John Slattery is remembering the moment he almost drowned at Sydney’s Bronte Beach.
“I surfed there once, and it was a big day – the waves were huge,” recalls Slattery, who has just emerged from a surf at Montauk on the eastern tip of New York’s Long Island before speaking to The BINGE Guide.
“I got dumped and I couldn’t get up. I was very lucky to get out of there with my head attached to the rest of me.”
Slattery, who’s built an impressive career out of playing city slicker types, such as cad-about-town Roger Sterling in Mad Men; and dogged journalist Ben Bradlee Jr in the Oscar-winning Spotlight, is actually a bit of a hippy and a devoted board rider.
The 58-year-old actor loves surfing because “you have to be in the moment” but currently, even more so, because “it’s a good antidote to the rest of the world right now.”
Indeed, with the world still in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and an ever-increasing political divide, Slattery’s new TV thriller NeXt couldn’t be timelier.
Slattery plays Paul LeBlanc, a Bill Gates, Steve Jobs-type Silicon Valley tech titan whose Artificial Intelligence creation, Eliza (think Amazon’s Alexa on steroids), threatens to up-end humanity because it’s smarter than the rest of us.
“This guy built this thing and there’s a complicated pride of ownership – can you believe what this thing can do?” Slattery ponders.
“But at the same time, he’s trying to catch it before it grows enough to protect itself in such a way that no one can take it apart. They have to figure out how to destroy it.”
The irony for Slattery’s Paul is that it takes a powerful and out of control AI to connect him to the fact that he’s let the human relationships in his life slide.
“He’s trying to repair all of these human relationships from being torn apart by technology,” says Slattery.
“And we’re in this period now where the only human ‘contact’ we have is basically through electronics – Zoom or Skype or FaceTime or over the phone – and nobody can go anywhere near each other, so we’re all very dependent on these devices.”
Slattery says living in New York (which still remains in a semi-state of lockdown some seven months after the city shut down), has given him “many anxious moments,” revealing that his wife, actress Talia Balsam (who also played his on-screen wife, Mona, in Mad Men), was diagnosed with coronavirus earlier in the year.
“[Talia] got coronavirus early on, pretty mildly, compared to some other friends of ours and people that I know of, so that was scary,” he says. “But she’s fine now.”
The couple were in lockdown with son, Henry, and Balsam’s elderly mother.
“We were all together. Talia’s mother was with us, so it was stressful trying to keep her away from her mother who’s in more of a dangerous demographic.”
Slattery is acutely aware of the fact that he’s in a privileged position, one where not working was not going to land him on the street or without food on the table, but he was not prepared for unexpected side effects.
“Having nothing on the calendar is a strange thing,” he muses.
“I like being busy and not being needed anywhere is weird for me.”
As such, Slattery started volunteering at a food bank in the downtown New York neighbourhood where he lives.
“Actors can be selfish so it’s good to do something for someone else and it gives me a place to go for a couple of days a week.”
You can’t help but wonder how his most famous role of Roger Sterling – arguably one of the greatest characters ever written for TV – would deal with pandemic lockdowns, the MeToo movement and political correctness?
“Roger would be dead,” laughs Slattery.
“If he wasn’t already dead, this would kill him; just sitting around the house this long, he would have drunk himself to death – probably in about three weeks.”
Slattery says even now, five years after Mad Men ended with Jon Hamm’s Don Draper contemplating life (and an idea for a new Coca Cola slogan) in a California commune, people still want to talk to him about the show.
“I feel lucky just to have been a part of it, and we’ve all remained friends.”
Slattery says he could tell early on, the show – about a New York advertising agency in the 1960s – was something special.
“Even before it came out, when we were just going to work every day, I remember going to a table read once; I think it was for the third episode, and saying to Elisabeth Moss on the way into the building, ‘Is it just me or do these scripts get better?’ Each one is better than the last one. And that doesn’t happen very often.”
Slattery says he felt a similar affinity while working with Cate Blanchett on the recent Mrs America (Blanchett scored an Emmy nomination for her role as staunch conservative, Phylis Schlafly).
Slattery played Schlafly’s lawyer husband, Fred, torn between pride in his wife’s accomplishments and mild frustration that she “didn’t just stay home”.
“Cate is the best. From the moment I met her, you couldn’t ask for a better partner; certainly, a better acting partner, but as a producer, she was a real leader on all sides of that show. I can’t say enough about her as an actor and as a person,” he says enthusiastically.
“You know, with four children and a husband and a life, and she’s producing and acting, she’s very impressive and she’s a hell of a lot of fun, too.”
He adds: “Cate is just a real laugh and we both had to wear these fake teeth and wigs and we could not stop laughing … the dental collisions were epic.”
* NeXt, streaming from Wednesday October 7, Foxtel on Demand