Friday, August 14, 2009

'Mad Men' star Jon Hamm is not Don Draper, but he plays him on TV - Sepinwall on TV

Over at NJ.com, I have a long profile of Jon Hamm (which also features comments from several of Hamm's "Mad Men" co-workers):
When "Mad Men" star Jon Hamm appears in public, he tends to look like... well, like Jon Hamm: floppy hair, contemporary clothes, affable demeanor. So it was startling when he turned up at the Television Critics Association Awards ceremony two weeks ago looking not like himself, but like his "Mad Men" alter ego Don Draper, complete with slicked-down hair and a killer suit. All that was missing from Hamm's transformation into the iconic '60s ad executive was a cigarette and a tumbler of bourbon.

"I don't bust it out very often," says a sheepish Hamm. In a phone interview a few days before the Emmy-winning drama returns for its third season tonight at 10 on AMC, he explains he just hates dealing with his hair, and he knows the Brylcreem look is one of the easiest (and sharpest) ways to keep it under control.

"Unfortunately," he says, "now it comes with a connotation of me not leaving the character at home."

Even when Hamm's hair is shellacked, he has no problem separating himself from the part. Out of character, he is friendly where Don is cruel, modest where Don is egotistical, candid where Don is secretive.
Again, to read the full thing, click here. And after the jump, you can read the unfiltered transcript of the interview I did with Hamm earlier this week. Hopefully, you'll finish it in time for Sunday's "Mad Men" premiere (remember, I reviewed it here), at which time you'll have an absurdly long episode review and a potentially longer Matt Weiner interview transcript to wade through. (Who said the internet was killing literacy?)

It was so strange to see you at the TCA Awards, out in public giving us the full Draper. Everyone was kind of awestruck by that.

I don't bust it out very often. It's just, I hate dealing with my hair. It's a pain in the ass. That is one way that I always know it kind of looks good that way. It's like four seconds out of the shower. I would much rather it just be done with than to actually worry about it. That way is a good solution to that, but unfortunately now it comes with a connotation of me not leaving the character at home.

Have you done that less since you've been playing this guy?

Totally, yeah. I have a lot of baseball hats. I'll put it that way.

Well, do you feel differently about yourself when you're out like that?

I don't feel differently about myself. I'm playing a part, and when I'm being myself, I don't behave the way Don does. It is a means to an end for me. It is all about convenience. The more you have to go to events, get dressed up for, have your picture taken a million times -- and all it only takes a few pictures of you with some floopy idiot haircut, and you go, 'Oh, man, is that the one they're gonna print? Yeah, that's the one they're gonna print.' So you try to limit your exposure.

Do you find people coming up to you when you're out like that going, 'Oh, it's Don Draper!'

Like I said, I don't do that that often. The only other time I went out like that (since I got the part) was at the Emmys, and again, I did that because I knew it was going to look okay. So I said, "There's going to be millions of people watching, so just lock 'er down."

I'm interested in your take on Don. I know it's not an actor's place to judge his character, but Don's a very complicated guy.

Yeah. He is a very complicated guy. I read a lot of the stuff that's written about the show. I'm fascinated by the show, I love reading your blog. I find it incredibly insightful and very well-written. And I love reading the comments. I love that people are excited enough about the show to put effort into dissecting it and talking about it. It's what TV should do: generate a discussion.

My take on Don being a complicated guy is that his whole life is essentially based on a foundation of untruth. This is a guy who is outwardly supposed to be the most confident, handsome, greatest guy on the planet, and yet inwardly, he knows he's a fraud. That is the number one thing that informs our guy. He's waiting for the other shoe to drop - always. That kind of stress, or that kind of anxiety, you can't keep at bay forever. In many ways, I think we saw that facade start to crack last season. It is very much a facade. This is why his main relationship is broken. He is not emotionally honest with himself or with his wife. And what a terrible place to be in.

And in defense of the guy, this is a guy who has had a pretty awful upbringing. He was a Depression-era kid, shunned by his family and shunned by the town. He's a perfectly smart, witty person, but from difficult circumstances, and very much a self-made man. He is doing the best with the tools that he's been given, and the tools are not very good ones, especially when it comes to relationships and love and trust and vulnerability. A lot of people kind of gloss over that and think, 'Oh, he's this guy. He's Don Draper. He is this guy.' Well, he really isn't. That's the biggest twist of the entire show and what makes it so moving in many ways.

