Rich Sommer on His Two Tribeca Movies, His Board-Game Obsession, and Harry Crane’s Future on Mad Men
Over the past five seasons on Mad Men, Rich Sommer has come to be virtually identified with his character, the socially awkward but basically likable media head Harry Crane. At this point, it’s strange to see him in other shows and movies outside of the offices of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. But we’d better get used to it. Sommer is in two movies at Tribeca: The Giant Mechanical Man, a romantic comedy-drama in which he co-stars with Jenna Fischer and Chris Messina, and Fairhaven, a small-town drama in which he also co-stars with Messina — and he’s finally getting a chance to show his range. He recently sat down with us to talk about his new movies, what he’d do with Harry Crane if he had the chance, and his notorious obsession with board games.
So, you and Chris Messina are in two movies in Tribeca together. Are you guys best friends now or something? We actually did three movies last year, which is really weird. We’re also in Celeste and Jesse Forever. I did three independent movies last year, and he was in all of them. I did Mechanical Man because of Jenna [Fischer] and Lee [Kirk, who wrote and directed the movie], and then Chris was going off to do Fairhaven and said, “I’m going to do this other movie. One of the other guys dropped out, he’s unable to do it. Would you want to take a look at the script?” In Mechanical Man, our characters basically just have a handshake together, but I am such a fan of Chris’s work that even if the script had been terrible I would’ve done that second film.
All of these films have actors in key creative roles. Fairhaven was written and directed by actors, Celeste and Jesse was co-written by actors, and for Giant Mechanical Man, Jenna Fischer was involved very early on in the writing and development process. How is that different? Is it different? It is definitely different, to some extent. Obviously, people would like these movies to sell and gain distribution and in turn make their money back and maybe turn a profit, but with creative people at the helm, it becomes more about the subject and substance of the film. That’s certainly true for all three of these films, but especially in Mechanical Man, in the way it’s brought together. It was a very collaborative environment. Jenna wasn’t the director, but she was involved very deeply from the very beginning. And Lee, who wrote and directed, has acted before. It was run all by people who were contributing throughout. It wasn’t about money. It was about heart and ideas and excitement, and that’s the key difference.
Your character in Fairhaven is wrestling with fatherhood, which I imagine you can relate to as well, being the father of young children. Yeah, Messina and I improvised part of a conversation in the film about fatherhood. He asked, “How do you like being a dad?” I said, “I hate parts of being a dad, and I love parts of it.” It is a complicated thing that we do as fathers. There’s nothing better, but it’s also like you signed a lease with the worst roommate in the universe, who screams and throws things at you, and you can’t throw them out of the apartment. And they’re also super-litigious, so you can’t even talk back! A child is like a litigious, rageaholic roommate that you can’t kick out. And they’re on the payroll, too, for some reason!
Let’s talk about your character Harry Crane on Mad Men. Over these few seasons, I feel in some ways that he’s changed more than any of the other men on the show. He initially started off as comic relief, almost, but his arc feels more human now. I love what they’ve done with Harry. But you know, if you look at an episode from early on in season one, and you look at an episode now, he certainly looks different — more than any other character on the show, maybe except Peggy — and carries himself differently, and speaks to Don and Roger differently than he did then. But I don’t necessarily feel like he’s that different as a person. I don’t think anything rings false with how they’re writing Harry now versus how they were writing him then. It’s because he’s on this TV train at the company, so he swings it around a little bit more. I think he would have swung it around a bit more back then, too, but he would have gotten fired. He just has a more important position now and has a little more leeway with what he can do.
So, if it were up to you, what would you have happen to Harry? As an actor, I would like him to stay put and not go anywhere. [Laughs.] And I would like for him in the final episode of the final season to say, “Well, guys, I’m moving on to bigger and better things, bye!” But as a character, even though he’s socially dumb, and he makes mistakes and sticks his foot in his mouth, I would love for him to remain the lovable douchebag that he is. I hope he remains that way, but also keeps lucking into these things. I think eventually he’s going to run his own joint, for sure, whether it’s an ad agency, or a talent agency, or a power agency. I also would love for him to get a divorce — Jennifer is really bad for him. But who knows? I have no power over what happens to Harry. Whatever the opposite of power is, that’s what I have when it comes to that character and that show.
You’re also a huge board-game aficionado, and you maintain a blog where you write about and review games. How did you get started on games, and which one is your favorite?I got started when I was living in Cleveland. There was a board game store that was going out of business, and they were on deep, deep, deep discount. I had no money, and I wrote down the names of all these games and I went online to this site called boardgamegeek.com to research them, and I immediately got obsessed. I found the ones I wanted to buy; I went to the store and bought a couple of them. And I went from having those two games to now owning something like 375. My favorite is one that I’m sure you’ve never heard of. It’s called Die Macher, and it was designed by Karl-einz Schmiel in 1986, and it’s about the German political system. It takes five people to play, and each person represents a different political party, and you have a series of seven elections, and each election has, like, different parts. It’s intimidating, but it’s a beautiful game, and it’s intuitive, and it makes sense. It’s a lovely thing.
