For actor Bryan Batt, art really does imitate reality, at least some
of the time. The openly gay actor plays a closeted character on AMC's
provocative prime-time period drama Mad Men, but the resemblance
to Batt's real-life existence pretty much stops there. Batt's character,
Salvatore, lives a painfully closeted life as art director of fictional
Sterling Cooper Advertising Agency, headed by the once-brilliant Don
Draper (superbly portrayed by Jon Hamm), who is now facing a daily
struggle to keep his job as the younger, aggressive ad men lie in wait
for the false move, the mistake that will send Draper and his contemporaries
out of Madison Avenue and into permanent retirement.
In real life, Batt is not only out, but fiercely proud of many things:
his sexuality, his ever-expanding career path, and especially, his
birthplace of New Orleans, the focus of his tireless fundraising efforts
since Hurricane Katrina wrought its unprecedented destruction upon
the beloved Louisiana city two years ago.
A graduate of Tulane University, the 36-year-old Batt is a veteran
of the stage, having made his debut on Broadway in the 1988 production
of Starlight Express. Bryan went on to star in the 2005 revival
of La Cage Aux Folles, Beauty and the Beast, Seussical the Musical,
Saturday Night Fever, Sunset Boulevard, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor
Dreamcoat and Cats. His Off-Broadway roles include Forbidden
Broadway Strikes Back and Forbidden Broadway Cleans Up Its
Act, for which he received a Drama Desk nomination. Batt also
created the role of Darius in the NYC and LA stage productions of Paul
Rudnick's Jeffrey, going on to reprise the role in the film
I recently visited with Batt to talk about the challenges of making Mad
Men, and his impressive fundraising efforts for Katrina victims.
David Guarino: From what I can deduce, the character of Salvatore
in Mad Men is a closeted gay character trapped in the mentality
and stereotypes of life in the US in 1960.
Bryan Batt: And he's Italian and Catholic, and all of this [besides
being gay.] He definitely has some issues.
What has it been like playing alongside Jon Hamm and Elizabeth Moss
and the rest of the cast on Mad Men?
I can't tell you how wonderful they are. I spend a great deal of time
hanging out with the cast, just watching the show. Last night we were
all at Rich Sommer's house, and Christina Hendricks couldn't come,
but we all still spent an hour and a half on the phone with her! They're
a great group of people; very talented, and at the top of their game.
Everyone is just so wonderfully cast. And they're all happy to be there,
so that's another plus. Bear in mind that this is AMC's first episodic
series, to be getting just wonderful critical reviews is really quite
The nuances of the early 1960s seem exaggerated in the show, everything
seems to be a bit over-the-top. For instance, almost every scene begins
with someone lighting up a cigarette. Male chauvinism is a very dominant
theme with most of the men at the advertising agency. Is that how you
You have a point there. But if you go back and look at some of the
movies of that era, you see a tremendous amount of smoking, drinking
and the like.
Do you pull from your own personality at all in drawing the character
No, no. Salvatore is far more acerbic than I am. He is also a very
closed personality in many ways, very much unlike me. I've tried to
make him a little guarded, his walk. I've had to change my posture
when I'm in character. The costume [a dark business suit] helps convey
the closed-off personality as well. The cut of the jacket makes you
hold your shoulders in a certain way. It's more period. At that time,
people thought about how to walk and stand. Men were taught to keep
their shoulders back at all times; those with military training brought
that tradition into the mix as well.
Your résumé is
quite impressive, especially all of the roles you've played on Broadway —
I'm just a tired Broadway troll! I was very fortunate, and I do love
Broadway, but this part on Mad Men is just such a wonderful
job to have. So many people think that Broadway is so much harder than
working in TV; they are simply two completely different art forms.
In the theatre, you have the luxury of rehearsing and rehearsing; then
you are doing the same performance eight times a week, so you get to
perfect it. The real work is maintaining your performance. With TV
and film, especially with this show, there is very little rehearsal.
We read the script around the table on the day before we start shooting.
You have these incredibly long days; sometimes we shoot until two o'clock
in the morning. Depending on where your scene is, you have to sit and
wait. Coming from the theater, this was a very hard thing for me to
learn. When I get to the theater, I'm ready, I'm pumped. What I've
had to learn in TV is to be able to turn it off, then turn it right
back on to the level that I need to be at to shoot.
The one thing I love about Mad Men is that there is nothing
like it on television. This is a real period drama. The show points
out how much society has changed and how much it hasn't, regarding
such issues as racism, sexism, Anti-Semitism, homophobia and the like.
Is it true that your family owned an amusement park?
My grandfather started an amusement park in New Orleans in 1933. It
was a very beautiful amusement park on Lake Ponchatrain. It became
the favorite place for family entertainment for many generations. If
you talk to anybody 30 or older from New Orleans, they probably have
fond memories of going there.
I've been reading about all the fundraising you've been doing for
New Orleans and the survivors of Hurricane Katrina. Where were you
when Katrina touched down?
Tom and I were on vacation in France with
friends. The minute we heard about Katrina hitting New Orleans, we
tried to get out. My family and friends were saying, "Don't even think about coming here," so
it was frightening beyond belief. As it turns out, my godchild boarded
up our store and our carriage house, and drove my mother to Texas with
her. It was horrendous. Then waiting five days for the National Guard
to respond was just unbelievable.
It's maddening when you consider that with the money we've spent on
Iraq, we could have had five levy systems rebuilt. The levies were
never built correctly in the first place. And they're still not up
to snuff, even to this day.
Of all the famous people you've met, who is the person you are still
in awe of?
The one person who had such a tremendous impact on my life, and one
of the forces behind my being able to get into show business, was Helen
Hayes. I met her at a dedication for a community theater in New Orleans.
Helen Hayes was the guest of honor, and she met my mother and father.
After taking them out to lunch the next day, Helen convinced my father
to send me to NY to pursue a career in theater. When I opened on Broadway
in my first show, Starlight Express, I got a telegram from
her. It said: "Welcome to Broadway. May you have a triumphant
You have been in a committed relationship for many years. Do you envision
us seeing legal gay marriages in this country in our lifetime?
I don't know. I hope so. My partner and I have been together 18 years,
and we never really thought about it. We always wanted the legal benefits
[of marriage.] I don't care what you call it, as long as we have the
rights. Whether it's termed civil union, marriage, whatever. If we're
fighting about a word, I think that's kind of useless.