Until the age of 35, Jon Hamm’s biggest break was an 18-episode arch as a fireman in the long-forgotten NBC drama Providence. His other work included an episode of Ally McBeal as ‘That Guy’ and playing a character named ‘Red-Headed Cop’ in an aborted pilot for a show called Early Bird Special. In 2000 he made his feature film debut alongside Tommy Lee Jones and Donald Sutherland in Clint Eastwood’s Space Cowboys. As 'Young Pilot No. 2'.
Having given himself until 30 to “make it” time was running out for the Midwestern actor/waiter.
Mad Men changed all that. Hamm landed the role of womanising, hard-drinking, chain-smoking and brilliant ad man Don Draper in 2007 and has inhabited the role for seven seasons, winning a Golden Globe, two SAG awards, two Critic’s Choice awards and twelve Emmy nominations (eight for Mad Men) for his troubles.
With the final episodes of Mad Men due to air next year, Esquire sat down with Hamm – bearded, in a grey shirt and matching flat cap – to talk about his new film, Million Dollar Arm (the real-life story of a sports agent trying to bring baseball to India), words of wisdom from James Gandolfini and what it feels like to (finally) leave Don Draper behind.
What was the experience of filming Million Dollar Arm in India like?
I didn’t take any risks with the food as I had to be healthy and on camera every day. We were in Mumbai, Lucknow and Agra for about a month and it was an assault on all of the scenes. Positively and negatively. You just look around and it’s not like living in the Western world. There are so many friendly and welcoming people and it’s a beautiful place.
As Americans we tend to see the world through a very American lens. We don’t have the European sensibility of being able to travel to different parts of the world because we’re sort of isolated. Most Americans think going to Canada is an exotic journey. To do something like going to India was jaw dropping and so fun.
How did landing the role in Mad Men change the course of your career?
I was 35 when I got the role of Don Draper. I think if you spend too much time thinking about if you’re “on track” it’s probably detrimental. The more important thing to think about as an actor, or any artist, is “Am I doing a good job?” Unfortunately I think we live in a time where it’s often not about the work, but the perception of the work – how many "likes" and "followers" you have. I think people forget to ask “Well, are you any good?” I tend to focus more on being as good as I can, for my own sensibility.
Did you feel you’d achieved security as an actor when you were cast as Don Draper?
I’d quit my day job waiting tables a few years prior to that, but getting Don Draper was a hard audition process because basically nobody wanted me, with the exception of Matthew Weiner. No one knew that the show was going to be what it was. We just knew the pilot was very good.
So getting the job was very hard and I remember having a moment on the first day thinking “Oh shit, now I have to do it!”. I was terrified for a solid few hours. I had moments of that every time we came back for a new season. This terror, “Can I still do this? Am I doing it right? Is it resonating with anyone?” I feel like that’s a pretty standard actor reaction.
You’ve finished shooting Mad Men. Was the ending what you’d hoped for?
I can’t get too into it, but the ending is very much an ending. All I can say is I hope people are satisfied, and also, I didn’t write it. Thankfully I didn’t have to! Any and all questions to do with the end should be directed towards Matthew Weiner.
Was it freeing to film the last scenes as Don?
Yes. It did feel good to finally take the jacket off and hang it up and be done. And in a way it was very sad because it’s final. The one thing that negates any of that sadness is the friendships I’ve made in the cast and the crew will be lifelong. No one died, I’ll see them all again.
What was your favourite episode to film?
An episode of the show from season four called “The Suitcase”. I did the majority of it with Elizabeth Moss. It was a very rich episode from a character stand-point, with a lot of beautiful scenes. I have a lot of great memories from the show, but that’s one of the greatest. I remember reading that episode and thinking “this is going to be really fun to do.”
You directed a number of episodes of Mad Men. Would you like to direct films?
Directing features and directing television are two very, very different endeavours. Film directors are different animals. You’re coming up with this whole vision out of nothing. You’re creating something. In television you’re keeping the train on the track and your job is to not run out of steam and not de-rail it. You can tweak things a little bit, but the short answer to your question is “No”. I don’t think I need to direct a film.
I watched Jen [Hamm's partner Jennifer Westfeldt] do it with Friends With Kids and I watched [John] Slattery do it with God’s Pocket – both films I’m a huge fan of – so I know it’s possible. But you have to really, really want to do it and be really inspired by the material. That hasn’t come my way just yet.
A number of shows have these strong male characters that drive the show season after season. Did you talk to any of your contemporaries about the pressures of staying with one role for so long?
I talked to Jimmy [James Gandolfini] – God rest his soul – he was such a wonderful, tremendously talented guy. I spoke to him right at the beginning because The Sopranos ended right when we were just starting and he spoke to me briefly about being a lead, he said “this is what you gotta do.”
I know Bryan Cranston well. He’s a wonderful guy and we’ve had similar discussions. I talked to him about the end of Breaking Bad and asked how it felt, he said “Buddy, you’re going to go through it and it’s going to be a disaster. You just gotta be ready for it and let it happen.” I look to Bryan as a role model, he’s so phenomenally talented. He works on great projects. Breaking Bad is glorious but I saw him on stage and in Drive and this and that and he picks good material, so I really do pay attention to what he’s doing. He’s been incredibly kind to me.
Would you take another television role?
Sure. Depending on the material and the show and the people involved. There’s such a blurred line between television and film it seems. It used to be that either you’re TV or film and never the twain shall meet. That doesn’t exist any more.
Look at the people that are nominated for Best Actor in the Emmys. With the exception of Bryan and myself they’re all film guys. Woody Harrelson, Kevin Spacey. It’s a pretty good film actor round up to be amongst. I would never say no to television and they keep making it so cool.
Can you recommend a new television show?
I’ve recently been watching a show called The Knick with Clive Owen, it’s really good. You have to see it.
What have you learned from Don Draper?
How not to act. He’s a lesson in how not to be. If I can be as happy as he is unhappy I think I’ll be ok.
Million Dollar Arm is released 29 August. The final part of Mad Men season seven airs on Sky Atlantic in spring 2015.
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