En español | In his latest TV series, Mad Men alum John Slattery, 58, plays a Silicon Valley pioneer who races to stop the very AI he created, in Fox's new thriller Next. We catch up with the actor about his latest project, why he doesn't have Alexa in his house and how he's embraced the realities of aging — including that incredible head of gray hair.
Why we should be afraid of what this new show is about
It's scary because of all the real-world applications of a potential artificial intelligence. I think the jumping off point is that we created an artificial intelligence that is potentially able to improve itself to the degree that, if left unchecked, it will be the smartest thing in the world in 10 days. And that sort of premise is what makes it a thriller. The electronics and the fridge are watching you, your Alexa is talking to your kid — and that's scary. We have all these smart devices in our pocket, these supercomputers, and who knows what the practical consequences of all that could be?
Drawing the line at Alexa and Siri
We don't have an Alexa or Siri. I hear my brother on the phone talking to his Siri and I think, “Yeah, no. I don't think I want one of those.” We screened the [Next] pilot one day for the crew, and then we gave them all Alexas for Christmas — and they all regifted them. They were, like, “No, I don't want that thing in my house.”
His relationship with tech?
It's complicated. All these things that are supposed to make your life less complicated make them more complicated. Whether it's dividing you from someone else, or how many passwords do you have to keep in your head. The ripples are in there all the time. I think they mess with people's relationships, with young people trying to get together and figure out who they are.
What texting has taken from us
I was saying this to my [21-year-old] kid: “We used to hang on every breath on the telephone. You'd say something you thought was funny and it wouldn't go over, and you think, She hates me.” You're so vulnerable. And now with texting, you get to create an identity that isn't necessarily you. It's an avatar. You think of something clever in your head. You've got time to rehearse something in your head, see what it looks like.
Living a virtual life during the pandemic
I've done Zoom happy hours, Zoom cocktail parties, and it's nice to see people. I've read scripts and stuff like that. It's amazing to have this kind of technology. Do I favor it over the other? No I don't. I'd like to go across the street and have a drink in a bar. I miss that we had the greatest restaurant across the street from our house in New York City, and it closed. That was our go-to place for 20 years. Life is different in many ways — just the simple stuff that you took for granted.
What wears him down about the pandemic
I'm fine most of the time. Certainly, as compared to a lot of people, I have very few problems. My family is healthy; we're taking care. But it's the lack of demarcation of time, the lack of anything on the calendar that gets to me every once in a while. Not having to be anywhere. I like to work. So there's no work, and you just go, “What am I going to do?” It gives you a chance to do other things. But after awhile, I'd like to go back to work.
Getting stir-crazy during the pandemic
My son, my mother-in-law, my two dogs and my wife [actress Talia Balsam, who played his wife, Mona, in Mad Men] were all here for three and a half months — which was really great in some respects and challenging in some respects. Like everybody else, we were driving each other crazy. And having a good time and having a lot of laughs, buying food and cooking. And then stressing like hell because my wife got sick early on. She was fine, but [it was difficult] trying to keep my mother-in-law and my wife away from each other early on in the beginning, when we didn't know much about COVID — not that we know much more now.
Quarantine binge confession
Michael Jordan in The Last Dance. It was so good, and you know my wife's mother isn't a huge basketball fan and probably neither is my wife. But boy, was it good. We all watched that together. We watched Patriot on Amazon. It's fantastic. And then my wife and I have been watching The Bureau. Which is a bummer, because when you finish one of those things, it's like a withdrawal.
How surfing saves him
I used to ski a lot and had my knee replaced, which worked out so well that I have skied with it since. It's harder to get to a ski slope for me than it is to get to the ocean. And surfing has certainly kept me happy. To be sitting out there in the ocean is something I really like to do. It isn't so much the skill. It encompasses a lot of things: It is mediative; it is good exercise; it is something you can get better at. There's a long learning curve. It's also a good way to get away from show business. You know, sitting around, waiting for your phone to ring is not a good way to spend a day.
Current Project: Next (Oct. 6, 9 p.m., Fox)
Greatest TV Hits: Mrs. America; Mad Men; Desperate Housewives; Jack & Bobby; Homefront.
Movie highlights: Spotlight; Ant-Man; Iron Man; Charlie Wilson’s War; Flags of Our Fathers; Captain America: Civil War; Avengers: Endgame.
Education: B.F.A. from Catholic University of America, 1984.
At home: Wife: actress Talia Balsam; son: Harry
The best job in TV he ever had
Mad Men has to be the one. It's a great collection of people. It was so much fun to make, and we all stayed friends. It was a moment and it got a lot of attention.
On getting outside his comfort zone on Mad Men
I directed five episodes of Mad Men. [Creator-writer] Matt Weiner was generous enough to let me do that. It took awhile for me to kind of apprentice. There was a moment somewhere there, being able to direct a scene with Jared Harris [who played Lane Pryce in the series] — who I think is just a phenomenal actor and a great guy — and acting in there with him. The writing was so good, and it's just two people on the couch, and I'm trying to tell him how to have this business dinner — how to hook this guy and win this account, and he's not familiar with that side of the business. It was really stressful because when directing and acting in the same scene, you have to go outside and then look at the monitor and watch what you're doing, and try to remember all the shots and remember how to act as well. I was using a lot of my brain, which isn't getting any younger.
That now-trademark head of hair
The gray hair has been around awhile. I used to dye my hair a lot because nobody knew how the hell old I was. It never looked good. Men with dyed hair never really worked. I didn't care. I would dye it whatever color I had to. Then there was a point in which it wasn't making me look any younger. It was just making me look weirder, so I would wear a wig. You don't necessarily want a signature as an actor. You kind of want to be able to go in and out of different things. It's a mixed bag. I don't think about it a lot.
Aging in Hollywood
Getting older makes [getting a part] even more challenging because there are fewer opportunities, like in any field probably. You try to go out and get a job as a 60-year-old; your options are probably not what they would be if you were 25.
Life in a two-actor household
It's good for us. It works great because you do get it. You get what “the life” is like. Her parents are both actors [Joyce Van Patten and the late Martin Balsam], her cousins and her uncles are actors. She comes from a show-business family for generations, so everybody gets it: the hustle and the insecure part of it, and just the weird hours and separations, and all the attendant anxieties of trying to live in the real world and pay real-world bills while you're trying to wrangle a job in show business.
The secret to his 22-year marriage
We just got along right away. We really liked each other besides being in love and all that passion that burns brightly in the beginning. Like anything, you become accustomed to each other. I don't know the secret — maybe I just lucked out. We like each other's company. It isn't easy all the time, and you go through so much; you lose your parents. Thank God I'm married to her.
What he knows now
Having a young adult as a son, you try to tell people that when you get to my age, this is going to mean something to you. It's almost impossible, because it doesn't compute necessarily for a young person. I wish I had paid more attention, picked up on certain behaviors or things I was doing or other people were suffering from, that I probably could have been able to help. I lost a couple of people in my life. Maybe I could have made a difference if I had picked up on some subtleties that I wasn't paying attention to as a young person. But who knows? You realize more as you go along that we're all in this together.