He’s a television Colossus, a Dostoevskian figure helping tell the story of human fallibility from the perspective of a sixties’ ad agency guru. Jon Hamm has played existential road warrior Don Draper for seven seasons over a period of ten years and now it’s all coming to an end.
Over the course of seven episodes last spring and another seven this year, Mad Men will have delivered its final slogan about life. Series creator and writer Matthew Weiner pushed his Everyman Don Draper to the brink. Fear and self-loathing saw Don’s carefully constructed universe fall apart amid heavy drinking and being pushed out of the merged ad agency he helped build.
After our interview with Hamm, we were sad to hear of the actor’s 30-day stint in rehab for alcoholism—just before the premiere of the final season airs, making a few of his anwers during our interview ring with question.
So we wonder not just whether there will there be redemption and resurrection for Draper, but how will both the character and the actor himself continue on as the hit series prepares to close with its final season airing this April 5th?
“I’m going to be just fine,” Hamm smiles. “It will be sad not to see my close friends on the set anymore, but Don is not the easiest character to live with. He’s nothing like me and it’s going to be fun to play different roles and be able to let loose in ways that Don never could. I’m not a dark guy at all!”
Moving forward, Hamm carries the heavy burden of having turned Don Draper into a television icon whose legacy will always mark his career. Series mastermind and writer Matt Weiner concedes that Mad Men would likely never have attained such greatness without Hamm’s “genius.” Weiner shared: “(Jon) is very brave. He so commits, intellectually and emotionally. Let me tell you, it’s hard to play (Don Draper). There is a physiological cost.”
Although it would now be impossible to imagine anyone else as Don Draper, it took Jon Hamm six auditions before he landed the role and before Weiner “finally understood” that he had found his man.
In person, the 6’2” and impossibly handsome Hamm is far more outgoing and good-natured than anything in Don Draper’s imagination. For the past 18 years, he has lived with his actress/screenwriter/director girlfriend Jennifer Westfeldt (Numb3rs, Friends With Benefits) and has also enjoyed a 24-year friendship with actor Paul Rudd, who helped Hamm get his start in Hollywood.
SMARTY: Jon, the obvious question to ask is how you’re feeling as Mad Men comes to an end.
HAMM: The most difficult transition for all of us will be the fact that our family will be heading in separate directions. We’re a very tight-knit group of actors and crewmembers, and it will be very sad to see our time together come to an end. I have made so many close friends on this show and obviously I will miss that regular contact and camaraderie. But this has been a very large slice – about one-quarter of my life – and that’s enough. You need to move forward.
SMARTY: What can you say about Season 7?
HAMM: It’s going to be an interesting time. What I’ve always admired about Matt is how he has been willing to upset expectations and take the characters down roads you would not have expected. It all connects, and when you see certain things happen (in the final season) you will be able to identify other events or moments that occurred in previous seasons and realize how it makes sense or at least there was some foreshadowing taking place. But I can also say that even though I’ve spoken with Matt about how the series would end, whenever I’ve imagined how things would actually work out, I’ve often been mistaken.
SMARTY: Looking back now, what are your thoughts about playing Don Draper?
HAMM: It’s been one of the great roles that any actor could have had the opportunity to play. Not only is he a very complex and tormented figure, but I’ve been able to explore so many different aspects of him over the course of seven seasons. You rarely get to develop a character that way over such a long dramatic arc. I’ve loved playing Don and being part of one of the most brilliantly written series in the history of television. TV’s been an incredible journey for me and I’ve become a much better actor in the process.
SMARTY: How would you sum up the tragic qualities inherent in Don?
HAMM: Don Draper is a self-made man who rises to great heights, but whose inner self is fundamentally damaged and broken, and he needs to find and fix himself before it’s too late. Everything that goes wrong in his world can be traced to that darkness inside him, and no matter what he does, he can never escape that sense of dread. He needs to repair that very shaky foundation that he’s built his life atop of. That’s why audiences are so drawn to him.
SMARTY: Beyond your obvious sex appeal, why do you believe women are so drawn to Don Draper?
HAMM: (Laughs) Don’s a throwback to the old school code of conduct, where men didn’t talk very much about themselves and exuded a very perceptible sense of command and determination. He doesn’t indulge in self-pity, although he does run from his past. Women sense something is broken inside and that’s why they want to help fix him and make him happy, even though he’s very resistant to that. He doesn’t want to confront those demons, although I would hope that he ultimately finds some peace of mind and harmony.
SMARTY: Tell us about Disney’s “Million Dollar Arm”. Was it a big deal for you to appear in your first lead role in a feature film?
HAMM: It’s something I’d been hoping and waiting to achieve for twenty years. When you struggle in this business as I did when I first arrived in Los Angeles, you have a lot of hopes and dreams, and it can be tough to keep believing in them. But I’ve been very lucky with what I’ve been able to accomplish up until this point and I hope to keep building on that.
