[Editor’s Note: This interview originally ran in April 2015 shortly before “Mad men” premiered on AMC. Mr. Hamm is nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award, hence the article’s redistribution this week.]
When I walked into a substantial Four Seasons hotel room, the chosen site for all things “Mad Men,” the first thing I noticed was how small it felt. Despite the singular “room” having rooms, plural, the large space was made tiny by a broad table placed in its center. Soon, nine reporters would gather around it, with the common goal of grilling Jon Hamm into giving out some precious information on the final season of “Mad Men.”
But what was billed as a “roundtable” discussion became a claustrophobic press conference. Instead of functioning as a group effort, the ordeal became sporadically disjointed, jumping from topic to topic with reckless abandon and little commonality between individual causes. The optimistic goal of the cramped quartering was dead, and — as the fox says — chaos reigned.
Yet standing tall above the ruckus, wearing a finely-tailored gray suit — asking us permission to remove his jacket before beginning — was Hamm himself. With a quick wit, charming smile and energetic demeanor, the leading man of Matthew Weiner’s Emmy-winning series made his significant presence felt the second he walked in, singing a song of his own making.
“Round table, rouuund table,” Hamm pleasantly improvised as he strode confidently to his chair. “Potato chips and Diet Coke and tables and icebreakers.”
Despite the dark drama inherent to “Mad Men,” humor has always been a huge part of Hamm’s appeal. In case anyone had forgotten, the star showcased his comedic chops to full effect in our 20-minute conversation, drawing consistent laughs from the otherwise hushed crowd, trying to record Hamm’s every insight. Below are the highlights of that talk, preserved to accurately reflect not only the human being we all clamored to speak with, but why he was worth the fight in the first place.
“The Big Picture” of Season 7b
“Well, I’m not allowed to say anything, but I will.”
Secrecy and “Mad Men” go hand-in-hand, so it came as no surprise when Hamm made the above joke about preparing the audience for the final season.
“I think Matthew [Weiner] was very clear in saying he wanted what we’re calling [Season] 7a and 7b to be one, cohesive story. I think I can say with some degree of certainty — because I’ve read all of them and acted in them — that that’s true. When last we saw Don, he was watching Burt shuffle off his mortal coil. We ended with [the song] ‘The Best Things in Life are Free.’ Obviously, it was chosen for a reason. To say that to someone who makes his living in advertising is clearly meant to be a lesson. So in the big picture, we’ll see how that lesson is learned. If it is. That’s about as cryptic as I could make it.”
Advice for Actors and How Not to Move to LA
“This will be 20 years that I’ve been in Los Angeles,” Hamm said. “I got here in 1995 and if you would have told me 20 years ago when I drove down the five through the Tejon Pass in my 1986 Toyota Corolla — that was literally overheating, so I had to turn on the heat and put it in neutral and coast down the Tejon Pass. It was a fuse problem guys, it was a bad fuse. [everyone laughs] — that in 20 years I would be sitting here talking about this, I would be over the moon.”
“Very few people get to have these experiences and I can only look back on it with gratitude and humility and be very pleased that I made the decision very early on to give myself over to this completely. I’ve tried to listen as much as I talk and absorb as much as I put out, and I think that’s a pretty good lesson to anyone trying to start out or get their feet wet in this career. If you spend your life talking, you’re going to miss a lot. So sometimes it’s better to listen.”
The Biggest Challenge of Playing Don Draper
“Making him human or keeping him human, I think,” Hamm said. “I think a lot of people in all of our lives can be despicable or unlikable, and sometimes you have to work with those people, deal with those people, manage those people, or handle those people in some way. Sometimes you have to understand that’s part of being a human being — being in a shitty mood or having a bad day, having a bad week. Part of being an adult is not judging everyone immediately on their first impressions and managing the expectation there. So you’re correct in saying that Don has been a lot of things to a lot of people and not all of them good.”
