We talk with Mad Men’s Bryan Batt

With a diversity of roles in film and television, most notably art director Sal Romano on the hit series Mad Men as well as a plethora of Broadway roles under his belt and a new hit book, She Ain’t Heavy, She’s My Mother, actor, author, and designer Bryan Batt has proven he’s no one hit wonder.  I had a chance to catch up with him as he was working on raising funds for local theater and writing a follow up book based on his unique design sensibility which can be seen in his New Orleans design shop, Hazelnut.  He’ll also be performing on October 3 at Feinstein’s at The Regency on the Upper East Side.

Hey Bryan, how’s it going?

Okay, crazed as usual.  I’m trying to get prizes for this fundraiser that I’m on this morning so it’s kind of crazy

I understand, I’m sure a good cause, what’s it for?

Well, I’m living part time in New Orleans and there’s this wonderful, historic, little theater down here called Le Petit Theater, its like 95 years old and it gave me my start and I’m on the board and it really almost closed this year so we’re doing everything we can do to save it.  Patricia Carlson, she’s from here too, and we’re doing a big fund raiser for the theater so I’m in the midst of getting auction items.  Its fun but it’s something different for me, it doesn’t involve learning lines or my other job, Hazelnut, our store.

Yeah, I understand, I have a non-profit myself, its fun but it’s ton of work.  Speaking of work, congratulations on your book, She Ain’t Heavy, She’s My Mother, I know how much work it is to write a book but yours is especially interesting because it’s both a memoir and a biography of your mother, before I ask you anything else I have to ask how your mom is.  How’s Gayle doing?

She is amazing!  I took her to church yesterday and she wanted to go to brunch afterwards but I couldn’t and it’s the first time I’m cancelling on her, usually she’s the gal about town.  She was having a hard spell for awhile there but she’s on a new chemotherapy and it’s really agreeing with her and its working.  She’s just amazing, it’s going to take an act of God to take her from this planet and she’s going to question it.

You know the one thing that came to mind when I was reading the book is that you’re talking about a person who might not normally have a biography written about them. I know if I were to write a book about my mother, my sister would immediately write another book that might be totally contrary to mine. How did your family react? Did anyone have any issue?

I was initially worried, I really was, my brother and I are very close but we are very different and I thought that he was going to have some issues with it but he loved it.  There was one problem I had, I don’t know if you got the “Infidelity Jewelry” yet but I tried to handle that in a way that was palatable for [my mother] and show what I believe came out of my father’s infidelity.  It made my mother stronger, it was almost part of an awakening for her. I let her read it and I thought, oh my god, she’s going to have a problem and she’s like, oh honey you got a few things wrong and I thought oh god, here it comes and she says, well first of all, Antoine’s serves oysters foch and Galatoire’s serves oysters on brochette, so New Orleans’s menu was more important than what happened in the story, so she had no problems with it.

It’s interesting how you write about her becoming a better person from the experience.

Well, like I said, she was just raised to be a loving house wife and you know, have tea parties and go to dinner and she really did take the bull by the horns.  She will take lemons and vodka and make lemonade.

Ha! That’s great. Another thing that I enjoyed was as a native New Yorker, reading about the South, because to me it might as well be Southeast Asia.  It is so foreign and you talk a little bit about what the Spring Fiesta is like now, but how many things have really changed since the time you were raised in New Orleans?

It has changed a little bit only because the world, the internet everything, has completely changed but there are still some traditions and way of life down here that are completely different than the north.  New Orleans is completely different than any other southern town, it is really its own unique creation in a wonderful way, other cities are great in the south but New Orleans has a much more European, cosmopolitan feel to it but in a much slower way.  It does have great design, it does have great cuisine, great music and it appreciates itself but it took me a long time, I thought I couldn’t ever live anywhere but Manhattan, after years of Broadway shows and when Tom and I opened the store here in New Orleans every night I’d wake up in a cold sweat like what the hell am I doing? I don’t know anything about this business, all I know is show business and Tom would assure me, it’ll be fine, you can go back and do your shows, we can just go back and forth and that’s kind of what came to be.  I love them both, I see the differences, you know like after 9/11, I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere but New York because New Yorkers will come to your aid, people say they’re tough and hard, and yes, that can be true but you know that city rallied like you would believe after 9/11 and everyone was wonderful for the first month, very cautious and helpful, cab drivers were so nice and then finally I remember after a month, I was crossing the street and some guys honked and flipped me off and I was like oh we’re back to normal!  It was a really good feeling.

Yeah it was almost a relief when we were back to normal after 9/11, you know you bring up a good point because in New Orleans you had Katrina which was devastating and now you have the oil spill, these kinds of events really redefine a place, what is New Orleans like after having dealt with all that?

Basically, after Katrina and 9/11 in New York you can handle almost anything and it really teaches you what’s important in life.  I know it sounds so trite but it’s not your possessions, it’s really your relationships and your family and your friends and your love in my opinion, I mean it puts everything in perspective.  If you can live through those kinds of things you can really make it through anything but I wouldn’t want to do it again.  Honestly the feeling of 9/11 and the feeling after Katrina were very similar, I felt very violated and you have no control over it, there’s nothing really you can do.  I’m just amazed at how far we’ve come after Katrina down here, there has been such rebuilding and then so many good things are happening and I’m really glad to be here part time and I was really glad to be in New York for those years right after 9/11.

Did you open your store Hazelnut when you first came back to New Orleans? What made you decide to open up the shop?

