As fans of his work as Harry Cane on AMC’s hit series “Mad Men,” Rich Sommer is anything but one dimensional. His considerable talent established him as a sought after player in Hollywood. However, it didn’t happen overnight. Sommer’s love and dedication to acting led him from a string of boring day jobs to a breakout role opposite Anne Hathaway in “The Devil Wears Prada,” which opened the floodgates. Even after landing his role on “Mad Men” and garnering accolades along the way, Sommer continues to challenge himself creatively. His latest endeavor is “Fairhaven,” another high water mark for this young actor. Written and directed by actor Tom O’Brien, Sommer co-stars with O’Brien and Chris Messina as three high school friends reunited for a funeral in their New England hometown. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently sat down with Rich Sommer to discuss his passion for acting, the challenges of his roles in “Mad Men” and “Fairhaven” and what the future might hold for this star on the rise.
First off, thanks so much for taking time out to talk with us today, sir!
We want to give everybody a little background on you. You have become such a familiar face through “Mad Men.” How did you get started on your journey as a working actor?
Ya know, I really couldn’t think of anything else I wanted to do. I tried! I just didn’t have the energy to pursue anything else. This was the only thing I could muster up any discipline in. That kinda started in junior high and it was a little rocky academically for much of that time. I squeaked through college and vowed never to go back to school! I was doing some day jobs in Minneapolis and I finally realized that was going to be the rest of my life unless I got some further training, so I decided to knuckle down and go to grad school. I have been actively and aggressively pursuing it since then!
It seems to be working out for you quite well so far!
So far! I am hoping to see how long I can make it last! [laughs]
Who would you cite as your biggest influences along the way, be it actors you saw growing up or a personal mentor?
Oh gosh! So many! As far as actors go, there are about nine trillion that have influenced me. I am a huge fan of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeff Bridges and Jimmy Stewart. My touchstone actor is Tom Hanks. Personally, there are even more! My college theater professor David Winterstein is who helped me get into grad school. He wrote me a recommendation letter as well as offering up a hell of a lot of advice on selecting the right one. When I was in grad school my professors there, Cathy Elders and Ron Wilson, helped me along. Then my managers plucked me out of nowhere to take me on this little trip. It has definitely been a series of lucky encounters for me, meeting incredible people who were willing to help me out.
Your latest project is titled “Fairhaven.” How did you get involved with the project?
I was doing a movie called “The Giant Mechanical Man” with Chris Messina. Chris and I were at the bar one night and he was telling me that he was heading off to do this other right after “The Giant Mechanical Man.” It was a story about three friends and one of the friends, the actor who was to play him, had just been forced to drop out at the last minute. As we were chatting, in the moment, he said, “Do you want to read the script?” I said, “Sure!” I read it and loved it! To be honest, I would have given my left arm to work with Chris Messina again because I am a fan of him, both professionally and personally. It worked out!
What was it about the character or the script that captivated you upon that first reading?
I mentioned my affinity for Philip Seymour Hoffman. I love that he has plenty of opportunities to play the guy who is sort of down on his luck; the kind of guy that had ambitions but they are long gone. I read this as that type of character. I have an affinity for characters who are down on their luck and it is a fun place to get to roll around in.
What is your typical process for bringing a character from script to screen?
It depends on the project and how stylized the project is. With “Mad Men,” I did a little bit of research, not a ton and I don’t want to pretend like I did a ton, but I did a little cursory research to help understand what I was getting into. With “Fairhaven,” I didn’t have a lot of time because we did “The Giant Mechanical Man” and two weeks later I was in Fairhaven. I did a little demographic research on the area because these characters were supposed to be guys who were in Fairhaven now. I got an idea of where the town is and where the industries have been and tried to flesh out what sort of people this guy runs into everyday and go from there!
You mentioned Chris and Tom [O’Brien]. They wrote the story and screenplay for this film. I was curious, having worked with them so closely, what do they bring to the table for a project like this?
Like you said, aside from the story, which without we would have been dead, they are both hugely collaborative. They are both really, really willing to not only hear any ideas you had but to take a shot on any idea you had. Any sort of weird funny thought that might come across our brains like “What if we tried this?” or “What if we did that?” They would say, “Great! Let’s shoot it!” That sort of freedom was super liberating and super exciting to be a part of because I have never had any creative say on anything I have done. This was a chance to weigh in. They did a really good job of making me feel like I was an equal, even though I completely wasn’t! [laughs] They were great!
