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Funny what a difference a suit, a cigarette, and a glass of scotch can do for an actor’s career. Prior to Mad Men, Jon Hamm was best known for playing secondary roles on less-than-high-profile series like The Division and What About Brian. Now, as the AMC ad-agency drama prepares to kick off its long-delayed fifth season, he’s one of the most famous faces on the small screen, and he continues to slowly but surely stake his claim in film as well. Hamm recently spoke with The A.V. Club in conjunction with Mad Men’s return, discussing the evolution of Don Draper, the experience of directing an episode of the series, and his work with David Cross, David Mamet, and David Wain.
The A.V. Club: Since you can’t say much about the upcoming season of Mad Men, perhaps you can offer a bit of insight into your work as Buzz on The Hughleys.
Jon Hamm: [Laughs, then groans.] Wow. Did you, uh, actually see that episode?
AVC: Sadly, no.
JH: Okay, because I don’t think I have, either. [Laughs.] Yeah, that was a very, very brief moment in time. Although I certainly appreciated the paycheck at the time.
AVC: Of the few tidbits of info Matthew Weiner has released about the new season, presumably the one you’re being asked about most is that you directed the first episode shot post-hiatus, “Tea Leaves,” which is… the third episode of the season?
JH: Yeah. Well, it’ll essentially be the second one. The first episode is a double-wide, a two-hour episode. So it’ll be the next one that airs after that. But it was the first one we shot, and it was awesome. I mean, it was really an eye-opening experience and a total learning experience, an opportunity to get a perspective on the show. I thought I had a pretty good grasp of the show, but I got a completely different viewpoint on it. And it was great.
AVC: Had you wanted to try your hand at directing for a while, or was it just a case of trying to keep up with John Slattery?
JH: A little of both. [Laughs.] No, it was definitely something I had thought about, and in fact, they approached me after season three and said, “Would you want to do this?” And I didn’t at the time. I was kind of like “No… ” I wasn’t ready, for whatever reason. But part of it was seeing Slattery do it and seeing how well he did it, and also sort of seeing Ben Affleck do it [on The Town] and my girlfriend [Jennifer Westfeldt] do it on Friends With Kids. So it was like, “Okay, well, this can be done. It’s not impossible. I just need to kind of regulate my energy and everything else.” But what I ended up finding out was… It’s just so invigorating to be on the set and see it in this different way that it was actually super-fun and relatively easy to manage.
AVC: Bryan Cranston has only taken the director’s chair for season-première episodes of Breaking Bad, and your episode was effectively following the same scheduling methodology, since it was the first one you guys did when you came back.
JH: Yeah, for people like me and Bryan, who are in so many setups on the show, it’s really the only one you can do, because otherwise you’d have to take an episode off, or have a hiatus week or something, to prep and visit locations and walk sets and all that stuff. So that’s the only time you really get to do it, and I was thrilled to get the opportunity. Watching Bryan be able to handle it was another one that was inspiring to me, so I was like, “Okay, this is definitely possible. And I want to try it.” And, like I said, there wasn’t a lot of pressure, since they’d actually come to me and said, “We think you’d like doing this, and we’d like to give you the opportunity.” I basically sat with it and thought, “When am I going to get an opportunity like this again, on a show I really enjoy, that I’m a big part of, and where I have a family of people who I trust and who’ll definitely have my back? When am I going to have another opportunity like this?” And I was, like, “Well, probably never. So I might as well take it when it presents itself.”
JH: Yeah, there is that. And, y’know, part of the cool thing for me was to really be able to watch these guys kind of objectively on the day. And I’d never had an opportunity to do that. I’d either be in the scene with them, or not working and not there. So it was always fun for me to see this show and see everyone else’s work and how great they all are, but it was really fun to see it on the day—like, while we’re doing it—and be able to kind of go, “Okay, that was great. Let’s try it a different way, and… let’s do it again!” Everybody on our show is really remarkably talented, and it was… well, I keep saying this, but it was really just a great experience.
