Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Mad Men’s Christopher Stanley on Bruce Springsteen and digging ditches

Illustration for article titled Mad Men’s Christopher Stanley on Bruce Springsteen and digging ditches

An actor who’s played a cop in everything from Brooklyn South to NYPD Blue, Christopher Stanley thankfully landed a different government job in Mad Men. There, Stanley plays Henry Francis, Betty’s somewhat buttoned-up husband and a mover and shaker in the New York political community. With a storyline that runs parallel to everyone at SC&P, Stanley brings a solid levity to Francis that anchors some of the show’s more selfish drama.


1. What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?

Christopher Stanley: I had a job during the summer when I was a kid. I worked at my high school, which is bad enough because that’s the place you want to get away from, and then if you’re there all summer long and have to go back feeling like you never left school. But I got a job just doing custodial work at my school, just having to strip the wax off the floors and wash the floors and stuff like that, and it was brutal. First of all it was really hard work, but the hard thing about it was I had to work with this old cantankerous guy. He must have been 100 years old, and he did nothing but yell at me the entire summer. It was brutal. I hated getting up every morning and going to this job. It was hot in school and just awful. He was just always like, “I don’t know who you knew, pal, to get this job, but you’re just not going to get to sit on your ass all summer long.” Just horrible.

Oh, wait. Here’s my real worst job. I’m out here—this is years and years ago—and I’m going through a real dry patch as an actor after I had worked sort of consistently for a while. For whatever reason, I just couldn’t get a job. It’s pretty common. Money had run out, I needed a job, and I couldn’t find anything as an actor. A really good buddy of mine at the time was a contractor. He’s an excellent contractor, a carpenter. And he said, “Listen, we’re working on this job at Laurel Canyon. I could have you do something just to tide you over for a few months through the summer.” I said, “Yeah, absolutely. That would be great.” I was really excited. So I go up there. It’s the middle of the summer. It’s always really hot. We sit around and we talk and he’s like, “Okay, let me show you what you’re going to be doing.” And he walks me into the backyard, and he hands me a fucking shovel. And I go, “What’s this?” He goes, “I’m so sorry, but we’re really shorthanded, and I need to dig this hole.” I think it was for a septic system and it was sizable, I’m talking 8, 10, 12 feet deep by 6 or 8t feet wide. I’m like “Oh my God. You’re killing me.” He goes, “I’m sorry, Chris. You don’t have to do it.” I said, “No, no, no. I need a job. I’ll do it.”

So I start working on this. The yard is kind of on a slant. It’s really hard to stand level and do it. It was really, really ridiculously hard work. But the thing that made this job so hard was that, at a certain point, probably on the third or fourth day of digging this hole, it made me think of my father. When I was in my teens, I was kind of going down a bad road. And I remember my father sitting me down to have one of these heart-to-heart talks as he often did, and during this particular talk he said, “I don’t understand what you’re doing. What’s your plan? You’re ruining your life. You’re getting in trouble. You’re fucking up. What are you going to do?” And I just sat there like any 15 or 16-year-old with a blank stare and looked at him like, “I don’t know.” He said, “If you’re not careful, you’re going to find yourself 29-30 years old digging ditches.” And there I was, digging ditches. So it was really hard. That job was much harder emotionally than physically because it made me reflect on my life and what it would have been had I not made a bunch of mistakes and where was I going and all of those big life questions. That was definitely the worst job.

AVC: How long did you dig that hole?

CS: Because the ground was really hard and because a lot of those homes are on a hill and it’s not very level, it was really hard to dig. I think that hole took me—well, after about a week, they brought in another guy to help me. It was so much. That guy came and helped me, but he had to run back to the house to do other stuff. He came in for an hour here, 30 minutes there to help me. I did it mostly all myself, and it just took forever. I would say at least 10 days. It was a big hole. But that wasn’t the worst thing. I kept hearing my father’s voice echoing in my head. That’s what killed me.

