This is Part 1 of a 2-part conversation–you can find Part 2 here.This took place between Bryan Batt (BB) and Deborah Lipp (DL) on February 8, 2009. It was a Sunday, around noon in Bryan’s time zone, and he told me he had just gotten in from church. We chatted on the phone; Bryan was in his Louisiana home, and I was in New York. We started by fiddling around with the speaker phone and the digital recorder, and then got right down to it. The transcript can only approximate Bryan’s enthusiasm and focus. I felt like James Lipton on Inside the Actor’s Studio, he has that much concentration when speaking of his work.
DL: Everybody says hi. I’ve got all these messages, “Be sure to send Bryan my love!” Including my sister.
BB: Well send mine right back!
DL: So, where are you keeping your SAG?
BB: Right now it’s in the center of my dining room table. But I’ve been using it for a bicep workout.
DL: [laugh] I never got to ask that question before, that’s a great answer.
DL: That’s awesome. So everybody loves the character Salvatore, we’re going to have a lot of questions about him, but I have to start with: Oh My God I’m so jealous that you played Patrick Stewart’s boyfriend [in Jeffrey].
BB: Oh! He’s—that was a wonderful, wonderful experience. I did the play of Jeffrey from the very beginning, from the WPA theater, off-Broadway. Then it moved to a commercial run at Minetta Lane. Then they took us to Los Angeles to do it, and then I got to keep my part for the film. And it was one of those blessed experiences, just like Mad Men has been. It’s been great. It’s been two wonderful experiences. But working with Patrick Stewart was heaven, he’s such a consummate actor, and such a giving actor. I just can’t say enough nice things about him.
DL: It’s such a wonderful cult movie.
BB: Yeah, we didn’t realize it would become that. Honestly, when we did the play, Paul Rudnick, who is just hysterical, Chris Ashley is such a wonderful director, and the cast was really talented. I felt like I was a hack. What happened was, every day Paul Rudnick would come in with funnier scenes and funnier lines. We started with a script of white pages, and every day the rewrites would come in a different color. By the end it was a complete rainbow. We honestly didn’t know what we had. We either thought people would jump up and run screaming from the theater, or we thought they would jump to their feet for a standing ovation. We really didn’t know which way it was going to go because it was so cutting edge. I mean, who would have thought of having, in the midst of the AIDS epidemic, an AIDS comedy? It was done so well, I think people embraced it.
DL: Yeah and you ended up with your closing monologue, "It’s still our party."
BB: Yes. Isn’t it great? It was a wonderful line. As a white cat.
DL: Yeah, in a white Cats outfit, it was hysterical.
BB: It changed so much. Originally, the part was a dancer in Grand Hotel, and when I auditioned, I actually was in Cats at the time, and at my callback, Paul said, “Are you really in Cats?” and I said [sardonically] “Yeah, now and forever,” and he started rewriting the part with me in mind. So it was a wonderful, wonderful experience.
DL: I’m so glad I asked about it.
BB: I made one of my dear friends, Harriet Harris, who won the Tony award for Thoroughly Modern Millie, she played Mrs. Meers. She’s been on a lot of episodes of Frasier, she plays Bebe, his agent, and I think she’s now doing Pippin in Los Angeles. It turns out she was doing a Broadway show for the last two seasons while I was doing Mad Men, so I lived in her house. I rented her house. So we’ve remained friends all these years, since we did the play of Jeffrey. It opened some wonderful doors of friendship for me.
DL: I was looking at your Broadway resume, which is much more extensive than I’d realized, and you seem to gravitate towards these big, costumey roles.
BB: [laughs] Yes! I don’t know why. I guess I’ve gotten into a habit of being a very broad actor, very big in the big musicals. I’m glad that I was able to tone it down for the TV screen. Yeah, I don’t know why, from my first show, Starlight Express, I was this guy who looked like [a] train, we were made up to look like trains. And then Cats, okay that explains that, and then, what else?