Which is your least favorite? The Ungame. Which I had to play when I was seeing a shrink in fifth grade. It’s a game where you roll a dice and then it’s, like, “So, how do you feel about your mom?” It’s not a game. That’s why it’s called the Ungame. They pretend it’s a game just by putting it in a game box. It’s awful.
Where most people see the dressing room of a Soho clothing store, Alison Brie sees a stage with an open mike. “Oh, man, this would be my costume if I were playing a janitor in a mental institution,” says the actress, whipping open the curtain to reveal a dark sack of a dress with an unflattering bulge below the waist. “But there’s something about it I kind of dig. I’m considering it. For around the house only. And for when I’m doing a cleaning service on the side of a freeway.”
She returns to the fitting room and tries on the same dress, this time in a brick-colored pattern with little dogs on it. It’s just as ill-fitting, but Brie seems disappointed it doesn’t look worse: “Instead of being like, ‘Nope, this one’s a no,’ I’m like, ‘Check out why this sucks!’ Look. What is this? I can’t deal,” she says, turning to one side to accentuate the erect material near her crotch. “It’s like a fabric penis!”
Unlike the uptight characters she plays on two of TV’s most critically beloved shows—she’s Pete Campbell’s traditionalist wife, Trudy, on Mad Men, and prudish former Adderall addict Annie Edison on Community—Brie is bawdy, fun, and a little shameless. When I casually mention see-through tops, Brie rips open her jacket: She’s wearing one, with a neon-pink bra underneath. “Oh my gosh,” she says. “I’m all about seeing your bra through your clothes.”
She’s slightly truer to form in this month’s romantic comedy The Five-Year Engagement, in which she plays Emily Blunt’s wacky, scene-stealing younger sister who gets knocked up and shotgun-married. But Brie insists, “Certain precautions can be taken to make sure that doesn’t happen. I am not as irresponsible as that character.” Also, while at the Sundance Film Festival for Save the Date, the other wedding comedy in which she appears this year, someone asked her and co-star Lizzy Caplan who would get married first. “Both of us were like, ‘Not it! Not it!,’ ” Brie says. “We’re on the same page about that.”
“I’m actually pretty good at doing stuff with my feet,” says Brie. “I shouldn’t say that in an interview, because foot-fetish people are going to get crazy.” She’s not kidding. “On Twitter they post pictures of my feet and ask what color my toenails are painted. It’s very flattering. I support foot fetishists. If that’s what you’re into, great. Great that you know that about yourself and you embrace it.”
Brie says both of her TV characters and the exasperated bride she plays in Save the Date are based in part on her older, perfectionist, financial-adviser sister, Lauren—“She’s like Martha Stewart; she hosts Thanksgiving at her house, and her place settings are amazing”—but more of her own up-for-anything personality has gradually seeped through. Mad Men’s newly suburban Trudy “really goes for the frumpiness,” she says. “I don’t think she sees it as a bad thing or like, ‘Wow, I really let myself go. I’d better bounce back.’ She’s discovering this other side to herself that she enjoys. Pete’s just not into it. Go figure.”
And Community’s Annie is finally giving up “operating with this whole mannequin guise of having it together when everything underneath is simmering and about to explode.” Now that she’s moved in with Abed (Danny Pudi) and Troy (Donald Glover), says Brie, “I feel like any progress Annie has made toward adulthood has been thwarted and she’s just regressing more and more each week. In a good way.”
Rather unsurprisingly, Brie’s acting training included work as a clown for children’s birthday parties while growing up in Pasadena. “I did balloon animals. I did characters. I did these games where you’d bring a ball and a parachute and a boom box and dance around. I was a super-fun clown,” she says. Then she attended the California Institute of the Arts, an experience she detailed in a widely blogged-about essay, about having sex with her best friend to determine whether he was really gay, for the 2010 book Worst Laid Plans: When Bad Sex Happens to Good People. “We still laugh about it,” she says. “He was like, ‘I never attempted sex with another woman ever again.’ And I was like, ‘You’re welcome.’ ”
Before she landed her part on Mad Men, Brie, 29, spent “three years being a total loser,” living at home and working as a receptionist at yoga studios. She moved into her own place a year ago, but even now the going’s not easy. Mad Men’s current fifth season was preceded by an unusually long hiatus and difficult contract negotiations between AMC and series creator Matthew Weiner that, for a time, left the show’s future in doubt. And Community’s third season came to a screeching halt last fall when NBC temporarily removed the series from its schedule. As Brie puts it, “I’ve cornered the market on shows that not many people watch, but the people that watch them love them intensely.”