2. When did you first feel successful?

CS: I don’t know if you ever feel really successful as an actor, but probably after I got one of my first acting jobs. I got a job as a series regular on a television show when I was in my 20s. It didn’t get picked up. It only went for 13 or 15 episodes, but it was huge. It was just absolutely huge, and it made me put money in the bank and I didn’t have to worry about bills. I’m eating tuna out of a can and pasta and all the stuff that you do. And it just made me feel like a million bucks. My father was around at that time to witness it, and it was a really great feeling, and it validated everything that I was doing for a lot of different reasons. It felt great.


3. If you were a super villain, what would your master plan be?

CS: Don’t we have enough jerks like this in the world?

I would have some kind of power where I could take away a person’s most prized attribute, something that they’re really attached to in the most egocentric sense of the word. It could be a physical or intellectual thing. I would be able to take this attribute if they could not manage to be empathetic. And you could get this attribute back, but you must master the quality of genuine humility. Personally, I think humility is a prerequisite to being a truly empathic person. So you’d have to master that quality in order to get your attribute back. Why not hit people where it really hurts? Their vanity.


4. What were you like as a kid?

CS: Up until the age of 9 or so, I was an incredibly happy, pretty well-adjusted, funny kid who made my parents laugh all the time. I was a bit of a clown, and I was really happy. And then my parents divorced, and I kind of turned into a different person. I was sort of a contradiction in a lot of ways just because of life circumstances. I was a fearless kid, I was an angry kid, I was a sensitive kid. I was always a little bit of an upstart. I had to start working at a very young age, so I was in a pissy mood for a lot of my childhood. That’s not to say I didn’t have fun, but I didn’t do the sports thing, I didn’t get to interact as much as I would have liked to. I didn’t get to be as much of a kid and just have fun. I had to take on a lot of responsibility at an early age, which is fine, so I don’t think I ever fit into one group. I was a jock for a little while because I wrestled in high school and junior high. But I was also friends with the potheads and friends with the nerds and friends with the thugs. I was a jack of all trades but a master of none. Honestly, up until about 9 or 10, I was just the happiest kid in the world. But I just got angry. I got really pissed off and started to get into a lot of trouble.


Looking back on it now, I probably wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s made me the person I am, for better or worse.

5. Who was your celebrity crush when you were younger?

CS: Man, I had so many crushes on ’70s actresses. I loved Stevie Nicks, Linda Ronstadt. You know who I loved was Goldie Hawn. She was really hot. I had Farrah Fawcett’s iconic poster in my room.


Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid is one of my favorite movies. There was an actress in that, Katharine Ross. I had a huge crush on her as well and I think that movie was one of the movies that made me decide to want to become an actor.

Susan Sarandon. Olivia Newton-John, I loved. You know who else I loved? Barbra Streisand. I had a huge crush on Barbra Streisand.


There’s an eclectic group of ladies for you.

6. If you had entrance music what would it be?

CS: “Growin’ Up,” by Bruce Springsteen. It’s been one of my favorite songs since I was 14. I think it applies now. It’s just as relevant to me now as it was then because I’m still growing up. It’s not just about growing up, though. It’s really about finding your identity as a person, going from boyhood to manhood, and pumping yourself up with a lot of false beliefs about yourself. Those are things that are sort of necessary to get by and get through life, to tell yourself things about yourself that are maybe not true, or they’re true but they’re not necessarily always true. It’s about that struggle of trying to find your place in the world as a young man and trying to come to terms with who you are. I think it’s just as true today as it was then.


It’s either that or “It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City.” I think they’re off the same album.

7. What have you done so far today?

CS: I was supposed to go to the gym, but I blew that off. I was supposed to work out. That didn’t happen.


I got up. I helped my wife get ready for work. I cooked her breakfast. I fed the cat. I took a shower. Then I ate breakfast. Went on the computer for a few minutes. And that’s it so far.

