Cerith Mathias was at hand to talk to Tennessee Williams devotee and star of Mad Men, Bryan Batt, about his love of New Orleans and of the importance of Williams’ work.
Bryan Batt is a New Orleans institution. Unlike the adoptive darling of the Crescent City that I, along with hundreds of others – actors, scholars and fans – have gathered here to honour, Batt is a true native. Indeed he’s met at the Tennessee Williams/ New Orleans literary festival, held annually in Williams’ spiritual home of ‘little bohemia’, with as much affection as the celebrated playwright himself.
Many other stars of stage and screen are treading the boards at the festival this year, but it is Batt’s star that shines the brightest, drawing in not only proud fellow New Orleanians, but also those from further afield. At the festival’s curtain call – the highly charged Stanley and Stella shouting contest in which Batt is a judge – it is clear that many of the competitors are screaming not for the attention of Stella, but for that of Batt himself.
‘This is for you Bryan!’ one competitor shouts up at the iron lace balcony of the Pontalba Buildings, from where the contest is adjudicated. The actor’s appearance moments later generates a huge cheer from the crowd assembled below in Jackson Square.
Bryan Batt’s talents extend beyond the stage; he is also a designer, owning ‘Hazelnut’, a boutique home accessories shop in New Orleans with his partner of twenty-two years, Tom Cianfichi, and is the author of two books – She Aint Heavy, She’s My Mother: A Memoir and Big Easy Style.
A veteran of both Broadway and the big screen, he is perhaps best known for his role as Salvatore Romano in AMC’s multi award-winning drama series Mad Men; a role which he describes to me as ‘the highest of highs’ in his career. But it is his involvement in the Tennessee Williams Festival that we are here to discuss on this warm March evening in another of New Orleans’ big hitters – the iconic Hotel Monteleone.
The hotel is more than accustomed to hosting stellar guests; Truman Capote, for one, claimed to have been born here. The hotel’s gold-curtained and chandelier-adorned Queen Ann Ballroom is tonight the stage for Those Rare Electrical Things Between People, a performance of three of Tennessee Williams’ One Act Plays, in which Bryan Batt is starring. It’s an intimate affair. The audience, complimentary gin punch in hand, is invited by the festival’s president Janet Daley Duval to ‘sit back and imagine you’re in my living room.’
And quite a living room it is. Batt enters, barefooted, shirt open, hair dishevelled, yet still handsome, to read the part simply titled ’Man’ alongside fellow Broadway favourite Alison Fraser’s ‘Woman’, in the 1953 haunting One Act Talk To Me Like The Rain And Let Me Listen. Batt plays a middle aged New York drunk, lost in life, ‘passed around like a dirty postcard among people’, in a moving piece containing all the hallmarks that make Williams the laureate of loneliness. This evening, the lyrical poetry of his words are accompanied, as if on cue, by the mournful wail of the horn of a lonely barge chugging the wide waters of the Mississippi that snakes along behind the hotel.
Bryan Batt joins me after the performance – making his way through a chorus line of congratulatory hand-shakes, mobile phone snaps and autograph requests; to all of which he obliges enthusiastically. Despite his busy schedule – he is also making a surprise appearance in David Kaplan’s festival headliner A Tennessee Williams Songbook: Only a Paper Moon in just over an hour’s time – he greets me with an abundance of that trademark Southern charm, a warm handshake and a wide smile. For a man who really is in demand this evening, he ushers me to a seat at the back of the ballroom ‘to get a quiet spot’ with the haste of someone who has all the time in the world.
‘I’m doing so much!’ he tells me when I ask about his involvement in this year’s festival – New Orleans’ 27th annual celebration of the life and work of Tennessee Williams. Over the next four days, attendees are offered a variety of panel discussions on Williams’ work, an acclaimed scholars conference, literary walking tours of Williams’ haunts in the Vieux Carre, or French Quarter, and of course a banquet of theatre.
‘We just had so much fun discovering this wonderful play.’ Batt says of the opportunity to explore some of Williams’ lesser known work.
