Mad Men star BRYAN BATT brings his theatrical side to Adelaide Cabaret Festival this week.
Over four seasons period drama MAD MEN has gone from strength to strength finding a massive worldwide audience. Initially seduced by the sharp suits, great hair styles and the shockingly misogynistic and racist attitudes of the chain smoking advertising agency men, audiences soon were becoming aware that they were watching something with all together more meat on its bones than regular Network dramas. Made by US cable network Lionsgate, Mad Men is amongst the new breed of American TV, mainly made for cable. There are some TV companies (notably HBO responsible for True Blood, Deadwood, The Sopranos and the incredible Game of Thrones) that utilize a little used ingredient in the work they produce for television. They give the audience credit for having an intelligence and hunger for more depth and complexity in their viewing tastes, something the major networks have long abandoned, if they ever did.
One of the first things people are shocked by on Mad Men is the endless smoking and drinking in the work place. The smoking in particular is all the more shocking because in the politically correct world we live in these days, means nobody smokes on TV anymore. But in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s cigarette companies were still advertising using celebrities and doctors to promote the lung strengthening properties of the death sticks. MM is a slap in the face with its attitude to drinking, smoking and its treatment of women, racism and homosexuality. Rather than being gratuitous, the pace and texture of this excellent drama is clever, measured and fantastically rewarding.
One of the most astute plotlines (spoiler alert) concerns the agency’s art director Salvatore Romano, a married but closeted homosexual, played magnificently by BRYAN BATT. Closeted almost from himself Salvatore is violently propositioned by a representative of Sterling Coopers biggest client and when Sal declines he is sacked and humiliated. It is an incredible twist in the richly complex Mad Men world and Batt’s portrayal of Romano’s dismissal is utterly devastating. So much so that there is lobbying amongst MM fans to have his character re-instated in series five which returns in 2012.
In the meantime Bryan Batt (co-incidentally himself openly gay with a partner of twenty years) has returned to his main stock and trade Broadway musicals. As a sidebar he has found a new forum in the world of New York cabaret. His show Batt on a Hot Tin Roof has been a success in the USA and makes its Australian debut this week as part of the Adelaide Cabaret Festival.
He has been described as a ‘theatrical’ child and the stage was always where he wanted to be. Is it true that you lied about your age to get into a production when you were ten years old?
“Yes it is,” laughs an amiable Batt “I was ten; you were supposed to be twelve, so I lied. I wanted to do it so badly. It was a production Lil’ Abner and I never divulged my real age and they never unveiled my deception. But I actually learnt a lot of important things about life in the theatre, by doing shows when I was a kid. Things I still carry with me all these years later. What sort of things? If you can see the audience from backstage they can see you. A director called Ty Tracey came to all the kids and said ‘Every one of you is replaceable’ (laughter). I thought it was so funny. But he was right - be on time, know your lines, do your work if you don’t you are out. I learnt that at a very early age and it has served me well in all my years on Broadway and off-Broadway. So theatre has always been my love. I have other loves but theatre has always been the core of my…existence (laughs).”
Broadway has such myth and legends about it, to people out of New York I think it seems like a magical or made up place.
“Oh it’s very real! It scary at first but after you’ve done a few Broadway shows you start to know everybody, it’s almost Collegiate. It’s very much like being at college and everybody is friends right there in the Times Square area.”
One of the great honours of being in that Broadway family is having your caricature hung in Sardi’s Restaurant, did that blow your mind when that happened?
“It really did. That came from Saturday Night Fever where I played the DJ and I just went a bit wild with it. And the Sardi’s people approached the producers and I was thrilled that they wanted to do it. Such an honour to be amongst all those great performers.”
So you had been on Broadway for many years and along came the incredible Mad Men. It’s such a fantastic show and your role as Salvatore is superb. How did you become involved?
“I’m lucky that I have had a long career in theatre and it was through theatre that the producers approached me. I agree it is a superb show. The scripts were genius. The character was genius. I wasn’t hard to decide to do it. The attention to detail in the sets and costumes and the depth of all the characters. But all of that is down to Michael Weiner. He created the show, he created that character and it was his vision from the very start. He is just brilliant. They made it pretty easy for us. We always knew we would look fantastic and that the integrity of the characters would be protected. All we had to do was turn up on time and remember our lines (laughs). But I have never felt so supported as an actor before. And is has been such fun to be involved in such an outstanding production.”
Salvatore was a much loved role and there has been a groundswell of demands for you to be written back into to Season Five, with Facebook groups etc.
“I have seen that. It very flattering, even though I may have inadvertently inspired it myself. I did an interview where I was asked if I’d go back if I was asked. I said something along the lines of ‘in a heartbeat’ maybe people should start a Facebook group or something. Which was a joke, but groups appeared shortly after that. It’s not like on the Sopranos, my character only got fired it’s not like I ended up in the back of the truck or dumped in the river. People really did care about Sal. He was important to people and I am constantly asked if he will return. In fact when I saw Elisabeth Moss who played Peggy on the show in New York a while ago, she said ‘I am sick of people asking me what is going on with Sal’ (laughs). It is a testament to the talent of Michael Weiner and the other writers on the show that it is a character that people identify with, across generations really.”
While I was looking for that petition I came across another group trying to get you on Glee.
“Oh Ho. Wow I didn’t know that! I have done musicals and Broadway for years. I was in Cats and there’s a joke right there! I had a blast and I don’t regret one thing. It is such an honour to be on Broadway and to be able to perform night after night. That was my job to dance and sing. And oh my God I love Glee. It is a fantastic show; I’d love to be on Glee. I love Modern Family too.”
So tells us about the show you are bringing to Adelaide, Batt on a Hot Tin Roof
“Well it’s just a lot of fun. A real mixed bag of nuts. It’s a fun night. I tell my story, sing some songs and I think everybody will have a good time. That’s how it came about. I grew up in New Orleans and after Hurricane Katrina there were a lot of fund raising events and charities taking place and I was asked if I would put together a one man show as a benefit for displaced actors and musicians after Katrina. I put this together and it went really well. I have kept doing it and morphing it and it has kept growing and growing and growing. I’ve done a run in New York recently and now I’m doing it in Australia! I am so excited. There’s no rhyme or reason to it, just get your ticket and get on the rollercoaster. It’s going to be fun. It’s not studious at all, ‘I will now sing the unknown songs of Cole Porter’ (laughs). Cole Porter was brilliant and I do one of his songs in the show, but when I go to cabaret I want to have fun. And that’s what I am all about.”
So apart from appearing on TV, in Broadway shows and now a one man cabaret show Bryan is also an author of a book She Ain’t Heavy She’s My Mother. He runs an interior design company with his partner Tom Cianfichi with whom another book on home design will be released later this year.
My philosophy in life is that everything should be an ‘and’ proposition, not an ‘or’ proposition. If you want to change your job, or try something new, just do it. We shouldn’t limit ourselves; other people will try and do that anyway. If you have a passion or longing to do something else – do it. Life isn’t a dress rehearsal. That attitude took me to Broadway, TV and now to Australia. I just can’t wait to get on a plane and take that 18 hour flight to Adelaide. I am so excited. I have never been to Australia and it’s been one of my dreams to visit Australia. My grandparents went there when I was a kid and they loved it there and would talk about it all the time. It has always seemed a magical place to me and I can’t wait to get there.”
Bryan Batt’s Batt on a Hot Tin Roof plays on the Festival Theatre Stage from Wednesday June 22 to Friday June 24.
Ian Bell 2011