Confessions of a Mad Man
Actor and Alum Rich Sommer Talks Big Breaks and Going Hollywood
When Rich Sommer says, "I've got the best job on TV," who could argue? Sommer portrays media buyer Harry Crane in the hit series Mad Men, an AMC drama about a 1960s Madison Avenue advertising agency, which has won numerous Emmys and Golden Globes since its debut in 2007.
After earning his MFA from Case Western Reserve University six years ago, Sommer moved to New York, where he filmed commercials before landing a role in the box office smash The Devil Wears Prada. While his star is steadily on the rise, he laughs off the notion of ever "going Hollywood."
During the filming hiatus of Mad Men, you shot an episode of Burn Notice, for which they asked you to do a reading. Didn't the producers know you're a big star now, and stars don't audition?
If you would like to tell the world that I'm a big star, feel free. [Laughs] I don't think of myself as a star in any way. I think of myself as a working actor, which is about all I need to be.
You've been working almost since graduation day in 2004, first in commercials and then The Devil Wears Prada and Mad Men. Has the path to success been a relatively easy one?
Yes. If I said otherwise, I'd get beat up by a bunch of out-of-work actors. There are people who have been doing this for 20 years and haven't caught a break, who have been waiting tables in New York or L.A. just for a chance to do a commercial. I have been very, very fortunate, and that's not lost on me. I'm well aware that this is not necessarily going to last forever.
How does a kid who grew up in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, and Stillwater, Minn., land in Hollywood?
Case graduate students do a showcase in New York, and I got some positive receptions from mine. The first meeting I took was with the people who would become my managers. They introduced me to some really connected people in the business and it went from there. Devil Wears Prada led directly to Mad Men because an assistant who was in the casting office for Prada left and became an assistant at the place casting Mad Men. She suggested me, and that took me to Hollywood.
What brought you to the acting program at Case Western Reserve?
The way I found it was flipping through a copy of American Theatre magazine. My dad and I were sitting in the audience of an improv show in Minneapolis, and I saw the ad for Case that said they take eight students every two years and pay for everything—a full tuition waiver and a stipend. I said, "I'm going to go there." My dad basically said, "Yeah, good luck." For my audition I had to do two monologues and a song, and, to my dad's surprise, I got in.
Do you remember the song?
Unfortunately, I do. I sang a poorly done, ill-advised version of Ol' Man River. I've never lived that down. They love that story at Case.
You met your wife, Virginia, in the acting program at Case Western Reserve, and now you have a 2-year-old daughter, Bea. Is she going to be an actress too?
I hope not. I know that when Jeff Bridges was accepting his Oscar for Crazy Heart, he said something like, "This is for my parents. They loved show business, and they wanted me to love it, too." I thought about how cool that was and how it would be neat to share this family business, since both Virginia and I are actors. But I also know that it can be really hard. I've seen people not having as easy a time as I've had, and I don't wish that on Bea.
Is there an actor on whom you've patterned your career arc?
No. I don't think you can really do that. There are actors who I admire, who made good choices, and I love their work. Jimmy Stewart. Philip Seymour Hoffman. Jeff Bridges. Those are some of the big ones for me.
Do people recognize you as Harry Crane and stop you on the street?
They don't say, "Hey, Harry!" but they'll say, "Are you the dude on Mad Men?" It depends on where I am. It happens all the time when I'm in New York because we have a really high viewership there, and it's a "New York" show.
You've done well-received roles in episodes of series like The Office, Ugly Betty, Law & Order and most recently Burn Notice, and now you're into the fourth season of Mad Men. Is TV where you see your future?
Anyone who tells you they don't want to do movies must have had some horrible experience that I haven't heard of yet. I can't imagine why you wouldn't want to do more movies. But that being said, I love TV. I love the consistency of the work. I love knowing that for five months out of the year I have a job. If TV will have me, I wouldn't mind sticking around for a while.