‘These One Acts are rarely done – only maybe in an acting class. But his (Williams’) writing is so melodic and is so fun to play as an actor, because you can just discover so much.
‘I mean, the last One Act just performed tonight (the 1953 One Act, Something Unspoken) about unrequited, unspoken love and all these demons we have in dealing with it, and how we put up these illusions. I mean, is anyone really one hundred per cent living in the here and now and fully aware of everything that’s going on? We all have these grand delusions.’
He pauses to catch his breath, looking around the emptying room before continuing.
‘It’s so poetic his work. He also was a great poet besides being a brilliant playwright.’
New Orleans is a place synonymous with Tennessee Williams – it became his adoptive spiritual home, the place that allowed him to realise his ‘greatest instinct… to be free.’ Growing up here in the ’60s and ’70s, I wonder what kind of influence the playwright had on Batt, and am surprised to hear that he came to Williams’ writing as did I, as a high school student.
‘It wasn’t like my parents would sit around and read Tennessee Williams with us. My mother was theatrical, but we weren’t a hugely theatrical family.’
He does however remember that first introduction to Williams’ work clearly. Watching the film adaptation of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof while a student at the local Isidore Newman School he says was a ‘wow!’ moment for him, and one that would begin a love affair with the playwright’s work that continues today. Being part of a big Southern family allowed him to relate directly to the relationships played out between Big Daddy and his clan, likening his grandfather, ‘a wonderful man’, to the play’s imposing patriarch.
‘…the way the family dynamic worked – everyone just fighting for Big Daddy’s affection – that was interesting to me. When something speaks to you on that level, although it was totally different to my life, but those same dynamics were there – well, I just wanted more. I just thought, this Tennessee Williams is something else.’
Bryan Batt’s passion for Williams’ work is evident through his continued involvement in the festival, of which he could now be described as a veteran. In addition to his theatrical contributions he is also a returning judge of the Stella shouting contest, an homage to A Streetcar Named Desire’s caterwauling anti-hero Stanley Kowalski, famously portrayed on the silver screen by Marlon Brando. It is a contest where ‘commitment’ and ‘full throttle passion’ are needed to make the grade.
‘It’s not just a Brando impression,’ he says, becoming serious. ‘That would never fly.’
So just what is it about Batt’s native city that inspired the work of arguably America’s premier playwright of the 20th Century?
Gesturing toward the ballroom’s floor-to-ceiling windows that look out onto the streets of the French Quarter, Batt laughs.
‘Well, it’s the characters!’ he exclaims.
‘That’s why Tennessee loved New Orleans so much, because there are characters from his plays just walking the streets, begging to be written. And he did just that – he took all these wonderful characters and created so many more.’
New Orleans’ literary heritage certainly reads like an A list cast of one of Bryan Batt’s Broadway shows. The cobbled streets of the Quarter and its banana tree-lined squares are peppered with literary landmarks – from the numerous former Vieux Carre homes of Tennessee Williams to the former haunts of William Faulkner, Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway and Eudora Welty – herself a frequent guest at the hotel in which we are sitting.
Batt himself is fully aware of the Big Easy’s creative pull, dividing his time between New York, LA and New Orleans – with the lion’s share of his home life spent on Louisiana soil. His move to New York after college to pursue his acting career served to highlight his love for ‘down home’; when it comes to New Orleans ‘there’s no sitting on the fence.’
Both the city and Williams certainly appear to have left their mark on Batt. His current project is a one man show entitled Batt on a Hot Tin Roof, a vaudevillian top-hat-tip to Williams; conceived initially back in 2009 to raise money for the victims of hurricane Katrina, the show has recently enjoyed a one night only outing on Broadway.
‘Oh it’s just the title,’ he laughs; ‘I say in the opening – don’t worry, I’m not going to come out with a crutch and a tumbler of whisky and start shouting mendacity! That will not happen!’
