Rich Sommer on Improv, Auditions, and 'Harvey'

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You probably recognize Rich Sommer as Harry Crane, Sterling Cooper Draper's Pryce's head of media on the AMC drama series "Mad Men." But did you know that the actor is also a Back Stage subscriber with a guilty conscience?

Sommer is happy to report that he got auditions from reading Back Stage, yet admits that at one time his subscription was shared with friends from grad school. "Because we were all flat broke, you'll have to forgive me," he says. "But now I'm a full solo subscriber, so I'm trying to make up for it."

After graduating in 2004 with an MFA in acting from the Case Western/Cleveland Play House graduate program in Ohio, Sommer moved to New York City and studied improv at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre before eventually moving to Los Angeles for "Mad Men." Sommer is now in New York again rehearsing for the upcoming Broadway revival of "Harvey" with Jim Parsons ("Big Bang Theory"), while also making time to attend the Tribeca Film Festival, where he is in two world premiere films—"Fairhaven," in which he co-stars with writer-director Tom O'Brien and Chris Messina, and "The Giant Mechanical Man," starring Messina and Jenna Fischer.

At the Tribeca premiere party for "Fairhaven" on April 20, Back Stage asked his co-star Sarah Paulson, herself a Broadway vet, if she had any tips for Sommer before his Broadway debut. "That man needs no advice from me," Paulson said. "He is such a brilliant actor, and I think the world has yet to really see what he can do. It’s so exciting."

Back Stage spoke with Sommer while he was traveling from L.A. to New York, just before rehearsals for "Harvey" began on April 18. Read part two of our three-part Q&A with Sommer, in which the actor discusses the importance of improv and shares his excitement about being on Broadway for the first time.

Back Stage: Would you say that your improv training helps you be a "team player" in an ensemble cast like "Mad Men?"

Rich Sommer: I think that any good improviser, obviously, is working for the good of the scene. And that should go for any actor, as well. I would much rather provide one line in an episode of "Mad Men" that's funny or moving, like when [elderly secretary] Miss Blankenship died and Harry got to say "My mother made that!" when they covered her in the afghan from his couch. That's one of my favorite lines I've ever gotten to say in the show, and that was my only line in that episode. It was a very small piece of a much larger whole, and I definitely think that my excitement about setting the ball for someone else to spike comes from improv.

I would not have gotten almost any of the jobs I've gotten without having what improv gave me, as far as a sort of ease and an ability to make fast, hard choices. The 12 years that I was improvising are why I got the number of commercials I got when I was in New York and why I got "The Devil Wears Prada," and it's why I even got in the door for "Mad Men." Matt Weiner likes comedy people. You look at the people on our show, and all of us have had some sort of comedy experience. Definitely a very large part of why I have a career at all is improv.

Back Stage: Are you saying that improv training had a bigger impact than acting school?

Sommer: It's a different language. In improv, it's about doing all of that stuff instantly, and making assumptions that your partner is on board with you. Whereas if you're rehearsing a play or creating a character over time, that's a whole different toolbox. I think not every improviser is a good stage actor. Certainly not every stage actor is a good improviser.

But improv definitely made me a better auditioner, without a doubt. We did do an audition semester in grad school, and that was helpful for those times that you have a script and you have a few days to prepare it, to really work on sides. But the auditions I was doing in New York, if you got it the night before you were very lucky. Often it was like, "Hey, you have an audition for a commercial tomorrow." "Okay, what's the role?" "I don't know. You'll find out when you get there." That's where improv really helps.

The audition is as much for me as it is for them. I want to meet them. I want to know who I'm going to be interacting with. I love auditioning. We only shoot "Mad Men" for about five months out of the year, so the other seven months, I'm free to audition and do things like "Harvey" this summer, or "Mechanical Man" and "Fairhaven" last year.

Back Stage: What are you doing to prepare for "Harvey" on Broadway?

Sommer: A lot of freaking out. Mostly freaking out. This is my first play since grad school, so it's been eight years. I gave in to the fact that the prep I really need to do is just to get to know the play. I've read it through several times—a couple of times with particular focus, finding and highlighting everything that everyone ever says about my character. I haven't been to a play rehearsal in eight years, and I've never been to a Broadway play rehearsal. I'm excited, I'm terrified I'm going to screw up something somewhere along the line, and I just hope I can pull it off.

Back Stage: Many of your "Fairhaven" and "Mad Men" cast members have a lot of theater experience, so have they offered any advice?

Sommer: The first two people I contacted [after being cast in "Harvey"], other than my family, were John Slattery and Chris Messina, because those guys have obviously done a ton of work in New York plays. I went over to Slattery's apartment and we sat and had some wine, and I really just quizzed him on being on Broadway. "What am I in for? What's it like?" He calmed me down a little bit and said that I would be fine, which I appreciated.

I just passed the mile marker and we're 73 miles away from Cleveland right now, where we're going to dinner with the chair of our acting program from grad school and our acting professor. I'm excited because these are people who have given me the language for being in a play. I definitely am going to be asking for some tips from them.

Q&A Part 1: How 'Mad Men' Actor Rich Sommer Creates His Characters

Q&A Part 3: Only Rich Sommer Holds the Keys to Unlock His Golden Handcuffs

For the full 2012 Tribeca Film Festival schedule and to purchase tickets, visit