Interview date: 07/14/2009
Run date: 08/07/2009
As ad man Harry Crane, actor Rich Sommer had a good run during the second season of “Mad Men,” finding the cojones to get himself put in charge of Sterling Cooper’s television branch. Given the way that TV advertising kicked into overdrive during the ‘60s, outpacing print ads in rapid fashion, one can only presume that Harry will really be working his ass off in Season 3 of “Mad Men.”
In fact, everyone can only presume, since neither Sommer nor anyone else on the cast of the show is willing to discuss the events of the new season, lest Matthew Weiner scream, “Off with their heads!” Bullz-Eye did, however, convince Sommer to discuss Season 2 of the series – now available on DVD from Lionsgate – and the developments of his character, as well as how he came to be a part of the show in the first place. All of this, however, only took place after yours truly actually heard his phone ring. (I’d left it in the other room and missed Sommer’s first two calls!)
Bullz-Eye: I am so sorry.
Rich Sommer: (Laughs) It’s okay. How are you Will?
BE: I am good, man. It’s a pleasure to talk to you.
RS: Absolutely. You, too.
BE: The phone was in the other room and I just did not hear it. Then I walked in here and was, like, “Oh, crap.”
RS: No worries, no worries.
BE: Well, like I said, it’s a pleasure to talk to you. I actually was out at the TCA tour last year and did the “Mad Men” set visit.
RS: So we may have met that very day.
BE: I’m pretty sure we did, yeah. Very briefly, but there was a lot going on that day.
RS: Yeah, absolutely. It was kind of crazy.
BE: So…Season Two. You had a good year on the show.
RS: It was fun. It went well.
BE: Now, when did…well, I guess Matthew would have been the one who let you in on the whole “head of television” development for your character.
BE: How did he approach you about that and let you know what was going to be going on?
RS: You know, we are not given much advance notice on what’s going to happen story-wise. (Laughs) I believe that he may have kind of…Matt is also a little bit impish and likes to sort of tease you with things. Like, in the first season, when Harry was going to sleep with Hildy, he sort of would tease me and say, “Oh, you’ve got a little story coming up in a couple of episodes.” I would say, “Oh, that’s awesome. What is it?” He would say, “You have to guess.” And I’d throw out things like, “Is he going to ask for a promotion?” He was, like, “No, God, do you think he…? No, no, no. He’s too much of a pussy for that.” I was, like, “Oh, okay, I don’t know. Well, then, uh…”. So he likes to tease a little bit. And, so finally, when that was happening, he had sort of thrown me a little bit of a bone, saying that Harry was sort of going to grow a pair and do something. So I didn’t know until I got the script, and I only got the script a couple of days before the read-through, which is only a day before we start shooting. So I had really very little advance notice that he was about to be promoted.
BE: It was a nice progression throughout the course of the season. I mean, first he’s getting grumpy about his paycheck, and then figures out the angle to be able to throw some muscle toward what he wants.
RS: Yeah, it was really well done. I mean, the writing on the show is ridiculous.
BE: Oh totally. Of course, I’m one of the members of the TCA, so we’ve shown our appreciation more than once.
RS: That’s true, that’s true. We do appreciate that.
BE: So how did you originally come on to the series? Was it just a standard audition, or did somebody know your work and ask you in?
RS: It was sort of a mixture of the two. It was a person who had been an assistant to the casting director of “The Devil Wears Prada,” which was a movie I had done a couple of years before that, or maybe a year before that.
RS: She had switched to another casting office, and when they were looking for all these men about my age, she recommended me as someone who might be able to pull it off. So that casting office, I didn’t know them at all. It was my first audition there. It was really just a weird, weird fluke. It just worked out. It was the only audition during that pilot season that I got a callback for, and it was my final audition of the pilot season. It had been three miserable, horrible months where I had zero callbacks, zero positive reception. It was one of those pilot seasons that makes you pretty sure you are never going to be an actor and never want to be an actor. And then that happened, and it’s the best thing that has happened to my career, obviously, ever. So it’s pretty awesome.
BE: Well, to look at your IMDb page, it’s like you almost came out of nowhere, as far as working TV and film. I mean, “The Devil Wears Prada,” and then bam.
RS: Yeah, it kind of was that way. I mean, I went to grad school, so I was relatively late to the professional game. A lot of people get into this when they are 18 or 19 or 20. I didn’t get to New York until I was 27 or 28, maybe 26. I really have no idea. We did a grad school showcase, and I luckily found the best management I could have hoped for. They are still my managers to this day, and they are just fantastic. They are Davis Spylios Management in New York, and they became sort of surrogate parents when my wife and I were in New York. They held my hand through the whole thing and they just introduced me to the right people. Marcia DeBonis, who’s a casting director in New York, introduced me to Ellen Lewis, which led to “The Devil Wears Prada.” It all was really just a series of happy relationships, people that I happened to sort of hit it off well with.