Because of the delays, her two shows shot simultaneously, so Brie would sometimes have to run between both sets in the same day. “That’s when I’m most excited and feel like it’s all happening, you know what I mean?” she says. “I liked shooting at Mad Men and then going over to Community and literally taking my hair down. Because Community really feels like the parents are gone and we’re all just having crazy sleepovers and making blanket forts.”
Apart from a small role as a murder victim in Scream 4, Brie’s double shifts on TV have mostly kept her too busy to do movies. The Five-Year Engagement features, by far, her most prominent big-screen role. For the film, she had to learn to do a British accent by “stalking Emily Blunt like a psychopath and just standing near her and mumbling whatever she was saying.” She was so convincing that producer Judd Apatow didn’t realize she wasn’t English until someone pointed it out. “I was shocked, because I love her on Mad Men and I didn’t even make the connection,” he says.
Our shopping trip takes us down Broadway to Madewell, where Brie grabs a patchwork strapless bathing suit off a rack, promising, “If it’s awesome, I’m going to make you look at me in it! And it’s going to be awkward!” (It isn’t and she doesn’t.) Whenever she worries she’s taking too long in a dressing room, she shouts out, “Powering through! Powering through!” She ends up buying another see-through top.
Before that—attention, foot fetishists—she’d spent a good fifteen minutes agonizing over $10 packages of socks at Uniqlo. “All right. I realize you may not think this is the most important decision, but I’m not done looking at socks. Don’t be mad. I need another minute,” she said. “One’s striped and one is textured. Which one do I like more? I don’t know!” She picked both, then muttered, “What have I done?”
A: I think he excites himself with thinking that he is. He’s trying to be one of the boys, trying to live their lives, and fit in in that way.
Q: You re-watched Season 4 to get ready for Season 5. How did it strike you?
A: It’s so well-written… Such a massive amount of detail is put into the authenticity of every single character line’s progression. And if you dig down into it, you’ll discover answers to why Matt has you say things that are slightly strange. There are clues in the dialogue.
Q: There are a lot of group scenes in the office. Are those fun to shoot?
A: They’re great fun except for the conference room scenes. It’s just a pain in the ass to shoot around that table. You have to get sight-lines correct and then you have to figure out who’s on the right and who’s on the left. It’s really, really complicated to do and it takes a phenomenal amount of time.
Q: Have you ever kept a memento from the set?
A: Let’s see… I’ve got a Lane Pryce business card.
Q: Is it in your wallet?
A: No. It’s at home. I keep mementos from everything I’ve done. I’ve got my cab driver’s license from Happiness. I’ve got a pair of glasses and a belt buckle from playing John Lennon. I’ve got a pair of sunglasses from playing Andy Warhol… It’s all in a box in the garage.
Q: Having British theater training, do you think you approach your role differently than your American castmates?
A: Moving outside of your comfort zone is one thing I learned from my training as an actor in England… [English drama schools] put you in as many different plays as they can and you figure out which ones you have a natural affinity to and which ones you don’t, and why people succeed in the ones you don’t. Then you go to the pub with your classmates and you ask them, “How did you figure that out? “
Q: Do you think your classmates are surprised at the roles you’ve ended up playing?
A: Weirdly, the principal at my drama school said I would never be able to play a part like [Lane]… I had a problem in my mind about these guys, that they sort of had no balls and they weren’t real people. He said, “Unless you’re going to treat these people as being real people, then you’ll never really play them.”
Q: So the counter-cultural figures like John Lennon and Andy Warhol that you’ve played come more naturally to you?
A: Yeah… I wanted to be demonstrative and was basically looking to overact. [Laughs]
Q: Have you figured out how to have fun with a character like Lane?
A: The pressure is fantastic! For me, the pressure that’s created from holding all that stuff back, it’s something that really pays off on camera because you’re not having to hit the back of a hundred-seat house. The camera is right there and can capture all the internal conflicts of having to behave in that way.
Were you extremely uncomfortable when Don went chasing after Megan? I found my face completely contorted in disgust throughout the whole scene, and when they hit the floor I was just thrown into tears! It was too intense for me! (But obviously another testament to the impeccable acting). Cheers!
I just saw it and I really really was. I felt physically afraid for Megan, which is crazy given I’m not much of a fan of her. Tsk tsk, Don.
MM#1 and I had a small discussion just now about how we have the separate community (thechipndip) for questions, but neither of us have entirely seen the benefit of having two separate ones, and thought it much easier to have everything contained to the one blog. It’s easier to scroll than it is to have two different ones added. So with that said, thechipndip is no longer in use, and we’d love to receive your questions/discussions directly to our ask box here at MMD. Thank you, and we both can’t wait to watch the episode!