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'Mad' about Bryan Batt
by Amy Matheny

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The hottest show on television you may not be watching ... yet. Set in the early 1960s advertising world in America, 'Mad Men,' which airs on AMC, has won many awards, including the Golden Globe for Best TV Series-Drama. The series authentically captures a time when men were men and girls were girls; and when smoking was not bad for you—nor was a noon cocktail at the office. Bryan Batt plays Salvatore Romano, a man that today's audiences will recognize as a closeted ad exec, but he adjusts to being just one of the boys, though maybe one with more flair.

Amy Matheny: Tell me about Salvatore.

Bryan Batt: Salvatore is the art director at [ ad firm ] Sterling Cooper. He tries to fit in with the good ol' boy network of men at the office, but he has a secret. The writing on the show is absolutely brilliant. ... People [ are ] blown away by the beauty of the show and the cinematography of it and the sets and the costumes and the look. The writing is so subtle and these great little teases are given as the story goes along, and it's just intriguing. Everyone who's watched it is hooked. The problem is getting everyone to watch it. But Salvatore … at that time, there was no option for men and women who were gay. I honestly don't think Sal really thinks he's gay. He's battling with that inside. He has desires that he has completely suppressed. In today's world we look at that and go, 'What's the problem?' but so much has happened in the way of gay rights. The series touches on that, but also women's rights, African Americans... It was a very oppressive time, and we like to … say, 'Oh those were the golden years.' You know, it wasn't so golden. It wasn't so wonderful. It looks beautiful.

AM: Mad Man really does have it all—sexism, racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism. It's shocking as a modern audience to see how acceptable it all was. Is that an odd reality for all of you on the set?

BB: Oh, yeah. Sometimes the lines we have to say, it's like, 'Uh, I can't say this.' But it is accurate. It is how people spoke back then. I remember in the '70s growing up, I would hear people making racial or misogynist or homophobic comments, and you wince, but back then, it was the norm. Ruth's Chris Steakhouse [ which started ] where I'm from in New Orleans—it was in the '80s when they finally took off the Wop Salad. I don't believe people change that quickly. It's how we mask that has changed. It's the political correctness.

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AM: How did you get the role? I heard that you turned down the initial audition.

BB: Yeah. I lived in New York, and five years ago my partner of 19 years, Tom Cianfichi, and I decided to open a home furnishings/high-end gift shop on our favorite street in New Orleans, Magazine Street. My family is there and my friends are there. We went on vacation when Katrina hit and could not get back. My godchild, who worked for us, boarded up our store [ and ] our carriage house, and my mother's flight was cancelled, so she drove my mother to Texas. That kind of heroism, I don't know how you pay someone back for that. Tom says we're going to take her to Paris. So we planned this wonderful trip. So the [ 'Mad Men' ] audition came up and I said 'No, I'm in Paris.' I decided for the first time in my life not to let show business run my life. I basically said, 'If they don't find anybody, I can come 10 days later.' That's what happened. They didn't find [ the actor ] they wanted and I went in and I auditioned. It's a rare thing. I had one audition and that was that.

AM: So it was [ meant to be ] your role.

BB: I believe that. I lived through 9/11, lived through Katrina and the aftermath. … It puts things in perspective. A friend said years ago that as an actor, we will always be there for show business, but it's so obvious that show business will not always be there for us. So you have to have a life, and use your other talents. People generally want to put us in a category; you're gay, straight, white, Jewish, Christian, whatever. Or you're an actor, doctor, lawyer, shop owner. Life is too long and wide to just do one thing, so I try to keep busy.

AM: As a gay man do you feel a responsibility [ in ] present [ ing ] the man who didn't have options?

BB: Yes I do, and thank God that [ writer/executive producer ] Matthew Weiner is so brilliant and has such a vision for him. He has never made into a joke [ as ] on so many other sitcoms and dramas [ that ] , 'Oh, he's gay! Ha-Ha.' I wouldn't do it if that's the part because, in my opinion, what's so funny about being gay? It's your humor that makes you gay. [ This role ] is done with honor and dignity, paying homage to these people [ who ] had to live these very difficult lives. I interviewed art directors and spoke with men of that time, and they said that there were two options: either get married and pretend to be heterosexual or ... commit suicide. There were no [ other ] options.

AM: In one episode in the first season, they explored his struggle. I thought it was so beautiful and heartbreaking.

