Guest of Honor

John Slattery Finds the Heroes and Horrors in ‘Spotlight’

The actor chats with Rico about taking on the role of former Boston Globe editor Ben Bradlee Jr., growing up Catholic, and adapting to wardrobe after "Mad Men."

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(Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images)

John Slattery earned four Emmy nominations for portraying Roger Sterling — the wry, silver-haired ad exec on the show “Mad Men.” He’s also appeared in dozens of films, including last year’s superhero hit “Ant Man.”

You can see him now in the multiple-Oscar-nominated movie “Spotlight,” alongside a cast that includes Michael Keaton and Liev Schreiber. John plays Ben Bradlee Jr., one of several real-life journalists at the Boston Globe who — in the early 2000s — uncovered a pattern of sexual abuse by priests in Boston’s Catholic church.

When he and Rico spoke, John told him about the challenges facing the Globe’s reporters.

“They had been getting a lot of push-back from the Catholic Church, from the readership,” John said. “You know, they had to be sensitive to the readership of Globe, which was 53 percent, at that time, Catholic.”

John was, himself, brought up Catholic in Boston. Below he reflects on the church’s influence on his early life and explains how he embodied his “Spotlight” role.

Interview Highlights:

On growing up Catholic

John Slattery: I mean, in my own life, it was just… how do I describe? The parish priest would come to our house for dinner once every couple of weeks. I think he would sort of, you know, make the rounds. Maybe get a home-cooked meal and a couple of cocktails at various parishioners’ homes, maybe every night. I mean, I don’t know what his schedule was. But it was that sort of pervasive that it was taken for granted that the church was there. That’s how largely it loomed.

Rico Gagliano: They’d just stop by.

John Slattery: Yeah, they’d stop by. You’d go to church. You’d go to Sunday school when you were a little kid. You’d go to CCD or catechism class to get your confirmation. I was an altar boy, my friends were. My mother, my parents were devout — are devout Catholics.

Rico Gagliano: When this story broke, do you remember how your family reacted?

John Slattery: I don’t specifically, and not, you know, living in my parents’ house at the time, but I do remember my mother easily being able to parse the difference between her faith and the sort of machinations of the church, of the bureaucracy of the church. That never really rattled her faith.

On meeting former Boston Globe editor Ben Bradlee Jr. and playing him on screen

John Slattery (L) and Ben Bradlee Jr. attend the 'Spotlight' premiere during the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival at the Princess of Wales Theatre on September 14, 2015 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)
John Slattery (L) and Ben Bradlee Jr. attend the ‘Spotlight’ premiere during the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival on September 14, 2015 . (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)

John Slattery: I think I met him the day after I was given the role. I sent him a note, and he said, “What are you doing tomorrow?” I mean, and we met several times. And he came to the set and the rehearsals… I think [meeting him] probably should’ve been more daunting than it was. One day I was there, standing there. I think I was talking to Liev, and [Liev’s] counterpart was arriving the next day… and he said it was a little nerve-wracking.

And it occurred to me, for the first time, that it ought to be nerve-wracking that Ben is across the room, sitting there watching the monitor, and has been for three days. But it wasn’t. And it’s not because I’m an overly confident person, especially on a set. You know, everything is questioned and, you know, you’re…

Rico Gagliano: Yeah, sure. It’s a machine for insecurity, usually, the set.

John Slattery: Yeah, it can be. It can be in the wrong circumstances. He was just very generous, and we’ve become friends.

Rico Gagliano: What of him did you maybe end up using in your performance?

John Slattery: First of all, he’s very masculine. Very much a guy’s guy. I mean, I’m not saying that he isn’t sensitive, but when I sat down with him, he’s kind of got… you know, his voice is deeper than mine. And he’s a tough-looking guy. So, I thought, “I don’t really favor this guy physically.”

And then, somehow, just the smoke cleared, and I thought, “I can’t do that. I look the way I look.” It was more the command with which he did things and the respect that he commanded from everyone. It was more that.

On the “Spotlight” cast’s unfortunate pleated wardrobe

Michael Keaton, Liev Schreiber, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery, and Brian d’Arcy James in "Spotlight" wardrobe. (Photo Credit: Kerry Hayes)
Michael Keaton, Liev Schreiber, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery, and Brian d’Arcy James in “Spotlight” wardrobe. (Photo Credit: Kerry Hayes)

Rico Gagliano: There’s kind of a crispness to [Roger Sterling and Ben Bradlee Jr.], which isn’t surprising in “Mad Men” where everyone is visually dapper. But even [in “Spotlight”], all the characters you’re hanging out with are these rumpled newspaper men. But somehow you stand out as this crisp, direct, kind of put-together guy. Do you think you bring…

John Slattery: Really?

Rico Gagliano: That was not your goal?

John Slattery: I always thought that was Keaton. Nobody wanted to wear those pants with the pleats in them. I look like I’m wearing a diaper. And we all went through these costume fittings, and the costume people were saying, “We’re getting the same email from everyone. No one wants to wear these pants!” And, to me, Keaton seemed to…

Rico Gagliano: Pull it off.

John Slattery: …Pull it off very smoothly, yeah. I was like, “How come I can’t look that good in these clothes as Keaton does?”

On the one question you should not ask him

John Slattery: Either, “Did you always want to be an actor?” or, “How do you memorize all those lines?” Or, or, “Were you drinking and smoking in ‘Mad Men’?”

Rico Gagliano: We’ve actually had Rich Sommer on the show from “Mad Men,” and he told us that basically the one time he tried to actually drink real drinks, he ended up missing a cue.

John Slattery: Yeah. No, not real. Not at all.

John tells us something we don’t know… and then some

John Slattery: Did you know that a flock of crows is called a murder?

Rico Gagliano: I was aware of that, only because I listen to a lot of Tom Waits.

John Slattery: Ah, so that’s it? So, that doesn’t count? OK.

Rico Gagliano: That doesn’t count.

John Slattery:Do you know that birds have no control where they shit?

Rico Gagliano: What?

John Slattery: They don’t, like, fly over and go, I really have to go to the bathroom now, and then they shit. I guess whenever the…

Rico Gagliano: The urge overtakes them.

John Slattery: Whenever it’s time, it’s time, yeah. It’s not even an urge. That’s what I mean. I don’t think it’s an urge. I think it’s just a constant fun factory.

Rico Gagliano: It just happens. Why did you happen upon that piece of trivia?

John Slattery: I was out on a boat once with my brother, and he got shit on by a seagull. We were out in the ocean, in the middle of nowhere, fishing. He was lying there, and this gigantic shit landed in the middle of his chest… like a pancake from like, 100 feet.

Then he sort of wiped it all off and got over it. And then, five minutes later, exactly the same thing happened again. So, you would think that same seagull was hovering over him, circling, just aiming.

Rico Gagliano: But it turns out that’s impossible.

John Slattery: It’s impossible!

Rico Gagliano: It was just dumb luck.

John Slattery: That’s right. That’s why… it’s supposed to be good luck!