The year was 1966. Michael Ginsberg showed up at the offices of advertising firm Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce at the behest of head copywriter Peggy Olson, who’d seen his portfolio and wanted to bring him aboard.
After a brusque encounter with Olson, in which he mistakenly thought she was a secretary, she brought Ginsberg to meet with Don Draper, head of creative and partner with the firm. Presenting a much more refined picture to Draper, Ginsberg was brought on board.
Over the next several months, Ginsberg’s ideas brought in new business and he found himself leading presentations for clients, adding revenue to the SCDP coffers.
So, what happened to young Mr. Ginsberg next?
The answer is waiting on the return of AMC’s critically-acclaimed television show “Mad Men,” perhaps coming back to the airwaves next summer.
Whether or not Ginsberg will even be back is unknown — although considering how important a cog he became at the fictional ad firm during Season 5 (which wrapped up this past summer) it would be surprising not to see him still in the fold — and portrayer Ben Feldman is staying mum on the subject as showrunner Matthew Weiner is known for keeping the show’s secrets secret until they are played out on screen.
Feldman, a 2002 graduate of Ithaca College, not only received a lion’s share of interest among viewers as a quickly integrated newcomer this season, but also caught the notice of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences — he was nominated for an Emmy Award in the guest actor in a drama series category. Though his character became a regular at the office, Feldman appeared in only nine of the 13 Season 5 episodes.
Feldman’s category will be presented on Saturday, Sept. 15, at the Creative Arts Awards. The primetime Emmy Awards telecast will take place on Sunday, Sept. 23.
We recently had the opportunity to interview Feldman to ask him about his time at his alma mater, his path into professional acting and what it’s like to work on the set of “Mad Men.”
Ithaca Times: How would you describe your time in Ithaca?
Ben Feldman: I’ve been a weird walking ad for Ithaca since I graduated. I love going back there; I came back last year to talk to acting students. I miss it. Every other school I applied to was a city school and Ithaca was the only one in the middle of nowhere. That appealed to me; I loved the idea of a lawn, being able to throw thr Frisbee around, the snow and lakes. It was great knowing I would leave there and not live anyplace like it after that. I liked that it’s a small town, and an intellectual, but creatively exciting town. Ithaca, in general, is a place that inspires creativity and art, so it’s hard to come out of that town and not want to create something.
IT: Any places you remember from your time at IC?
BF: I used to work at Taste of Thai and Joe’s. I assumed I was going to be waiting tables, so I figured I should get some experience while I was in college. Waiting tables is awesome, especially if you like talking to people. I miss it, but I’m not upset I didn’t have to spend 10 years waiting tables before I got a part. I think everybody should wait tables at least a month in their life. It changes your perspective for how to act in a restaurant, how to treat people. I used to go to Just A Taste, I loved Maxies, and Rogan’s and DP Dough were mainstays during the college years. When I came back to Ithaca to talk to students there, I know when I went back it was imperative to go to CTB (Collegetown Bagels) and get bagels. I was driving to see a friend and my road trip food was from CTB. Hal’s Deli, they’re never going to fgo away. We’d go in and sit down and the owners would come over and talk to us. And Viva (Taqueria) of course. When you’re a college student in Ithaca, everything’s expensive, so it’s cool coming back as an adult when you go to a restaurant.
IT: How did you make the transition from school to acting professionally?
BF: The Ithaca BFA seniors did a showcase for some agents, I got lucky and signed with one while I was still in school. Then I got a call that Jason Biggs was leaving “The Graduate” on Broadway for a little bit and would I be interested in reading for the part. I couldn’t imagine anyone would pay to see me act, it was mindblowing at the time. It was the very first time I experience walking into a room and there were 10 other ‘me’s sitting there. I was used to going up against similar people for roles at school, but you get into the real world and realize how many of you there are. I thought I’d get to go do the audition, then go back to school.
IT: What happened at the audition?