You worked along a lot of great actors in this cast. What did you pick up from them during your time on set?
On a whole, and this is something I have always tried to do anyway, but to see professionals doing it, Tom [O’Brien], Chris [Messina] and Sarah Paulson being able to cut loose in between takes but really knuckle down and go to work when it is time to go to work. That is something that goes for our “Mad Men” set as well. That is something at which we excel — a willingness to keep the atmosphere light and enjoy each other, even in the midst of what could be a dark storyline, just so no one gets lost in the moment. It is a nice sort of supportive environment and “Fairhaven” certainly had that.
Are there any elements of your own personality that might shine through in this character?
Yeah. Actually, I think quite a lot because of the freedom we had to play with the dialog. A lot of the dialog between me and Chris, especially, and some between me and Tom, is pretty straight up conversations we were having either on the set that day or in the hotel the night before. They were conversations about fatherhood, ambition and love. There is a whole lot of me in Sam. I am lucky to be happily married but if my wife were to leave me as Sam’s did, I think I would be much like him, eating my kids TV dinner and watching TV by myself.
Speaking of kids, you work with a very talented young lady in the film. What is it like working with a different breed of actor in a way?
Ya know, it can be challenging but we really lucked out with Grace [Collins]! Those are some of the only scenes where we tried to stick close to the dialog, just to make it easier on her but she completely blew everyone away by going for it! Whenever we would go off script, she would follow alongside! She was absolutely fantastic and I really enjoyed getting to work with her. She is a big “Full House” fan. You can ask her any trivia about that show and she will tell you the answer!
What do you consider the biggest challenge you encountered as an actor since you started out?
Oh wow! One of the big challenges I have everyday while working on “Mad Men” is sort of the inverse challenge that “Fairhaven” was. On “Fairhaven,” we had dialog that Tom had written but we were able to go off script and put it in our own rhythm and cadence. At “Mad Men,” the challenge is the reverse in that you must say your lines to the letter. If it is not a contraction, do not make it a contraction, etcetera. Really, really careful verbiage is chosen by the writers and we are required to inhabit that. That is daily a challenge because it is extremely well written and you don’t want to take a dump all over it! [laughs]
You have a great range as an actor. Is there a particular type of role or genre of film you are interested in tackling in the short term?
I would someday like to do a straight up comedy. That would be fun! I have been in things that are comedic but as funny as I think “Mad Men” can be and as funny as “Fairhaven” can be at points, I think they are at their hearts dramatic. It might be fun to do something like a Farrelly Brothers film, something like that, just a complete yuck ’em up!
We discussed your mentors a few moments ago. What is the best piece of advice someone has given you in regard to your career you can pass along to other actors?
One of my friends, who I went to college with, was PAing when I was grinding it out doing day jobs and hadn’t started grad school yet. I had been telling him that I never thought I was going to advance and I felt like I was drowning. He said to me, “Do something everyday.” No matter if it is reading 10 pages of an acting book, calling three agents, signing up for a class or going to a movie, whatever! He said, “Do one thing everyday to remind yourself and check-in with yourself that this is what you want to do.” Literally, he is one of the reasons I am doing what I am doing now. That piece of advice, I think, saved me.
Do you aspire to one day step behind the camera in a directorial capacity?
I have curiosity more than I have aspirations. I think it may be something for me to look at way down the line but I don’t think I have been on enough sets yet to have the gull to think people should listen to any ideas I have! [laughs] Maybe someday but right now I am focusing on the performing part!
I was curious to get your take on your evolution as an actor. Is that something you can see in yourself or your work at this point?
I don’t know. My first commercial was a few months after grad school in 2004. It has really only been about eight years now. Maybe ask me that in two more years at the 10-year mark and I can come up with something witty and insightful! [laughs] For now, I am just trying to stay alive! [laughs] I am lucky. I get to do the only thing that I have ever cared about doing and I am able to support my family. I can’t imagine how it gets much better!
I will definitely mark it on my calendar and catch up with you, Rich! Thanks so much for your time today and keep up the great work!
Thank you so much!
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.