BE: When you first heard about “Mad Men,” did you have any trepidation about the fact that it was a period piece? Or did you just trust Matthew’s reputation?
RS: I had no trepidation about the fact that it was a period piece, but I also had no inkling of Matthew’s reputation. I had never seen “The Sopranos” at the time. I had no idea who this guy was. I read that script and…again, I had read about 30 pilot scripts that year, and the script…I mean, it sounds almost cliché at this point, but it completely blew everyone who read it away. It was very clearly, even to someone like me, who had only been in the game for a couple of years, something special and very different from everything else that I had read. That alone was enough reason for me to really, really want to be a part of the show, more so than any of the other things I had auditioned for.
BE: Well, I think one thing that is particularly impressive about the series for me is that, even though there are obviously key roles, like Don and Peggy, it’s really a fantastic ensemble, and one where everybody has a major ongoing storyline.
RS: Yeah, it’s the right group of people to be in. I mean, we are really fortunate to be in not only an ensemble that is written so well, but an ensemble of really strong performers. It’s very exciting to go to work everyday. Even in those episodes where I only have four lines, I know I get to contribute in some small way to one of the major story lines. Then there are those few times each season that we kind of have our own thing to get to do. You know, Harry and Hildy in the first season, asking to be the head of the television department in the second season. It’s always very exciting to get to have even a little more of an impact on this show that we are all huge fans of.
BE: As you said, Matt likes to tease the actors, but he teases the critics as well.
RS: (Laughs) Of course.
BE: Is it hard to do interviews when you know the critics are going to say, “Hey, what’s coming up?”
RS: You know, it’s hard only because, of course, I want to be able to talk about it. I want to be able to say, “Oh, man, how about what happens in episode three of this season?” Like, I’d love to be able to talk to you about it. But I can’t. I can’t do it. So in that way, it’s a little frustrating. But also, I know not only how important it is to Matt to keep these things secret, but how much we want it to be a secret. Because Matt has definitely instilled in us the importance of surprise. I think in the first season, we didn’t really understand why it mattered until it started airing, and we got to see at the same time everybody else did, what this show had become, beyond what we were doing. It became very clear, very quickly that there really is a lot of power in the sort of mystique of the show. So while it is frustrating those handful of times that I can’t talk about it, it’s really exciting when it does happen and you call me after episode three, or whatever it is. Then I can really talk about it and we can really dig down deep. That’s always fun. I love talking about stuff after it airs, because we’ve all been holding onto it for six months, so it’s killing us. And I’m dying to talk about it.
BE: Well, given your character and the history of advertising, I’m obviously figuring that he’s going to play a major role in season three, just by virtue of the fact that TV is such a major thing with advertising by then.
RS: Sure, I mean, it was definitely one of the biggest revolutions in media ever. If not the biggest. It changes the whole media landscape.
BE: So have you looked into anything about the history of advertising to play your part?
RS: A little bit. We did the first season a little bit, and then I sort of came to understand that it’s important in a sort of contextual way, just to sort of know what’s going on, but it’s less important for us in regards to the story. All the necessary history is given to us in the scripts. And, really, our main job is to play the interactions of these people. It’s less about playing anything outside of that. So I did a little bit of research before the first season, but I’ve kind of let that go at this point because I know I’m going to know what I need to know. Otherwise, the rest is just Harry and Ken and Pete having a conversation, and that’s what matters.
BE: Did you enjoy having all those scenes with Christina during the course of Season Two?
RS: Oh, absolutely.
BE: She was very key to your storyline towards the end of the season.
RS: Yes, definitely. And, you know, she’s remarkable, and we had never really gotten to do any actual extended work with each other. Harry…I’ve been very excited about the stuff that Harry has gotten to do, from both a character standpoint and from just a nerdy actor standpoint. You know, I am a huge fan of this show, and I’ve gotten to do, in the first and second season, one-on-one scenes with Jon Hamm, which is, like…come on, I mean, the guy has blown up a little bit. (Laughs) One-on-one scenes with John Slattery, one-on-one scenes with Robert Morse…I mean, those are the things that, when I think back, are the really exciting moments. Any of those one-on-one scenes. Christina and I had one, Bryan Batt and I had one in the first season. I love those little moments because those are the times when…the big boy group scenes are really fun as well, but when you get to sit down with one other actor whom you have an immense amount of respect for, and you just kind of get to take these beautiful words that the writers have given you, and you get to play with them, just even a little bit…? That’s my favorite part of all of this entire process.
BE: What do you think about the painting in Mr. Cooper’s office?
RS: I think it is orange. (Laughs) I have no idea what it means. I am not…I must admit, I have never been much of an art aficionado. I did not know the name Rothko before we shot the episode. Which probably gives away a lot about my intelligence level, but that’s okay. I’m willing to admit that. That’s part of why it was pretty easy for me to play the completely bewildered Harry Crane, who had no idea why this picture was supposed to mean anything. (Laughs) That was a really fun scene that they let me do.