BF: I went to the audition and it was on stage with Kathleen Turner and Alicia Silverstone. I don’t think anything has been that surreal to me. (Feldman got the part.) I was still doing “The Cherry Orchard” on the mainstage at Ithaca College and (director) Greg Bostwicj was really kind. He wasn’t one of those angry teachers who would penalize me. My understudy, Billy Lyons, would go on and do my part in rehearsals when I was off big-timing everybody. I had to retake a couple of finals, but I was constantly concerned about not coming off as a jerk.
After appearing in “The Graduate,” Feldman consistenly found work, appearing on 26 episodes of the series “Life With Fran,” 37 episodes on “Drop Dead Diva,” and several episode stints on “Medium” and “Las Vegas.” He’s also appeared in films “Cloverfield” and “Friday the 13th,” the latter being the film franchise reboot that came out in 2009. It was in Season 5 of “Mad Men” that Feldman joined the show.
IT: How did you become part of “Mad Men”?
BF: I auditioned — it was for Matt (Weiner) and Jon Hamm (who plays Draper), who was directing his first episode. The stakes were higher than I was used to. You go on auditions all the time out here and you learned to put everything you have into them, and then walk out the door and wipe your hands of them, because you don’t want to get your hopes up. That’s what happened with that. I did a long audition, about a 40-minute audition, and then went away not knowing if they loved it or hated it. A couple of weeks later, I got a call that didn’t confirm either, but they wanted me to come in for another audition. So, I did another one and a couple of days later I got a call I’d gotten the part.
IT: Matthew Weiner is known for keeping storylines and characters secret. Did you know part you were auditioning for?
BF: I auditioned for Ginsberg. That was the one part of the audition that wasn’t fake and made up. The first scenes I read were my first one with Peggy (played by Elizabeth Moss, both on the show and in Feldman’s audition), but the characters names were changed and the plot points were changed.
IT: What is it like not being able to talk about what's happening on the show?
BF: You can’t talk about it, you’re not allowed to tell anyone. It’s frustrating-slash-hilarious. This season was shot well before it aired, which is unusual because most of the time you’re still filming while the season is airing. So, I knew everything that was going to happen later in the season when I was watching the first episode. At that point, even though I knew I was going to be on the show, I couldn’t tell anyone. I think people don’t know why you can’t give anything away, can’t talk about it. They’ll say ‘Come on, it’s not a big deal if you tell me.’ But, it really does make a difference. Now, in retrospect, there are little tiny things, by keeping them to yourself and letting them experience it, it’s more satisfying. (Feldman recounted a story about watching the Season 5 premiere with friends and when a morsel of foreshadowing was dropped, with his knowledge of the character in question it was difficult not to drop the bombshell. We opted not to print the story for those who have not yet watched Season 5 — as we do not wish to spoil the shocker.)
IT: You character is very complex, and I've got the feeling we're just scratching the surface of what makes Michael Ginsberg tick. How much of the character's quirks was already on the page from Matthew Weiner and how much have you added?
BF: I’d say there’s some collaboration, but to even pretend it wasn’t 99 percent Matt and 1 percent me, and we have great writers as well. He (Weiner) had a very clear idea of what he wanted this character to be going into the audition. I’ve worked with other showrunners who write it and then their job is done and it’s up to you as an actor to figure out how to play it. He’s got a lot of ideas and is an extremely smart person. They knew exactly what they were looking for.
IT: Part of Ginsberg’s character is his wardrobe, which is a very unique — with lots of clashing and ill-fitting clothes.
BF: My family is wondering if I was setting any new trends. I told them probably on Halloween. Janie Bryant, our costume designer, is incredible at what she does. If she doesn’t laugh, that oufit’s probably not going to make it on the air. I’ve tried on lots of things and everything is designed to fit awkwardly. The sport coats are too short on the sleeves, but baggy and slouchy somewhere else. And there is clothing from different eras. I could have a tie from the ’50s, but the jacket would be from the current time. They’re all from the hand-me-down collection.
