Bryan Batt: The Gay Blade of ‘Mad Men”

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Bryan Batt plays creative director Salvatore Romano on AMC’s Mad Men, and he’s emerged as one of the show’s most unambiguously sympathetic characters. A talented and expressive professional, he’s also a deeply closeted gay man in an era and culture that keeps him very much on the down low — even to himself. Fans were shocked when Sal was abruptly fired from ad agency Sterling Cooper after rejecting the advances of an amorous client, and his future on the show remains cloudy. Batt’s prospects, however, have rarely looked rosier, as he enjoys both critical acclaim and domestic success with his New Orleans decor boutique, Hazelnut (co-owned with Batt’s partner of many years Tom Cianfichi). Batt talks with us about his ideal return to Mad Men, hunky National Guardsmen making the best of Hurricane Katrina, and getting dressed to the nines.

We don’t really know what the future holds for Sal. But if you could come back, as an actor, what would be most dramatically satisfying as a way for you to return? A spinoff with Joan Holloway [Christina Hendricks].

So everyone who’s out of the Sterling Cooper office gets their own show? Our own show together! There are many ways — I can’t give anything away because I know what happens. I just want to see Sal recognized for his talent more and more because he is a talented art director. Moving into the last episodes, he was directing, so it’s a whole realm of the industry that could open up for him in a way. I would love to see that. I would also love to see him somehow satisfied, finally. He’s the only one that hasn’t cheated on his wife, you know.

There are several ironies with your character, that being one of them. The last scene we saw of him, he seems to be in a sketchy part of town, with men behind him cruising the streets … what do you make of that? I honestly didn’t know about those men walking behind me beforehand. As a stage actor, you’re taught to not read the stage directions because that’s how someone else did the production. But on our show, if they write any kind of stage direction or anything, it is done, it is part of the script — the bible. We do not deviate one word from script, and if an action is there, it is to happen that moment. That’s also great for an actor because it puts certain parameters in place and keeps you focused. But I didn’t notice — first it was a rainstorm, then outside on the street — and now I’m in the Ramble.

It didn’t seem like he knew what was going on until he was around it. And he’s not a predator … he would not know. He’s wandering the streets during the day the last three weeks after he was fired, and he keeps on getting calls, and he goes home when it’s time. So, who knows, maybe it’s just a gravitational pull.

Speaking of stage acting — you’ve played Che Guevara and lots of other things people wouldn’t associate with your character on Mad Men. A lot of Broadway … actually Che was dinner theater. But I did nine Broadway shows and bunch of off-Broadway. I saw a play the other day and it just made me want to go back … I love the stage. If I could, in the hiatus from Mad Men, do a play or a musical or something. We have six months!

So are you going to try and do some stage? A lot of times they want a long contract, but if it’s a short run — yes, I’m all over it. I saw The Royal Family the other day, and I had done the workshop for the musical a couple years ago. I died! Still a great show. Rosemary Harris and Jan Maxwell have a monologue where they talk about the theater and why they give up so much for it … it just touched something inside of me that made me want to do it more.

Much was made in the show about Don Draper’s [Jon Hamm] lack of sympathy for Sal, especially considering the parallels between the two characters — both having their secret lives. But even considering that, would a sympathetic Don have been a little anachronistic? It’s less that he’s unsympathetic to a gay man than he’s unsympathetic generally. To me, when he said “you people” — he had that line, which was very very homophobic. Well, not homophobic but …

No, of course you’re right, it was homophobic. The first episode this season, you think he’s going to be alright with it, then this happens, and he’s not. I think also that it’s because this happened around work — I wasn’t out of town. Don perceives that I didn’t adhere to what he said; our last words on the plane in the first episode were, “Limit your exposure.” I don’t think he really, fully believes Sal wasn’t somehow to blame. And the sadness of the whole episode was that he was completely innocent.

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Tracing back through various struggles with his sexuality, Sal starts off with that friendly, kind advance from the cosmetics executive … Yeah! Where’s he? That’s who he should be with.

Then he had his own kind of crush on Ken Cosgrove [Aaron Staton]. I don’t think that was sexual, that was just this …

Sort of a harmless infatuation. Exactly.

Then there’s the hotel bellhop when Sal and Don are on the business trip, which Don accidentally sees. Then he ends up with this very predatory Lucky Strike executive. Yeah, very predatory.

So what you do make of the progression? I think it’s great. I want it to continue. It’s very interesting, if Sal keeps on going, in that day and era — becoming almost like Don and having a dual life. He will have the wife, and then on the side have a lover and come to terms with it.

And ultimately, Don’s secret is much more damning than Sal’s. Oh, yeah.

As a New Orleans native, with strong local connections with your family and your history there, can you talk about your personal experience during Hurricane Katrina? Oh, sure. We were actually on vacation and could not get back. They boarded up my house and drove my mother to Texas. The minute I saw that thing in the Gulf, I said, “Mom, where are you going?” And she said, “I have a plane, don’t worry,” and it got cancelled. I flew to LA the day of Katrina for an audition .. that day we were fine, the day it hit. The next 24 hours, it was a nightmare, I was at a restaurant and a friend called and said, “Oh my god, are you okay, is everyone okay?” and I was like, “What are you talking about? It’s fine.” And he said, “No, Bryan there are waves going down Canal Street.” And I kind of broke down, on the street. I was like — that’s it. And again, it was a beautiful vacation the first week, the second week was just numbing — on the internet all the time trying to find people, making sure everyone was okay and not knowing. It was like living through 9/11 all over again, totally helpless and not having information.

How long did you have to stay away from New Orleans? We didn’t get back until the end of October. Tom got back to put up the store, and that was the day after they opened up the city, the day you could get back. We went once before because it was a day they said you could get in, and of course, the general said “No you can’t,” and everyone was down there trying to get in, it was crazy. However, the cute factor went up that day in New Orleans because all the National Guards there. But it was insane driving through this city where usually there would be a main thoroughfare, and no one was there. There’s a water line, it’s dirty, it looks like death, cars are all over the place that had floated around. It was like Armageddon. It seems like eons ago. There’s a part of yourself you just have to close off … you can’t go to that anguish all the time, or you’ll just be a mess. But it is a miracle, what has happened. And the American people are still coming down to help in New Orleans, and it’s just amazing. More restaurants have opened than ever before — the music is back.

Last year, I interviewed Janie Bryant about the costumes for the show. The goddess of all things costume.

One of the things I asked her was to imagine a contemporary version of each Mad Men character and what they would wear. So for ,Sal she said Gucci and Yves St. Laurent. Exactly! Perfect. Yeah, Sal is very very dapper. One of my favorite things on the show is waiting to see what she has for me and the initial fitting. And that’s not because it’s Sal — everyone has that. You wouldn’t wear the same suit every day to work, but shoes were much more expensive, so you didn’t have tons of shoes. So you go in and they have all these vintage clothes, and you just see suit after suit after suit.

Sal is famous for wearing his separates. I love that. The use of texture, the color, the patterns they’re very simple. One of my favorite things she ever did was when she knew all about New Orleans, and we filmed the pilot in 2006 — that was the spring after Katrina, so I could still feel it deep in my gut. Janie gave me a vest with fleur-de-lis on it.