Life of Bryan

Mad Men star and Broadway actor Bryan Batt is a solid supporter of Le Petit Theatre and his beloved hometown of New Orleans
new-head-shots-004Dashing, witty and charming actor Bryan Batt enjoys a fantastic career in the entertainment world–and New Orleans is proud to boast that he’s one of our own! From getting his humble start onstage at Le Petite Theatre du Vieux Carré and evolving into a regular Broadway babe and then to his acclaimed roles in film and television–especially that of his closeted-gay character, Salvatore Romano, on the AMC series Mad Men–Batt has dazzled his devoted audiences. And while he could stay completely busy being bi-coastal in New York and L.A., the tri-coastal Batt spends part of his time here in his beloved hometown, where his design talent takes center stage at Hazelnut, the snazzy home decor and furnishings store on Magazine Street that Batt opened in 2003 with longtime partner Tom Cianfichi. Batt has also been penning his fabulous new memoir for Random House, She Ain’t Heavy, She’s My Mother, which debuts in May.
One of Batt’s pet projects for the new year is to keep the focus on one of his great loves in this city, Le Petit Theatre. Spectacular events abound for the 2010 season at this cultural gem of a theater, and New Orleans Living sat down for a great chat with Batt about Le Petite in the beautiful Polo Lounge at the Windsor Court. He also shared some super news about Sal on Mad Men! Additionally, the remarkable Gary Solomon Jr., managing director of–and one of the best things to happen to–Le Petite Theatre also stopped by for a visit, making it easy to understand why Solomon has set the bar for innovative strategies in turning things around at the once almost defunct yet now thriving theater.
Bryan, we are so glad to have you here! You have all kinds of great things on your plate in the upcoming year.
Oh, there’s a lot going on! And I’m so excited to be here. I’ve spent some real quality time here, not just running around in the airport. How can you not enjoy this city! There are just so many things going on here all the time, in the arts and with Le Petit Theatre. It’s just been a banner year for them, and there’s just so much more to come.
There’s a lot more support this year for Le Petite Theatre.
It’s really amazing. Now New Orleanians really realize how precious our institutions are. At any moment, things can be taken away from us. When the threat of Le Petit closing became eminent, everyone stepped up to the plate. It was wonderful how this city rallied together to save the oldest continuously producing community theater in the country. The artistic level of the theater is quite high in comparison to other community theaters.
It’s truly a cultural gem. The audience is diverse; there’s something for everybody.
There is! We’re hoping also to restart the children’s theater. We’re trying to bring in new audiences. People can get tickets for a musical that was on Broadway last year called 13 about 13-year-olds, and it’s performed by all 13-year-olds, practically. But when I saw it, it spoke on all different levels, so parents, kids and grandparents, kids of all ages can go to it together, it’s going to be fun. Grey Gardens is coming. And The Wedding Singer will be a hoot!
And there is a lot of support from outside the city as well.
Oh, yes! When I show friends from Broadway that come visit New Orleans, this is where I got my start, they’re infuriated with jealousy, because most of them got started in barns or strip mall theaters! Just the physical theater itself and the location right there on the corner of the square are amazing. And Gary is fantastic! He is quite amazing, an incredible lighting designer; he’s a young man who gets stuff done! Every year we do our fundraiser, and this year I believe it’s going to be in April. It’s called Encore Backstage, and the lovely Patricia Clarkson comes down, and we host the evening, and we have what we call a “dream auction”–we try to get items that no one else can have. A lot of my producer friends from Broadway–because Broadway is mainly what I did before Mad Men. I still want to do another Broadway show because there’s nothing like it! But I called these producers, and especially after Katrina, they were just like “Anything!” So they were giving me pairs of tickets and backstage tours with the cast and meet-and-greets. But Encore is a wonderful night; there are backstage tours and you get to meet the cast. One of the auction items is you get a walk-on part in a big musical!
Very cool! And there’s been some really vibrant stuff that’s come through Le Petit in the last season that you wouldn’t have normally seen.
Exactly. What we’re trying to do is emphasize that theater is for everyone. Sometimes places will have the reputation of being a “little old lady” place–and I love little old ladies! [Laughs] They can appreciate a cuttingedge play or musical just as much as a young person. I don’t think theater has an age to it. We have subscribers that have been there forever, and we have a whole new audience. Theater is always changing. It reflects our lives; it is part of who we are. It feeds our souls.
You have a new memoir coming out in May, and I love the title!
[Laughs] She Ain’t Heavy, She’s My Mother! I happen to be one of the most fortunate people alive because I was blessed with just an incredible mother. She ain’t going nowhere! Even though she’s been ill recently, she’s got this drive and spirit; I don’t know where it comes from! She’s a steel magnolia–always elegant, the nails are done, and the makeup is done–even in the hospital! It’s like Ma! You’re in the hospital! But you know what? It’s part of who she is. Against all possible diversity, she’s always triumphed. I was always marveling, how does she pull it together? One of my friends was going through a horrible time; she lost her home in Katrina, then they rebuilt and it burnt to the ground. And she’d call me and say, “I keep telling myself what would Gayle Batt do? How would she handle this?” And I thought, “Wow! That’s a great compliment!”
