Spend a little time in Hollywood, and you’ll start to realize that some of the biggest star-fuckers are the stars themselves. Whether they work in front of or behind the camera, well-known people will bend over backward to be in the vicinity of another big name.
Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner knows that temptation well, but for seven seasons of the series, he resisted it. “I would meet people who I always wanted to meet my whole life,” he says. “Actors I really admire would say, ‘I want to be on the show.’ And I was like, ‘You can’t be on the show.’ I mean, it’s very flattering and very exciting, but . . .”
Too polite (or perhaps too wise) to name names, Weiner says he stuck to his guns because he knew that the moment a big-name actor appeared arbitrarily on Mad Men, “the show wouldn’t be real anymore. And I always wanted it to be real–or as real as you can make a TV show.”
Here are Weiner’s tips for keeping it real.
The biggest temptation a successful TV show creator faces, according to Weiner, is to leave the show and make more. “Let’s do 10 shows! You can have a whole empire!” That’s the enticement that has bewitched many a show creator. “I’m not capable of doing that. I’m not judging people who do it, but my staying kept the integrity of the show.”
He never even took a vacation during production and left things to others. Of course, there was a full staff of writers and an essential team that has been there from the beginning: Janie Bryant doing costumes, Dan Bishop on production design and Carrie Audino and Laura Schiff leading casting. “They are presenting things to me in a very autonomous way,” says Weiner, who was available, on set, all the time. “But the real temptation is to cash in on your popularity in a way that can destroy the fabric of the show. I was committed to not doing that.”
Resistance is tough. There are a million ways in which the integrity of a show can be compromised in an attempt to gain more viewers. The desire for popularity can breed faster storytelling, climactic act-outs (lingo for a precommercial cliffhanger), and any number of show-tampering tradeoffs.
“Don’t think I wasn’t told by the people who were paying for [the show] that they wanted certain things changed,” Weiner says. “But at a certain point, you succeed enough that they kind of leave you alone.”
Even in interviews, Weiner comes across as someone who is singularly confident and knowledgeable. “I think it’s reflected in whatever personality has come across to people who don’t know me. I had to fake it a lot that I knew what I was doing. We had a modest budget, but even at that rate, when you’re running a $30-million-a-year business, you can’t say, ‘I don’t know.’ You just can’t. It becomes a posture.”
Weiner embedded that sentiment in the show. “Last year [in the first half of the seventh season], it was part of the Don and Peggy storyline: She thinks being the boss is firing people, and he was like, ‘No, it’s living in the not knowing.’ That’s a Mike Nichols quote,” says Weiner of the late, great director. It’s embracing that uncertainty and leading anyway. “With the exception of my family and, in my case, everyone in my immediate creative vicinity, you really have to hide your doubts. You’re making 20 to 30 decisions a day, and they’re irreversible. You can’t reshoot things. We never recast anyone.” He clarifies: “People were fired after the table read, and sometimes they wound up on the show in another role, but we never went back and reshot a scene with a different actor.”
But his point is, “There are things I’ve been wrong about.” And without pausing a beat to be asked what those things were: “I’m not going to elucidate them here.”
Mad Men has earned deserving attention for casting known actors in unexpected roles. Such TV vets as Neve Campbell (Party of Five), Harry Hamlin (L.A. Law), Alexis Bledel (Gilmore Girls), and Linda Cardellini (Freaks and Geeks) are among those who have turned up on the show. (And in this coming Sunday’s midseason premiere–don’t worry, no spoilers here–there will be two arguably recognizable new ones; more to come on that on CoCreate Monday.) Each of them had to audition, or, in industry parlance, “read.” It’s Mad Men’s great equalizer.
Most actors are striving to get to the point in their career when they no longer have to audition. They hope to be cast based on who they are and what they’ve done. But how else can you find out if they will play against type? He and his team are constantly churning out one episode after another, and the script for one is completed while they’re shooting another, so Weiner takes the auditions as a moment to get the material up on its feet–a chance to hear the words as much as to see the performance. “We’re trying out the scene, too,” he says, explaining that the audition is more of a meeting in which you talk about the concept for the role and the scene. “Personally, I don’t know why anyone would want to have a role that they didn’t read for. Every single actor who’s ever been on the show has been in an audition with me, even if I wasn’t directing.”
Recently Weiner’s been impressed by how Broad City has handled some big names, like Kelly Ripa. “That’s your dream, that someone will come on and play against their persona. A lot of times people don’t have a sense of humor about it, but I watched her sitcom [Hope & Glory] for years, and I knew she could do that.”
Audino and Schiff have been casting Mad Men from the beginning, so they are well-versed in the Weiner directive: “I don’t want people who are so famous that they’ll pull you out of the show,” says Weiner. “At the same time, no one’s career should be over just because they’ve succeeded. It might be hard for actors who come in because they’ve reached a point in their career where they don’t audition anymore, but once I did it for some, I had to do it for everybody, I could not make an exception. I didn’t think it was fair.” That said, “There have probably been a lot of people who wouldn’t be on the show because they wouldn’t read.”
They do strive to be respectful, he says. “We don’t leave anyone waiting out in the hallway”–as, say, Don Draper might.
Mad Men involved a lot of what Weiner terms “high-risk casting,” actors coming in midstream to play roles that are pivotal to the emotional development of a scene. All of these actors auditioned, of course. But Weiner says he never had time for the standard practice of a chemistry read, in which you audition the actor with her love interest. In the case of Mad Men, that person was almost always Jon Hamm.
Don Draper had a lot of romantic partners and, amazingly, says Weiner, all of them worked. “It’s him. He’s the common element in that. The high-risk casting we did on the show was fine because of Jon Hamm.”
“It’s just that the show always wins. I mean, I would fire my own kid–I really would–if they were bad.”
Not to say that it’s Hamm’s charm with the ladies that did the trick. “Jon was working 85 percent of the time. He always showed up on time, prepared, for 92 episodes. He knew everyone’s name, and that sets a tone for the entire cast,” says Weiner. “If that person has that insecurity, everybody will.” In other words, actors are competitive, so if they feel insecure, they often do things to sabotage other actors’ performances. “I’ve seen it,” Weiner says. But not on Mad Men.
Prime example: Jessica Paré. She came in playing a secretary, but Weiner knew she was going to become Don’s wife. “Having Jessica come on that deep in the show, playing such a prominent part, having so much screen time,” he says. “I was worried about how everyone would treat her. She was so enthusiastic to work on Mad Men, and that’s the kind of person that gets sabotaged. But they loved her.”
“It’s not like you don’t acknowledge it,” he says of all the temptations to compromise his vision. “It’s just that the show always wins. I mean, I would fire my own kid–I really would–if they were bad. The show is ruthless about what works and what doesn’t work. That is the standard. You’re not sentimental about all the human beings that are involved.”
And yet Weiner is sentimental. “The irony is now that it’s gone, that’s what it was: all the people working together. It’s like when you graduate college, you realize, I’m never going to see these people all at once, in this situation, ever again.”