Jon Hamm Is Not The Man You Think He Is

The square-jawed star of Mad Men has become a men's style icon by default and the embodiment of retro masculinity by mistake. Not that Jon Hamm's American story is any less compelling than that of the man he plays on TV. Just that he's a much nicer guy

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It’s the way he serves himself salad that gives him away. Jon Hamm transfers lettuce from bowl to plate like the pro he once was: one-handed, fork above spoon in a steady pincer arrangement. Hamm was server longer than he’s been served; he waited tables in Los Angeles for years before his career took off, at 36 – an age at which, by Hollywood leading man standards, an auditioning actor might as well be shuffling towards senescence. His success came in 2007, when he first appeared as Don Draper, the hard drinking, womanizing advertising executive on Mad Men, the Sixties-set TV drama that is now beginning its seventh series on Sky Atlantic.

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There are two delicious ironies about the hyperventilating hoopla surrounding Don Draper – a hoopla created and sustained, it has to be admitted, in large part by magazines not unlike Esquire. The first irony is that such a desperate figure might become in some way emblematic of an ideal of old-timey masculinity, a sort of cuff-linked existentialism, to which us contemporary chaps are encouraged to inspire – not by the show itself, but by its many cheerleaders – and that the image of a character created to illustrate the vacuity of consumerism is now itself used to shift product.

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Don Draper looks great in a suit, his hair Brylcreemed into submission, his pocket square pressed just so, his five o’clock shadow following him around the clock, the ice in his Old Fashioned providing the soundtrack to his latest sexual conquest. But that ought to be where our admiration ends, if ever it started. Because while Draper might appear impressive he is in fact contemptible in too many ways to count. Let’s count a few of them, anyway: a racist, a misogynist, a drunk, a bully, a philanderer, a cynic, a square, a stiff, a stuffed shirt. It's a great shirt – crisp, fitted, monogrammed – but it’s still stuffed.

When Mad Men viewers first met Draper, in 2007 – or, rather, 1960 - he was the hotshot creative director at a Manhattan ad agency, a man so ahead of the curve that his cowering subordinates suspected him of almost mystical powers of zeitgeist divination, while his overly reliant superiors suffered his moods, his opacity, his disdain, because he was good for business. He lived at that point in white-picket splendour in Ossining, New York – most famous real-life resident: self-hating alcoholic John Cheever, bard of suburban ennui – with his gorgeous, selfish, depressed wife, Betty, and their terrified children. Slowly we were let in on Don’s secret shame. He’s a fake, an imposter. He stole his name and identity from a dead soldier he fought alongside in Korea. His “real” name’s Dick Whitman, and he is terrified of being unmasked.

Clearly no good could come of all this. As the show developed, Draper began to come apart. His junior colleagues, more attuned to the socio-cultural changes of the mid-Sixties, began to find his drinking and his womanising boorish, even pathetic. He had blackouts, turned up sozzled to client pitches, slobbered on office girls. Offered a chance at a relationship of equals with a beautiful, intelligent, professional woman – one who knows the facts of his past and loves him anyway – he chose instead to propose marriage to a toothsome secretary he barely knew, and who knew him not at all. He became alienated from his children. He seemed friendless, isolated, depressed.

“Be Like Don Draper”, shout the style section headlines. To which the only sensible response ought to be: why the fuck would I want to do that? “What would Don Draper do?” wonder the websites and the T-shirts.

“‘What would Don Draper do?’” puzzles Jon Hamm, when we meet. “There is no Don Draper. Don Draper was blown up in a ditch in Korea. That whole ‘Be Don Draper’ thing, I feel it’s… sad,” he says. “This is a fundamentally fucked up human being.”

Which brings us to the second delicious irony – sorry, I know it took a while – about all this Draper hoopla. Which is that the man who so convincingly brings him to life on screen has become, in the process, an unsuspecting poster-boy for the retrograde masculinity described above, as well as a style icon by default.

His friends, he says, find that last part particularly hilarious, and there’s certainly nothing that telegraphs fashion plate about the mild-mannered Midwestener sitting opposite me at lunch in Hix, in Soho, in London, making appreciative noises as he tucks into his steak. Hamm’s is a calm, almost gentle presence. He is a man who seems determined to savour every mouthful even if he must be interviewed while chewing it. “This place is great!” he says. “I’d come back here in a fucking heartbeat, man! Well picked, sir!”

