Mark Metcalf does Mad Men
Part one in a two-part essay about the actor and author’s experiences audition for, landing and shooting a one-day, one-scene part in the hit AMC series Mad Men.
Hollywood: so close, and yet so far
A couple of weeks ago I went to Jefferson to have a hamburger at Wedl’s Hamburger Shack. It’s a little place, about eight-by-nine feet, stuck between the road and the sidewalk. Two guys stand inside in the heat and make some of the best burgers in Wisconsin. I brought my son Julius and our two dogs. Each of the dogs got a hamburger as a treat for riding in the back of the pick-up. Diamond, the 10-year-old yellow Lab, turned her nose up at the burger, so Sirius, the Lab/German Short Hair mix, ate both of them.
When we were finished, we drove a little further west to Aztalan State Park to throw the ball for the dogs and let them swim in the river. While we were out there, I got a call from my agent in LA. She told me she had a good audition for me, but it was the next day at 3:30 p.m. in Burbank. On the drive back, I checked with the airlines – the only way to make it was to get a 6:50 p.m. plane that evening. The only seats they had were First Class. Julius had never flown First Class, so we went for it.
Whenever you get that question from your agent, your stomach tightens a little. That usually means bad news. This time – at least initially – it wasn’t. The audition had been moved from 3:30 to 4:30. That was fine – I’d go sit in Forest Lawn Cemetery and work on my lines for the audition. It would help me relax.
Five minutes later, she called me back.
“Mark,” she said. “They just called. They want to make a firm offer … to someone else.” The little pause between “ … firm offer” and “ … to someone else” gave me just enough time to soar on the belief that I wasn’t even going to have to audition; they were just going to give it to me. And then the bullet to the heart – the someone else.
Most agents have an instinctive sadism. They know intuitively how to get you feeling really up and then rip the rug out from under your feet so you smash your face on the concrete, knocking out three or four teeth and breaking your nose. There may be a class for it at agent’s school, but the best ones are just born with the instinct, the ability, the timing, and the cold-heartedness. I’m lucky. I have a good agent.
So I say to her, summoning my best I-knew-it-and-it-doesn’t-really-matter voice, “Okay, I’m out here. I spent lots of American money getting here. I have to be here for at least a week ‘cause they won’t take the rented car back. So get me some other auditions and we’ll see what happens.”
The next day she got me a Friday audition for the AMC television series Mad Men. It’s a good show. I’ve seen the first season – and almost got sick from the smoking – and admire the set decoration, the production design, the wardrobe and most of the writing and acting. It is good, smart-looking, smart TV.
Another way they teach you to suffer in the business: they audition you on Friday, then let you sit around all weekend before they let you know if you got the part. You are supposed to learn to roll with it, but what I have learned is how to pretend to roll with it. Part of me still screams in pain all weekend, even when I’m the one telling all the good jokes at the Saturday cook out.
This time, on the drive to San Diego, my agent called to tell me that they wanted me to do the part. Oh, the relief. Oh, the joy. But not too quickly there, boy. First I had to be “cleared” by the network. The network is in New York, where it is July, Friday, and the end of the day. I won’t be “cleared,” no matter what that means – and no one really seems to know – until Monday. Maybe they want to check my file at the FBI? Maybe it is, as they say, just a formality, but I will still have to wait until Monday.
Then the kicker: while I was on the phone with my agent, I saw familiar flashing lights behind me on the freeway. I pull over obediently and quickly. A California State Highway Patrol officer (and you’ll be happy to know that they no longer look like Steve Garvey) takes her time strolling up to my window to tell me that it is illegal in the fine State of California to talk on a hand-held cell phone while driving on any street, anywhere in the aforementioned state. I pulled out my best rube-from-the-Midwest performance to explain that I was from Wisconsin, where we have no such law, and how was I to know that they had such a smart and well intentioned law here in California? And my son’s mother had wanted to know if he was alright, and was calling every 20 minutes, and I had just taken the call and was about to hand the phone to him, and I was sorry, so very sorry, and couldn’t she just let me go with a warning?
Well, they may not look like Steve Garvey anymore, but they are just as emotionless and inscrutable. That little line went nowhere. I took the ticket and stashed it so I wouldn’t have to see how much money they were going to take to try to stop the hemorrhaging of the California state budget.
The Wild Animal Park was great. The zoo still the best I have ever seen although Julius thinks the one in Columbus, Ohio, is better. I got the okay from the network on Monday morning. Then I just had to figure out how to get Julius back to Milwaukee and myself back to LA to shoot the one scene one-day part.