One of the things that was really striking was late in the first season, the first time we got to see you as Dick Whitman, and it was like an entirely different person.

I made a lot of specific choices with that. But making movies is corraling an army, so we had hair people, we had makeup people, we had lighting on it. It takes a lot to make me look young, we'll put it that way. But there are physical choices I make. Dick Whitman in this situation is very much a coward, and Don Draper is very much a confident master of the universe, and there's a lot that can be reprsented in the way you carry yourself, the way you look around, the way you speak to your superiors. I'm glad that that landed. Even when we see Don with Anna last season, he's wearing clothes that are too big, he looks like this rumpled California louche. He's just this guy hanging out. And that is not our guy. We have not really seen that guy. It is a conscious decision. I try to differentiate between the two, but they are two sides of the same coin.

Then I'm curious: you obviously didn't get to play Dick Whitman until late in the season, so when you built the character of Don at the start, how did you do it? Do you start out with the coward and put the armor on on top of that? How do you do that as an actor?

I'm not a good enough actor to play two people at once. I started with Don, and he's a guy who is this person. He is this master of the universe. And the way I thought of it was, this other side starts to slip through, the self-doubt or the fraud nature of the whole thing starts to slip through. And as we see the cracks start appearing -- and it's a credit to Matthew's writing and the structure of the first season -- we start to see this thing crumble and crumble, and we see the flashbacks and we see him spill his guts to Rachel, and we see all of this. And then of course we see basically the origin story of this guy and how he switches identities with this man, and and you think, 'Oh, oh, well, now that makes sense. I get it. When this guy's in trouble, he runs.'

Well, one of the things that was cool, not only in the California episode, but the finale last year, where we got to see kind of a merger of the two. Was that a conscious thing you were doing?

When Don's in trouble, Dick runs. But last year, he took a little more of a stand. First of all, he was honest with his wife, probably for the first time ever, in only the way that he could be cryptically and not really -- elliptically saying, "I was disrespectful to you.." And he wrote a long letter saying what I think he thinks he's true: "You're educated, beautiful and you know who you are. You'll find somebody in a heartbeat if you leave me. I will be alone forever, because no one knows me like you do." Which, again, is oddly cryptic and not entire true, but at least as emotionally available as Don is ever going to be. That is those two sides coming together in many ways. I think it's that, the fact that he is open and reveals that to Betty, and goes through the hard part where he's kicked out of the house, and she's not happy, and it's not all sunshine. He goes through the tough stuff, and that gives him this kind of backbone, so when Duck plays his cards, for Don to say, 'F--k you. I don't have a contract. I can walk out of this room tomorrow.'

I want to get back to what you said before about how Don isn't honest with himself and with others. There are a few moments in season two that I want to look back on and get your take on what's going through Don's head as this happens. One is in "A Night to Remember," Betty's in the robe, you're on the couch, she comes down and confronts him and says, "Have you ever really loved me?" And Don looks wounded and confused and says that he's always loved her. Is he lying to her, to himself, or to both?

It's interesting. I was saying how making the show is like commanding an army. Everyone chipped in on that scene, between the makeup, the costumes, and set design and everything. It was a really conscious decision to have us all in white, and Betty's in this robe, she has no makeup on, wet from the shower. And Don is in a white t-shirt. The idea was, is this really happening; is it a dream or it's really happening? Don is, essentially, lying, but he's lying very well. I think he's trying to manage the situation as best he can. Part of that is by telling Betty that he loves her. In that moment, I'm sure he does. It's a little bit like little kids when they get caught. They say, "I didn't mean to." Yeah, you did. But you got caught. Seeing Betty that wounded and that vulnerable and beautiful and angelic and clean and honest, I think, spurs something in Don to step and and say, "Look, of course I love you. You know I love you." Again, it's tainted by the fact that she doesn't know the truth about him. So the vulnerability that she is expressing is not matched by him, and that's really the heartbreaking part of their whole relationship, and specifically in that scene.