DL: Beauty and the Beast!
BB: Lumiere in Beauty and the Beast, and all those other ones. I don’t know, even when I was in Sunset Boulevard, my regular part, I had a multitude of disguises. I had what we called the “hedgehog wig,” I would look like I had a brown crewcut, and then I had a blond wig in one scene; they tried to disguise us to make us look like a chorus of thousands. But then when I got to go out for Joe Gillis [the lead] I looked like myself the whole time, so that was okay.
DL: That’s great. Do you think that has held you back? Do you think there are roles that you’d like to do that are more subtle?
BB: I don’t know. I was very fortunate, very lucky to be a working actor on Broadway for years and years and years, so I’m really a glass half full kind of guy. I’m grateful for what I’ve got. I think at this age, to be on Mad Men, it’s just—my cup runneth over! It’s more than half full, it’s puddling around the bottom.
DL:It’s an incredible resume for an actor before you got Mad Men. And now you’ve got the best thing that’s been on television in, easily fifteen years. So, wow.
BB: Yeah, it’s pretty wonderful, and the people—everyone, I’m sure, every interview you’ve done with all the cast members say how wonderful the cast is, and it really is true. And all the production [people, the] writers, everyone connected to it is at the top of their game. Plus nice people.
DL: It seems like that. Even Vincent Kartheiser is apparently nice in real life despite what we see on screen [as Pete].
BB: Yes! And he’s funny. I mean [also], Jon Hamm, when he was on Saturday Night Live, how hysterical. Well, we all knew how great and funny he is too, he’s actually a brilliant actor. But now everyone knows how funny he can be.
DL: He was definitely great on SNL and on 30 Rock.
BB: On 30 Rock? Yes, yes.
DL: So funny. But let’s talk about you.
DL: Right from the beginning, your first scene, in Smoke [Gets in Your Eyes], we know you’re gay and the characters don’t. So that’s a fine line. How do you walk that line as an actor?
BB: Very carefully, because sometimes you can—you don’t want to cross it, you don’t want to give away too much. The writing is so brilliant and subtle on the show, you just trust it, and what’s great about Matt [Weiner], is Matt is around, and in the reading, if it’s not exactly how he sees it, or the intention he had for the role, he will tell you, and you can make the adjustment. But it’s also very, very determined by the writing. The one thing is [Sal] is of Italian descent, he’s an artist, so he has these other things, so people [can say] oh, well, he’s just artistic, or oh, he’s European. So that also helps with the disguise for him to hide who he really is. I also think, he hasn’t acted on, in my opinion, from how I feel, I don’t think he’s ever acted on these instincts. So it just builds…the torture.
DL: That’s certainly one of the things that a lot of our readers are wondering, is exactly that: Do you think he’s ever acted on it?
BB: I don’t think so. I think it’s—so many people have come up to me and asked, ‘When is he coming out?’ and I have my standard answer. I say “To what?” You know, in 1960, 1962, even up until 1969, what really kind of community would he come out to? It’s not like it’s 2009. It’s a completely different time. There did not exist this warm, embracing gay community or the straight community as embracing as they have somewhat, become; somewhat in recent times.
DL: It would be a breakthrough for Sal if he came out to himself, but not necessarily a happy one.
BB: Exactly, and also, he wants to conform, he wants to fit in. He’s doing everything possible to be one of the guys. That’s really all he knows. Even more so, I mean, I grew up in New Orleans in the late sixties and early seventies, and you would have thought I would have had many different gay role models or people that I knew were gay. But I didn’t. So [Mad Men is] ten years prior. Sal growing up had absolutely no clue that homosexuals really exist. I bet he thinks he’s on his own with this. Maybe not “exist,” I’m sure he knows they exist, but that you cannot function in society being an out gay person.
BB: The society he’s in right now.
DL: It’s definitely heartbreaking.
