The Schmooze

Ben Feldman on 'Mad Men,' Playing Jews, and Why He Never Had a Bar Mitzvah

Photo: Trae Patton/NBC

The last time we saw Ben Feldman, he’d just cut off one of his nipples. Now, he’s head-over-heels in love with a girl he spied — but never met — years earlier at a rock concert.

Perhaps an explanation is in order.

For the last three seasons, Feldman has played Michael Ginsberg, the somewhat acerbic, somewhat crazy Jewish copywriter on “Mad Men.” Ginsberg chose a most unusual way to declare his love for a co-worker.

Starting October 2 (and every Thursday forever thereafter, he hopes), he’s Adam Laughlin on “A to Z,” the besotted bachelor who believes in destiny and true love and a more traditional approach to wooing. The object of his affection is Zelda Vasco (Cristin Milioti), an attorney whose hippie, multi-partner mother soured her on the idea of romance.

The show’s pilot, at least, is funny and sweet and if nothing else an antidote to television zombies. It is also more than a little reminiscent of “(500) Days of Summer,” a similarly themed romance that at least in the cinema ended badly.

According to the voiceover here though, Andrew and Zelda go out for “eight months, three weeks, five days and one hour.” After winning kudos for her role in the Broadway musical “Once,” Miloti went on to become the title character in “How I Met Your Mother,” an issue that took nine seasons to resolve. So it may take a while to find out what the end of that near nine-month period has to offer.

In the meantime, Feldman spoke to the Forward about “the one,” defending a Jewish character’s right to be a little nuts, and going all-in on a bar mitzvah or not having one at all.

Curt Schleier: Do you believe in “the one”?

Ben Feldman: I believe the world is huge and you’re lucky if you’ve found a one. I know that sounds pessimistic and dark. As a happily married man, I’m lucky. Does that sound vague enough? I don’t think I’m as optimistic, as much a believer, as the character on the show. I think to a degree Cristin in real life is a lot more like my character.

This is a very cynical time. Yours is a romantic comedy. Do you think there might be a “this is too cute for the room” backlash?

Absolutely. I don’t think we live in an age where you can satisfy everyone. There are so many networks, if you don’t like something there are plenty of places to go. But let me say, if you are a skeptic and hate something that’s cheesy and cute: We start in a place setting up a feeling of emotion and vibes and then the show gets into the real nuts and bolts of a relationship. We’re still warm, but in a way the cynics of the world will appreciate.

How did your involvement in “A to Z” come about? Was it a case of, “Hey, here’s two hot young actors. Let’s build a show around them?”

I wish that was the case. Actually Cristin got the job first. She had a lot of heat after “How I Met Your Mother” and “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “Once.” I don’t think they actually knew I was available. And when they found out I was about to have a bunch of free time [presumably because (although he’s not allowed to say so) he will not appear in the last half-season of “Mad Men”] at the last second they just brought me in. That’s how it worked out — mere coincidence.

On that subject, what’s with the nipple episode?

[Laughs] It was the favorite way I ever left the show. It was a lot of fun and a real great way to step aside and let some of the other characters get more time.

Does that mean you won’t be on for the last half of the last season?

That’s not something I can say. I can only tell you if I was coming back that would already have been filmed. The show was a form of dodging questions boot camp. Even now I’m afraid to bring up future stories on “A to Z.”

Mad Men wasn’t the first time you played Jewish. You were Fran Dresher’s son on “Living With Fran.”

The funny thing with that is the show originally had nothing to do with me or Fran. It was originally called “Shacking Up,” about a young man who comes home to live with his mom. I got the part and then Fran was cast as the woman dating a much younger man and we became Jewish and even had a bar mitzvah episode. When I was on the show, a million years ago, Nielsen sent my father one of those diaries to keep track of what he was watching.

Did you ever feel it necessary to protect a Jewish character you were playing?

No, it’s funny, but with “Mad Men” I actually found myself defending the character and his behavior. There aren’t a lot of blatantly Jewish characters in front of the camera, surprising because there are billions behind the camera. Because there are so few Jews [portrayed], when there is one, the impulse is to make him stand for the entire culture. I said this is a little crazy. Ginsberg doesn’t represent Judaism. He’s just a human being and I was defending a Jewish character’s right to be like other people.

What about your own Jewish background? Were you a bar mitzvah?

I was raised by both Jewish and Christian people. There was a step-dad and a step-mom, so I started studying a little late. When it came time my parents were wonderful and they gave me my own say at that age. I think it was a mature thing for a 13-year-old to do, but I said if it is serious and in Israel, I’ll do it. But I don’t want a lavish party just to show off how much money you have. So, no bar mitzvah.

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Ben Feldman on 'Mad Men,' Playing Jews, and Why He Never Had a Bar Mitzvah

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