The next one is near the end of "The New Girl." Don is back at work, arm in the sling, and he's giving Peggy a hard time for being late with her work, even though she's been covering for him with Bobbi. And she confronts him about the money he owes her, and he acts like he'd completely forgotten the whole thing.

(Chuckles) Yes, he does. "Sometimes, when you forget one thing, you have to forget everything," I think is the line. I love doing scenes with Elisabeth. I love the relationship that Don and Peggy have. One of those scenes where you see Don and Dick coming together in the scene (in that episode) when Peggy's in the hospital and he shows up and says, "Here's the deal. This is what you need to do." Don cares deeply for Peggy, and again, in his own sort of twisted way, he is trying to do essentially what Bobbie did in that episode, which is teach her how to become; in Bobbi's case teach her how to become a woman, in Don's case, teach her how to become a professional. Part of being a professional is asking for what you deserve. He makes her ask for a raise, he makes her ask for the stuff. He implies that if you're going to sit around and wait for it, you're not going to get it. That was a big part of it: "You're going to have to ask me for it. I'm not going to bring it up again. Are you kidding me? This never happened."

Now, speaking of Bobbi, probably the most controversial scene from last year is in "The Benefactor," when Don grabs her by the reins and says, "Do what I say."

(Chuckles again) I think there was a lot of misunderstanding in that scene. There was never anything explicit. Maybe she spilled something in her lap and he was trying to get it off? He was being helpful. Who knows?

No, it was obviously very explicit and very specific way to get somebody's attention. That's again part of that. Don has a kind of a brutal side to him in that way. He's very fearful of losing control of situations, and that was his way of regaining the upper hand - no pun intended.

What was it like filming that scene?

Melinda was lovely. She's a lovely woman and a fantastic actress. It was like filming any other scene. It was good, it was well-written, she was committed to it. It was obviously respectful and professional, but she was game and it was a good, kind of sinister moment that played very well.

Matt Weiner has said that the one of the few conflicts that the two of you have is that you want Don to be a little nicer than he wants him to be.

Yeah, I mean, I'm from the Midwest. It's hard for me to be pushy and overbearing all the time. I tend to be a little more deferential in my day to day. But it's a little bit like Matt has to look at all the pieces of the orchestra at once and make sure they're playing together, and I'm just looking at one piece. And I'm glad that I'm only looking at one piece, because I don't get much sleep anyway. He has a very specific idea of the tone of the show, and he wants it to be how he wants it to be. And I have, I think wisely, trusted him on that in most aspects.

Well, have there been times where it's taken you a while to come to accept that this is what you'll be doing in a scene?

Yeah, there have been situations where I've just shaken my head and gone, "Alright, here we go." Because I do trust him and his storytelling. And I think that trust is well-founded.

Rich Sommer told me, "Jon has a very similar process to me, which is: you read the script, and you say the lines."

I don't do much more than that, in the sense that I certainly don't try to overanalyze it. I have enough work to do, day to day, and enough lines to get to. I certainly think about it obviously, and I prepare and I do all that stuff. But the rest of it is -- I don't know if it's unconscious or if it's something where, once I'm there on the set, in my costume in the makeup and hair and everyone else is rolling, it just clicks in. They're fun scripts to read, they really are, and they're really fun to get to act out. That makes it easier.

Well, there's no tortured, "I'm going to think about..."

I don't do that. I guess there are people who do do that and I've known people like that. And listen, everybody's different. But especially given the pace of television production and the fact that there are 150 people waiting around, it doesn't lend itself to that. Maybe you need to get to that place to do that stuff for films or for theater, okay, but we just move too fast.

Matt likes to tell that story about the first scene you filmed, where Roger comes in to ask if Sterling Cooper has any Jews, and you have to change your shirt, light a cigarette and take some Alka-Seltzer. And he just raves and raves about how he threw these bits of business at you and you handled them.