Not that he’s not tall and ruggedly handsome. The writers on the sitcom 30 Rock nailed his looks best, likening him to a “cartoon pilot” and remarking on his “whole Disney prince thing”. Not that he’s not confident and self-assured. He’s those things too, though he’s far from domineering. Not that he isn’t nicely turned out. He showed up for our interview, without retinue, in a flat cap and an overcoat that he shrugged off to reveal a fawn blazer, white shirt, blue slacks and brogues, the definition of smart-casual. Not, finally, that he’s not charismatic. He is, in a reticent, reflective kind of way. But he doesn’t exactly smoulder. In fact, on day four of a promotional trip to London, he looks a little weary and hungover; throughout our lunch Hamm throws back water like a man who’s just staggered alone through a desert.

Last night’s visit to Shoreditch House is catching up with him, he says, offering a story of how a fellow east London carouser, presumably thrilled to be making the acquaintance of the man who plays Don Draper, temporarily abandoned his date to challenge the actor to a game of pool. “I was like, “Dude, what are you doing? It’s Valentine’s night!”

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All these observations, you’d think, would make the interviewer’s laborious attempts to identify similarities between Hamm and the character he plays on TV, to draw conclusions about him based on that performance, seem even more facile an exercise than that usually is. But hell, he has already clocked up almost 70 on-screen hours playing Draper. A series takes five months to make, meaning he’s spent almost three years – not including breaks – going to work every day as this strange, conflicted man. It’s what he’s known for, what he won his Golden Globe for, and he concedes that his performance must be informed – even if only subconsciously – by his own experiences, none of which mirror Draper’s, but some of which are, in crucial ways, similar.

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There’s a story – apocryphal, probably, he says, “but what the hell, print the legend” – that when Hamm first auditioned for the part of Draper, almost eight years ago now, the show’s creator turned to his casting director with the words, “That man was not raised by his parents.”

This was a perspicacious remark; that’s why it dogs him. As with Don Draper, the child of Depression-era unfortunates in Ohio, his mother a 22-year-old prostitute who died giving birth to him, his stepfather a bully, few things have come easy to Jon Hamm.

Like Draper, in fact, he conforms to an American archetype, the self-invented man. He’s not living under an assumed identity – not as far as I know – but he is someone who has overcome considerable early obstacles by virtue of his own drive, talent and a little bit of luck – though of course luck is what you make of it.

He grew up in St Louis, Missouri, in the middle of the US, the son of Dan Hamm, a successful businessman, and his second wife, Deborah. Hamm’s parents divorced when he was two and his mother raised him until she died, of stomach cancer, when he was 10. “I don’t have a good way to say, ‘Oh, it was so terrible’, or it was so this, or so that, but yeah, I had a hard time,” he says. “It had an effect on me. You know, not great.”

He moved in with his father, by now a rather reduced figure, and his father’s mother. Three other women – mothers of his schoolfriends – helped look after him. Then his dad died when Hamm was twenty, and a student at the University of Texas. Hamm has two older half-sisters, though he doesn’t make that distinction, the daughters of his father’s first marriage. Their mother had also died young – of a brain aneurysm, “if it’s possible, even more tragically than my mother” – and the sisters had been around enough grief to notice that their little brother, the high school football star living in their basement, was in trouble. He was depressed. “Bummed out,” he says. “And when you’re bummed out it’s hard to do other stuff, like even wake up in the morning. It’s something that causes you to struggle in the world.”

The sisters encouraged him to see a shrink. “I had no concept of what that even meant,” he says. “I’m a 20-year-old idiot, in the Midwest. This is not Woody Allen New York. We don’t sit around and talk about our feelings. We certainly don’t sit around and compare shrinks.” But he did as he was told. “I went to the lady. Sat down and talked to the lady.” And the lady helped? “I gotta say, it helps. Talking to anybody helps. Talking to your friends helps. But your friends are your friends. They’ll tell you what you want to hear. The shrink doesn’t sugarcoat it: ‘Hey, you’re fucked up. Do this, this and this. Don’t do this any more.’ It’s a wonderful third-person perspective that you get from an analyst. It’s invaluable, I think.” Pause. “By the way, this steak is really good.”

It’s been suggested – by Hamm himself, in the past – that he based his portrayal of Don Draper if not on himself then on his father, this model midcentury American figure, a drinker and a carouser in a sharp suit, inheritor of a family-run trucking company and later, briefly, an ad man. But he says now that while there are comparisons to be made – the looks (obviously), the fancy wardrobe, and the tough façade increasingly having to conceal an inner sadness – Don Draper is not Dan Hamm any more than he is Jon Hamm.