8. Have you ever been mistaken for another celebrity, and if so, who?

CS: No. I think sometimes once in a great while I’ll get mistaken for whoever. I’m kind of salt and pepper now, so people will come up and think I’m some other actor or entertainer or newscaster person that has salt and pepper hair, like Anderson Cooper or something. I think I’ve heard that once or twice, but by and large, no.


AVC: Do people recognize you?

CS: Yes. I’ll get recognized. People are always pretty nice and kind about it from the show. But it’s not all that common that people think I’m somebody else. But yes, I’ll get a nod every now and then from someone.


9. If you had to find another line of work, what skills would you put on your resume?

AVC: Custodial skills and ditch digging, obviously.

CS: Yeah, ditch digger.

I know my way around the kitchen. I like to cook, so I can fry an egg. I guess I could be a fry cook at Bob’s Big Boy or something, or maybe a sous chef somewhere a little nicer. I would like to do that. I think I can probably pick that up pretty quickly. Besides that, give me a shovel. I’ll go to work.


10. Do you collect anything, and if so, what?

CS: I’m not a collector. But I’ve had this habit since I was a kid. I had a paper route, and every Friday you had to go around and knock on people’s doors and collect the money for the papers. I think I had 89 or 90 papers to deliver, so by the time I was done, I would have this big pocketful of change and this wad of cash. And then you have to take the cash to the paper office, pay your bill, and whatever was leftover tip-wise, you got to keep.


Anyway, I developed this habit of collecting silver coins, and I got to a point where I could sort of figure out, just jingling the coins in my pocket, whether there was a silver quarter or a silver dime just by the sound of it. I got that good at it. I still have all those coins, and I still do it to this day. If somebody hands me change, I just shake it in my hand, and I can tell by the sound if makes if there are any silver coins. So I have a little collection. It’s not huge or anything, but I’ve been collecting since I had that route at 9 years old. I still have the coins from then. There’s less and less of them now. I used to get a lot of them when I was a kid.

AVC: You mean actual silver, right? Not just quarters or dimes or nickels. How can you tell if it’s silver?


CS: If you take a quarter and you turn it on its side, you’ll see it’s half silver and what looks like copper. It’s a mix of metals. But one that’s silver all the way through will be silver. It’ll be that color. One that’s silver all the way through actually feels like it has more weight to it, and when you shake it with other coins, it makes this tinny sound. It’s hard to describe. If you look at one, it’s usually from the ’40s or the ’50s or the early ’60s, and it’s silver. And so I’ve just kept them. I have a pretty good little collection. I keep it in a sock. Someday I’ll turn them in and see if they’re worth anything.

11. What would your last meal be?

CS: Bacon, eggs over easy, toast, black coffee.

AVC: What kind of toast?

CS: Probably sourdough. Or I grew up in this Irish-Italian working class neighborhood, and we used to make Italian toast. You’d basically take a loaf of Italian bread, slice it and toast it and we called it Italian toast. So sourdough, Italian toast, bacon eggs, black coffee. Or meatball sandwich. One or the other.


Bonus 12th question from Kevin Rahm: If you could play anyone else on Mad Men, who would it be?

CS: Probably Roger. Not that I could do it justice because [John] Slattery is so incredible in that role.


AVC: Why Roger?

CS: He was fun. He was this character who is so unlike myself. He just throws caution to the wind with a fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants attitude. He’s really unconscious. He doesn’t really give a shit about anything except himself, though that could be said of a lot of the characters. But, yeah, I would say Roger. He seems like the one who had the most fun, and I kind of like that. A nod to John Slattery for doing an amazing job, because like I said, I could never bring to Roger what John did.


AVC: What would you like to ask the next person?

CS: If you could have another person’s career, but the person has to be an artist— they have to be a painter, a musician, an actor, a writer— whose career would it be and why? They can be living or dead.


AVC: Whose career would you want?

CS: It would have to be a musician. Someone like Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf, a folk blues singer. The music speaks to me. They took horrible circumstances and they used that fuel, that darkness, and turned it into something.