IT: What factor do the costumes have on how you play the character?
BF: I had not experienced the outside-working-in you have when you’re doing period and wearing different getups; I was used to kind of playing me in different outfits. This was the first time I put on something that made my body move differently. It’s kind of amazing what it does when putting something else on that’s not you.
IT: Being Jewish yourself, what kind of pressure have you felt portraying a Jewish character, especially since — as Roger (Sterling, played on the show by John Slattery) pointed out — it's kind of a big deal for the office to have a Jewish person working there?
BF: At the time, when we shot it, it didn’t even resonate with me. Once the character started airing, for some people, it was polarizing. It’s really dangerour when people expect someone to be the mouthpiece for a generation. It was certainly not a place I was starting from, or the writers. They weren’t asking ‘What would the Jew do?’ ‘How do we make them more Jew-y?’ One of the parts of the story was that Ginsberg was Jewish and had a violent World War II background. Those are just elements of his past. I see it as an otherness, of Ginsberg being other than everyone else. Everyone else is on the same page socially and part of the club; it’s just another element that sets Ginsberg apart. It really resonates with him. There’s the one monologue where he’s telling Peggy he’s an alien. I thought about it as if I’m going to be representing aliens in a new world; that really resonated more as an actor with more, faraway more than his being Jewish.
IT: In other interviews you’ve done, you’ve mentioned that you’ve been a big fan of the show since it first aired. How does it feel to be on a show you’re such a big fan of?
BF: It’s crazy. I’ve been a fan since the very first episode, the first night it aired. It’s strange to walk into a world you’ve been watching for so many years. I’d met Jon (Hamm) at the audition and the table read, and he’s just another actor who works in Hollywood. Then, in my first episode, he’s directing his first episode. But he’s just another director. But the day we walked into the hair and makeup trailer and he transformed into Don Draper — all of a sudden five years of history were right there in front of me. He’s a great actor and a great director. I’ve been a fan of Elisabeth Moss, I was a giant West Wing and Zoey Bartlet (played by Moss). She’s an incredible actress and she makes it really easy to do your job.
IT: What was your favorite episode this season?
BF: To shoot or to watch? For watching, the LSD episode. I don’t think I was really in that too much, but that one I loved. Just watching it, I thought Matt did an incredible job. They were so good at doing dreams and drugs on “The Sopranos” (on which Weiner served as a writer and producer). To shoot, the most memorable one would be the first episode I did. The one that was submitted (for Emmy consideration) marks the first episode where I started to feel comfortable and not being terrified of screwing up. It’s the one where I go head-to-head in the elevator with Don.
IT: So, Outstanding Guest Actor In A Drama Series? What went through your mind when you heard you'd been nominated?
BF: I didn’t anticipate it at all. I knew I’d been submitted, but so were 40 other guys. I’d looked at some of the website where experts were predicting who would get nominations. I think Michael J. Fox was leading, Matthew Perry had a 50 percent chance. At the bottom of the list, with 0 percent, was my name. I figured if the experts are saying I don’t have a shot, I must not. I told no one. My girlfriend didn’t even know. I set the alarm the morning the nominations were being announce to wake up before her. That alarm was set for 7 a.m. At 5:40 in the morning is when my publicist called and I had a very grumpy girlfriend. My publicist didn’t tell Michelle, so I woke up to her holding the phone up with a confused look on her face. My publicist told me the news (of the nomination) and I think I spent the first five minutes looking around trying to find the strange thing in the room that meant I was dreaming.
IT: What did you do after that?
BF: It was crazy. It still took a long time for it to sink in. It happens so early here, so after you make some phone calls to family, then it’s 8 a.m. and you have a day of not knowing what to do. We went to Beverly Hills, because we figured that’s where fancy people would go to celebrate.
IT: The other actors who’ve been nominated in the category include Mark Margolis from “Breaking Bad,” Jeremy Davies from “Justified,” Jason Ritter from “Parenthood,” and Dylan Baker and Michael J. Fox from “The Good Wife.” What do you think about being part of that group?