AVC: How have you enjoyed the evolution of Don Draper as a character over the course of the series to date? Has there been any turn that’s really shocked or surprised you?
JH: It’s been great for me. I mean, it’s been a dream job. I’ve been able to kind of ride this part into a career, basically. I’ve been able to do so much, and I’ve been trusted to do so much with this character. In many ways, season four was the culmination of three seasons of bad decisions by this guy. [Laughs.] And the good thing that Matt does is, he doesn’t shy away from the darkness. In fact, he really lets you stew in it. That was certainly the case in season four with Don. He was in an incredibly bad place, and we really got to explore that. And it all kind of bottomed out in an episode called “The Suitcase,” with me and Lizzy Moss, and that was a really great experience. It was a wonderfully written show, and a great showcase to do some good work, I thought. And it was… I dunno, it was just a really great experience for me as an actor. As has everything been. I mean, I can go back to the pilot and think back to being in the dressing room, looking at myself and going, “Okay, man, you got the job, now you gotta do it,” and scaring the shit out of myself, basically. [Laughs.] But also thinking, like, “Okay, this is the challenge. Let’s go. This is what you wanted. Let’s make this thing happen.” And at every point between then and now, it’s been some sort of challenge to do the same thing.
AVC: When we last left Don, he was engaged, but Jessica Paré, who plays his new fiancée, Megan, is pointedly not in any of the photos that AMC has released. Did you get any idea from Matthew Weiner at the end of season four about what Don’s trajectory might be?
JH: Um… no. Because I don’t think he had a particular idea at the end of season four. I mean, he goes away, and he writes and thinks about it, and he has his process. Also, I’m not the guy who needs to know everything. I’m fully okay with being on a need-to-know basis, y’know what I mean? [Laughs.] And I don’t mind it. I think it’s… You know, you and I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow or two months down the line, so I feel like my character probably shouldn’t, either. I’m always devastatingly terrified of playing the ending. So it’s something I try to shy away from.
AVC: That being the case, did you consider at all whether Megan was a case of true love or just the thrill of new infatuation?
JH: Oh, I’ve certainly considered that. [Laughs.] In fact, I think that’s probably what I’m considering when I’m looking out the window at the end of season four. But, y’know, it’s a decision Don makes, I think, with the purest of intentions, and I think that in the moment, he’s completely over the moon. And I think that it’s… [Hesitates.] We’ll see if it’s reliving past mistakes.
AVC: There was a lot of talk at the end of last year about how Matthew Weiner had decided that Mad Men would end in the present day, with an eightysomething Don Draper. Was that news to you?
JH: Uh, well, I think that’s a misread of his quote, actually. I think what he basically said was that if he were to do it, Don would be something like 84, and I think that’s not what he wants to do. So I think a couple of people have misread that or misinterpreted that, but… y’know, I’m just glad I don’t have to write it. [Laughs.]
AVC: How much insight into Don have you gotten from actual ad men of the ’60s? For instance, Stan Freberg turned up after a Mad Men panel at the Television Critics Association press tour a few years ago.
JH: Yeah, we’ve had quite a few of those old guys come around, and… I don’t get to talk to them personally very much. But I do run into people who say, “Oh my God, I was a secretary in 1968 for Young & Rubicam, it’s so crazy,” and this, that, and the other. Or, “I worked for J. Walter Thompson in 1975, and it was still going on.” And a couple of good friends of mine are modern-day ad guys who worked in Chicago with Leo Burnett, and it’s like, “Wow… ” [Laughs.] There’s a lot that rings true. You know, obviously, we’re making a television show, it’s fictionalized, these are fictional characters, none of these people are based on real people, but… It’s a fascinating business. These people whose job it is to market happiness and sell the American dream. It’s an interesting take.
AVC: Setting aside The Hughleys, and looking back at the rest of your pre-Mad Men work, is there anything you’d actively recommend people seek out?
