When American Movie Classics introduced its award-winning drama series Mad Men in 2007, the biggest surprise wasn’t that the show appeared on a network hardly known for HBO-quality original programming, nor that it revealed the unexpectedly complex lives of early-’60s advertising executives, but that it was magnificently anchored by largely unknown actor Jon Hamm. Born in Missouri, Hamm moved to Los Angeles in his mid-20s and spent a decade slogging through unsold pilots and TV bit parts before getting his big break on Mad Men playing Don Draper, a mysterious, charismatic figure with a shady past and a gift for understanding other people’s unconscious desires. Hamm recently spoke with The A.V. Club about his own not-so-shady past, the upcoming season of Mad Men (debuting August 16), and his recent forays into comedy on 30 Rock and Saturday Night Live.
The A.V. Club: How much are you allowed to say about this season? Anything at all?
Jon Hamm: You know, I can’t really say anything. I don’t want to get into specifics. That’s sort of just the general mood of Matt Weiner, the guy who writes the show. There’s nothing I can really say, other than that the characters have all progressed a bit in where they are, and time has moved forward a bit, and we will sort of pick up where we left off, except not really. [Laughs.] I’m being as cryptic as I can be.
AVC: So you’re not going to announce right here and now what year the new season is set in?
JH: No, no, though it’s probably out there somewhere in the Intertubes. But yeah, I’d feel better not.
AVC: When Mad Men was picked up by AMC for a third season, Matt Weiner didn’t get his own deal right away. Were you ever concerned about the deal not getting made, and what that would mean for the show?
JH: Not in any real way. I think that everybody had their best negotiating face on, and was doing what people do in Hollywood and elsewhere when they negotiate, which is talk big and belittle the other side, and all that other shit. And, you know, it served its purpose. It was effective in that Matt got what he wanted, and I think that Lionsgate and AMC got what they wanted. I think at the end of the day, Lionsgate and AMC both realized that they didn’t want to do that to this show. To bring somebody else in to run this show, especially so early in its run, would have been not just bad for the show—cataclysmic for the show, really—but it would been bad for their brand.
What AMC has done, not just with our show, but also with Breaking Bad, is establish a place where creative television types get to make cool shit, and make it the way they want to make it. And in a way that doesn’t necessarily conform to the established rules of how television gets made. I think that the proof is most certainly in the pudding with how the community has responded. I mean, we got 16 Emmy nominations last year, 16 this year, and Breaking Bad just got something like six or seven as well. People are responding to the material that we’re putting out there, and I think the main reason is because it is different, and it is challenging, while a lot of the stuff on the other networks is a little more by the numbers. Not all the stuff, but a lot of the stuff.
AVC: Do you watch Breaking Bad?
JH: I love Breaking Bad.
AVC: Do you root for it to succeed, since the better it does, the better AMC does?
JH: It’s definitely part of the home team. And I’m a huge fan of Bryan Cranston’s. I think what he does on that show is magnificent, and I think that what they’ve done overall is pretty impressive. So I’m glad they’re getting recognized just as much as I’m glad we are.
AVC: Mad Men is so specifically Matt Weiner’s vision, based as much on his impressions of growing up in the ’60s as it is on his research. But you were born in 1971. What connections do you have to that era, as you’re walking around those sets and wearing those clothes?
JH: Well, my father was sort of slam-bang in the middle of that. He would have been 27 years old in 1960. And he was a businessman in St. Louis, and kind of a hard-drinking, hard-partyin’, hard-charger. By all accounts, by the time I came around, he had significantly throttled back, but when I go through picture albums, I don’t have to look too far to see people dressed very similarly to the people on our show, and behaving very similarly to the people on our show. It’s very close to home in that sense—for good and for bad, because my dad died when I was 20, so I didn’t really have a chance to have a lot of adult conversations with him. But I’m sure a lot of the stuff Don is going through is a lot of stuff my dad went through.
AVC: How much have you been filled in about your character’s backstory? Most of it is out now as of the end of season two, but prior to that, how much were you aware of who Don Draper was and what he’d been through?
JH: Matt and I had spoken at length about it during the pilot, so I knew most of what was coming down the road. I didn’t know how it would present itself, but the backstory was all there, and I pretty much knew it. And, you know, when you take it out of context—or even when you take it in context—it’s almost Dickensian, and I was telling Matt, “Geez, it seems like Great Expectations, a little bit.” But I think that the almost over-the-top nature of it makes this a richer show. The character’s got a deeper foundation, and there’s a lot of parts of Mad Men that are very soapy in some sense, but the way Matt treats it, which is very literarily, I think undercuts that soapier aspect.
