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Tribeca 2013: 'Mad Men's' John Slattery takes an indie-film turn

April 20, 2013|By Steven Zeitchik
  • John Slattery and Amy Morton in 'Bluebird'
John Slattery and Amy Morton in 'Bluebird' (Tribeca Film Festival )

NEW YORK--As Roger Sterling on "Mad Men," John Slattery plays  it brash, slick and  debauched. But even a hard-drinking womanizer needs a break once in a  while.

And so it was that Slattery found himself in Maine last year starring as Richard, a taciturn logger thrust into the center of a tragedy, in the indie film "Bluebird."

"You take six months of the year doing [Roger Sterling] and you want to do something different," Slattery told The Times in an interview here Saturday. "This was a story that had a lot of appeal because it was so specific, so much about these people and this place."

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World-premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival this weekend, director Lance Edmands' feature explores the lives of several intersecting families in a blue-collar town buffeted by tough economic times--and, as the movie unfolds, a heartbreaking tragedy.

The logger's  wife Lesley (Amy Morton), is a no-nonsense school bus driver with a quiet affection for her job and charges. But when she's  temporarily distracted from her  responsibilities, a terrible event involving a young boy ensues, one made worse by the negligence of the young boy's mother. As the consequences of her actions play out, Lesley, Richard and the others--in a low-key indie-film kind of way-- come to terms not just with what's happened but with parts of themselves.

Though "Bluebird" has notions of guilt and responsibility on its mind, it offers few easy answers--a theme the actors say is relevant in the wider world.

"Society has a huge need to blame, to put everything in its place, to make things less random," Morton, the acclaimed stage actress of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" who's a frontrunner for a Tony nomination later this month, said in an interview. "And the truth is it really is random."'

Added Slattery: "The beauty of the movie is that no one's fully at fault. A lot of people are complicit."

The actor initially found it  jarring to shift from a character as demonstrative as Sterling to the suppressed tones of Richard. "Stillness for me is hard," he said. "You want to show what you're going through, not let the camera or the people shooting the movie find it."

To more fully feel the role, he experimented with different tricks--trying a Maine accent (Edmands quickly told him to lose it) and also learning how to operate a rig "so that I minimized the risk of running over the crew."

A first-time director, Edmands has previously worked as an editor on a number of indies, including Lena Dunham's "Tiny Furniture." With "Bluebird," which is seeking distribution at Tribeca, the helmer has made the kind of film that festivals seem built for, one that makes up for in character and atmosphere what it lacks in feel-good accessibility.

The movie also shows actors what's possible in their own careers. Slattery--who in recent years has had supporting parts in studio films such as "Iron Man 2" and "The Adjustment Bureau"--said he recently finished adapting for the screen an as-yet-unspecified novel and will direct the movie version later this year. To prepare, he's been cutting his teeth directing episodes of "Mad Men," and spent a good amount of time on the "Bluebird" set watching Edmands for clues.

But don't expect to see Slattery in front of the camera in that one. "I find the least enjoyable part of directing is directing yourself," he said. "It takes too long, and it's distracting."

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