NEW YORK – As the final season of “Mad Men” winds down, John Slattery has traded 1960s Madison Avenue for late 1970s Philadelphia.
In “God’s Pocket,” the actor best known for his performance as the wry, apathetic Roger Sterling on the AMC drama makes his directorial debut.
The film, which opens Friday and first premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, is an adaptation of Pete Dexter’s novel about the overlapping lives of the working-class people of Philadelphia’s God’s Pocket neighborhood. Slattery directed and co-wrote the screenplay.
The film also marks one of the two final screen performances of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. (The other, Anton Corbijn’s John le Carre adaptation, “A Most Wanted Man,” is due out July 25.) In “God’s Pocket,” Hoffman stars as Mickey, a blue-collar schlub half-heatedly investigating his stepson’s death. John Turturro, Richard Jenkins and “Mad Men” co-star Christina Hendricks make up some of the local characters.
In a recent interview, Slattery discussed his strong vision for Dexter’s book and his abiding admiration of Hoffman.
AP: You and Hoffman long orbited the same territory as New York actors, and both were in 2007’s “Charlie Wilson’s War.” But you seemed to grow much closer making “God’s Pocket.”
Slattery: It was a close working relationship. I think any good working relationship between an actor and a director, you become intimate with each other. It wasn’t because we were the best of friends prior to that. We knew each other and lived near each other.
AP: What did you learn about him as an actor while making the film?
Slattery: Through the course of the shooting it, I realized that of course it isn’t an accident that he’s as revered as he is. He’s tireless in asking questions but not complicated, highfalutin, fancy questions. It was just, like: ‘Why? Why does this guy stay in this community where he’s constantly reminded that he’s not one of them?’ Those questions are the kind of questions he would ask. I realized that there aren’t any real smoke and mirrors. It’s someone that had that emotional depth and intelligence that works that hard. It was just being that close to it and seeing all those elements working at the same time – the technical wherewithal in the middle of a deep emotional moment. It was pretty impressive, I have to say.
AP: You’ve directed five episodes of “Mad Men.” Had the urge to direct long been percolating in you?
Slattery: Kind of peripherally. I was always of an opinion about what was happening when I was standing around on set, but it wasn’t my job. By the time you get to most movies and television and theater production, they’re all set up – directors in place, producers are in place. So you act a finite amount of time and then you’re gone. With “Mad Men,” it was apparent early on the quality of the production from top to bottom and that it was going to be around for a little while. So I saw it as an opportunity to watch for months and follow directors around and then officially throw my hat in.
AP: The lived-in naturalism of “God’s Pocket,” which you shot in Yonkers just outside New York City, is in stark contrast to the polish of “Mad Men.”
Slattery: I thought that ‘God’s Pocket’ was just a good story and if I could stay out of my own way and everybody else’s way, I could tell it. That’s how the good the story was – that even I could tell it. I’m not being false-modest. You can get in your own way a lot. I do it in acting. You try to do too much or show too much.
AP: With the seventh and final season of “Mad Men” finishing up, do you feel like you’re entering a new phase?
Slattery: Whether I like it or not, I’m beginning a new phase. “Mad Men” is finishing and by the time it finishes, it will have been 10 years of my life. So that is occurring and this movie is coming out. There will be a change. What comes next, I don’t know. But I look forward to that. Part of what I like about this business is not knowing what’s coming next.
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jake–coyle