Ben Feldman says he was shooting a scene as Michael Ginsberg, the newest copywriter at ad agency Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, for the fifth season of AMC's "Mad Men" when his co-star Aaron Staton (Ken Cosgrove) pointed out that creator and executive producer Matthew Weiner has a knack for casting actors in roles that match their real-life personalities.
"I sat there thinking, 'Well that's great for Matt, but I'm playing this lunatic, socially awkward weirdo. What does that say about me?,' " Feldman asks with a laugh.
Feldman made his Broadway debut in "The Graduate" in 2002, the same year that he graduated from Ithaca College with a bachelor of fine arts in acting. During final exams, he says, "I was the jerk that kept jumping on a plane and going to New York to audition with Kathleen Turner."
He adds that Back Stage was an integral part of his education. "Back Stage was obviously a tremendous presence in all of theater school," he says, "and for most of my friends who are still acting in New York. I have a whole bunch of friends who are far better actors than I, waiting tables at a restaurant near you."
Feldman flew back to New York City from L.A. this weekend to visit friends and finish shooting "Departure Date," a movie filmed entirely in the air on Virgin America flights. "The last time I was in New York," he says, "I met with as many theater directors and producers as I could, because I very much look forward to coming back and doing eight shows a week again sometime soon."
Back Stage talked with Feldman about what goes on behind the scenes at "Mad Men."
Can you describe the audition experience for "Mad Men?"
Ben Feldman: I've been a fan of "Mad Men" since day one, so it wasn't just a regular audition to me. (laughs)
My first scenes in the show were actually my audition scenes. But it was very vague what they were looking for. It was just a couple of sides that were sort of dummy sides. They changed characters' names, and they changed certain plot points and company names. All I knew was, "potential for a heavy recurring." You never want to make choices [in an audition] based on any sort of speculation, because if I'm wrong, I could go super wrong. I could make an idiot of myself.
The nerve wracking element came in when I saw on that same audition breakdown that I was auditioning for both Matt Weiner and Jon Hamm, because Jon was directing that episode. I think it kind of inspired me to take chances that I wouldn't take in a normal audition. For instance, the sides never asked for any sort of an accent. That was just an idea that I came up with. I thought, "If I'm going to take a risk in any audition, it might as well be this one. Because any other guy that's going in for this is going to be bringing his 'A' game as well, so I need something that's going to step mine up a level."
When you audition for shows in Hollywood, you go in, you do your scene, maybe you get an adjustment. It's sort of easy and a lot of times it just feels sort of rote and simple. Whereas when you go to New York and you audition for plays, you walk out sweaty and intimidated and nervous, and doubting yourself as an actor. You work really hard and they give you tons of notes, and you do a whole lot of adjusting and acting. And this sort of felt like a theater audition in that regard.
Back Stage: You've been getting a lot of recognition recently because of "Mad Men," even though some of your past roles – like "Drop Dead Diva" on Lifetime, starring opposite Hillary Duff in "The Perfect Man," or with Fran Drescher in two seasons of "Living with Fran" – have given you more screen time.
Feldman: It's kind of like I've had two careers. There's the one that I've been doing, and then there's this new one with "Mad Men." There are a lot of people who would refer to this as my debut. In fact, one of my agents actually said something like, "Well now that you've had your debut…" and then they kind of paused and said, "Well, no offense, we know you've been working for 10 years, but come on."
I was at Whole Foods the other day, and I felt someone grab my shoulder and they said, "Ben, I just wanted to say I really like the work you're doing. I don't know if you remember me, but we did a reading together years ago." And I was like, "Yeah, Jane Lynch, I'm well aware of who you are." (laughs) It's a really exciting, flattering moment. Stuff like that happens every once in a while. I'm certainly no big star now because of this show, but it's definitely changed to some degree.
Back Stage: What were some of your biggest surprises after joining the cast, having been a fan of the show?
Feldman: One of the main things I've learned being on the show is that this is a really funny show. Once it makes its way to the screen, it can feel really dark and serious, but on the page, it's hilarious. At our table reads, we're just cracking up laughing, almost in tears at some points.
What's interesting about Ginsberg is that he's not trying to be funny. That was a major thing for someone like me, who's done sitcoms and stuff that's almost "wink wink, I get that this is a joke." And you really have to play against that for this character to make sense. I really want to make sure that I'm not broadcasting the joke.
The writing of course is incredible, and it's all there on the page, but on top of that they put you in these clothes! I've never really had an opportunity in my career to experience that sort of "outside-in" kind of thing, where it doesn't start inside, it almost starts with how you feel physically. And that's a real major element to these characters. You put on these clothes – and in my case, ridiculous clothes – and it really helps inform the rest of your choices.
Back Stage: How else do you prepare for each episode?
Feldman: As a guest star, you get your scenes sent to you the night before the table read. Your name is watermarked over every single page, so if it got out there, everyone knows exactly who it came from.
My only chance to really get a feel for the entire episode as a whole is at the table read that one time. And then you have to turn your script back in at the end of the table read, so you can't walk out the door with it. So I thought, having gone to those table reads, I would really have a much better understanding of what's going on as a whole. And yet every single week, I've been completely surprised, and I've found myself going, "Ohhh, okay, that makes sense. Oh, right, when I said that, that's what was actually happening." You think you know it all, but you don't.
I was very worried, joining this cast this season, that one of my favorite shows in history was going to be ruined for me now that I was on it. (laughs) But I continue to be a fan every single week.
"Mad Men" airs Sunday nights on AMC.
Daniel Lehman is a staff writer at Back Stage. Follow him on Twitter: @byDanLehman