That's a tricky thing, because now all he does is try to get me, so he'll write even harder s--t for me to do. That was the first day of shooting, and that was my trial by fire, basically. That was the point at which I said, "Well, we're doing this. Let's do it. Let's make it happen." I'm acting opposite John Slattery, who's one of the biggest joke tellers and pranksters and s--t-disturbers on the planet. And so he's watching me wrestle this tie and wrestle my shirt on, and open the drawer, and drop the Alka-Seltzer and drink the Alka-Seltzer, and all the while doing these lines at rapid fire pace and just trying to be good and understandable. Two or three takes in, you go, "Am I even saying these things the right way, I'm so worried about where the button is." You kind of go outside yourself and go, "What are we doing here?" But that was a good thing to have for the first day, to say, "Let's see if we're really doing this." I was actually kind of impressed, and I think Slattery was, too, I think he begrudgingly gave me a few nods that day, and I thought, "Maybe I'm winning this guy over, too."

Some actors are famous for what they can do with props and bits of business like that. Is that something that helped you find the character?

It all goes back to finding this guy being very comfortable in his element. He knows he has a shirt in a drawer, knows how to tie a tie, knows where the Alka-Seltzer is. There's not a lot of confusion. This is a guy who goes, "It's 9 o'clock, I need to put a new shirt on, and I'll be out by 9:05. It won't be a big deal." I think that that's a big part of the character.

"Mad Men" gets probably a disproportionate amount of hype given the size of its audience.

I would agree with that statement.

How has being on this show - other than the fact that it's a great part for you and you're being nominated for awards - how has it changed your career so far?

It's given me an opportunity to obviously showcase what I can do. That's a thing that sort of increases exponentially as you work. The longer you work, the more you work, the more people see you, the more work you get. It becomes this cyclical thing. And when the project is of the caliber of Mad Men, you're sort of put on different lists sometimes, and people pay attention to you more. I'm not acting any differently than I was 11 years ago, I'm not a different person. I just have been given a tremendously lucky break, and I was fortunate enough to be able to take advantage of it. And that's really what the show has done, and it's not just me. I think it's been that way for everyone on the show. And yeah, it's been nice.

You just signed on to do the Ben Affleck movie ("The Town," about an FBI agent chasing a bank robber in Boston). I read that book (Chuck Hogan's "Prince of Thieves") a couple of years ago, and that seems like a good part for you.

I think it's going to be really good. The script is in really good shape and I think the characters are both really nicely-drawn, and I think Ben is a really talented director. I absolutely loved "Gone, Baby Gone," and we're back in Boston and we're doing some more crime drama, and I think it could be a really cool movie.

Well, I don't know exactly how many doors have opened for you, especially since you have to spend several months out of the year playing Draper, but ideally, what do you want out of your career at this point?

That's a good question, and I wish I had an answer for it. I don't necessarily think like that, think that far in advance. I mostly try to see what's coming up next and what's available. I don't have a five-year plan; I don't have a five-month plan. I just go kind of from day to day and try to be happy and fulfilled and challenged by what's in front of me. My girlfriend's in New York right now, she's working on this incredible play and has had an amazing time working with that and struggling with the character and it's a world premiere, it's been a super challenge and it's a really dark piece that she hasn't really done a lot of before. The idea that opportunities keep coming up is exciting, and it's exciting for both of us. That's all I'm doing, just taking it as it comes.

Before they cast Ryan Reynolds to play Green Lantern, I was saying to everybody that I thought you'd be perfect casting at that, but is that the kind of thing you would even be interested in doing?

It's interesting. I was in talks with a lot of those people. Now they've tapped Mr. Reynolds to do that. And I think that's a really good choice. My thing with the sort of superhero genre is, it's a tricky balance to create. I think "Dark Knight" did it best, "Watchmen" did it fairly well. But whenever you're a sueperhero, you're literally a super man. You don't have any vulnerability, and that becomes very difficult to relate to, or almost becomes comically earnest. And I think there needs to be a second level, whether there's a darkness like "Dark Knight" or a sense of humor even. That can propel those things. If it's just guys in tights and capes running around shouting character names to each other and throwing fireballs, it almost becomes unintentionally funny. I would never say never to something like that, but there has to be a different level. And fortunately, there are so many amazing graphic artists out there right now that are writing these stories that have deep layers. Frank Miller obviously is one of them, and Alan Moore, and guys like that, but there's a whole new generation who are writing these new ones that are really deep and dark and cool and funny and superheroes.

There are probably some people out there who would look at Draper as a superhero to them.

Sure, there's a lot of that. He's kind of Mr. Perfect in a lot of ways, seemingly so.

