Rich Sommer has spent his past two summers on stage in New York City. In 2012 he made his Broadway debut as hospital orderly Duane Wilson in the Roundabout Theatre Company revival of Harvey. This year he has reunited with Roundabout and Harvey director Scott Ellis in their Off-Broadway production of Steven Levenson's The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin. In the new drama, Sommer plays Chris, the son-in-law of David Morse's title character, who is conned into helping his father-in-law reconnect with his ex-wife after five years in prison. Doing theater in New York is a luxury for Sommer, who spends much of his year playing ad man Harry Crane on the hit AMC series Mad Men, which ended its most recent season on June 23.
Following a matinee performance of Tom Durnin, we chatted with Sommer about working on the play, acting opposite the physically and psychologically imposing Morse, and precisely why he'll miss Mad Men next year when the show ends its "reign of terror."
You have three really intense scenes with David Morse. If I were up there, I'd be shaking uncontrollably.
He's a pretty intimidating force on stage. Luckily, he's one of the sweetest people I've met and I have a genuine crush on him. I think if I didn't have that in real life, I don't know if I'd be able to muster a performance every day because it would be too…If it was the kind of thing where — if he was all method-y, and he didn't allow us to speak in real life or hug in real life, I think it would be just an awful experience, this show. [laughs]
How did you get involved with the production?
I was in Harvey last year with Roundabout, also directed by Scott Ellis, and they were kind enough to reach out and see if this summer would be available, similar to last summer. They sent along the script and I was so elated that they did because it was so different than Harvey. I was nervous after Harvey that it would just be a one-time thing and I wouldn't get to do more theater. This is such an entirely different animal, so it was sort of a no-brainer.
It's nice to do theater in New York over the summer.
Oh, man. I really don't know that I could outline a dream that would be more enticing than what I've got going on right now.
And Harvey was such a fun production, too, this time last year.
I had a ball. I truly made some very good friends. It was a helluva way to get back on stage after eight years of not having been on stage.
Is that intimidating? Do you fear that you might lose your chops after so long?
Yeah. Doing Mad Men, doing something on-camera six months out of the year, is very different than getting up on stage in front of, with Harvey, one-thousand-and-eight people, and hoping they give a s**t. And they'll tell you if they don't, basically. That's a very scary thought. When it's in Mad Men, you get to take a couple of swings at it and somebody comes in and says, "Try it this way, try it that way." It's different than when you step out on stage and you only have yourself and your scene partner to try and navigate this crazy thing.
Did you come up with a back story for your character, Chris?
I didn't come up with a lot of back story. I did do that thing where, I had the script for about three or four months before I got out here, so I did once a week or so go to the coffee shop and read through it. I did that sort of nerdy actor exercise of writing down everything that everyone says about him to try and get a feel for what people think about him. Everything that Tom [Morse] says about him — everything that he says about himself — to kind of put together what his deal is. We didn't improvise a lot in rehearsal but we did do anecdotal improv of what that first phone call was like when Tom called Chris at work to say, "I want to meet you in the parking lot at this mall," and that Chris probably spilled his coffee and was like, "Oh, oh, sure that'd be great." Or sort of playing with what happened just before that scene in the house where Tom is asking him to make that call. Just to get the feel for the kind of guy [he is].
I kept watching your scenes and thinking about how ballsy David's character is to do that.
But, their relationship is particular…it's not blood, so he can say whatever he wants to him, really. And, that he was his boss — so there's already a built-in status — and his father-in-law, which is the most terrifying relationship a person can have. [laughs] He knows he can throw those punches with Chris.
Will this summering in New York and doing theater thing become regular for you? I hope it does.
I would love for it to. My schedule is about to become irregular, because Mad Men will end its reign of terror next year [laughs]…So hopefully I'll be able to fit in another play before I have to go on unemployment or find whatever the next gig is going to be and my schedule won't be as sweet as it's been. I hope to do one more play next year if they'll have me.
Are you sad that Mad Men is coming to an end?
I am devastated that it is. There is a satisfaction, indescribable, that comes from consistency in work for an actor, and having had that for the last six years — it will have been seven — I don't anticipate I'll ever have it quite like that again. Coming with that, the quality of the show, the quality of the people I had a chance to work with, it's been a pretty singular experience.
This season's been great, by the way.
I really dig it. They were very good to us this year.
Without giving away spoilers, because I know Matt Weiner will come down and shoot you —
Yes. That's true.
If you were an audience member, watching the season finale on your couch, how would you react?
The only way I can even compare myself to the standard person watching it at home on their couch is that feeling I get when I first read the script. I found it to be — certainly as it should be — a culmination of this season's events. Things are answered and, for me, it was an emotional read.