BB: Yes; I was quite pleased with it. Once again, the writing is such genius that you really just have to do the scene. It's all right there. The actor I play opposite, Paul Keeley, is fantastic as well.

AM: He's on a potential dinner date, right?

BB: It was an accidental dinner date. I was supposed to be going over to P.J. Clarke's to celebrate one of the secretaries moving up the ranks. But I go through this building because I wanted to see this architecture that [ the character ] Elliot had told me about, and I see him at the bar and we talk, and he says, 'Let's have a drink and what are you doing for dinner?' So we sit down and we talk, and he's clearly trying to pick me up, and I'm not getting the messages. I'm just not open to the messages, until he touches my hand. And then I just freeze. My little wall comes down and it really is sad. In fact, someone stopped me at a Rite Aid and said, 'Oh, I'm so sorry for you.' I'm like, 'What? Why?' I thought that it was something personal, and they said, 'Why can't your character Salvatore just be who he is?' So many people ask me, 'When is he coming out?' And just being in the world of the show, I think, 'Are you kidding? He can't come out, there's no way.' Therefore, there's the drama.

AM: The show seems to be about everybody having a secret. Some were revealed at the end of season one. No one is really what he or she appears to be. What can we look forward to in season two?

BB: We explore a lot of the characters' home lives—not just the office. There are consequences for the actions in this lifestyle that we are living. If you drink and smoke like crazy, it's going to take a toll. Living lies? You're going to get caught. And we skip a couple years. There are new characters, guest stars and great storylines. But one thing about the show is what you expect to happen doesn't happen.

AM: The show looks so authentic … every detail. What does it feel like to walk around in that world?

BB: It feels like you've really gone back in time, and then you turn around and somebody [ is ] texting somebody. The costumes by Janie Bryant are just amazing. The women wear the corsets, the bullet bras and garters. It must be so uncomfortable. We have these gorgeous suits, but they're cut very slim. You really can't jump too far, you're not as free and I think that reflects how society was at that time. It was very closed-up. Ties were very narrow and lapels were very narrow, and the views were very narrow. This is at the time when people were starting to question that.

AM: You [ have ] starred in many Broadway shows, [ including ] Sunset Boulevard, Beauty and the Beast, La Cage aux Folles [ and ] even the Cat in the Hat in Seussical. So you can sing! How do you handle all the smoking on the set?

BB: Well, they are herbal cigarettes, so there's no tar and nicotine, but they stink and they're nasty. I was a non-smoker for the longest time. People smoke a lot out here. Once in a while, I'll have a regular cigarette. I forget because my hands are used to, on set, just always having a cigarette, so when we're off on a break or something, I'll reach for a cigarette and start to smoke, and I'll be like, 'What am I doing?' But from what I understand there's no danger in them. There's been such a loathing of cigarette smoking. I remember there was talk about wanting to take out any scene in any of the Lucy shows where they smoked, and they smoked a lot in I Love Lucy. It was part of our culture. It was what people did.

AM: Talk to me about playing Darius in Jeffrey on stage and on film with Patrick Stewart. Was that the most divine experience ever?

BB: It was! It's very similar to this. It remains, just like 'Mad Men,' as one of the highlights of my life. We did not know whether people were going to rise to their feet laughing and crying at the end, or run screaming from the theater. [ The play ] was something that had not been touched. It was an AIDS comedy. Then I got to do the film with Patrick Stewart, and it was just heaven—the entire experience. I'm still friends with a lot of the cast. It was my first major role on film. I remember my favorite bit of direction Christopher Ashley gave me. He said, 'Forget there's a camera, and just meet Patrick Stewart's level.' Um, OK. I'll try that.

AM: Your shop is called Hazelnut in New Orleans. [ And ] you appeared on the Style Network's 'Guess Who's Coming to Decorate' …

BB: We were just in House Beautiful for favorite house for June.

AM: What feeds this design work for you?

BB: I have always done it. I've never really trained professionally, but I would always find myself redoing my apartment and all my friend's apartments. Then when the opportunity arose, Tom, who had a history of retail on Madison Avenue and work in design and I … just opened our shop. The store is very eclectic. But it's just another journey. We'll see where it leads. So far, it's been fantastic.

Season two of 'Mad Men' is current running on AMC; season one is out on DVD. For more about Bryan Batt's store, visit hazelnutneworleans.com and catch up with Batt at bryanbatt.com.

To listen to the full interview, visit www.windycityqueercast.com .

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