We opened 2003 and I think with me, and it happens with a lot of actors, we let our professions define us and what if you’re not doing a show?  What if your unemployment is about to run out and you can’t find a job?  A show I was supposed to do was cancelled and I wasn’t working and Tom and I always wanted to do this store so we said, let’s do it.  The minute I committed to doing that I think it just opened up, you realize there’s a whole world out there besides show business.  I mean I love design, I always loved shopping like a fiend so opening a high end gift shop in New Orleans, it was a really good idea.

It’s also great to dedicate yourself to this passion you have, you’ve always been into design and fashion and now I heard your writing a book about design?

Yes, I’m almost done, it’s called Mad for Design, that’s the working title, and it will be with Clarkson Potter, a division of Random House, and it comes out fall of 2011. I can’t wait, the photographer who did most of the photography thinks it is going to be fantastic and I was approached and basically I said I would love to photograph rooms that I love and tell you why and that’s what we did.   One of my favorite chapters is called “Don’t be afraid of color, what did it ever do to you” and it’s all these great rooms with all this great color, I think people are going to like it.  It’s very eclectic and that’s my whole philosophy with design, you know, mix and match, shake it like a good cocktail.

Well, you know, speaking of design, your role of Sal Romano on Mad Men was kind of perfect and one thing I noticed recently in a startling degree is how much the style of that show has influenced the fashion world to the point that it’s actually in the real world.

Oh yes, I think it started [with] Dior Men’s line [or] Hugo Boss, right when we came out and Dolce & Gabbana was doing it too, they were doing narrower lapels and skinner ties right when we came out or maybe the season right before.  The high end of the pendulum was swinging that way, now you know, it is the look, I mean that has been the look for the last year or two: the skinny black suit, thinner ties, tie bars, cuff links, the whole look.  It’s even infiltrated to design, I mean mid-century modern has been coming back in a big way for years but now it’s even gotten to Crate and Barrel [which] has a Draper sofa.  It also reflected the mindset of the times, that pre-Camelot and post-Camelot, there was this undertow, this volcano about to explode and everything was closed up you know.  Everything was about tightening it up or keeping everything closed and not letting anything out. It was very reflective of how people lived- no one talked about anything, people were having affairs and doing the same thing they are doing now but you just didn’t talk about it.

It’s interesting, you mentioned Camelot and there are certainly a lot of ties with Obama to that change in attitude in the 60’s, do you think this style coming back says anything about the time we are in now?

I definitely think that the design and fashion was definitely on its way before Obama was elected.  I think it was a perfect set for him to walk on to, you know, because he is young and his wife is very stylish and beautiful and he has the young children and the white house, very, very Camelot, yeah.

Yeah, it’s very fitting.  I wanted to ask you about playing your character on Mad Men who is a closeted gay man- as an openly gay man how difficult was it to almost revert to play a closeted character?

Oh, very interesting, no one ever asked me that before, you ask what was hard or difficult about playing Sal, I’ve played tons of different characters and some are gay and some are straight and I thought in the character description that Matthew wrote he is clearly gay to a modern audience but in the world of 1960’s no one knows.  Basically all I did was I had to play as straight as possible and monitor my movements and how I held my cigarette, that was a little flourish, that I could have fun with.  I learned years ago that, especially when you are a supporting character and there is an ensemble of acting, you kind of have to watch what everyone else is doing and fit yourself into the puzzle.  I think it was just great the way the role was written, the way everything was photographed, the way it was edited that it was seamless that everyone fit in perfectly and that’s just more kudos to Matt Wider because he really handpicked the cast.

Your character is closeted but also chooses to get married and certainly for the time was true to form but in my own experience I still find that it happens today, why do you think it still happens so much?

Oh yeah, well after the first season I asked, can Sal please get married, it would be perfect and then when I showed up for the second season he was married and I loved that.  I think that definitely happened then and it’s still going on unfortunately.  I don’t know, I still think that society has issues with it; there is still a lot of prejudice out there.  I mean it’s the last bastion of accepted prejudice you know, I still think that it definitely exists, not as much in New York but you know, I promise you across the country it’s there, you know, it really is there.

Broadway has always been it’s own world but lately you have this trend toward more commercial shows with Disney and rock bands with dancing. Is some of Broadway’s flavor being lost?  As someone who’s played the gamut from Cats and Beauty and the Beast to a character like Darius in Jeffrey, what is your insider opinion?

Honestly, I think everything is cyclical and the pendulum is going to swing back and forth.  Nothing is going to beat a really great musical whether its a new concept or it’s an old classic.  I see both sides, I see that Broadway is becoming a big commercial money maker, I mean that’s what it’s for, people are putting up these jukebox musicals with these huge lavish productions but then there is the flipside where there’s the revival of La Cage.  I think as long as Broadway continues to put on important plays and well as these big flashy money maker juggernauts it’s going to be fine.  The one thing that really worries me about Broadway is the ticket price, I think it’s too expensive, you know?  It’s really becoming an elitist form of entertainment and theater was never that.

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About Tim Needles

Tim Needles is an artist, photographer, humorist, and writer from Long Island, NY. His writing and art work has been seen in multiple exhibitions and publications around New York as well as the Photographer’s Forum, French Photo, the New York Times, and LI Pulse magazine. He is also an educator and currently teaches art and film at Smithtown, NY and as an Education Leader for Adobe. He was recently the recipient of the Robert Rauschenberg Award in Washington DC and serves as the director of Strictly Students, a non-for-profit group for media and education. His work can be seen on his website: www.timneedles.com
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