Even though "Mad Men" is a very dark and serious show in a lot of ways, Matt says that he doesn't think Don could played by an actor who doesn't have a sense of humor.

I think that there's some truth to that. If he's just this dour bummer, there's no way he would succeed at his job. He has to be witty. He has to be funny. Part of being in advertising is being charming, is being witty and clever. He is a creative person at the end of the day. He creates copy and he creates campaigns, and he comes up with images, all of that stuff. A big part of that is having a snese of humor. I'm certainly not the funniest guy on the planet. I think there are way funnier people than me. But I do appreciate a sense of humor. We have a pretty loose set, a pretty fun set, between Rich Sommer and Slattery and Lizzie, there's some funny people on our set. It's nice. It breaks up the day. When you're shooting stuff about mixed identities and dead brothers, and all the tough stuff we deal with, it's nice to be able to kick back and laugh. We actually have quite a bit of that this season, so I hope people will enjoy it.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at asepinwall@starledger.com

24 comments:

padawansguide said...

Great interview - I really enjoyed it! I thought you both had some insightful things to say about the show, and I'm really looking forward to Sunday!

Anonymous said...

Did John Ham get a lucky break to get the role? Sure. Did Matthew Wiener get a lucky break to find such a match? Absolutely. Did TV addicts catch a break that AMC actually decided to pickup original shows? Frak yes.

Jon Hamm's too modest. He needs to get a coke addiction or something.

Hatfield said...

I have to say, my man crush on Jon Hamm grows all the time. As you said in your Twitter feed, it's nice when celebrities speak well, and on top of that he comes off as a genuinely nice, humble guy. He's always playing himself down, giving credit to the talent around him, raving about his girlfriend--what's not to like? He was on Simmons' podcast again last week or the week before, and it was another good one.

Also interesting to think that he reads this blog. That would be fun if he popped up in the comments the way David Simon used to, or Michael Kostroff, or that writer from Band of Brothers.

Sunday night can't get here fast enough!

LA said...

Jon Hamm reads and loves our comments?

*** DIES ***

Looking forward to a fantastic season 3. Thanks for the terrific interview, Alan.

mag jay said...

Yes, the interview was good...deep and made people understand things more...

Otto Man said...

The man has serious comic chops, too. His hosting SNL was one of the few good ones. Loved the George Mason impersonation.

Nicole said...

I have to admit that I did squee a bit when reading that Jon Hamm reads our comments.

As for Don Draper and the "incident" with Bobbi, I think that my strong reaction to it was because up until that point, while I knew Don did bad things, I felt he was justified or somewhat understood his motivations. The "incident" was more of him just using power and being a jerk. It removed a lot of the "coolness" that Draper had, which I can respect as a dramatic device because he needed to be removed from the pedestal that the viewers had put him on, a la Tony Soprano.
While shocking, I felt that it had a purpose, as opposed to the "rape" between Tommy and Janet in Rescue Me, which seemed more to be about being shocking for its own sake, especially as we already knew that they had a screwed up relationship before that happened.

Anyway, can't wait for the new season. I have avoided reading much of anything about it in order to avoid spoilers.

Anonymous said...

Alan, or commenters, I need help. I am stranded without cable for the foreseeable future, which means I cannot tune in AMC for the new season of Mad Men. I know this isn't your area, exactly, but I just hope you know.

Will there be options for watching season 3's new episodes online or elsewhere?

(If you've already addressed this elsewhere that I've missed, I apologize for the repetition.)

Thank you!

Michael

carlspacklercbs said...

compelling and rich.

Nicole said...

I think that iTunes may be releasing the episodes the Monday after airing.

Between the Panels said...

I loved how educated Mr. Hamm was about the Green Lantern question. He knew exactly who Alan Moore was, and was quite educated in the comic book world. Also, like you said on your Twitter feed Alan, he seems very educated all around, which is always a great thing to see.

That being said, I love the fact that Jon reads the blog and the comments, (so thank you Jon!) What I always enjoy is how modest and humble he is. I would die to sit down and just have a great conversation with the guy.

Can't wait for Sunday night. Also, Jon, if you read this, we'd love to have you on Twitter!

Anonymous said...

Jon Hamm is simply awesome. I can't recall any other modern actor speaking so intelligently about a role. His insights were really illuminating. Not to mention how humble he appears to be.

