Source: The Observer
Date: September 2010
By: Polly Vernon
Mad Men’s Jon Hamm reflects on how the role of Don Draper changed his fortunes from that of a jobbing actor and sometime set dresser for porn films, to an international celebrity with a lead role in Ben Affleck’s new blockbuster The Town.
Jon Hamm walks into the tea room of Claridge’s hotel – the broad-shouldered, unshaven, square-jawed, grey-flecked embodiment of handsomeness – sits down in the seat opposite me, looks in horror at the Starbucks cup he’s clasping in his left hand, and says: “But look! I’ve done the world’s most gauche American thing on the planet! I’ve brought coffee – to high tea!”
I try to reassure him that it’s perfectly fine. This is Claridge’s. They’re too nice to take issue with such behaviour. But I find myself too addled by the fact of Hamm’s handsomeness, and also his celebrity, to make much sense. Good looks and fame always impress me; Jon Hamm has both. But more distracting than that, Hamm is a central part – the central part, indeed – of Mad Men, a drama more properly known as the best thing that ever happened to television and a cultural entity that renders me insensible with fannish gushing. I am a geek where Mad Men is concerned – and here I am, confronted by its main event.
Hamm – who flew into London from LA only an hour or two earlier – is jet-lagged, so possibly not aware quite how unhinged I am. “I like your watch,” he says while I gibber into his big, beautiful, travel-befuddled face. And then he removes a speck of cappuccino froth from halfway up my bare arm (“It will drive me crazy if I leave it there. How did it get there, anyway? That’s quite a journey!”) and I wonder if I’ll be able to continue with our interview at all.
It’s become a terrible cliché to invoke the brilliance of AMC’s Mad Men. Journalists started being breathless about it the moment the pilot aired in 2007, and we haven’t stopped yet. We should change the record. But really, this exquisitely crafted piece – set in an advertising agency in early 1960s New York, at the precise point that society was getting a crash course on the importance of wanton consumerism and women were despairing over the limits on their social position – deserves every last bloody rapturous adjective. And at the heart of its accomplishments sits Jon Hamm. Donald (“Call me Don”) Draper, Hamm’s philandering, shifting, amoral yet tortured, martini-drinking, fag-smoking antihero has become shorthand for the Mad Men phenomenon.
“Oh, that man who literally, at his fundament, is not who he says he is!” says Hamm of Draper. “Who struggles with fundamental dissatisfaction, with a desire to be better or understood or different in some way…”
While wearing suits of devastating sharpness? “Ha! Right!”
I’d thought Hamm might want to avoid talking about Don Draper. He’s been over it so many times already – Mad Men is now into its fourth series. Furthermore he’s here, officially, to discuss his role in The Town, Ben Affleck’s new heist flick. Hamm plays Special Agent Frawley, an FBI agent charged with stopping Affleck’s gang ripping off the banks of modern-day Boston. It’s a deft take on a classic storyline, shot with a rawness that sets it apart from equivalent glossy Hollywood flicks. Frawley is a departure for Hamm – a very straightforward proposition.
“Part of what’s exciting about playing this guy is that this is a guy whose moral compass is very much aligned. He’s a guy who knows what is right and what is wrong, and there are grey areas in his world, but his day-to-day job is a very simple equation: there are people who do bad things, and his job is to stop them from doing bad things or to catch them and put them away after they’ve done bad things. It was nice to play a person who doesn’t live in those grey areas.”
But you play the grey areas so well, I say.
“Ha ha! Thank you. But it was also… not set in the 60s, and I’d had, like, 15 scripts to play guys who…”
Were rather… Donnish?
“A little bit of that.”
Jon Hamm was 36 when he was cast in Mad Men. Celebrity and success came to him in the George Clooney tradition: when he was older and wiser and better at handling it, when a decade of scraping by in Hollywood, in every sense, had made him humble and more human. He’d worked as a jobbing actor until that point, constantly “landing a lot of very small roles in very big movies”. His biggest part had been as a regular on a police show called The Division, in which he played “a slightly emasculated cop”. He had waited tables and tended bars when necessary. His long-term girlfriend Jennifer Westfeldt had scored international recognition and some commercial success with her 2001 film Kissing Jessica Stein, and Hamm says now: “It’s nice not to have to worry about how you’re going to pay your bills. And it’s a problem I’ve had for far longer than I haven’t had it. Not worrying about the bills is still very new for me.”
Hamm moved to Los Angeles from his hometown of St Louis in 1995, aged 24. Had he always wanted to be an actor?
“Yes, indeed. I don’t think anyone puts themselves through the indignity and humiliation and seas of depression and rejection and everything else…”
Was he ambitious? “Oh, I think so. You don’t chuck it all in and pitch a car westward and go to LA without thinking some day, down the line, ideally, it’ll work out positively.”