And in addition to your new book, you know what else is exciting? Hazelnut, your place for home collectibles on Magazine Street. I love Hazelnut!
Oh! I love Hazelnut! It’s always been a little dream of mine. There was a little dip in the career at that moment, [laughs] a show I was supposed to do on Broadway got canceled, and Tom, my partner, was like, “Let’s do that store now!” And the minute we committed to doing it, everything just fell into place, except I would wake up in cold sweats going “What am  I doing?” It wasn’t my expertise; I knew what I liked, but thank God Tom knew the business; he did it on Madison Avenue for years, and it’s great! And I love being in a place where everybody knows one another, like the theme song from Cheers–I wanna be where everybody knows my name! [Laughs]
And they do know your name for sure! And the stuff at Hazelnut is really unique.
We’re continually searching and buying, and when I go shopping, I take notes on what people have to make sure that I don’t order it. And that’s what’s great about Magazine Street; it’s unique from other places in this country, where you have such a long stretch of individually owned businesses. And it’s diverse: You’ve got restaurants, great clothing stores, shoe stores, galleries, antique shops, gift shops, you name it. And each little enclave is so special and reflects the taste of the owner, not a homogenized board of directors that you’re going to find in some mall where everything’s going to be the same.
There are some beautiful items at Hazelnut made from the two fabrics you designed yourself, the New Orleans Toile and the Pontchartrain Beach fabrics, and you can cover your home in these wonderful fabrics!
And a lot of people have! I designed the New Orleans Toile because I wanted something unique for the store that no one else had. I had a pretty shower curtain that was an Asian toile; it had pagodas and Asian women walking, and I was looking at it and I was like, “Wait! Why isn’t there a New Orleans toile?” We have the most beautiful architecture and some of the most iconic images, like the Cathedral and the streetcar going down St. Charles and the Natchez and the French Quarter, so that’s what’s drawn on the fabric. One of my favorites is when people go, “Oh what a beautiful toile … Oh! It’s New Orleans!” It really strikes you. We  sell all different price points. It’s sold by the yard, but there are different products in the toile and the Pontchartrain Beach pattern, which is fun! There are all kinds of neat New Orleans icons on it as well. And it doesn’t look like the Zephyr! [Laughs] It’s like a vibrant patchwork with crowns, beads, palm fronds, cornstalk fences and crawfish in very poppy, spring colors–more like Palm Beach meets New Orleans. I love it!
And Hazelnut is named for your grandmother?
It is. Her name was Hazel and she was a nut! [Laughs] No, her name was Hazel Nuss and she was a preeminent dance teacher in New Orleans for generations. When I was a kid, little old ladies would tell me, “Your grandmother taught me how to dance and to be a lady!” [Laughs] My grandmother is featured in the book as well; she’s an interesting, wonderful character.
So what’s going on in TV land with you?
Well, we’re about start the fourth season of Mad Men, and I don’t know anything yet, except I’ve been told that I’m not dead! That’s a good thing! Good ol’ Sal!
That’s a wonderful thing! A lot of people are going to be happy to hear that! We’re moving in the right direction! You’re not a writer for your character, but what would you like to see happen with Sal?
Whatever I can imagine isn’t one tenth as brilliant as what they’ll come up with, but I just want more of the same for Sal. I think his path in life was chosen for him, because there were no options at the time, and it reflects very much what still goes on today–a lot of people marry people they’re not really attracted to; they’re just putting up a pretty picture and that never works. A lot of people did it just to conform; they thought it was their only option, and they stuck it out, had children and stayed married, then later realized, Wait a minute! I’ve got one life, and there’s the heartache and heartbreak and relationships with friends and families are completely destroyed. I would love to show that journey, children and the realization–and then at the end, let him be happy in a caftan on Fire Island, you know! [Laughs]
Bryan, you are such a great ambassador for New Orleans! Thanks for keeping it tri-coastal with us and keeping us in the mix.
Oh, please, I’m happy to do it! This is home, there’s nothing like it. I just want to encourage everyone to get out and discover their city and rediscover the city. There are things going on at Le Petit and in the art, music and culinary communities–all these different communities mesh together, and we have to support everybody.
We do! And GO SAINTS! I think you need a Saints jersey …
GO SAINTS! I think I do need a jersey–I’m calling Drew! I must admit, I’m a crazy Saints fanatic! This year I got to sing the National Anthem at the kickoff game! And from then on I’ve been following every game. If anyone ever told me, “Bryan, in 2009 you will actually be turning on your car radio and listening to a Saints game,” I would have said, “You’re crazy,” but I do that when I’m away from a game! When anything succeeds in New Orleans, it’s like a trickle-down effect. It’s infectious and it helps everybody.