On Getting the Role of a Lifetime
“Have you ever seen a puppy when somebody rings a doorbell? They kind of wag all of their bodies, and they pee on the floor? There is such a mixture of excitement and terror and awe and wonder and hope and fear all going on at once. I’ve never been that much of a tail wagger, so to speak, but I was vibrating on that first day of school, so to speak. Because getting there was such a journey. This has all become apocryphal at this point, but I had to audition seven or eight times. At every stage of that, if you have one shitty audition, they go, ‘Never mind.’ If you have five good ones and one bad one, they say, ‘Bye bye.’ Then they pull the thing and down you go. So I was able to wiggle my way through that and get the job and they said, ‘Great!'”
“And they’re measuring you for the thing and they’re building shirts for you and the tie […] and you’re going, ‘Oh my god. I have to do this!’ You’re looking at this thing and saying, ‘Please don’t let me fuck this up. Be present, be real, and be good.’ You have to subvert that energy and push it into this kind of force that becomes believable in some way. That gets easier to do because you spend more time in this person’s head and this person’s shoes and this person’s life and house. Around about Season 5 was when that first day of school feeling started to go away. I at least felt like a senior, not a freshman going, ‘Does anyone want to sit with me at lunch?’ ‘Where’s homeroom?'”
Why Comedy Matters to Jon Hamm
The day of our sit-down with Hamm, news broke about the actor’s recent recovery from alcohol abuse via a 30-day stint in rehabilitation. Though no one was crass enough to ask him about his personal life outside of “Mad Men,” a few questions seemed to hint at an explanation through Hamm’s connection with the hard-drinking and often depressed Don Draper.
One went so far as to ask how the heaviness of Don affected Hamm, and whether his comedy roles were an antidote to playing Don Draper.
“Yes, second question first,” Hamm said. “It’s not easy to maintain that headspace for a long time. It’s challenging and it can be interesting as an actor, but I can only imagine if you’re playing ‘Long Day’s Journey into the Night’ for your third year on Broadway, you’d probably be a little bummed out. […] That doesn’t mean it’s not a beautiful play or a wonderful couple of roles for actors, but it’s heavy. It’s slumps your shoulders and it’s a lot of weight to carry. You want to go home and wash it off, leave it at work. I’ve been fairly capable of doing that.”
“I’ve been able to go and do some of the goofiest shit on the planet with other people, which is also really nice to do,” Hamm continued. “I’ve been fortunate enough to be asked, too. I’m not a writer. I wish I could write. I can barely make my way through a text without and emojis. I’m fascinated by people who have that creative capacity, whether it’s Tina [Fey] and Robert [Carlock] or Kristen [Wiig] and Annie [Mumulo] or whoever; recently, David Wain and Michael Showalter with their incredible re-do of “Wet Hot [American Summer]” — which is one of the funniest things I’ve read and they’ve kindly asked me to be a part of. So, yes, it’s fun to do that stuff because it’s so goofy and dumb. Fortunately there’s chocolate and vanilla, so we have both sides of the buffet to eat from.
Read on for how Don Draper would handle the internet, Hamm’s ideal ending for Don and the funniest cast members of “Mad Men.”
Jon Hamm’s State of the Union
“There are so many good things out there and so many talented people are getting the opportunity to do really creative, out of the box, things. Whether it’s on Netflix, which again, when you think about when we started on the pilot in 2006, Netflix was delivered to your mailbox. There was no streaming, it wasn’t possible because we didn’t have iPhones or any of that, and it was different back then. Now there’s this crazy, multi-media platform, landscape, on-demand, all that stuff. There’s so much out there. The bad version of that is that there’s a lot of noise that you’ve got to sift through and maybe you don’t like everything, but the good thing is that there are a lot of young people out there who are getting shots. People who would have been toiling away in a writer’s room for 20 years trying to get their shot to get their pilot on the air, somehow, are now getting deals.”
“Beau Willimon, who was one of my students when I was a teacher in St. Louis, MO, is now running a show. A great show! Holy shit! He played Hamlet in ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’! Again, he was very talented as a 17-year-old. Ellie Kemper, same thing. She was a talented 15 year-old and now I’m in her show! It’s bananas, but it’s wonderful, too. Jesus, look at ‘Too Many Cooks!’ Somebody did that! That doesn’t happen in a weekend. Someone put pen to paper and made a production schedule and put 500 setups in this incredibly intricate, weird thing that they knew no one was going to watch. It’s on at four in the morning on Adult Swim, so nobody is going to see it. Yet it became this phenomenon because it’s fascinating, funny, good, it’s different and it’s original. So there’s landscape out there where the different, the creative, the original can get seen by a critical mass of people.”
