Frisky Q&A: Bryan Batt, AKA Salvatore Romano On “Mad Men”

Bryan Batt photo

It would be easy to hate Bryan Batt.

He breathes the same air as Jon Hamm, playing the closeted gay art director Salvatore Romano on “Mad Men.” He counts Christina Hendricks and Jane Krakowski from “30 Rock” among his besties. And you wouldn’t know it from “Mad Men,” but this Louisiana native has the dreamiest thick Southern accent.

But how could you hate someone who is just so darn nice? Bryan profusely apologized for playing phone tag with me because he was busy taking care of his elderly mom (aww!) and then generously chatted from the back room of the home furnishings store, Hazelnut, he owns in uptown New Orleans with his partner of 20+ years, Tom Cianichi. Can you say “down-to-earth”?

After the jump, find out if Bryan thinks Sal will ever return to “Mad Men,” what it was like playing Lumiere the candlestick on Broadway’s “Beauty & The Beast,” and how he felt seeing Jon Hamm’s handsome mug for the first time. (Answer: amazing.)

“I get asked all the time, ‘When is Sal coming out?’ My standard answer is, ‘To what? In that time and age, who do you come out to?’ But it’s really refreshing, because I’ve never gotten one negative comment about Sal. They’ve always been supportive, like, ‘Why can’t he just be who he is?’ The people who really love him the most, I’ve found, are women. I’ve gotten a lot of hugs on the street, which I will take anytime, any day.”

Most people don’t know you were an illustrious Broadway star long before you were on “Mad Men” — you were in “Cats,” “Seussical The Musical,” and Lumiere the candlestick in “Beauty & The Beast”!

To tell the honest truth, I didn’t want to do “Beauty & Beast”! But my agent said, “Look, it’s a Broadway show.” It was one of my favorite shows, mainly because it was one of the few things my nieces could come see me in. All my friends had children of that age and it was just magical for them. You know, “Beauty & The Beast” was running before 9/11. I joined that show right before 9/11. It was such an odd thing to be performing, singing “Be Our Guest” after 9/11, wondering what’s going to happen and if the theater is going to be blown up. I thought, ‘Well, if I have to go, I want to go on Broadway with flame throwers on my hands!’ (laughs)

Everyone is dying to know what was it like being on “Mad Men.”

It was this magical, blessed experience. We had no idea when we shot the pilot in 2006 what it was going to be. We knew it was good. We thought it was interesting. From the table read, I remember I sat across from Christina Hendricks — who is a dear friend, I just adore her — and I remember thinking, ‘Who is this girl? She’s something special that I’ve not seen before!’ And then becoming friends with all the people in the cast — it was full of wonderful experiences. In TV, there’s no audience [like on Broadway], so you have to trust [each other] — and thank God the writing on “Mad Men” is so brilliant. The editors are so great and the cinematographers are so great.

Even though Sal isn’t currently on the show, are you still in touch with the cast?

Yes, I am still very good friends with the cast. Recently Rich Sommer (who plays Harry Crane) had another child and texted right when he was born with the picture. We’re very much a close cast. I miss working with them every day. But as Matt [Weiner has] said, Sal is alive. Sal is not dead. (teasing voice) Watch and find out … that’s really all I can say!

What do you personally hope happens to Sal? Do you want him to get a boyfriend?

Honestly, my speculation and my dreams for Sal, besides a spinoff … (laughs) don’t you think “My Pal Sal” would be great? Come on! You know, what I would come up with [for Sal] would be one-tenth as interesting as what our writers would come up with. It would be so wonderful to go back and share Sal. I am hoping and praying and lighting candles. But I really don’t know. God, there are so many scenarios now with the ’60s really exploding.

Were you allowed to keep any of your “Mad Men” costumes?

I think they gave me a ring, a pinkie ring Sal used to wear and I call it my Super-Sal ring. … I used to call Sal’s [costumes] “Sal Gar-animals” because he used to mix and match his patterns! Janie [Bryant, the costume director] is a genius. Even the things you don’t see onscreen are painstakingly thought out. Her mixtures of texture and color and the palette … nothing, absolutely nothing, on that show happens by accident. To work with people on that level has been a dream.

Do you find that people approach you as if you are your character, Sal, and talk to you about coming out of the closet?

Yeah, people have come up a lot. Only a few times people haven’t seen the line between Sal and myself, like ‘Oh, I feel so sorry for you that you can’t be who you are!’ [I tell them,] ‘I’m fine, Sal is tortured.’ I get asked all the time, ‘When are you coming out? When is Sal coming out?’ My standard answer is, ‘To what? In that time and age, who do you come out to?’ But it’s really refreshing because I’ve never gotten one negative comment about Sal. They’ve always been supportive, like, why can’t he just be who he is? The people who really love him the most, I’ve found, are women. I’ve gotten a lot of hugs on the street, which I will take anytime, any day.

