Bryan Batt Press - Bay Area Reporter

Bay Area Reporter
Bay Area Reporter, October 4, 2007

Confessions of a mad man
Interview with 'Mad Men' supporting actor Bryan Batt
by David R. Guarino

Bryan Batt as Salvatore Romano

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 adaptation.

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 a coup.

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 see it?

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 of Salvatore?

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 stay."

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.