Interview: Jon Hamm, actor
JON HAMM is laughing at the irony of it all. The last time he cried, he tells me reluctantly, was at a car advert. “It was so good, I welled up,” he says holding his hands up in embarrassed resignation.
Don Draper would certainly be pleased. While the character Hamm is most famous for playing would never “well up” at anything, the hardened 1960s Madison Avenue ad man would surely consider it a job well done if one of his own commercials could illicit such an emotional response.
It’s testament to Hamm’s good humour that he’s happy to make the link before I get the chance to. The 41-year-old actor may have little in common with Draper, but the character is so iconic that since Mad Men became a runaway hit back in 2007 fans have found it difficult to separate the two. Journalists who meet Hamm often remark, with surprise, that he’s “nothing like” Draper. He seems both amused and bemused by these observations. After all, why would he be?
“I remember,” he says, “doing a sketch on Saturday Night Live where I had to play Don Draper and one of the producers was like ‘oh shit I forgot that, like, you’re playing a character. You did all this other fun, funny stuff and then you locked in to Don Draper mode and I completely forgot. It’s really weird’. And I said ‘well, yeah, you know, I am acting. I’m doing it on purpose...’ ”
In manner, he is nothing like the dark, morally corrupt Don. He is open, but not gushing, describing himself as “a little bit Midwestern and prudish” and “embarrassed by oversharing.” In appearance, he is Draper lite. He wears smart, but soft tailoring, his hair is neat but imperfect. Much has been made of his cartoonishly-handsome features, which make him look part Disney prince, part off-duty superhero.
When casting for Mad Men the producers first worried that he was too handsome for the part. Tina Fey, the creator of 30 Rock in which he had a cameo role, said of him that “his beauty burns so bright that I had to put a pinhole in a paper plate and look at him like you would an eclipse.” In one episode, it is revealed that his character lives inside “the bubble”, a space occupied only by devastatingly good-looking people, who are forgiven all manner of things by the rest of society thanks to their attractiveness.
Like that Saturday Night Live producer, I have to occasionally remind myself that he’s not Don Draper; he nurses a Diet Coke instead of an Old Fashioned, tells jokes with gusto and does an impressive impression of a Scottish accent. He is not Don Draper.
We’re here to talk about Friends With Kids, a dark comedy about the way a group of friends evolve and change as they have children.
Written, produced, and directed by Jennifer Westfeldt, Hamm’s partner of 14 years, who also co-stars, the film sees Hamm taking the role of Ben, whose happy marriage comes under strain when children enter the equation.
Working so closely with his partner was, he says, “incredible”.
“The director is very much the captain of the ship and you couldn’t ask for a more effective leader,” he says. “It was really incredible to watch. As close as I was to it and obviously being in a relationship and going home every night with her, I was still able to have a decent enough perspective on it to really see how the cast and crew were responding to her enthusiasm and capability.”
Born in St Louis, Missouri, to a businessman and a secretary, his parents divorced when he was two and when he was just ten his mother died of cancer. He moved in with his father, who died when he was 20.
When he first auditioned for the role of Don Draper, Man Men creator and writer Matthew Weiner commented to the casting agent: “That man was not raised by his parents.”
He was a happy child, however; sporty, smart, an all-rounder. He studied English at the University of Missouri before trying his hand at acting, moving to LA at 25. He spent the next few years waiting tables, rollerblading around LA because he couldn’t afford a car and even making some extra cash as a set dresser on soft porn films.
Not wanting to spend his life as a desperate, failed actor, he gave himself until he was 30 (though he says there was “no back-up plan”) to make it in Hollywood. He met his deadline, just, landing small roles in films including Space Cowboys and Kissing Jessica Stein, which starred and was co-written by Westfeldt.
His first decent pay cheque, he says, went on a car. “It was the first time I’d ever had a new car that no one had owned before,” he says enthusiastically and rather sweetly. “It was amazing. I’d never had a car that started every time or one that had all of the gauges function. I felt like a 12-year-old boy at Christmas.”
In 2007, aged 36, he was chosen (after a gruelling seven auditions) from more than 80 candidates for the role of Don Draper. Mad Men was an instant success, a worldwide phenomenon and a critical hit. Hamm became a superstar. With his pick of roles outside of the programme, he was careful to choose characters that didn’t play to type, hence comedies such as Friends With Kids, on which he shares a co-producer credit.