BF: They’re all great actors. I’ve just recently met Jason Ritter. We decided we’re the ones that are lucky to be on the list.
IT: What other TV shows are you watching?
BF: TV, it’s boring to say this now, but it really has sort of usurped movies. There are so many great things on television. My girlfriend and I watch all the shows the TV snobs watch. (Laughing) She’s a “Breaking Bad” fan, “The Newsroom,” even though people find issues with it, it really is something that really resonates. They’re all great actors (on “The Newsroom”). Aaron Sorkin loves his theater actors. I auditioned for John Gallgher Jr.’s part (he plays Jim Harper on the show) twice. I worked as hard as I could; I’ve been a Sorkin fan since I was obsessed with “A Few Good Men.” But, that was the end of it. I talked with other actors who were convinced they were the man for it too, but he’s great on the show.
IT: What show would you like to work on?
BF: It was “Mad Men,” before I was on the show. I’m lucky to be on my dream show. I always wanted to be on a period piece and we’re that. “Boardwalk Empire,” stuff like that. Not big action, but anything smart and subtle and wordy. Any of those great hourlong dramas.
IT: What about a show like “Sons of Anarchy?”
BF: They shot on our street once and (my girlfriend) Michelle, got so angry they were taking up the street. Her response was to start watching it and we’re big fans. We were at some event, and we saw (“Sons” showrunner) Kurt Sutter and (his wife) Katey Sagal (who plays Gemma Teller Morrow on the show) and they’re both big “Mad Men” fans. It’s was a cool moment — people we were fans of knew who I was and started talking to me about my show.
IT: What actor would you like to work with?
BF: That’s difficult. You have actors you look up or you have a certain impression of, and then you meet them and they’re aren’t like you think they are going to be. The great way to tell a great actor, about someone like Lizzy Moss, is the actors, the people acting opposite them are giving incredible performances. They’re actors who are giving and kind and make you better. Ultimately, that would be my goal — to be an actor other actors want to work with.
IT: You own a wine label, Angelica Cellars. How did that come about?
BF: I went to elementary school Eduardo (Carreiro, Feldman’s partner), then high school. When I went to Ithaca College, he went to Cornell. When I moved out to L.A., he lived there. None of it (being in the same locales) was on purpose, it was all sort of a coincidence. We both sort of love booze in an artistic kind of way; at some point you have to decide if you’re going to be an alcoholic or an artist. We drank a lot of wine in Ithaca, and when we came out here, we went into the wine business. Eduardo knows a lot about wine and he can talk about it like one of those guys who knows wine. We fell in love with certain types of wine and set out to make those. It’s a central coast sirrah that has a French Rhone kind of feel. We found a place where we were able to do that at White Hawk Vineyards in Los Alamos valley. We’ve been doing it and it’s a really good wine, not just a cute wine. It stands up on its own. It’s in a bunch of different restaurants and it’s orderable online (at www.angelicacellars.com).
IT: While you can’t say whether or not you’ll be back on “Mad Men” for Season 6, what other projects do you have coming up? Anything you can talk about?
BF: There are a few things in the works, but I can’t really talk about those right now. The last thing I did, anybody flying on a Virgin flight for maybe the next year will be able to see. I did a completely bizarre short (titled “Departure Date”), about a guy falling in love with a girl on a flight. It was produced by Virgin and, in a sense, it’s promotional for them. It wasn’t shot like that or scripted like that. What drew me to it is we shot the entire thing while flying. We flew to London, the next day we flew all the way back and shot the entire way. The next day we went to Dallas and back and shot. And we flew to Sydney and shot on that. We had a crazy schedule and a set sleeping schedule. It was cool, and it features Luis Guzman, Philip Baker Hall and Janeane Garafalo. It’s me and Nicky Whelan falling in love on a plane. (The trailer for the short is viewable at www.virginproduced.com/#p=produced_departure.)