Donal O’Donoghue chats to the creator of a glossy new TV drama
How do you follow the TV phenomenon that was Mad Men?
How about a series of modern fables about people who believe themselves to be descendants of the infamous Russian royal family? Donal O’Donoghue meets the man behind The Romanoffs, Matthew Weiner
“When I finished Mad Men, I really wanted to make a show where it would be different every week. The Romanoffs was all about doing a show about connections between people and who we are: is it nature or nurture, genetic or cultural, or is it simply who we say we are versus who we actually are? I’ve always been interested in the story of the Romanoffs, not just that they were royalty and were murdered, but years later there’s the question for the descendants, who are you? You can say who you are but who are you really?”
It’s a question also being asked of Matthew Weiner, a 53-year-old father of four who cut his writing teeth on The Sopranos, but made his fame and fortune as the creator of Mad Men. That TV drama, which ran for seven seasons before concluding in May 2015, was a cultural phenomenon, an Emmy Awardwinning behemoth that made marquee stars of Jon Hamm, Christina Hendricks and Elisabeth Moss. Weiner found fake characters and made them real; now he takes a real-life family, the Romanoffs, and makes them fake, in an anthology series of which he has said the future is written in the past.
That line may now be freighted with added significance for Weiner. Last November, a sexual harassment allegation was made against him by his former assistant and writer on Mad Men, Kater Gordon. During an interview, Gordon said that Weiner intimated she owed him the chance to see her naked while they were writing the second-season finale of Mad Men, for which they both won an Emmy. A few days before The Romanoffs world premiere in London, the allegations resurfaced in a Vanity Fair interview. When we meet, Weiner seems unconcerned by such matters, warmly hugging Jon Hamm as they pass on a staircase, but during a short interview, in which nobody pokes the elephant in the room, he seems prickly and defensive.
“I know this might sound strange but I just don’t think that way,” says Weiner, his sockless feet loose in lace-less shoes, when I ask him if he worried about following the success of Mad Men. “Honestly, how would you even do seven seasons of Mad Men with that attitude because every season we’d be like: ‘Why don’t we just quit?’” But didn’t he fear writer’s block? “You’re making me nervous because I never even thought about it,” he says to a chorus of laughter (in fact Weiner, by his own admission, recently spoke of a rough patch when inspiration was slow to come). Instead, he says now: “This is what I do and I feel lucky that I get to do it again.”
Following a bidding war, Amazon Prime shelled out $70 million for the rights to The Romanoffs, one of the tent-pole titles in the streaming giant’s upcoming schedule. Many millions more went into making the eight stand-alone tales (“seven languages, eight countries and a boat”) which feature a glittering international cast, including Isabelle Huppert, Christina Hendricks and Diane Lane. Weiner directs all of the episodes, sumptuous feature-length productions that are more curate’s than Fabergé egg. They open with a double-bill, ‘ The Violet Hour’ and ‘ The Royal We’, on October 12 and thereafter the episodes roll out on a weekly basis.
Weiner has been charged with writing almost exclusively about the privileged classes, from the well-heeled advertising executives of Mad Men to the blue bloods of The Romanoffs. The Violet Hour, for example, stars Marthe Keller as an embittered descendant of the Tsar, living out her twilight years in her palatial Parisian apartment. “Yes, I’m telling stories that happen not necessarily in the world’s top one percent but up there,” he says. “By the way, I don’t know anyone who is not doing that and I don’t mean that in a defensive way. I’m telling stories for all people, and when I say this, I’m just asking to be kicked in the face. Which I think is a noble pursuit.”
Getting kicked in the face is something Weiner may have to get used to, but he’s not afraid of fighting his corner. “You can never have enough diversity,” he says. “I want to write for diversity and I have a very diverse team of writers. Women don’t count as diversity to me, that’s just population and I have a little oldfashioned view of humanity which is that I do believe that there are certain human qualities that go against all cultural and tribal things. I’m 53 years old, so I’m going to go on my personal experience, which is privileged but not limited, believe it or not.”
I do believe that there are certain human qualities that go against all cultural and tribal things
Watch it The Romanoffs, From October 12, Amazon Prime Aaron Eckhart & Marthe Keller in The Romanoffs