This, he goes on to tell me, isn’t the only connection he has with the play that turned him on to Williams’ talents. Leaning forward conspiratorially, as if about to share with me the most salacious piece of gossip, he reveals that he has recently been approached to play ‘ the big one’ – the part of Big Daddy. He throws back his head and guffaws.
‘I said to them, well, I’m a little too young for that. And then I did the math, and technically… I could, you know. If Brick was played by a man in his mid-twenties – well, I just turned fifty.’
Does he plan on taking up the offer, I ask?
‘I took it as a high compliment – because then it would be clear where Brick got his good looks.’
He chuckles heartily, flashing me his beaming Hollywood grin. This cheeky- chap persona I imagine is the Bryan Batt audiences get to meet at his one man show, and I now understand his keenness to clarify its title.
Williams, it seems is a large part of Batt’s life. A new musical – Becoming Tennessee , which chronicles Williams’ early life and career in the French Quarter of the 1930s – is currently in its nascent form and Batt has been involved from the ground level. He plays Hannon, a combination of ‘a bunch of characters’ from Williams’ repertoire: most notably Chance Wayne, the gigolo drifter from the 1959 play Sweet Bird of Youth and Shannon, the de-frocked Reverend from 1964’s The Night of The Iguana – one of Williams’ more often-staged works. Interested theatre-goers need not scour the listings just yet, however; the project is still in the workshop stages and Batt concedes that, though ‘it’s a great musical’, he doesn’t know yet ‘if it’s going to happen or not.’
At this point in our conversation, I notice a festival official hovering near the doorway of the now near empty ballroom, signalling that the actor is needed to prepare for his next performance of the evening. Batt smiles apologetically, giving the impression that if it were up to him, he’d quite happily stay and chat. It is this ease of interaction with others, something constantly sought by Williams’ characters, that has surely cemented Batt’s popularity not only in his home town but with fans of his work also. When his Mad Men character, the closet homosexual Salvatore Romano, was cut, having been unceremoniously fired for spurning the advances of his employer’s wealthy client – tobacco magnate Lee Garner Jnr – it provoked outcry from viewers, prompting over a thousand fans to set up a Facebook page petitioning the show’s creator, Matthew Weiner, to bring about Sal’s swift return. He is yet to comply.
That was back in 2010 and, with the première of the sixth series of the Emmy Award-winning drama about to hit TV screens in both the US and the UK, the Art Director’s fate is still a much discussed topic, something Batt is asked about ‘every day’.
‘I would love to (go back). Nothing would make me happier,’ he says.
‘It was the most wonderful work I’ve done. To do this pilot when we didn’t know what it was or what it was going to be and it just soared and grew.’
Bryan Batt, like Williams before him, has made no secret of his sexuality. Yet, it is Sal, the character he is most recognised for, that shares a common experience with Williams. Mad Men, of course, spans the late 1950s and 1960s, the decades that saw Tennessee Williams’ rise and then fall from grace. While Sal, a talented Art Director, is pushed aside because of his sexual orientation, similarly Williams was marginalised by certain critics who took exception to his lifestyle. During Batt’s lifetime, attitudes thankfully have begun to change. As it happens, President Obama’s support for same sex marriage has been topping the news agenda of the American TV networks that day. Things then, have surely moved on? Not so, says Batt.
‘Sal’s journey is still going on today – we’re still battling.’
And that’s why, I suggest, characters such as Tennessee Williams’ Brick Pollit and Mad Men’s Sal are so important.
‘They created this wonderful character in Sal, and to be able to play this beautifully, beautifully written character was amazing,’ Batt says with genuine affection.
‘There are two more seasons (of Mad Men) to go, so fingers crossed he’ll be back.’
It is finally time for him to be ushered off to his next performance, and as I watch him make his way out of the make-shift theatre, he turns to me with a final flash of that big smile.
‘You know,’ he says with a deep chuckle, ‘they keep saying to me – Sal isn’t dead!’
And with an exit, stage left, he is gone.
Banner illustration by Dean Lewis