JH: Well, you know… [Laughs.] Sure. I guess. I’m a big fan of Jen’s first two films, Kissing Jessica Stein and Ira & Abby, which I think are great. I mean, I’m barely in them, but they’re something that I did do and had a part in. And, you know, I was on a TV show called The Division which, that’s right, was on Lifetime. [Laughs.] But, y’know, it was a fun show to be on. I got to work with a really talented actress named Tracey Needham. And also, by the way, Academy Award-nominated Taraji Henson was on that show, as well as Bonnie Bedelia. So… it was fun. It was a procedural. There’s a time and a place for it, and I’m very proud of the work I did on it. I’m not embarrassed by it in any way, shape, or form. Is it essential viewing? Maybe not. But there are some other shows I can recommend watching other than that that I’m not in… [Laughs.]
AVC: How was the experience of working on The Unit?
JH: It was great. I actually shot that between the pilot and the second episode of Mad Men, because we didn’t know it was going to be picked up, and I needed work. I got to audition, actually, for David Mamet, and he directed the first episode I was in. I was in about six of them. And it was just really fun and cool. Once I got to audition for it, I said, “I’d better watch this show and see what the tone is and what the jam is.” And it was a really cool show. It took that kind of 24 genre and made it a little more. The writing was a little more interesting, and the characters were really cool. I really enjoyed my time on it, and I got to work with some really great people. In fact, Zosia Mamet, who is David’s daughter, is on Mad Men, which was sort of cool, too.
AVC: Your choice of comedic roles seems to reveal some seriously skewed comedic sensibilities, given that you’ve appeared on Childrens Hospital, The Increasingly Poor Decisions Of Todd Margaret, and 30 Rock. Are these things you sought out because you were a fan of the people involved, or did they come looking for you because they knew your sense of humor?
JH: Well, yeah, honestly, I don’t necessarily seek them out, but I have friends that are on them, so sometimes I’ll get an email, “Hey, do you want to do this? It might be fun.” And I’ll say, “Yes!” [Laughs.] I love Childrens Hospital. I think it’s absolutely hysterical. All of those guys who go into making that are great. Kenny Marino and David Wain, those guys are crazy goofball rogue idiots that are making really, really funny material and taking risks. And if you can’t take a risk at midnight on a 15-minute comedy show, then what’s the point? And I felt the same way about Todd Margaret. I love David [Cross’] comedy, I’m a huge fan of Mr. Show, and when he asked me to be a part of that, I was, like, “Really… ? Yes!” And he’s, like, “Uh, it’s gonna be really dumb, but… do you wanna do it?” I’m, like, “Yeah. I’ll do it. I really want to.” And it was just an awesome opportunity. Same thing with 30 Rock. I mean, on paper, I’m playing a guy that’s so stupid, he gets out of a helicopter and waves and loses his hand. It’s a curious choice. [Laughs.] But I love that show. I’d do anything for them.
AVC: When you popped up recently on Saturday Night Live, ostensibly to step in if Lindsay Lohan was unable to fulfill her duties as host… You realize at that moment, probably half the show’s viewership thought, “God help me, but I kinda hope she falls off the wagon”?
JH: Well, I hope not. [Laughs.] I mean, you know, obviously, she’s going through what she’s gone through, and it’s been in the public eye, and that’s tricky. And I think everybody was kind of rooting for her, myself included. I thought she did a great job under some pretty harsh scrutiny, and I was happy to kind of be there as support. I love being on that stage, man. It’s a rush like no other, and it’s so much fun, and such a unique experience. But I hope people weren’t rooting for her to fail. She had a rough go of it, but it was good to see her back in the pink and doing it. She’s a talented kid, and I wish her nothing but the best.
AVC: So will we be seeing you hosting again for real before the season’s out?
JH: If they ask, sure. [Laughs.] But it’s not up to me, unfortunately, and there are only so many shows in the year. But I was happy to have at least been part of that one.