That said, the Gatsby-like desire to transcend one’s origins, to make oneself anew, is something Hamm shares with his character. Draper went from traumatised Ohio farm boy, via California, to become a prince of New York. Hamm went from rudderless Missouri boy to Hollywood star. There’s a scene in Mad Men in which Draper – Whitman, really – is unmasked by a colleague in front of their superiors. He’s not really Don Draper, they’re told. “So what?” says Bert Cooper, the boss.

Hamm says something similar when I ask him whether the deaths of his parents and his own struggles with grief and depression have informed his playing of Draper, made his performance richer and more nuanced. “If the audience is picking up on some kind of ‘lost’ vibe I’m giving out, then great,” he says. “I hope that lends a deeper resonance. It’s not anything I’m doing consciously. All we can do as actors is bring our own personal experience to the role. My mother died when I was ten, so I did have far more experience of being raised outside my family than I had from my own home, probably.” Then comes the Bert Cooper line: “But who cares?”

At 24 years old, in 1995, the orphaned Hamm loaded up a clapped out Toyota Corolla, and headed west, close to 2,000 miles, through Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, to Hollywood, for a new life. He bunked with his aunt and uncle and then lived with wannabe actor and comedian friends in a house known by them, moderately affectionately, as the Shithole. He didn’t get a single acting job for three years. His first official credit is as “Gorgeous Guy at Bar” in a 1997 episode of Ally McBeal. In 1998 he was dropped by his talent agency. “A low point,” he says.

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But he didn’t give up. He waited tables, he auditioned. At one point – the worst point – he worked as a set dresser for softcore porn films: “devastatingly depressing,” he says. “Every pore of every person on set just reeked of sadness.”

His first, minor breakthrough was with a part as a hunky fireman on a TV comedy-drama, Providence, in 2000. Then he a more prominent role as the only man on a squad of female cops in The Division (tagline: “Five Women, One Code: Justice”.) For five or six years he worked steadily in TV, a jobbing actor in undemanding roles on less than gripping shows.

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“I think I was OK with it,” he says, looking back on that period. “I was sort of… I was aiming for the middle. I just wanted to be happy and relatively successful. And the great thing about our industry is you can just plug away at it and you can have a pretty nice life. You can go on a trip once in a while, maybe have a kid, get a decent car that doesn’t break down. I had no grand idea of who I was going to be.”

Then he got the script for the pilot of Man Men, a new show being planned for AMC, a cable network with a less than distinguished history of making good drama. “I remember picking it up,” he says. “Mad Men: shitty title. AMC: network no-one’s ever heard of. Two strikes. Then I read it.” He was with his girlfriend, in their bedroom. “I said to her, ‘This is the best pilot I’ve ever read in my life.’ She’s going, ‘What?’ That’s never the response to a pilot. Sometimes, at best, you’re like, ‘Hey! It’s not terrible!’ And I just thought, ‘I have to be in this show.’ And thus began the long, winding road to getting cast.”

When I ask Hamm about his life now he takes out his iPhone to show me a goofy photo of his girlfriend and their dog at the beach. “That’s pure bliss, right there,” he says as I squint at the picture of Jen, an attractive blonde woman in sunglasses and cap, her arm around Cora, a big, friendly looking mutt, on a blustery day in Montecito, southern California. “I miss my dog all the time,” he says. He’s kidding.

Jen is Jennifer Westfeldt, a successful actress and filmmaker. She wrote, directed and starred in the film Kissing Jessica Stein, in 2001, as well as the 2011 comedy of manners Friends With Kids – a family affair, except, as Hamm points out, the dog’s not in it. They’ve been together sixteen years and are, Hamm says, not actually married but “same difference”. They live in Los Feliz, a wealthy bohemian enclave just east of Hollywood, about which Hamm is understandably enthusiastic. (If you find yourself there he recommends his local Italian, Dom’s. Pick whatever you like but always, always start with the rice balls. I pass this along to you at no extra charge.)

At 43, Hamm seems a man comfortable in his skin and content with his lot. He golfs. “It’s an excuse to get out of the house and talk shit and drink beer.” He goes out for dinner with friends. “I like good food and funny people.” He sits on his back porch in the sunshine in Los Feliz, walks the dog, keeps up with the results of the St Louis Cardinals, his hometown baseball team. He likes nice things as much as the next guy – he drives a Mercedes, wears an Omega watch – but he’s not defined by them. He yearns for a television remote he can figure out how to use. “There’s a weird thing about needlessly complicating our lives with stuff we don’t really want. It’s like, at one point watches became these giant fucking wrist battleships. Like we all think we want to be James Bond, or something.” Or Don Draper, maybe.