There have been a lot of letters and beautifully written stories thanking me for being out and being who I am. A friend of mine, who is a psychologist, said — and I took this as the biggest compliment — “You don’t know how many people you and Tom have influenced just by living your positive life, just by being who you are.” Tom, my partner, and I have been together 21 years. It’s work. It’s good work. It’s great! You know, I don’t even think about [being a good influence] because my parents just didn’t raise me to be a liar. I have to lie every day as an actor and pretend I’m somebody else and I thought, ‘I just can’t do that in my life!’

Why do you think women are so obsessed with the character of Don Draper? I mean, no woman should want to be with him in real life. He cheats on his wife and hits her and lies! I don’t get what anyone sees in him.

I agree with you! There are a lot of people like that. It’s like, I guess, J.R. on “Dallas.” It’s the one you love to hate. He’s the quintessential bad boy and a lot of women are attracted to that. You put an actor as Jon Hamm in that role — who is just innately charming, innately handsome, breath-takingly handsome …. When I saw him for the first time when we started filming the pilot I thought, ‘Oh, OK. Now I get it. I totally get it. He’s perfect.’ He just gave this perfect performance and I thought, ‘If this [show takes off], this man is going to be a big star.’ He has it all. He has the looks, the immense talent and on top of it he’s, like, a really good guy. And he’s funny, too! You put someone with those qualities in this kind of bad boy role and those qualities I think are going to come out no matter what. People are going to be attracted to the look, the talent, the wit — not necessarily the behavior. We’ve also become a little bit desensitized to bad behavior. But Don is pretty charming!

Other than Sal, do you have a favorite character on “Mad Men”?

I love them all in so many different ways … Miss Blankenship, Don’s new secretary? (laughs) No, I’m kidding. Oh, I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t pick one. But there’s something special about Joanie, there’s something special about Christina’s character. So sexy and so smart and in a way very sad, too. And I love Peggy [Olsen]. I love Peggy so much as well. I think they’re all well-rounded characters. It is hard to choose. Give me the redhead!

So you’re going to be performing a one-man show in NYC on October 3rd and 4th and tickets are still available.

Yes, it’s called “Batt on a Hot Tin Roof” at Feinstein’s (a renowned off-Broadway supperclub). I promise it will have nothing to do with the play (“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”). I won’t be walking around in my pajamas with a crutch and a tumbler of Jack Daniels.

Or yelling “Stellllllllla!

(laughs) No, it’s really just a fun name of a collection of songs and stories. I actually did this show as one of the first performances in New Orleans after Katrina. A friend of mine who owns this club called Le Chat Noir, which is a wonderful cabaret place, said, “People are coming home [after evacuating] and there’s nothing for them to do.” So I put together a one-man show to do it as a fundraiser for the displaced actors. And it sold out and we did it again! I’ve played with it over the last five years, just for fun, and I’ve wondered if I could do it in New York. It’s really fun and with the book out — I wrote a book called She Ain’t Heavy, She’s My Mother — and some of the stories in that are incorporated in the cabaret. … Just me and a piano in a room of 150, 200 people, it’s kind of daunting! It’s always gone over well, so I’m hoping it goes over well in New York.

Can we expect you back on Broadway soon?

I would love do television and also do Broadway when I can. As an actor, I’m a gun for hire! (laughs) You have to go where the work is. For years and years and years I did Broadway musicals and I think I danced the cartilage out of my knees. Literally! “Starlight Express” was my first show and I did handstands and cartwheels, you name it. And you know who was in that, too? Jane Krawkowski (from “30 Rock”). That was her Broadway debut, too. I adore her. She is so talented and so sweet.

Let’s talk about all the charity work you do for gay rights groups.

I’m hosting the Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS auction (to raise money for AIDS charities) in New York City on September 26th, and on September 29th, I’m hosting the 2nd Annual GLAAD Media Awards in Advertising (to honor corporations who depict gays and lesbians respectfully and responsibly). You know, if I’m available and I can do it, I lend my services to a lot of different organizations. If I can help, it’s something I was raised to do. My whole family was like that.

Well, is there anything else you want to add, something I didn’t ask you about?

Oh, gosh, you are so nice! I think we covered it. You know, I’m just so lucky to get to do what I do. I wanted to be an actor all of my life. My partner and I opened a store — I’m in the back of our store right now in New Orleans, a home furnishing store, Hazelnut — and I really found when I took myself out of the whole theater world for a little bit, for a little break, then “Mad Men” happened and all these other wonderful things happened, [like] the book. I think actors become very defined by our work. Every party it’s, like, “What are you up to? What are you doing?” At one time I said, “I’m just living!” But we do sometimes define ourselves by [work], but, no, I’m kind of a human being first. And I’m just so fortunate.

Your partner runs Hazelnut while you’re off in Hollywood?

Exactly. It’s his baby. Once and awhile I’m here with the mops. I’m a porter. I’m a custodian a lot of the time. (laughs) And I help with the buying.

You are one busy bee, Bryan.

An idle me is not a good thing.

Keep up with Bryan Batt’s busy schedule on BryanBatt.com.

Image via AMCtv.com

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