AVC: Do you ever sit around with your castmates and analyze the themes?
JH: Not as a parlor game, but on my own, I’ve certainly sat with the scripts of several episodes and thought, “Man, what’s going on here?” Just as a specific example, I remember reading the span of episodes where Don goes out to California and kind of disappears for a while, and I remember thinking that those three episodes were like a great short story. Just about this guy, and what the fuck’s going on in his life, and what he’s thinking as he leaves his family and his children and his job, desperate to find some sort of meaning. And we learn a lot more about Don in that stretch of episodes. So yeah, I think about it a lot. They’re very dense stories in many ways, and you can bring as much to them as you want.
AVC: Another good example is the second-season episode “Maidenform,” which ends with Don sitting in the bathroom feeling deeply ashamed, and when the camera pulls back, there’s a shot of you in the mirror, which comes at the end of an episode with a lot of mirror imagery and a lot of contemplation of duality. When you’re actually playing that scene, do you have any sense what impact it’s going to have visually?
JH: Sometimes. We’ve been incredibly fortunate in who we’ve gotten to work on our shows, both in terms of the directors and the cinematographers. Phil Abraham was our original director of photography, and really set the tone for the show. He’s also directed a few episodes, and is in fact nominated for his direction on “The Jet Set” from last season. But there are still certain shots that, whether I’m in them or not, I’m just very surprised at how beautifully they come off onscreen. There’s a lot of time and effort and thought put into composing those frames. I was doing the DVD commentary track for “A Night To Remember” recently, and I noticed for the first time how claustrophobic it looks in Peggy’s mother’s apartment. There’s always something kind of barging in on one side of the frame or the other, and I thought that was an excellent way to get across how cramped these people are in these quarters, and how much they’re itching to spread their wings, to get out. That’s a big theme in the show, moving out and getting space, and finding your place. And it all works. It all thematically fits together. It’s nice that kind of care and consideration is put into the frame.
AVC: It’s an odd tone you have to strike on the show too, because you have characters who are behaving quite abominably—especially your character last season—and yet nobody is necessarily unlikeable, and viewers come to enjoy spending time with you. Is there a way to play that, or is it just beyond your control how people perceive it?
JH: At a certain point, it is beyond your control. People are going to like it and respond to it, or they’re not. That’s kind of a trend nowadays, and I think if you look at Denis Leary’s character on Rescue Me, or Michael Chiklis’ Vic Mackey [on The Shield], or Tony Soprano, or… I mean, jeez, you know, it really goes back to Archie Bunker. These are characters we shouldn’t like, and yet we are either fascinated by them, or we somehow understand them on such a deep level that we excuse their behavior. And I think for Don, specifically… he’s not a murderer, but he is an opportunist, and a lot of people can see that as being admirable in some ways. He knows the rules of the game, and he plays it very well.
He’s also often very upfront with what he wants and needs in a certain situation. It goes back to the pilot, when he tells Pete that if he keeps behaving the way he is, he may succeed briefly, but he’ll never truly succeed, because no one will like him, and in this industry, being liked is more important than being effective, in many ways. And that comes back, of course, to bite Pete. He doesn’t learn that lesson, or he learns it too late, when he tries to blackmail Don. So it’s an interesting thing. I don’t necessarily play it any differently. I don’t try to be any more likeable even as I’m doing these reprehensible things. You just hope that the audience has been given enough material and backstory to understand or at least rationalize the character’s behavior, and to see what drives it.
AVC: Changing gears a little bit, in the promotional photo for Mad Men’s third season, you’re sitting in a room full of water.
JH: Yes. [Laughs.]
AVC: And reportedly you were sitting in actual water.
JH: I was actually, yeah. There was a very funny thread on a message board somewhere online that said, “Yeah, well, they obviously Photoshopped it, because who would sit in water all day for a photo shoot?” Well, no… [Laughs.] I sat in a giant tank of water for a solid Saturday, and it was kind of fun, actually. I mean, once you’re wet, you’re wet. You don’t get any more wet. So you’re just kind of like, “All right, here we are.” And it was a bunch of crewmembers and waiters and an incredibly skillfully constructed set, and I think a pretty cool image that they got out of it as well. I’m sure they could have done some kind of photo trickery, but this makes for a better story, and it’s way cooler to go build it and do it for reals. I think online, there’s a time-lapse image of it filling up, too.
