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Words by Mr Tom Shone
There were a few pluses and one big minus for Mr John Slattery as far as his role in the new film The Adjustment Bureau was concerned. The pluses: a big part in a major new sci-fi thriller from Universal; a chance to go toe-to-toe with Matt Damon, as well as scenes with Emily Blunt and Terence Stamp; and a location shoot in New York, where he lives. The big minus? He would have to wear a sharp grey suit and 1950s-era trilby.
"I thought, 'Well, another suit and hat and all that. It obviously resembled Mad Men'," he says over a late breakfast at the Morandi restaurant on Seventh Avenue, not far from where he lives with his wife of 12 years, Talia Balsam, and their son. "I mean, I like to work, but you don't want to do that all the time...Variety is the best part of being in this business."
Wearing a grey T-shirt and sweatpants, Mr Slattery is a trim, tanned 48-year-old, his silver hair more tousled than it looks on TV. He started going grey in his 20s and for a while dyed it, but now no longer bothers.
"TV schedules are what prevent you from dyeing it too much, because you never know when you're going to have to go back to work," he says, tucking into a breakfast of scrambled eggs and tomatoes. "Although I'm not sure how much younger it would make me look now. I've kind of grown into it."
Much the same might be said of his career. "I'm grateful for the fact it's happening now rather than having already happened and on the downslide. The downslide happens to everybody, so I guess it's best to peak later. We're all headed in the same direction eventually."
There's a strong streak of amused fatalism to Mr Slattery, groomed by 30 years in the business before he got his break playing the sharp-tongued, sharp-dressing advertising executive Roger Sterling on Mad Men, lobbing smart bombs like olives into his martini.
In The Adjustment Bureau, Mr Slattery brings the same phlegmaticness to the role of a bureaucrat whose job it is to terminate Matt Damon's romance with Emily Blunt because their meeting isn't written in the stars. It's a movie about free will versus fate, about whether one can determine their own course in life, or if it's a shell game, rigged from the start. And what does he think?
"I believe you're a product of the decisions you make, and whether you made the right decision or not, here you are. Thus business has a way of making people think, 'Well if I get this then everything will change.' And it takes a while to dispel that myth. It isn't always the thing you think it's going to be. Or it doesn't happen immediately. You have to stop walking around with your hand out, expecting someone to give you something, doing something in an effort to get something else."
The knowledge is hard-won. Newly arrived in New York, from his native Boston in the mid-Eighties, Mr Slattery took any work he could get: commercials, TV, "Whatever came my way, probably stupidly to the point where I looked up, about 10 years in and thought, 'Wait a minute, what am I doing?'"
Raised in a large Irish Catholic family, with four brothers and one sister, Mr Slattery describes how his childhood shaped his outlook. "Both my parents worked. If you had a problem, a lot of times you had to figure it out. It was that kind of ethos: suck it up. There was a stoicism to that community."
He would end up exploring this generation of stoics on Mad Men - "the generation who went to war, came home, changed clothes and went to work". Mr Slattery originally read for the part of the show's lead, Don Draper, but the producers had already hired Jon Hamm, and once Mr Slattery was in the door, they presented him with the smaller part of Sterling instead.
"In the beginning [Roger] didn't have much to do, and I wasn't sure of the course of events," he says. "You never do with television." Within a few episodes, chemistry had kindled between him and Christina Hendricks, which the writers zeroed in on, keeping them supplied with bons mots and zingers over a simmering bed of repressed feeling.
"Those scenes are so good they almost play themselves," says Mr Slattery. "You're not talking about what you want. You're talking around what you want. And the other person is so in tune with you that you don't have to actually state it. It's just beautifully written."
While the show's producers negotiate with AMC over a fifth season, Mr Slattery has been busying himself with a resurgent movie career, taking roles in The Adjustment Bureau and Iron Man 2 and also the recently Sundance-workshopped Return, playing a war veteran opposite actress Linda Cardellini.
His ideal part? "An English farmer, who moonlights as a comedian and then kills everyone in the theatre, except the girl who falls in love with him."