I know it's easy to say, but I think he's going to have a huge career in film after the show ends (which hopefully won't be for a long time!). I think I have a man crush as well. I feel like George Costanza in that episode with Dan Cortes-"He's just such a cool guy."

belinda said...

Thanks for the interview! Great questions, and great answers. Can't wait for sunday, obviously, as well as reading the Weiner interview.


Tidbit: I was watching Gilmore Girls earlier, and I had no idea Jon Hamm was in it as a love interest for Lorelai.

JanieJones said...

Alan, a wonderful and insightful interview! I enjoyed Hamm's comments. They were thoughtful, provoking, honest and witty.
He seems to know his character well.

Only one more day!

George said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
George said...

Perhaps it's interesting that Jon Hamm is the kind of guy who gets excited over good theater (as with his girlfriend's part) or good writing (with the work of Alan Moore and Frank Miller). But the interview reveals, I think, his ability to understand how Don Draper would be none of those things. The Don Draper character is adept at surviving these incredible moments where his flaws are revealed to the world. That he can soldier on, sometimes, actually speaks to hope for the development of the character, for his being able to accept truths about himself that he may not have the capacity to appreciate since he lives so much in a world of untruths. What comes strongly through, in this great interview, is how Jon Hamm understands so much about the character and can speak to how well he can work with such an understanding. A delight to have the opportunity to read such a conversation; many thanks!

Blair Waldorf said...

Great Interview!

Squeee. Jon Hamm loves us. We love him too. It is a lovefest. I wish I were friends with Jon Hamm and Jennifer Westfeldt. They both seem so smart and likeable. I want to go see her play.

Is is Sunday yet?

Michael, if you live in NYC, I think they are showing the premier in Times Square on the big screens. Or you could come to my house.

Anonymous said...

Nicole and Blair, thanks for the tips. And Blair, thanks for the invite! I am in Northern Virginia, however, so I reluctantly decline your generous offer.

And since I haven't gotten into iTunes, I'm hoping AMC puts the episodes on their website, even though there is no suggestion posted anywhere on it that they might. :-\

Michael

LA said...

Michael - I don't know if plans are different this year, but I can tell you that AMC to date hasn't put any full episode of Mad Men on their website.

What you may not know is iTunes itself is a free program. Of course, you have to pay for any episodes you purchase (the season pass is usually the most economic way to go), but it may be worth the free download today to not miss the season.

Anonymous said...

@LA: The only reason I say I hope AMC puts the episodes on their website is that the Season 2 finale is, for the time being, viewable in its entirety at

http://www.amctv.com/videos/mad-men/?bcpid=8803972001&bclid=25490360001&bctid=32460119001

Were episode ever available via Netflix? (I never paid attention before, because I had cable, or access to cable, up until last March.)

Michael

Between the Panels said...

Michael,

I have yet to see Mad Men show up on Netflix. But, check Amazon, they normally have a good prices on the first two seasons on DVD.

Pamela Jaye said...

Before I read this - Jon Hamm with floppy hair is a very good looking man. Good looks are, oddly, not something I notice first (or sometimes ever - ask me for my list of good-looking men) on a man, and I don't know when I noticed his. Also, the other day I saw a vid of him and girlfriend Jennifer Westfeldt (Grey's Anatomy's Loves Labor Lost mom, who seems to often play pregnant) who is so beautiful. What a nice looking couple!

LA said...

Michael - Yes, discs available on Netflix, but only after DVD was released (last month). They didn't offer them via Netflix after airing last season like they did with Party Down.

cgeye said...

This comment's more for Patrick Stewart, through the ether: Crap or get off the pot, in re Spider Jerusalem. By the end of MAD MEN, hopefully American film will have grown up enough about graphic novels that they can take on that complexity, and I think Mr. Hamm will be ready for some pool-cue action after all our hair fetishization.

In general, an actor who's looking at graphic novel adaptations intelligently, and who has his own production company? Is a good thing. An even better one? His reading Austin Grossman's Soon I Will Be Invincible -- Grossman loved the Lex Luthor bit on Funny or Die, said so on his blog, and his superheroes wouldn't cross DC or Marvel copyrights, which would make things a hell of lot easier.