With so many successful actors spending extended periods of time apart, Westfeldt and Hamm are enjoying the novelty of promoting a film on the road together. They’ve just had lunch and Westfeldt is in the next room so I grab her to find out what it’s like to have one of the world’s most lusted-after men on her arm. She’s almost as bemused by the sex symbol status as he is.“It’s just this character has become so iconic that people think he’s like that,” she says. “I know him to be a goofball but when you’re identified as a character in a particular way it’s hard to shake that.”
Wanting to find out what he makes of it all, I start by asking if he’s aware that there are multiple sites on the internet devoted to figuring out whether or not he wears any underwear. He nearly chokes on his Diet Coke. “We can lay that rumour to rest now,” he says, failing to contain his laughter. “I do.”
Does that sort of attention amuse him or freak him out? “Both. Anything to do with being sexy, desirable or being attractive is by its very nature completely subjective, often ephemeral and also often capricious. Anybody who puts too much stock in that is setting themselves up for disappointment. Because the world turns, and this too shall pass. So I find it flattering, amusing, and adorable, I guess, because it’s not how I picture myself at all.
“People have a lot of time on their hands and a lot of people are on the internet. That’s the bottom line.”
The final episode of the long-anticipated fifth season of Mad Men has just aired and fans are already desperate for more. One of the smartest television series of the past decade, its following is huge, its fans dedicated. The enigmatic, charismatic Draper is a much-loved character and, despite his cold, cruel, manipulative nature, he remains a man men want to be and women want to be with.
Whether it’s the cars or the suits, the whisky or the cigarettes, the flawless Draper aesthetic is addictive. As the man who gets to wear Don’s wardrobe, drive his cars, seduce his women, does Jon Hamm have a bit of a style crush on Don Draper, just like the rest of us? “Oh it’s very fun to play that character,” he says, rubbing his palms together.
“This season when he moved into his new apartment I was like ‘wow this is a f***ing super cool apartment!’ I mean every angle on it is super cool. And his cars are great. It’s pretty fun. We try to ground it in some sort of reality, to not make it this fetishistic look at the perfect everything; perfect, perfect, perfect. But it is fun when it locks in to that pretty cool space.”
Mad Men has brought him incredible success, instant exposure and endless offers for roles set in the 1960s. Unsurprisingly, he’s not interested, describing playing anything resembling the Draper character outside of Mad Men as “like banging on the same piano key”.
Perhaps as a reaction to that he’s taken on a number of comedy roles between filming series of the show, including sketches on Saturday Night Live, the character of Ted in last year’s comedy hit Bridesmaids and now Friends With Kids, which sees some of the cast of Bridesmaids – including Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph and Chris O’Dowd – reunited.
The film follows two best friends who watch their social circle procreating and decide to have a child together. Westfeldt was inspired to write it when she noticed that she and Hamm were one of the few couples in their group of friends not to have children. Cue endless questions about why they don’t (they’ve discussed it but have never taken the plunge) as well as enquiries about why the couple have never married (“if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”).
They are quiet by Hollywood standards, eschewing industry parties and celebrity hi-jinks. Does he think he would have handled fame so sensibly had he found it at 25? “I am continually mystified at how young people manage the modern version of celebrity.
“These kids who just get thrust into this global madness, I don’t understand how they handle it. I’m very glad that I had a life before all of this, with friends and family and experiences and struggles and everything else because it makes this part feel like it was earned.”
He is ambitious, to an extent –“I think too much ambition is crass and as distasteful as too little ambition” – and doesn’t apologise for it. “There’s a little bit of an epidemic in the culture at large – which is probably just me turning into an angry old man – that seems to celebrate incuriousness or the ‘whatever’ mentality,” he says. “I never had that. I always had the idea that achieving and trying, at least, to be great at something was good and not to be looked down upon.”
Despite his ambition, he claims to take things as they come, describing himself as “a horrible, disorganised procrastinator” and has spent the past five years lapping up the endless “pinch me” moments Hollywood serves up when you suddenly hit the big time.
One such moment was at the Baftas in February when he found himself sitting behind Brad Pitt. “By the way, if you ever feel like a big deal, sit behind Brad Pitt and you’ll be disabused of that notion very quickly,” he says with a laugh. “I was just thinking ‘this is crazy’.
I try to appreciate the things that are happening and I don’t want to be so focused on the next thing that I forget.” He smiles and gestures around the room. It’s a pretty nice life and it would be a shame to overlook it.”
• Friends With Kids is on general release from Friday