BB: Yes, and it’s so different from me. It’s wonderful that it’s very different from who I am.
DL: Yes, and it’s very different from being “political.” It can’t help but be political, but it’s certainly just human. In terms of, move it away from the political issues and look at the human beings and the cost in their lives.
BB: Oh! Oh yes, anybody. Anybody in any walk of life who is denying their longings—not just sexual but artistic, work-related, anything that they’re denying and they’re not acting on it and they’re not living their lives as they should, it is heartbreaking. There’s frustrated artists, frustrated musicians—
DL: Yeah, absolutely.
BB: Landscape architects, I don’t know. [laughs]
DL: Probably not! [laughs] But I certainly get your point.
So, I know you’re always asked about the scene in Hobo Code, with Elliot, but what I’m interested in asking you is to back up an hour or two. You have an invitation from a woman and you have an invitation from a man. And so Salvatore takes up Elliot’s offer. So can you talk about what you think was going on with him in meeting with Elliot. Was there some point, do you think, where he thought he was going up to his room with him?
BB: No. I think he was intrigued. I think there was some kind of little connection when Elliot mentioned the architecture, so Sal claimed he went to see the redo of the hotel, but I think he was following some kind of instinctual wanting to be with Elliot, to have a drink or something. I don’t think he planned on having dinner or staying. I think he was just, ‘I’m going to have a drink, check it out, he might be there, he might not.’ The reason I’m saying that he did not ever think he was going to go to the room is the minute he mentions it, Sal recoils.
DL: He just freezes.
BB: He freezes and pulls back. In my head, I really thought that is so foreign, such a foreign thought for Sal to actually do that. Also with a client, blocks away from work, it was all too risky. So if he’s discovered, if that gets out, he’s finished. It’s too much on the line for him.
DL: Well does that change in 1962? Kurt’s not finished.
BB: No, I don’t think so. I don’t think it’s going to change. I hope it’s not going to change for a while. It’s such wonderful torture to play, you know? Of course, I’d love to see, down the line, if the series continues for years and years and years, in the late sixties—I think Stonewall happened in ’69—
DL: Stonewall was ’69.
BB: Who knows what could happen? I mean, he could have a dalliance, he could have an affair, who knows? Who knows what Matt and the writers—I think they’re going back to work real soon—who knows what they’re going to write? So I just can’t wait. Because every time, they give me something that’s a gem, so I can’t wait to see what they’re going to come up with.
DL: Now, he’s seen somebody being out, a gay person.
BB:Yeah, so it’s, who knows, he might test the waters. There’s so many possibilities. How many people do you know that their parents, their mother or their father, later on in life, realized that they were gay? Or came out that they were gay.
DL: I have a friend who found out after her father died, while she was going through his things.
BB: Oh! That’s even more tortuous.
DL: Yeah, it’s painful. And to have kept the secret.
BB: But I think Sal’s going to keep—I mean, I can’t predict—but I think he’s going to continue to live the life that he knows. That’s all he really knows. Maybe something will turn for him. I can’t wait, I’m sure it’s going to be fun.
DL: We can’t wait. We love the writers so much. Our thing, my sister and I, we say, let’s not try to predict it, let’s just trust these writers, because they’re so talented.
BB: Exactly. You really can’t. Because honestly, we’re on the show, and we get the scripts right before we do the table read, and we’re constantly surprised where they go. And we can’t predict, we have no idea. We’re not told anything, pretty much until we get the script before the table read. And each week, we think ‘How are they going to top last week?’ And they always do. It’s astounding. The table read is one of my favorite things about this show. It really is, it’s really fun. And that’s the first time and the last time we hear the script, in full, read. And then we film it. And then we don’t see the episodes until they air on television.
DL: So, walk me through a work week.
