By Jeremy Kinser
Originally published on Advocate.com August 17 2009 12:00 AM ET
Today's water cooler moment is brought to you by Mad Men . [ SPOILER ALERT: If you haven't watched the third season premiere, stop reading now.] AMC's award-winning drama about the competitive world of Madison Avenue advertising firm Sterling Cooper in the early 1960s returns, not only with 16 Emmy nominations, but with a doozy of a plot development for closeted art director Salvatore Romano (played by out actor Bryan Batt). While on a business trip, Romano is caught in a compromising situation with a randy hotel bellhop by firm partner Don Draper.
The stylish series has struck a pop cultural chord with viewers and critics alike, and Batt has become a rarity on the small screen -- an openly gay actor playing a closeted gay character. A veteran Broadway performer of such lavish productions as Sunset Boulevard and La Cage aux Folles , Batt is also familiar to gay audiences as Darius, the Cats chorus boy, in both the stage and screen versions of Paul Rudnick's Jeffrey . When not filming the series in Los Angeles, Batt spends much of his time in his native New Orleans, where he and Tom Cianfichi, his partner of 20 years, own and operate Hazelnut, a fine gift and home accessories shop.
Advocate.com talked with Batt about his character on the acclaimed series, what might happen should Sal come out, and who he thinks is the hottest coworker at Sterling Cooper.
Advocate.com:What a great way to kick off the new season. Sal finally got some gay action only to be interrupted by a fire alarm and then get caught by Don Draper. The guy can't catch a break. Will Sal's luck change this season?Bryan Batt: I can't talk about it, but that first episode is just a taste.
How do you think people at Sterling Cooper would react if Sal came out?Oh my gosh! I think they'd let him go. I can't imagine him in his position doing it. He is so conflicted and in denial. He was so in denial in the first season that he got married. He's staying in [the closet], come hell or high water. I don't think he can imagine a gay life. In retrospect, there was no gay life at that time.
Do you think Sal's is just a marriage of convenience or does he really love his wife?As much as he can, I think he loves her very much. There are lots of men and women who have realized they're gay through therapy and time and they still do have love for each other, just not in the man-and-wife heterosexual love.
What kind of research did you do to play Sal? Did you create a backstory for him?Yes, I did create one the first season and it's grown from that. I spoke with friends who were in touch with men who were closeted ad men in that time, who were married and had children and later came out. I talked to them about their lives and what it was like. It was very helpful to put myself in that place. I grew up very closeted. I tried to pretend to be someone else through high school and college, so I could identify with that. There was nothing for Sal or gay people at that time. Stonewall had not happened. There was no gay movement. At that time homosexuality was viewed as an abnormal behavior.
Looking ahead a few years, do you think Sal would be liberated post-Stonewall?Wouldn't that be wonderful? The Mad Men world is so dark and tortured that I'd love to see Sal toward the end be accepting of himself, living his life, and not caring what everyone else thought. Not living his life in this closeted, masked way.
I hope the series runs long enough for this to happen.I do too. I want Sal to go to the opening night of Hair and come out wanting to be a hippy, then going to the Stonewall and the riots start. [ Laughs ] Wouldn't that be great? Then we see him later on Fire Island in a caftan with his younger lover. That would be my dream. I've stopped trying to speculate what will happen because what the writers come up with is so brilliant and so beyond my imagination that I just hand it over and trust.
That's what is so captivating about the series -- viewers can always expect the unexpected.Right. There's nothing that's repeated and there are no stories that you've seen before on television. I don't remember a character of this type being depicted on television before -- and also played by a gay actor, which Matthew Weiner wanted. He definitely wanted a gay actor to play this gay role. It's an honor and a responsibility to pay homage to these men and women who did forge through this difficult time and survived it.
As a gay man, do you feel an obligation to portray realistic gay men on-screen?Oh, yes. There is a responsibility to get it right and I think the writers do a great job of that too, giving us the dialogue and situations to do it. One thing I can't stand is to see these sophomoric comedies where the joke is that the person is gay. I don't think being gay is funny. I would never play an ill-represented or stereotypical or negative gay person.
Who do you think is the hottest coworker at Sterling Cooper?Joan Holloway.
That's not the answer I expected.Come on. If every gay man could choose to be a woman, he'd choose Joan. How many people did you see dressed as her last Halloween?
The show has a great ensemble cast and there's such chemistry between the actors that I like to think you're all close friends who hang out even when you're not filming. Are you?Yeah, we're really a very tight-knit group. We have fun on set and a little more fun off set. We party and go out together. I have a friend who writes on one of the big network shows and he came to one of our parties and said he has never witnessed a cast with this genuine camaraderie and it's true. It's very unique in that aspect and I'm grateful for it.
In Judd Apatow's film Funny People , you play Adam Sandler's character's agent. What was it like on that set?It was great. I had a big scene with Adam that was cut. When we think he's dying I go to confess that I embezzled millions from him. It was really fun. We filmed the script as written once or twice then spent the next hour or two improvising. It was so much fun and Adam was just a wonderful, giving actor and we had a great time. It was completely different from Mad Men, but wonderful just the same.
You've written a memoir titled She Ain't Heavy, She's My Mother, to be published next year. What can you reveal about the book? That started one night with a conversation over dinner on Fire Island with Paul Rudnick and Tom and B.D. Wong and his partner at the time. It triggered some of these memories. I started telling a story about playing with my mother's hoop skirt and how I was sent to a child psychologist. They said if I didn't start writing this, they would. It's a memoir and short stories and it's really fun. It's a celebration of my relationship with my mother. From my point of view it's really wonderful; from an outsider's perspective it's really eccentric, but I have a wonderful, supportive mother.
OK, answer the question the world is asking: What does Don Draper smell like?[ Laughs ] Clean.
Again, not the answer I expected.[ Laughs ] Sorry, he's very masculine, but very clean.