If success has taught him anything, he says, it’s that when the once forbidden fruits of your labours are all laid for you on the table like a feast, you discover all you really want is pretty much is what you’ve always liked. “You always end up going for the French fries,” he said. “It’s sounds trite, but that’s what I’ve learned. But I guess you have to go through all that to realize that all the trappings and all the stuff are a little bit meaningless. Roman Abramovich and the Sultan of Brunei can buy the moon and still not be happy.”

He still feels very Midwestern, a quality he struggles to define. “Simplicity is the wrong word but maybe it’s an unvarnished quality,” he says. “I feel like I’m an intelligent person. I’m a happily curious individual. I like art and sophisticated things and all that stuff. But I don’t really wear it on my sleeve. I guess the best way to put it is it’s a less self-centred view of the world. A little more listening to people, being polite.”

I wonder if the fact that success came to him relatively late made it all the sweeter. “It’s certainly sweet,” he says. “I can’t judge the sweetness level because I have nothing to compare it to. But I definitely have an appreciation for it.” And, in his Midwestern way, a healthy distance from it. “It’s ephemeral,” he says of his fame, “and it’s subject to the whims of others. There’s a lot of talk about, ‘Oooh, you’re so sexy!’ If people put that mantle on you, fine, but you take it with a wink and a pinch of salt. I’m no Ryan Gosling. And that’s fine. I don’t aspire to be that. That’s not my jam.”

Fame has impinged on his life in the ways it usually does – “Obviously you can’t go tear it up and act like an idiot, but at a certain age you should probably stop doing that anyway” – but it’s not like he’s a tabloid magnet. “I’m not that interesting to follow around. I don’t fall down and you can’t see up my skirt.” He has, he says, “ a healthy sense of my place in the universe.” If he ever needed a reminder of his insignificance in the grand scheme of things, he says, “I once sat behind Brad Pitt at the Baftas.”

Pitt’s buddy George Clooney is most often cited as the exception that proves the rule that if you don’t break through in your twenties in Hollywood, you’re unlikely to achieve leading man status. Clooney was 33 when he hit TV paydirt, in the mid-Nineties. Hamm was three years older than that when his call came, and while Mad Men is critically acclaimed and regularly wins awards, it is not a huge mainstream ratings success in the way that ER was. In his time off from Mad Men, Hamm’s other appearances have been mostly comic send-ups of his supercool persona: most prominently in skits on Saturday Night Live (“Don Draper’s Guide to Picking Up Women”) and with a recurring part on 30 Rock as the dreamy but dorky Dr Drew – “Sorry I smell like frosting, I just love to bake!” – a bespectacled paediatrician so good looking that Calvin Klein stops him on the street to offer modeling work.

Hamm’s film work so far has been cameos or supporting roles. He was perfectly gormless as Kristen Wiig’s Porsche-driving fuck buddy in Bridesmaids, and appropriately stern as an FBI agent in Ben Affleck’s Boston crime thriller, The Town. Coming up he’s in James Franco’s adaptation of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, and he stars in Million Dollar Arm, about a sports agent tapping up Indian cricketers to play American baseball.

Hamm will go on to roles in other films and TV shows, but one suspects that – like the late James Gandolfini, who will forever be associated with Tony Soprano – for a certain demographic at least, he will always be Don Draper. And he’s OK with that. “I love my job,” he says, simply.

There’s no reason he shouldn’t. Mad Men is a stylish, clever, wonderfully acted, superior TV melodrama. If it has soapy elements – and it does – then it also has ambitions to say something more meaningful. “The world isn’t perfect,” says Don Draper. “We're flawed, because we want so much more. We're ruined, because we get these things, and wish for what we had.”

Jon Hamm doesn’t necessarily subscribe to that point of view. At Hix, our steaks finished and plates cleared, we’ve moved away from his backstory and Don’s to talk books (John Irving fan); movies (the film he’s seen more than any other? “Fletch. I can’t turn it off. I wish I could say it was The 400 Blows”); sport (he’s a long-distance West Ham fan: Hamm/Hammers, you see?) and music. Hamm’s favourite song lyric, he tells me, is from “A Shot in the Arm”, by the melancholic rock band Wilco: “What you once were isn’t what you want to be any more.” While we wait for our espressos, we roll that one around our mouths for a while. What you once were isn’t what you want to be anymore.

“For whatever reason,” he says, “that resonates with me.”

Mad Men Season 7 is on Sky Atlantic on Wednesday nights at 10pm.


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