BB: A basic work week—everyone has a difference, depending upon how many scenes or how heavy your script is that episode—the last day of shooting for the episode we’re working on, at lunch we have the table read. So everyone sits around the table. If you’re working that day, you just come up in your costume. If you’re not, you just come the time you’re called. Do the table read, then we can go back to work. And then you get your call for the next day, and that is when the episode you just read starts filming.
DL: The next day!
BB: And your call can be anywhere from 5:30 or 6:00 in the morning, until one time, I think my call was at 8:00 at night because they were [filming] late. So you really don’t know. You have a general idea of what the week is—you get the schedule at the table read for the next week, for the filming week—you have a general idea, but sometimes things go late, sometimes things are rescheduled, so the day before you’re called is when you get your call time. And then you go to report to hair and makeup, and they start to slick your hair back, and you’re called to the set, they do a quick blocking, and you go back to finish up makeup while they light it, and then we start shooting. It’s not a lot of rehearsal, in fact there’s virtually no rehearsal. That’s why you’ll always see the cast members running scenes between takes or while people are getting ready for other scenes, because there’s not a lot of time to rehearse.
DL: Sounds like a whirlwind.
BB: It is. And it calls on a completely different set of skills than you use for stage. In stage you have the luxury of at least a month of rehearsal for a Broadway show, sometimes more. Then you have a preview period where you put it in front of an audience, and you hone and hone, and you keep on discovering and perfecting, hopefully, your performance. But then you have to do it eight shows a week, the same script eight shows a week. The same songs, if it’s a musical, the same dance, eight shows a week. And maintaining it is the trick. I find with television, you have to try everything, follow your instincts and try everything while you’re rehearsing in that one little time, that one little blocking rehearsal. And while you’re shooting, do different things, because that’s it. Sometimes you’re driving home, after shooting [for] the day, and you’re like, "Uh! That’s how it should have been played!" And you can’t go back. You don’t have tomorrow night’s performance to try something else. It’s done. So it calls on high improvisational acting skills. And also being in the skin of your character, because once you’re in your character you really can’t make a false move. You really can’t with this writing, it’s so brilliant, it’s, you just have to get out of the way, put the actor aside and let the writing go. It’s so great.
DL: That’s extraordinary. And to see you elsewhere, to see you on Martha Stewart or to see you in another movie, I’m "Oh my God, that’s Bryan!" Because you’re so embodying Salvatore that, in the audience, you forget, those are two different people.
BB: Salvatore is very contained, he’s very, very contained. He is not going to over-gesture, he’s not going to let anything out. He’s very, very slick and calculated. Not calculated, but he knows what works for him and he’s very secure in that sense.
DL: Yeah, he’s definitely put together a performance, his life is a performance, and it’s a controlled performance.
BB: Like if you saw me at the SAG awards, I looked like a black Labrador Retriever puppy running to his bowl. When I ran up on stage.
BB: I’m kind of embarrassed. A friend of mine said that to me. She said, “Bryan, you look like a black Labrador puppy running to his food bowl.” But what happened is, they have…instructions, if you win. You know, hug whoever, and then get to the stage as fast as possible, so it will allow more time for people to talk. No one really wants to see people walking through tables to get to a stage. So I happened to be on the end, right at the aisle to go up, so I just, went up. Hugged [his partner] Tom, and ran up on stage. Little did I realize that everyone was going to mill around and take their time. I thought there was [going to be a rush]. [laughter] So I was up there for a little while looking like [a puppy].
DL: Well, everybody was just floored. It was just pandemonium.
BB: Well it was so thrilling, too. It was really fun. Such a fun night. At a certain hour, we all had to put down the cocktails and head back to the hotels and home, because the next day, we flew to Las Vegas to do the Mad Men Revue. So we really had to curtail the celebration, if you will.
DL: I understand.
Part two of this interview will cover the Mad Men Revue, Sal’s marriage,
his mother, his perceptions of Peggy, Bryan’s work on Katrina recovery efforts, babysitting for Rich Sommer, and more. Stay tuned.