Rich Sommer: The Complete Interview

Our full chat with the <em>Mad Men</em> actor (he plays Harry Crane) and former Stillwater resident.

MNMO: I have to tell you that partly out of honor to our interview today I’m wearing a skinny tie and tie clip.

RS: I feel I put at ease.

MNMO: And you’re on time.

RS: I show up generally early for things, and people ask where I’m from. Almost with disdain. I say Minnesota and they’re like, Ah, the Midwest…

MNMO: By I way, I was enjoying your recent tweet about receiving a gift bag containing a half-used bottle of nail polish and a 2004 Richard Marx CD. Um, explain—do people really send you random stuff?

RS: It was at a charity event. It was some makeup and some lotions and things. And my wife pulled out the bottle of nail polish and it says Target exclusive, 2004 copyright. I had just that week looked up Richard Marx, too. Sometimes, as far as like sending it to me, it’s generally like they’ll contact you and say, we’d like to give you a suit, which of these three patterns do you like more, can we come and measure you. The people on our show are certainly targeted by people who make nice clothes. It’s a perk.

MNMO: I take it you’re dressing better these days.

RS: Oh certainly. I owned a grand total of zero suits when I moved out here for the show. That number has grown. It’s pretty weird.

MNMO: Where did you grow up here in the Twin Cities?

RS: Stillwater. Born in Ohio, lived there until 8, and then my dad got transferred, moved to Stillwater. I lived there right until college, went to Concordia in Moorhead. My wife is from Mankato. We’re both always trying to find a way back. We want to get a home in Minnesota, and raise our kid there. That’s our No. 1 goal.

MNMO: How often do you get back to Minnesota?

RS: My wife gets back more than I do, probably six or seven times a year.

MNMO: Where do you find yourself hanging out here?

RS: We generally end up being in Mankato with Virginia’s family. Some of my best friends in Lake Elmo, Eagan, Spicer. We try to congregate in Lake Elmo. I try to swing by the Brave New Workshop if I can. Kind of where I got my start. And so it’s a place I owe a lot to, and Comedy Sportz.

MNMO: Were you something of a theater geek in high school?

RS: Not really. I was involved in theater from junior high on so probably anyone who wasn’t in the theater mold would say I did fit that mold. I never chose to say I did. Though that’s probably on the list of characteristics, to say you didn’t fit the mold. I was more of a choir guy than a theater guy.

MNMO: I’m not sure that’s helping your cause.

RS: You’re right. I don’t think there’s any way to win this. I was an arts geek.

MNMO: You trained at Dudley Riggs’ Brave New Workshop—do you still fall back on that improv training from time to time? What did that give you as an actor?

RS: It was sort of mid-college, 1998, between my sophomore and senior year. I started making copies and sweeping floors, and by end of summer, they were very generous with me, any opportunity I wanted to have. By the end of the summer, I was performing in their Six-ring Circus, which is all improv, co-teaching a youth improv class, being an assistant to the director of main-stage shows, stage-managing, really anything. An incredible three months. I learned more in three months about how a theater operates….

MNMO: Do you remember any of your skits at Dudley Riggs?

RS: The one that went up while I was there was Viagra, The Second Coming. That was the show that I got to sit in on all the rehearsals for, helped the director take notes, helped them design the poster. I came back right after college to stage-manage a show playing on the Survivor theme.

The thing that initially drew me to improv, at Stillwater Area High School, was a teacher who had this idea of bringing Comedy Sportz to the high school, put two or three of us in the car at end of sophomore year and drove us to the comedy sports high school finals of that year, in ’94 and we watched them. We were then involved in improv in high school as the Stillwater Slush Puppies. And we continued, some of my friends and I, through college as the Slush Puppies.


MNMO: Is there any room for improv in Mad Men, or TV in general?

RS: In TV in general, yes, there’s plenty of room. In any acting there’s always room for a little enhancement to what’s happening. There are exceptions to that, though, and one of them is Mad Men—there’s no ad-libbing ever, and it doesn’t need it, it’s so carefully written. That being said, there are little moments certainly, physically, gesturally, that we all try to find.

MNMO: Do you and Vincent Kartheiser form your own little Minnesota Mafia on the Mad Men site, trying to sneak lutefisk or Bob Dylan references into scenes?