BE: I want to keep you on track here, because I was the one who made you late getting in touch with me, but it’s been good talking you. Do you know if you guys are going to be at the AMC function at the TCA tour this time? I hear they’re having a cocktail party.
RS: Yes, that’s right. It’s in a couple of weeks, in Pasadena. We will be there.
BE: Awesome. I thought you might. It doesn’t actually specify who’ll be in attendance, but when it says that AMC is having a cocktail party…well, that kind of almost spells people from “Mad Men” being there.
RS: (Laughs) Yeah, we’re definitely going to be there. Please seek me out. I would love to re-meet you.
BE: Definitely. I’ll remind you that I’m the one that didn’t answer the phone the first two times you called. Alright, Rich, good talking to you man.
RS: Thanks, Will, you too.
(Fade out on Virginia, fast-forward two weeks, and fade in on California…Pasadena, to be specific, at AMC’s cocktail party at the Langham Huntington Hotel & Spa. I walk up to Rich Sommer, and he spies my nametag.)
RS: Hey, hey! We talked a couple of weeks ago…and we had a little bit of a phone kerfuffle, if I’m remembering correctly. (Laughs)
BE: (Laughs) Yes, I’m the one who didn’t answer the phone the first two times you called. I screen my interviews.
RS: How are you, man? Good to see you meet you…or re-meet you, I guess, right?
BE: Exactly. So, you know, I still haven’t seen the first episode of Season 3 yet, but I know that some critics have, so I didn’t know how much you were able to talk about it now, at least about the increase in the use of television in advertising.
Rich Sommer: Well, I still feel very…we are under such lock and key that I still feel awkward saying anything. I mean, of course, you’re going to see how it has affected him, and, of course, you’re going to see every character and how they have been affected by the things you have seen so far. This show is like an elephant, it never forgets. Everything was done for a reason; every little move that has been made was intentional. So certainly you’ll see how the stuff with his wife affects him, the stuff with the baby that they were having at the end of the last season, stuff with the job, of course. It will all be there somewhere.
BE: What is the timeframe they are going to put it in?
RS: Timeframe in what way?
BE: What year is this going to be in?
RS: It is… (Hesitates, then starts to laugh) I’m so sorry.
BE: That’s cool. It’s totally cool.
RS: You might be able to get that out of someone else, but I can’t be the guy because I have a good relationship with Matt Weiner and I’ve got to keep it that way. (Laughs)
BE: I don’t want to be guilty of wrecking that.
RS: You know how it is. You’ll know soon enough.
BE: Fair enough. Well, I’ll let you get to talking to people who didn’t just interview you, but there was one more thing I meant to ask you the other day: what’s your favorite project that you’ve worked on that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved? Even if it was just a one-off.
RS: Um…boy, that’s a really tough question. I’ve got to be honest: I’ve had a pretty lucky run of it here. I mean, “The Devil Wears Prada” was the top-grossing comedy of that year, “The Office” is doing just fine with or without me, and “Mad Men” is “Mad Men.” I mean, they didn’t give me positive reviews for my turn as a bad guy in “Without A Trace,” but frankly, I didn’t feel I deserved them, so I can’t say I was shorted there, anyway. (Laughs)
BE: Anything in the theater you’ve done?
RS: No, you know, I haven’t done a play since grad school, so it has been five years since I have done a play…which is really weird to say, because that’s the longest drought I’ve ever had. So it’s very strange.
BE: Is that something you want to pursue?
RS: Yeah, I’m always talking to my representatives about getting a play going. I would love to go back to New York. Obviously, there is not the money in it that this has, but I feel like part of the bonus of doing this television show is that it affords me the opportunity to do stuff like that. So I’m hoping to do something in the near future. We actually had a party the other night for an NBC miniseries, “The Storm.” We had a bunch of people over…
BE: You know, they sent me a copy of that. I watched it the other day.
RS: You did?
(At this point, Sommer goes quiet, but in his silence, he offers an expression that says a thousand words…and possibly more.)
BE: I didn’t say anything.
RS: (Bursts out laughing) No, and neither did I! But, anyway, we had Bryan Batt, Michael Gladis, Aaron Staton…everybody was over at my house. We started talking about how much fun it would be to do a play, the four of us. So that night, we went on to Dramatists Play Service online and found four-man plays and ordered a pile of them. So they will be coming to my house, and we’ll start reading them and just see if we can be a little proactive about this thing.
BE: You know, I would love to see you guys do “Glengarry Glen Ross”.
RS: (Grins) That would be really fun. And that was one that was brought up. But, you know, they just did it on Broadway, so it’s probably unlikely. But there are a few names that we have been talking about. We all know enough people that maybe we could pull something together. It would be fun.
BE: Okay, man, thanks. And it’s good to see you in person again.RS: You, too, Will!