How Don Would Handle the Internet
No, but really.
“I don’t think anybody’s handling it really well right now. I think it’s an impossible — [reporter remarks how Don would be about 90 years old in modern times] Yeah, not a lot of 90-year-olds are super savvy on the internet [laughs]. To be fair, that’s legit. ‘What’s this web? Give me a broom!’ [But] I think that’s still being figured out day-to-day. I think if you look at the tentative movements tat even giant corporations are having in maximizing the web, there are a lot of paper wasting a lot of money on stuff that doesn’t work. You think, ‘whoops, that was a billion dollars that could’ve been better spent.’ Maybe on building schools or building a bridge that doesn’t fall down. There’s a lot of things that that money could be used for that might have a little more purpose in everyone’s day to day life and yet, isn’t it fun to have an app where you can see somebody’s butt in real time, whatever version that is? It sold for a billion dollars that two kids now can go rent a boat and throw stink bombs off of in the Mediterranean? Okay, I guess.”
“Look, it’s what the market will bear. I can’t be mad at it, but it’s a curious state of prioritization. I don’t know, honestly. I think when you look at what Don’s place starting the show and leaving the show, I don’t think it’s a mistake when you see the beginning of last season, Season 7A I guess we’re calling it. There are these bright colors and vibrant things, a montage and all this beautiful stuff and you see this gray figure kind of moving through it, he hasn’t changed much. The world has, but he hasn’t.”
Jon Hamm’s Ideal Ending for Don
“My hope for Don is always that this incredibly talented — yet incredibly troubled — man would find balance and peace in his life. Hopefully he does.”
How “Mad Men” Balances the Metaphysical with the Real World
“It’s a very tricky tone to capture and a tricky line to walk. Matthew’s always been interested in that and I think he’s been consistent in his treatment of jumping around in time, whether it’s between seasons or not. ‘What year is it?’ has never been a question. ‘What year is it?’ ‘It’s the day after the trial that ended last year.’ Normally that’s the answer, but we’ve established that […] it might be 1978 or it might start on the set of ‘Jaws.’ [whispers] It doesn’t.”
“But if you look over the history of the show, those things are well-established and Matthew’s fascination with the metaphysical and the spiritual and things like that are very important parts of the show, too. [Don] is a person who is in many ways very spiritually bereft and is searching for something. You see it when he goes to California and you see various versions of tarot [cards] and tea leaves and these kind of ghosts are a big thing. Flashbacks to his past are a big thing. We see how his own mind works and where his creativity springs from, in many ways. He might not be the most in tune with it, but he’s very aware of it and Matt’s been very capable in riding that dial to where it doesn’t get laughable.”
The Funniest Cast Members of “Mad Men”
“[John] Slattery is the best joke-teller I’ve ever heard. […] Vinnie [Vincent Kartheiser] is wildly inappropriate and hilarious. Rich Sommer is another very good joke-teller. Aaron Staton is the funniest person, not on purpose, but he’s the best in unintended comedy. Lizzie [Elizabeth Moss] is very dry and funny and has an incredibly unique sense of humor; January [Jones], as well.”
…and How Dead Babies Came Into Play
Continuing his comments on what it’s like on the set of “Mad Men,” Hamm said, “Everyone is very, very funny in their own way. It makes for a very, very light set when we’re not working. [But] when we go in [to work], it’s like ‘button it up, do the thing.’ Talk about dead babies.”
The room chuckled before someone asked Jon, in his final seconds with us, to sum up the series in one word.
“Dead babies,” Hamm immediately deadpanned. “Sorry. [That’s two words.] Just take the space out? [laughs].”
His real answer? “Complete,” Hamm said, before realizing the one-sided nature of his choice. “Oh my God, [how] willfully vague. But hopefully satisfying to someone somewhere.”