RS: We certainly talk about Minnesota. He performed at the Children’s Theatre Company—my wife remembers Vinnie from back then. Scott Hornbacher, one of the producers, is from Moorhead, too; the place I used to get all my groceries from is Hornbacher’s, it was his grandfather’s store.

MNMO: Lutefisk seems like the kind of thing that if you tell people in LA it’s a health food you may be able to open a lutefisk restaurant for six months—just a career idea if Harry Crane gets killed off somehow.

RS: I have only had lutefisk one time. I went to an annual lutefisk lye-burn or whatever it is. It’s not something I’m going to foist upon the people of Los Angeles. I love Minnesota and love Minnesota traditions, but… But you’re right, if you tell them it’s healthy they don’t care what it tastes like. So maybe we should start the lutefisk diet, you and me, Tim. We have to do it when we don’t want to live here anymore.

MNMO: Is there anything particularly Minnesotan about Harry Crane?

RS: My Minnesota accent in the early shows was slipping in. I tried to neutralize it. Shortly thereafter, it was written in that he was from Wisconsin. I take that as a nod to my origins.

MNMO: Is there anything you feel you bring as a Minnesotan to the character—other than the fact that you’ll probably never be late for taping and always say thank you?

RS: What I bring to the character, what I contribute the most, is sort of just me. The way that our show ends up working, and I’m sure a lot of shows on TV end up working, a lot of the character ends up being inspired by our real selves, not in our actions but in the way they interact and present themselves. During the first season, I was one of the only people in the group who was married and so I was one one the few married on the show. My daughter is Beatrice Grace Sommer. Harry’s daughter is Beatrice Grace Crane. The things that each of us bring to the characters is from Matt Weiner seeing us as we are. And he’s doing it to give a realism.

MNMO: How far into the 1960s do you think they can take this show, I mean will Harry Crane really be in bell-bottoms asking everyone their sign?

RS: Matt knows the ending to Don Draper’s story, and that’s just it: It’s not the 1960s on AMC, it’s the story of one guy really. There is a conclusion to this part of his story, not that he dies or anything.

MNMO: Mad Men of course has become a cultural and even fashion phenomenon—do you feel guilty at all for helping reintroduce the bow tie?

RS: I felt weird about it, really fake about it, as I never tied my own bow tie because I didn’t know how. Then I had a trip to the Emmys and was determined to tie my own bow tie. But I’m happy to bring the bow tie back. The only part is that I, pretty much, can’t be caught dead wearing one. I will look like a jerk.

MNMO: Do you find yourself using words like swell and jeepers more in your everyday life now? Does your wife have to tell you to snap out of it?

RS: No, there’s no danger of that. Of course the clothing seeps in; the type of clothing that the characters wear, we receive gifts of the modern equivalent of them. Beyond that, not really. It’s not a hard show to leave at the office. I’m four years in, and I’ll sometimes put on my flip-flops and sweatshirt and go back on set and someone will say, Can I help you. And I’ll say, it’s Rich.

MNMO: Many if not most of the episodes have a darkness, an I-can’t-believe-he-did-that quality about them—is it possible to leave that darkness at the office and go play basketball or something. I feel like I’d be running home and telling my wife—this is what Don Draper did today, I will NEVER do that to you.

RS: That conversation has happened a few times. Matt Weiner says he gets letters from people where they say we watch the show together and we can’t watch it apart because it’s so important for us to talk about it, and others say we can’t watch it together because it’s too upsetting. Now, I’m no shrink but I’d say that’s a bad sign. For me and my wife, we look at the scripts and just sort of sit aghast and just say, oh my god, what a bastard. Or, please don’t ever do that to me.

MNMO: I’m practically obligated to ask you for any foreshadowing of season four—and you’re practically obligated to give me nothing. But can you give me five, 10 words that point to where things are going?

RS: We both recognize our obligations, and that’s a good thing. It’s early enough that I haven’t come up with a pat answer. So let’s see. Season three, everyone said it was about change and facing change, either embracing or fighting against it, and now this is about, so far, it’s about consequences and the ramifications of decisions. What comes after you’ve made the choice. Matt has been diligent from the beginning of making sure that people’s actions have consequences—Roger has had two heart attacks, Don had some marriage problems, Harry Crane had his own infidelity and the consequence was he had to sleep in the office, and now he had a baby. I think we’ve always covered consequences but now it’s bigger than ever, because they made a big decision at end of season to start their own shop, and Don said go, I’m not going to fight you. All of these things had consequences. I think it will be very fulfilling.