He signed with agents William Morris and came close to landing a series of very big roles. “I had met Steven Spielberg and all these people that had my eyes just rolling back in my head. The opportunities I almost had! And there’s this hideous thing they make you do when you go up for a television show: they make you sign a contract before you walk into the final audition. The last thing they want is for you to have everyone fall in love with you, and then you not have a deal in place. So you sign this thing – and I had no money; I was broke. You’re staring at the five-figure pay cheque you’ll get… if… If! A crazy amount of money for someone who has none. So I was thinking: I’ll pay my loans off and do this and that and maybe get my car fixed… and by that time they’re calling you in, you’re like: ‘Shit! I have to do the scene! What the fuck are the lines?’ I would get hung up on that stuff and be an utter failure in the room.”
Three years in, Hamm was dropped by William Morris: “Which was rough. But also: gut check time. I thought: ‘I could go home, I could teach…’ I had already taught [drama at John Burroughs High School in Missouri] and yes, I think I probably was a good teacher.” But he stayed. He found another agent, and the small roles in big films began rolling in. When all else failed Hamm got by: flirting with his landlady in the interest of getting extensions on the rent (“I was managing that situation, yes…”) and getting the bus, unheard of in LA, when his car broke down and he couldn’t afford to fix it.
He was working as the set dresser on a soft porn film (porn films need set dressers? “You gotta move cameras around, and ashtrays; and continuity is apparently an issue”) when Jennifer Westfeldt, who was at that point a distant acquaintance of Hamm’s, invited him to be in a play she was working on in New York. “I came in after another 12-hour day [on the porn film] to this message on my answer phone, and I was so exhausted and depressed and bone tired that I called her back immediately: ‘Yes! I don’t care what it is!’ I borrowed money for a ticket and lived in New York for six weeks on about $300, stayed on a friend’s coach, roller-bladed everywhere…” The play, Lipschtick, was the basis for Kissing Jessica Stein; and Hamm’s six-week stint on it kick-started his and Westfeldt’s relationship.
She saved you, I say. “Totally,” he says.
Jon Hamm was an outsider for the part of Don Draper. “I was on the bottom of everyone’s list.” He had read the script and fallen in love with the part: did he know Don would eventually be his? “I really really really wanted to do it and really really really responded to the character. And really really felt like I had a handle on it and fit the part well, for whatever reason. I knew it was an enormous risk for the network to put all their chips on… certainly no celebrity of any kind. No name to promote.”
He auditioned and auditioned for it, aware that his name was creeping up the list of potentials. Writer Matthew Weiner, formerly of The Sopranos, fought hard for Hamm, which must have helped. Was there a joyous moment, when Hamm realised he’d been cast?
“Honestly? It had gone on for so long and I’d been so deluded by the fact that I had to prepare virtually every scene in the pilot and read it for the director, and writer, and the executives and all this other stuff, and all this other stuff… and they had finally flown me to New York, where all the executives were. Matt [Weiner] was treating me like I’d already got the part. ‘Just walk around here like you own the place, because you are getting this part.’ I was: ‘All right, we’ll see.’
“I was supposed to meet with all the executives for an impromptu cocktail session, at the top of the Gansevoort hotel [in midtown Manhattan]; a beautiful, beautiful fall day. Crisp and lovely. Had a cocktail. Had a meandering, nebulous discussion about things, because I still hadn’t been offered the part… and so, OK, we pay the bill and… meanwhile there was this huge football conference. Soccer. Franz Beckenbauer and Pelé and all these people were there, and a lot of hubbub. I was riding down in the elevator with Franz Beckenbauer, as you do; and the women next to me was the executive, and during the elevator ride, she kind of casually leans over to me and says: ‘By the way, you have the part.’ And my focus was a little split. I said: ‘Thanks!’ And: ‘That’s Beckenbauer! You know that, right?’ We got off the elevator and crazy European journalists are running around, taking photographs in nine different languages… But there’s a sense of relief when you get a part that is almost immediately followed by a sense of impending dread. ‘Now, I have to do it…’”
But Hamm did do it, and won instant acclaim for doing it, alongside Matthew Weiner and his castmates. Hamm’s been nominated for Emmy awards for each of the three seasons that have qualified so far, and won 2008′s best actor Golden Globe.
Is he surprised that the world’s love affair with both the show, and his role within it, is showing no signs of abating? We are 52 episodes in now…
“It’s a curious phenomenon, I suppose, given the moral turpitude of that character,” he says, and he laughs.
Oh, but that’s the point isn’t it? Draper has affairs and lies about who he is and gets drunk at lunchtime – so that the rest of us don’t have to. The vicarious thrill of his decadence and his misery; it’s why men adore the character, quite as much as women. “Sure! People are thrilled to watch other people doing this, relieved that they don’t have to deal with the consequences – there is a vicarious thrill. It is exciting to see people misbehave. That’s a big part of cinema and theatre and television. Watching people who are ostensibly good do bad things, and kind of root for them to get away with it, and know that it’s bad and yet…”
I hate it when Don gets caught out, I say.
