brave New Workshop.
I had taken some weekend workshops at the Annoyance Theatre in Chicago and had started to experiment a little, and then I went to Sills’s and it was all right back to by-the-book Spolin improv and Yes, And. It was phenomenal and I learned a ton in that week, but it was also clear to me”because Paul was so adamant that this was the only way”it was clear to me that it wasn’t the only way.
RKL: Arkin’s thing was if he caught you saying something just to be funny he pulled you out.
RS: Nice. Sills”we had a final performance. And he was so furious with us at the end of the performance. He’d invited a little audience; he knew everybody in town and he invited 30 people to come to the show and I remember doing one of the last two scenes, the audience kind of laughed, and he said ˜Why are you laughing at that? Don’t laugh at them, they want you to laugh at them. Don’t laugh at them.’ And the scene sort of ended and he stood up and said, ˜Well, that was what it was, let’s have some cake.’ And he just wandered off and the audience sort of clapped a little sporadically and we all went off and hated ourselves for the next hour.
RKL: Well yeah. That’s awesome.
RS: It was great. Really good times.
Rich blogged about Paul Sills, upon his death, here.
The normal people seem to find each other.
RKL: What happened on the Office? You were supposed to do three episodes and it got whittled down, do I have that right? (This interview took place before his last appearance on The Office; in fact, this conversation was how I learned about that there was to be a second appearance.)
RS: I originally shot three episodes. The second episode, my stuff on it was entirely eliminated and it looked as though the storyline was going to be without me, which was part of the original deal. We didn’t know how it was going to play out. Maybe there would be more episodes, maybe these will never air, we didn’t know. And so when that happened, I spoke with some people at The Office; it seemed pretty apparent that the rest of my stuff had been cut. But I got a call last week and they said that my stuff from the final episode that is going to be in there and that’s this Thursday…
Or it was, at the time of this interview.
RS: It was amazing. It’s like, shooting-wise, polar opposite from shooting Mad Men.
The script is there, obviously, but it’s a lot less rigid. They want you to kind of play with it a little bit. They’re constantly offering you ideas for new lines. They ask if you have any ideas, maybe you can throw them out there And the people there are fantastic. I have been incredibly spoiled by the sets that I’ve gotten to work on. Because my first big job was Devil Wears Prada and that set was phenomenal. I remember everyone telling me don’t get used to it. And then of course the Mad Men set is phenomenal and when I went over to The Office those guys were phenomenal. I mean, they were all so welcoming and so supportive and so encouraging and I had met Mindy Kaling a few times and she walked me through the place, and Jenna Fischer”who I had all my scenes with”has been just wonderful. We’ve actually become friends and seen each other outside of The Office. Those guys are just really open to working with new people.
I’ve found that, working in this business, normal people find each other. Which is good. Because a lot of the people at Mad Men”Matt put together a group of people pretty deliberately, not just because of their acting but because of their personalities. And it’s a very tight-knit, sort of Midwestern feeling group, even though not everyone’s from the Midwest (but a lot of us are). The Office is a similar thing, it’s a very down-to-earth crew.
RKL: That’s interesting about Matt. I’ve always been aware that auditions are not the same as job interviews and that there’s crazy people who shouldn’t be employable who get jobs and how sucky that must be for everyone around them.
RS: It can be, but I think once you’ve done like three auditions, you start to figure it out pretty quickly. Or once you see the people who’ve been cast in the things you auditioned for, you start to get it right away that it’s not just about your performance on tape, or on that day, it’s also about who in common you know with the person auditioning you, and also how you present yourself personality-wise, and if those personalities mesh.
Fortunately Alan Talyor and Matt Weiner and I hit it off immediately. Same with Scott Hornbacher. It turned out his home town is the small town in which I went to college. And Hornbacher’s grocery store is where I bought all of my groceries when I was in college, which is crazy weird. But it’s little things like that; you find these things in common. Like I said, the normal people seem to find each other.
RKL: That’s really nice to hear. And it’s really obvious from out here that all the camaraderie that you guys talk about is not for show.
RS: No it’s legit, which is nice. It’s more than nice, it’s imperative. It’s why we all hate our hiatus. The only people who probably really want the hiatus are the top five or six who work their asses off constantly. Jon [Hamm] and Jan [January Jones] and Lizzie [Elisabeth Moss] and Vinnie [Kartheiser] and Christina [Hendricks]. and [John] Slattery too. Those guys are there constantly and they need a break. Whereas Michael and Bryan [Batt] and Aaron and me and Bobby Morse, we all come there on our days off sometimes and hang out with each other a lot off-set, because it’s a really good group of people. Hiatuses make me very sad is my new lesson.
RS: I mean I miss them. We try to keep in some touch. January and I were emailing this week and Michael and I are getting together tomorrow to play a nerdy presidential election board game. We try to stay in some touch. Jon Hamm and I are trying to meet up in a few weeks. Just little things like trying to keep in touch. I like these guys.
RKL: It’s great to hear.
Rich and I discussed the public speculation and concern over Matt Weiner’s return to the series. I told him how, odd as it might sound, I have a very personal relationship with the show, and certainly an emotional investment in its future. He was most gracious and generous regarding this notion. I mean, Rich and his co-workers are living and breathing Mad Men for real, from the inside. And we at the Basket are very proud to receive the respect from these guys, who consider us an integral part of the Mad Men story.
And what a story it is. We talked about that this show is already a legend. Any time, ever, there is to be a ‘top 100 whatever’ moments, scenes, characters etc. on television, there will be at least one Mad Men mention.
Rich told me that his goal, his dream, has only ever been to do one great work; one project that is important and impactful. But he always figured that if he were lucky enough to get to do it, it would be like, when he was in his 50s. Who knew it would happen to him so young?
Rich is really having a very good year.
In his recent Backstage interview he talked about being taught in grad school that as an actor, theme is not his concern; that is for the writers and directors to worry about. He told me this same thing, and said, for real, that there are many evenings, after the baby is down for the night, that he will be sitting at the computer and read something here at Basket of Kisses, and he will tell Virginia about it and they will have a discussion about the show. Like most of the cast and production team, (and like us!) Rich loves the layers of this series. Again, as an actor, his job is to be Harry and figure out Harry. So the Basket gives him an opportunity to get a richer experience of this show that he loves.
This show will be part of our legacies, and that’s incredibly exciting.
~Rich at the Season Two wrap party (courtesy of the AMC Mad Men site)