STRIPLV: As a huge baseball fan, is that part of what appealed to you about the film?
HAMM: It’s a great story, and it’s a true story. The reason I was attracted to doing the story was because it was a good old-fashioned coming of age father/son type of story, even though there are no fathers and no sons, really. It’s just a nice story, about hard work, and coming up with a big idea and seeing it through. The fact that it worked out for these guys from India is a testament to not only the guy with the big idea, but also the work ethic of these two. They were just willing to apply themselves and commit to the program and maximize the opportunity.
SMARTY: You achieved rapid rise to fame and fortune with Mad Men. Can you relate to these two young athletes from India? Their rise as baseball players happened very quickly. Do you see any parallels there?
HAMM: Yeah, sure. Nothing in this world happens without a fair amount of luck. Then, of course, the corollary to that is you make your own luck. It’s a combination of the two, and finding the right balance between those two, and waiting around for it, but putting yourself in the right position for when the luck happens. I’d auditioned for Don Draper six or seven times, and any one of those times I could have failed, but I was prepared enough and ready enough, and it’s the same thing with these guys. They got ready and were able to really capitalize on it.
SMARTY: Much has been made over the years about the loss of your parents and how your own early twenties in many respects paralleled the kind of wandering in life that Don Draper suffered. (Hamm lost his mother to cancer when he was 10 and his father died ten years later.)
HAMM: It was different, but obviously the loss of your parents are moments that are going to shape you and lead you to see the world maybe more starkly and more warily than other people. I certainly can understand Don’s sense of feeling lost and being hurt by his upbringing, but it’s not directly comparable to my own life, and I never exploited my own feelings about my parents with how I built the character and played him. I’m sure that having had to struggle for a while, living on couches in homes of surrogate families, and having to get on with my life gave me a good perspective on what Don suffered through.
SMARTY: Do you share Don’s anxiety about the state of things?
HAMM: I know what it’s like when your world kind of collapses and I don’t have necessarily the most optimistic bent on life. But how that has affected the way I’ve portrayed Don is hard to pinpoint. I probably share his sense of not wanting to believe that things are really that good or that you shouldn’t let yourself get carried away by success. It makes you more apprehensive, although I’ve had a pretty happy life.
SMARTY: Did acting provide you with a means of finding some comfort and sense of purpose?
HAMM: I enjoyed doing theater at college, because you do form a strange family-like bond with the other actors. One of my high school teachers had given me a boost of confidence years earlier by telling me that I had talent and that acting was something I should consider pursuing. And after I finished my studies at the University of Texas, after my father had died, I had no family left and no real place to live in St. Louis. I drifted for a few years there and then thought that Los Angeles was a good a place as any to pursue my dreams.
SMARTY: How did you make your way to L.A. and get into acting?
HAMM: I moved to L.A. on a Thanksgiving weekend (in 1995) with basically very little money and the idea I would find whatever work I could to survive. I was 25 at the time and I knew (actor) Paul Rudd through a mutual friend from university, and so when I arrived in L.A. I hooked up with him, although he was moving to New York around that time. Paul went out of his way to help me and he found me an agent at William Morris and then I spent three years waiting tables, going to endless auditions, and not getting any work! (Laughs)
SMARTY: It was at that point that you met your girlfriend, Jennifer Westfeldt?
HAMM: I met Jennifer at a premiere of one of Paul’s films in which he was starring (The Object of My Affection) and we’ve been together ever since. At the time I met her I was kind of at a low ebb. I was still struggling as an actor and driving around in a beat-up Volkswagen Rabbit that didn’t have a roof, and my agency had dropped me – nothing really was happening for me. But being with Jennifer kind of opened my eyes again and she encouraged me to keep looking for parts, although basically I had set a deadline for myself that if I hadn’t established myself as an actor by the age of 30, I would quit. And then I got the part on Providence (2000-2001) and I started getting more work.
SMARTY: Success came relatively late with Mad Men. Did those earlier years struggling to find work prepare you better for dealing with success?
HAMM: I don’t know. I was pretty serious and level-headed when I was working as a waiter in L.A. and looking for work. I wasn’t going to become a wild man if I had gotten a good role in a film or a TV series! (Laughs) I would have just put the money in the bank and maybe bought myself a slightly better car. I also knew that I looked older than I was and that I was out of sync with what TV series casting directors were looking for at the time. But I also had a lot of people telling me that I should keep auditioning and eventually something would click. And by the time I was 30, I was working regularly, earning a decent living, and I remember that on my 30th birthday I was working on a movie with Mel Gibson (We Were Soldiers) and my girlfriend Jennifer came down from New York to celebrate with me and a few of my friends. That was a very good moment.
SMARTY: Now that your Mad Men days are coming to a close, do you think you’ll experience any sense of loss that Don is no longer part of your life?
HAMM: (Laughs) I’ll miss the beauty of being part of a great group of people and doing some very good work. But Don has his life and I have mine!