Jay R. Ferguson has spent the better part of the past five years playing Stan Rizzo, the Art Director at Sterling Cooper & Partners, and one of the most enduringly likeable characters on Mad Men. Initially a clean-cut chauvinist, throughout the show he's transformed into a lushly-bearded, laid back pothead blessed with witty retorts, an affable nature, and a deep creative well. We spoke to Ferguson about Peggy and Stan’s relationship, fan fiction, maintaining a massive beard, and life after Mad Men.
What are you up to these days now that Mad Men is over?
Oh I’ve been hanging my head low, sulking, dragging my feet, crying uncontrollably. You know, the usual.
Sounds about right. I think that’s what we’ll all be doing once the series ends.
That's right. But I’ve been getting to spend a lot of time with my family, obviously. I just shot a new show that we’re waiting to find out about. It’s called The Real O’Neals. It’s a family comedy based on the life of Dan Savage. Myself and Martha Plimpton play the mother and father of a family of three children. The middle boy, played by Noah Galvin, is the Dan Savage character. He comes out to his family like Dan Savage did around that same age, 15 or 16. It’s an Irish Catholic family, very religious; the dad’s a cop in Chicago and it kind of sends the family into a tailspin of sorts.
I love Dan Savage and that sounds like a great story - good luck with that. So I’m guessing that Stan’s beard is still gone? I know you had tweeted a photo after your shaved it once filming wrapped.
Right, the beard is currently not around. It was a gradual separation. When I tweeted that photo, I had only shaved the sides off. I kept a really long goatee going for a while, then I shaved off the mustache part of that and had this ugly long chin thing. Then I had to finally shave that off because it was just gross. I didn’t even realize it at the time, but the residual effect of having the beard for so long was that I had gotten out of the habit of grooming myself. I really found that I did not want to do it anymore and so the beard actually came back, not as big as Stan has it.
The hair was actually the crazy thing. I just let my hair grow, because I knew it would never be this long again. That got down way past my shoulders. Then when I got to work on The Real O’Neals, I had to play a cop, so I finally got rid of all that. That was the big liberation, getting rid of all the hair.
I think that for Stan, more than any character other on the show, the physical changes throughout the seasons are the most obvious. He went from being a straight-laced dresser, wearing all those tight polo shirts, to a more laid-back, physical embodiment of his character’s personality. How did it feel for you to transition through all those looks?
It was a lot of fun - on any show it would be special, but especially on that show. I feel like the Stan that we see during the “beard years” was definitely closer to who I am in real life than who he was the first couple of years of the show. You know, I always was a kind of hippie-minded individual in real life anyway. When I was just coming out of high school I was all about The Doors. I thought I was Jim Morrison: I felt like I had been born 20 years too late and that I belonged in the 60’s. To be able to live out that fantasy a little bit on the show was neat. Especially the accessories: The necklace, the rings, the bracelets. It was crazy. That was my favorite part.
When you say that you relate to Stan, what qualities in particular? Do you think it’s his work ethic, his attitude, or just his general cultural vibe?
I’m certainly not as talented. When he first came on he was such a jerk. I was convinced that the character was not going to last longer than a couple episodes, but they allowed him to become a likeable character. I’ve always tried to be a good guy to people and in most instances I have been - I’m not a saint by any means - but I feel like we share that quality. Not that I mind being the guy that everyone loves to hate, but it gets old after a while and I think either you’re going to have to get rid of that character or have some sort of transformation or the audience wouldn’t tolerate it. I’m glad that they went with the latter.
He’s definitely one of the most likeable characters on the show. And while everyone else around him - Ginsberg and Don for example - starts to unravel, he keeps it fairly together. Why do you think he’s so lighthearted? Is it just all the weed?
I certainly think that helps and I think that’s another reason he’s become a popular character. The one thing that has endeared him to so many is simply that he is a weed smoker. When you’re coming out of the era of stiffness - obviously they were all drinking at work, but there’s still an aura of stiffness to it - I think that he was, in some ways, supposed to represent that new way of conducting business. It’s laissez faire, but not to the extent that he’s not committed to the work - it’s like “well, you know, if it works, great, if it doesn’t, move on to the next thing.” I think that is infectious and rubs off a little bit on the people he comes into contact with.
What do you think Stan would be doing if he was around in 2015, at the same age he is now?
You know, I’ve been asked before what Stan does in the 70’s, and I said he becomes a fashion photographer and moves to Paris or something. In today’s world I’m not quite sure. Let’s come back to that one later.
Totally. I’m sure you know that there’s some Peggy and Stan fan fiction out there, and it’s a romantic relationship that many fans want to develop this season. But where do you think their relationship really stands, and what makes it so strong?
Well my first question is, what is fan fiction? You mean people make up stories about us?
Right, fans will write fake plot lines of what could happen on Mad Men. It exists for a lot of things in pop culture.
You have got to be kidding me. Really? I was totally oblivious. That’s really flattering, first of all. Wow, how do people have that much time on their hands? I want to read some of it, where do you find it?
Just Google it.
So I would just Google, Stan-Peggy fan fiction and a bunch of stuff will come up? Oh boy, I can’t wait.
Yeah, I think the relationship on the show is really idealized and fans are pushing for.
I’ve heard that for sure. I think that maybe that’s something the people hope for because of the nature of all the other relationships on the show -most of them seem to be unhealthy. I still stand by what I’ve always said: It’s the first woman that Stan has probably ever had come into his life that he is okay with not sleeping with. He would probably do it in a heartbeat if she approached him, but I think it’s certainly a unique relationship for Stan. I don’t know if the same would be true for Peggy, because she’s got other male friends in her life on the show. Don is certainly a friend and maybe even a better friend than Stan. I think that it’s a very vital relationship to have on that show in particular, to have two people of the opposite sex who are really good friends but not romantically involved. There are other examples of it, but I don’t think there’s one that has been as long-running and consistent as Stan and Peggy. Without that, Stan would be non-existent on the show. Let’s face it, there would be a Peggy Olson no matter whether Stan ever existed, but there would not be a Stan Rizzo without Peggy Olson.
One last question because I’ve always been super curious about this - any back story as to why Stan has a Moshe Dayan poster above his bed?
[Laughing] You know there was something that Matt told me about, I can’t remember it now. I think that he probably has a Che Guevara poster in the other room. I think he’s just into that kind of revolutionary type of stuff.
Oh, and let’s see, what would Stan do if he was in 2015? I’m going to go out on a limb and say he’d be a male model for whatever clothing store caters to men that are slightly out of shape.
Photos by Michael Yarish / AMC