AVC: At any point while you were sitting there did you think, “You know, Photoshop exists…”
JH: [Laughs.] The amazing thing was, I didn’t have to pee the whole day. Because that would’ve been, you know…
AVC: Well, wouldn’t you be able to just do it—
JH: No, I had to be a gentleman about it, because I was sharing the water with others. No one would have known, I guess. But no, I was camel-esque in my ability to retain.
AVC: Outside of Mad Men, over the past year, you’ve shown a more comic side of yourself on 30 Rock and Saturday Night Live, and even little online videos like the one where you appear as Lex Luthor. Is this a concentrated attempt to branch out into comedy, or do people just offer you things and you take them?
JH: You know, it’s funny… It’s not really any kind of stated wish of mine to be a comedian. But most of my friends in L.A. are comics, and those are the people I hung out with when I first came out here. And it was a lot of people that were just kind of on the precipice of breaking out when I met them. People like Zach Galifianakis or Patton Oswalt or Sarah Silverman, or Paul F. [Tompkins]. There was this whole crop of comedians that were doing the Largo and Comedy Death Ray circuit out here, and that was, for me, a cheap night. Just to go out and see some funny stuff and hang out and have a good time, and watch people who made me laugh, and that I share a sense of humor with. So now that the world knows who Zach Galifianakis is, and Patton Oswalt, and Sarah, and all those other people, it’s great. It’s great to see their gifts being put in front of a wider audience.
But no… Scott Aukerman or Zach or somebody came up to me and asked if I wanted to do “Between Two Ferns,” and I said, “Absolutely.” And then Eric Appel from Funny Or Die had written a Lex Luthor thing, and he was like, “We’d love for you to do this, would you have a free day somewhere?” And I said, “Yeah, man, sure.” And kind of the same thing happened with both 30 Rock and SNL. I don’t know where Lorne [Michaels] got the idea that I could be funny, because it’s certainly not present in most of my body of work that’s out there for most people to see. Most people that know me, I guess, think I’m a funny enough guy. So it was surprising, I think, to most people, though not so surprising to those who actually know me.
AVC: Do you get requests for Jon Hamm’s John Ham?
JH: [Laughs.] That has made an incredibly outsized mark on my public face in many ways. It’s been a strange reaction. That’s something that sticks in people’s minds, and we have Seth Meyers to thank for it.
AVC: The character you played on 30 Rock—much like the character you play on Mad Men—is meant as a paragon of handsomeness, manliness, and perfection. When people say, “This is who we’d like you to play,” do you feel flattered? Or perhaps inadequate?
JH: Well, on 30 Rock it was played for laughs, and comically exaggerated. I’m certainly not the best-looking person on the planet, and I would never ever say that. And I don’t think anybody really would, with a straight face, especially people who know me. But, you know, it’s funny. At the end of the day, the 30 Rock writers have to get out of that scenario they’ve built for themselves. If Liz Lemon and Dr. Drew fall madly in love, then there’s no more show. So you have to kind of create something that’s going to break this thing up. And my character’s not a bad guy; he’s not anything but a good guy. So the funniest way to get out of that was the way they did, which was to make this person almost functionally retarded, and yet completely lauded and celebrated, with all of his shortcomings overlooked because he’s handsome. I think that says a lot about our culture, where we’re willing to excuse people if they are celebrities, or they’re pretty, or whatever. This sort of shallow way that sometimes our culture tends to look past things. But it was tremendous fun to do; it’s always fun to act like a complete idiot. [Laughs.] And when you’re able to do it with someone as talented as Tina, and on a show that’s so well-written and thought out, it was a joy, and it was really fun.
AVC: So you don’t feel like you’re in a bubble in real life.
JH: I certainly don’t.
AVC: The perception is that it took you a long time to “make it,” that until Mad Men came along, you weren’t well known. At the time, did you feel like you were struggling, or did it just seem like one step after another?
