After a 17-month hiatus thanks to contract negotiations that put the fate of their beloved show in jeopardy, "Mad Men" fans will be reunited with Don, Peggy, Roger, Betty, Pete, Joan and all the rest this Sunday night on AMC in a two-hour season premiere.
As usual, the cast is tight-lipped with details on the new season. But over the phone, actors Jon Hamm ("Don Draper"), Vincent Kartheiser ("Pete Campbell") and Jared Harris ("Lane Pryce") were willing to share thoughts with reporters on their characters, the current spoiler culture, showrunner Matthew Weiner's writing and, in one case, which fellow cast member with whom they would have an affair.
The Long Hiatus
The hiatus may have been too long for viewers' tastes, but for the actors the break extended only a few months' more than usual. Production usually starts in May; this season began in August. As evidenced by his work in "Bridesmaids" and "Friends with Kids," Hamm is quick to point out that he and the other cast members did not just sit around during their break.
"Some people had babies. Some people did jobs. My girlfriend and I were able to finance and produce a film," said Hamm. "In fact, 'Friends with Kids' was a full product of the hiatus. We raised the money for the movie, we shot the movie, edited the movie, we premiered it at the Toronto Film Festival, we sold the movie and the movie was in theaters all before 'Mad Men' came out. So it was quite a journey."
And while the contract negotiations between AMC and Matthew Weiner may have worried fans, Harris was always certain that "Mad Men" would return to see the light of day.
"I didn’t doubt for a second that we would be coming back," said Harris. "I think it was more a question of when, not if. The time made me appreciate the experience more. One of the things I came back with was a renewed sense of how lucky I was to be working on material like this. Because you go off and you read other scripts and things like that and there isn’t that same attention to detail that Matt brings to it."
However, whether viewers will still be mad about "Mad Men" remains to be seen. Kartheiser, for one, thinks the show is unique enough that fans won't have replaced it.
"People have become interested and intrigued in these characters, not necessarily with the genre or with some type of gimmick," said Kartheiser. "It’s a story that people want to know the end of. I think we have a group of fans that also aren’t your usual television watchers. It’s a group of people that haven’t refilled their DVR schedule with whatever it is hottest this year. But rather, it’s people who have sought out our show in particular and we do believe they will come back."
What's Going on in Season Five
The end of season four saw big changes in the lives of Hamm, Harris and Kartheiser's characters. Don had just proposed to his secretary Megan, Lane's marriage to his wife was in shambles, and Pete's wife Trudy (Alison Brie) had just given birth to a baby girl.
Without giving away specific details, Hamm revealed that Don will be turning 40 this season and as a result has begun re-evaluating his priorities in life.
"I think the thing with Don is that as he’s getting older, he’s realizing that the things that used to weigh on him, that used to matter, that used to have so much import in his life are shifting," said Hamm. "They don’t carry the weight that they once did. If you think about the shit you used to care about in high school, and the things that you thought, 'Oh my God, I’ll never get through this crazy thing hanging over my head'... Now [they] are irrelevant. Don and his past and the things that he used to worry about so much are becoming increasingly less important."
As for Don's decision to propose to Megan instead of Faye, Hamm can only say that Don must have done it for love.
"I don’t think he went down a checklist and said, 'X, Y, Z and this is what I need. This is want I want.' I think he was in love with her," said Hamm. "And we as viewers can kind of look at it and say, 'Oh boy, maybe this is not the best decision.' But, in the moment, and for whatever reason, Don was in love and is in love. And that’s a good thing, right? Hooray!"
Meanwhile, Kartheiser revealed that fatherhood has not mellowed out Pete's scheming ways one bit.
"I think fatherhood has changed [Pete] in the sense that it’s brought a level of expectation and pressure from his household to be even more ambitious than he was before, which must be quite an accomplishment for someone like Pete who’s been willing to blackmail his way into success previously," said Kartheiser. "But I love where the character’s gone. It’s such an interesting time, 26 to 32 years old [...] and I think that time in a man’s life is the time that you kind of either succeed or you find out that you never will really be the man that you wanted to be. Late 20s, early 30s is when you kind of have to stick your flag in the ground."
In that way, Kartheiser admitted that he sees a bit of himself in Pete: "I also was trying to find a role that would help me stick my own flag in the ground. And Pete Campbell has been that role for me. So there’s a bit of synchronicity between the two."
Last season gave Harris' character Lane had a bit more screen time and revealed more details about his life. Harris stated he based the character off of his stepfather, actor Rex Harrison, and admitted that Lane is a much better dresser than he is.
"I haven’t got his fastidiousness of his dress sense. I’m enjoying it, that part of performing the character and as a requirement for showing up for doing things on 'Mad Men,'" said Harris. "I enjoy the dressing up part, but I don’t have that in my own personal life. I’m a little bit more of a slob.
"You know, we all have to do our taxes once a year. And when I’m poring over those boring pieces of fucking paper I think of Lane. I think of it as character research."
However, Harris stayed mum on whether Lane will have more scenes this season that will further open up his character's back story.
"They really are very vigilant about us not saying who we have scenes with," said Harris, "and given that Matt Weiner is sitting not too far away from me, if I say something and pissed him off, I don’t know what he’d do to me next season, so..."
Working with the Cast
This season also marks Hamm's first appearance behind the camera. Hamm directed the first episode after production began, but it will be second to air.
"The fun thing was that I was directing the first one," Hamm said. "So that was able to kind of reinvigorate folks and give them a little charge. And it was nice to see a familiar face behind the camera for the first one."
Hamm said he had been approached to direct before during the third season, but he didn't feel comfortable just yet.
"When they came back at the end of season four and said, 'Would you do it?', for whatever reason something had shifted in me. And I’d seen John Slattery do it, Jen do it with “Friends with Kids,” Ben [Affleck] do it on “The Town” and whatever else. So I was surrounded by these examples of actors directing themselves. And I thought, 'All right.' If Bryan Cranston can do it on 'Breaking Bad,' then ok, maybe I can do this. I feel comfortable. And so I did. And I’m glad I did."
Pressed on if there were any specific cast members he had been looking forward to working with again, Kartheiser expressed a fondness for working with Elisabeth Moss and John Slattery.
"[Elisabeth's] such a fantastic actress and I just love all of the stuff we’ve had together," said Kartheiser. "I loved all of the stuff that John Slattery has directed me in. He’s got such a great tone when speaking with me as an actor. He’s a real director at heart and I think every actor should work with him as a director at least once in their life. He’s phenomenal."
Harris also expressed a different kind of affection for Slattery: "If I could have an affair with any of them, it would be John Slattery."
The cast of "Mad Men" has become quite skilled at giving interviews without revealing too much about the season, but Hamm thinks it's better for the fans.
"I kind of find this fascination with this no-spoiler policy to be interesting," said Hamm. "What show wants to ruin their whole narrative structure? Who wants to be told the end of things or the beginning of things or anything? Don’t you want to watch the show and see what happens?
"I like watching television, I’m a big fan of it. I feel like if anybody would’ve told me the end of last year’s 'Breaking Bad' I would have been, 'Oh man, why’d you ruin it for me?' So I don’t know. I think it’s a good thing that we, like most shows, don’t tell you what’s going to happen."
So if fans want to know what Don Draper's been up to, they'll just have watch the show to find out for themselves.
"Mad Men" returns Sunday, March 25 at 9pm.