Bryan Batt Press - The New York Times
The New York Times

AT HOME WITH BRYAN BATT
An Actor Really Sells His Material

by JOYCE WADLER
Published: August 16, 2007

Bryan Batt and Tom Cianfichi
Bryan Batt, on the right, an actor from the new television series "Mad Men,"
shares a New Orleans home and decorating business with Tom Cianfichi.
Cheryl Gerber for The New York Times
Click images to enlarge.  
Peggy
Mr. Batt and Mr. Cianfichi's dog, Peggy, in front of a faux Barcelona chair.
 
the guest bedroom
The guest bedroom.
 
The dining room
The dining room.
 
the living room
The living room.
 
NEW ORLEANS

IN his role as an Italian-American art director among the macho and WASP-y advertising men of the summer television hit “Mad Men,” Bryan Batt does his best to fit in. Sure, his character, Salvatore Romano, is a little more flamboyant than the button-down businessmen of 1960, the year in which the AMC series is set, and the viewer senses he might be harboring a secret of a sexual sort. But so long as he appears to go along with the causal gay-bashing and the anti-Semitic remarks, he can pass.

Were those fictional characters ever to meet the real Mr. Batt, his character would be lucky to get work drawing ads in the backs of comic books.

For starters, he is openly and happily gay; he has been with his partner, Tom Cianfichi, for 18 years. Then there’s the fact that, professionally, Mr. Batt is a hyphenate, and it’s not actor-Airborne Ranger. It’s actor-decorator.

With one peek at his rented carriage house in this city’s Garden District, even the dimmest fellow could figure it out: one wall of the living room is deep green, a shade Mr. Batt and Mr. Cianfichi decide, after a minute of arch discussion, is, as Mr. Cianfichi puts it, “avocado in that ’70s avocado way: Kenmore avocado green.” The chaise longue is centered at an angle in the living room, a move only a decorator would be bold enough to make; there is also a beaded, orange chandelier.

Most telling is the toile Mr. Batt and Mr. Cianfichi sell at Hazelnut, their home décor shop on Magazine Street in Uptown New Orleans. A sissifying word, “toile”— a 1960 Mad Man, in the unlikely event he was overheard pronouncing it correctly, would be suspected of being unable to satisfy his wife. But here is where it gets even more shocking: Mr. Batt, a native and booster of this city, designed the New Orleans-theme fabric, sketching such city symbols as the St. Charles Avenue streetcar and the steamboat Natchez.

But back to the character Mr. Batt plays on “Mad Men.” One senses that Salvatore Romano is not straight. Care to enlighten us, Mr. Batt?

A smile comes to Mr. Batt, a tall, dark-haired man with a flair for goofy comedy, as anyone who saw him as Darius, the spectacularly dumb chorus boy in “Jeffrey,” Paul Rudnick’s Off Broadway show and film, might recall.

“Let’s just say I think he’s seen his share of Steve Reeves movies,” he says.

Mr. Batt is 44 and his roots in New Orleans are deep. His grandfather created the Pontchartrain Beach amusement park, now defunct, but in its time a local institution. An old photo, lost in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, showed his parents at the park in the 1950s eating fried chicken with Elvis Presley.

Mr. Batt went to New York in 1987 and landed his first role on Broadway within a year, in “Starlight Express,” a musical in which the actors wore roller skates. To get the part, he taught himself to do a cartwheel on skates.

“I wasn’t fantastic, but I was fearless,” he says. “You have to get a lot of momentum. I would go to Central Park where it was a little hilly and come barreling down those hills. I broke up quite a few drug deals.”

Mr. Batt met Mr. Cianfichi, 44, then an actor and now his partner in the home design shop, in 1989, while they were performing in a dinner theater production of “Evita.” Mr. Batt worked steadily in theater; he not only played a cat in “Cats” but he played an actor who played a cat in “Cats” in “Jeffrey.”

Not all of Mr. Batt’s work has given him joy. A mention of his stint as a guest decorator on the short-lived 2003 Style Network show “Guess Who’s Coming to Decorate” makes him wince.

“They reunited people through design,” Mr. Batt says, hanging out in his New Orleans home with Mr. Cianfichi. “They’d bring in somebody from their past to come in and assist the designer, tell you what they like. I did a home in Florida where the stepmother was estranged from her daughter. They hadn’t seen each other in something like 10 years.”

Wait a minute. If one person has been out of another’s life for 10 years, how will she know what the other person likes? And why would the estranged party want her input? “Exactly,” Mr. Batt says. “She loved the room, and then the stepmother came out and it was a little icy. Suddenly, there is an arctic chill in Florida.”

Mr. Batt and Mr. Cianfichi frequently redesigned the one bedroom co-op he owned on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and they also helped friends decorate their houses. In 2003 they made New Orleans their second home and opened Hazelnut (hazelnutneworleans.com). Using the store as their base, they began consulting in design.

Their house in New Orleans is an exuberant mix of the contemporary pieces they carry in the shop and finds like the acrylic Philippe Starck Louis Ghost chairs they bought at Anne Rice’s yard sale ($100 for the pair). Another find was a 1950s Salvation Army sofa ($300), which they reupholstered with Ultrasuede ($400).

Two years later the men were on vacation in Sonoma, Calif., when Katrina hit. Their shop and house sustained little damage — the Garden District was not as badly hit as other areas — but few of their friends were so lucky. “It was like going to another planet,” Mr. Batt says. “Everything was dead.”

Mr. Batt threw himself into fund-raising. When The New Orleans Times-Picayune asked him to redecorate the temporary shelter of someone displaced by Hurricane Katrina, a project called Pimp My FEMA Trailer, Mr. Batt and Mr. Cianfichi did a design for a woman in her 70s.

“She had lost her home in Chalmette, but she had this great joie de vivre,” Mr. Batt says. “I asked her, ‘Do you have any family pictures?’ She said, ‘No, sweetie, but they’re tattooed on my heart.’ ”

Mr. Cianfichi sought out members of the woman’s family and found pictures, then created a montage for her living room wall. They designed the bedroom, Mr. Batt says, “like Jean Harlow’s trailer — lots of charmeuse-y satin.” The lady said she felt like a movie star, Mr. Batt says.

Katrina changed him. Before the flood, show business came first. He missed the funeral of an aunt because he had to shoot an episode of “Guess Who’s Coming to Decorate.”

When Mr. Batt was first invited to audition for his role in “Mad Men,” he and Mr. Cianfichi were scheduled to take his adult goddaughter, Ramsey Schmitz, to Europe to repay her for her kindness during Katrina.

“She had boarded up the carriage house, boarded up the store and taken our car and driven my mom to Texas,” Mr. Batt says. “Then she had to get back because she was a nurse at East Jefferson Hospital. She’d never been out of the country; we love Paris, so we took her to Paris. The audition came up, and for the first time I said I’m not altering my life for any kind of audition or show business.”

He got the job anyway.