JH: I don’t necessarily feel like it took a long time, but I don’t have any other paradigm to judge it against. I think you could kind of make a parallel argument with Tina Fey and the year she had last year. This sort of coming-out that she had, with 30 Rock and Sarah Palin and all that other stuff. But she’s been funny and beautiful for a very long time; it’s just now there are more people paying attention. So I think it’s one of those things. I’ve been kind of doing this for a long time; it’s just now I get the opportunity to do it at a different level, and more people get to see it. I don’t think I’m any better or any worse than I was six or seven years ago; it’s just that I’ve been given a tremendous break to showcase what I can do, and fortunately it’s resonated in the culture and in the industry, and I was able to take advantage of it. It’s just luck, dumb luck.
AVC: You were a high-school athlete who migrated into drama, correct?
JH: Yeah, I went to a high school where you were encouraged to do a lot of different things, so there wasn’t this great divide between the jocks and the theater guys, or the smart kids and the stoners, or whatever. It was like everybody was a little bit of everything, and that was encouraged. I was a pretty serious athlete for a long time, and thought maybe that’s what I wanted to do with my life, but I was also a diligent student, and really wanted to achieve in that area, too. And theater was kind of a challenge, like, “Oh, maybe I could do that, that looks like fun.” So I started doing it a little bit in 11th and 12th grade, and got pretty good feedback, and kept getting cast to do bigger and bigger parts. And I started to think, “Oh, maybe this is something I could do.”
But I went to college and kind of forgot about it until I was a junior, and I randomly answered an ad in the paper for some production of Midsummer Night’s Dream that was coming through. They were casting students as the young lovers, and having an open audition. I remember looking at my roommate and going, “You know what, fuck it, I’m gonna audition for this thing. What’s the worst that could happen?” And I did, and I got it. And then the theater department was like, “You should be in the theater department, why are you not? You’re good at this.” Enough people kept saying, “You know what? You’re kind of good at this. Why aren’t you doing it for real?” that finally I started listening, and over the next couple of years at school, I ended up getting a theater scholarship, and doing close to 15 plays over two years, and really focusing on it.
But at every level, you’re constantly reminded that there are other people that do it better than you and have been doing it longer than you. It was a real wakeup call coming to L.A., where it’s, “Well, you’re not the go-to guy that you were in the University Of Missouri theater department. Now there’s 100,000 people ahead of you in line.” But for whatever reason, it didn’t faze me. I just kept plugging away, and putting one foot in front of the other, and showing up.
AVC: Didn’t you also teach acting for a little while?
JH: I did. I went back to my old high school after I graduated college. I didn’t have any money. Literally, no money. So I had to find a job, and I started waiting tables a little bit, and I had the idea that I would go back and talk to my old high-school acting teacher. I said, “Hey, man, what do you think of this idea? Would it be helpful if I came back, and taught all the classes you don’t want to teach, or that you’re too busy to teach? And helped you out? I’m cheap.” And he said, “That’s a great idea. I’d love the help.” And so we together pitched it to the headmaster, and he was like, “Sounds great. It’s too late to start this year, why don’t you start next year?” So I took a year, I waited tables, and then I taught school for a year, and after that I was 25, I think, and I was ready to try to go. I had a little bit of money saved, and my car sort of ran, so I was like, “You know what, I’m gonna try it before I get any older and I lose any momentum I have.” And west I came.
AVC: Could you see yourself going back to teaching some day? End your career by teaching the next generation?
JH: I went back recently to St. Louis to talk to some of the students and try to raise some money for the school, and yeah… I totally could. It was really invigorating all over again. I’ve been in a couple of educational environments. When I was in college, I was a daycare teacher from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.—after-school day-care stuff with little kids, first through third grade or something like that. And it was continually surprising to me how invigorating that was. You know, kids are a lot of work, but they’re also funny and weird and challenging and interesting, so I’d constantly come out of work and go to rehearsal really energized. And that’s an exciting feeling, you know? Every year, there’s another class you get to teach, and hopefully open their eyes to something they haven’t seen before, and that’s exciting.
AVC: If you had one lesson that you would pass on to a young theater student, what would it be?
JH: My teacher had one of those little signs on his desk, and I could be horribly misquoting it, but I think it was a line from Samuel Beckett that read, “If at first you don’t succeed, fail. Fail again. Fail better.” And I guess I would say, “Don’t be afraid to fail.” It’s not the end of the world, and in many ways, it’s the first step toward learning something and getting better at it. If you live your entire life never having failed at anything, it’s got to be a weirdly false existence in so many ways. So I think that—depending upon the age, obviously—that would be my bit of advice. Just don’t be afraid to fail.