“Oh yeah? You do?”
Jon Hamm is not Don Draper, obviously. Draper’s a fictional creation; and it takes me roughly five seconds in his company to establish that Hamm is softer than Draper, more comfortable in his rugged skin, less wary, gentler, much more garrulous. Yet when an actor inhabits a role as completely and as constantly as Hamm inhabits Draper, and when that role becomes such a defining part of his career trajectory, you have to wonder at the degree of crossover between the character and the man.
Does Hamm understand Draper?
“Well, I’m an actor. A big part of acting is subverting who you are in the service of a character. So I understand that. And the similarities between mine and Don’s life are well documented. Growing up as a bit of a wanderer, finding my own way, making my own story… Losing my parents early on, albeit not as dramatically and tragically as Don.”
When Jon Hamm was 10 years old his mother died, suddenly, of stomach cancer. Hamm went to live with his father, who had divorced his mother when he was two. “To lose a parent at 10 – which is young, though not unprecedented – it means you understand, at a very early age, what permanence is.”
And then, 10 years later, when Hamm was studying English at the University of Texas, his father died. “I was… unmoored by that. But I was very fortunate to have really good friends in my life whose parents sort of rallied: ‘We’re gonna help this kid out, because otherwise there’s going to be trouble…’
Were they right? I say. “Oh yeah,” he says.
You could have lost it? “Easily. I struggled with chronic depression. I was in bad shape. I knew I had to get back in school and back in some kind of structured environment and… continue.”
What helped? “Work.”
Therapy? “I did do therapy and antidepressants for a brief period, which helped me. Which is what therapy does: it gives you another perspective when you are so lost in your own spiral, your own bullshit. It helps. And honestly? Antidepressants help! If you can change your brain chemistry enough to think: ‘I want to get up in the morning; I don’t want to sleep until four in the afternoon. I want to get up and go do my shit and go to work and…’ Reset the auto-meter, kick-start the engine!”
And did his parents’ death, and that depression, inform him as an actor?
“Well, the theatre department always seems to be the sort of… way station for the orphans and all the people who don’t fit in anywhere else. I always swirled back to it.”
I wonder what Hamm’s particular experience of celebrity is. He and the entire cast of Mad Men are unusual among modern celebrities in that they seem universally adored. People either have no idea who they are (for all the media attention and critical acclaim it has generated, Mad Men has a relatively small, if devoted, audience) or we are completely besotted by them. Accordingly there are no hate sites devoted to Hamm, no tabloid campaigns to trip him up or bring him down. Nothing but complete love… But Hamm’s not comfortable acknowledging his fame; he segues into a consideration of Lindsay Lohan and the complications of modern celebrity. “What with Twitter and the instant global dissemination of media and… It’s a tricky landscape to navigate now. Especially if you’re young and do stupid things, like young people do. Old people do stupid things, too, it’s just that…”
We go to bed earlier? “Ha! We go to bed earlier! Right!”
Hamm is equally slippery when I address his pin-up status. In 2007 he won Salon.com’s Sexiest Man Living award; in 2008 he won People magazine’s similarly named Sexiest Man Alive award. The evening after I meet him, he scores GQ magazine’s Man of the Year 2010 award (an honour at least partly bestowed in recognition of handsomeness).
How is life as a pin-up? “Well, you know, it’s all so, sort of… ephemeral.”
Oh come on, I say. It must be lovely to be so routinely fancied. “I suppose… it’s certainly nice for people to consider you attractive or… handsome or whatever the particular adjective is. But it’s completely subjective…” [in his case, I'm not sure it is, actually] “…and mostly ephemeral and I just rolled off a plane and I don’t know how great I look now and, ha ha, I’m not sure what time it is, or what day, or… I mean, I really don’t look like Don Draper now, do I?”
Hamm checks himself over despairingly in the mirrored wall to his right.
Do I really have to tell you that you look good, I ask.
He moves the conversation along swiftly.
We talk about his 12-year relationship with Westfeldt, which is enduring in Hollywood terms. What’s the secret? “We just… really love each other.” He talks about being offered designer clothes to wear: “That strange thing about celebrity: the less you need it, the more they want to give it to you. I’m in a world where I have 10 suits to choose from, and how many suits do you need?” We talk some more about Mad Men, about: “The swirl and sound and fury of it… For a show that is as dour and moody and pendulous as ours, we have fun.” They all like each other, he says. “We were all these empty slates [when we started]. A nice blank canvas upon which to paint this lovely piece of work. And we figured: ‘Well, we might as well be friends.’ Which we are. We all are.”
Then it’s time for him to go, shave, and pick up his GQ award. I finish the latte that Jon Hamm bought me (I know from researching earlier interviews that paying for a journalist’s drink is very much Hamm’s shtick; still, it’s an impressive courtesy for a celebrity to extend to a hack). And then I leave, too – and spend a very enjoyable week telling people about the time I took afternoon tea in Claridge’s with Don Draper.