Mad Men's Jon Hamm: Suited & Booted

Don Draper aka Jon Hamm talks

Anyone familiar with Mad Men will know by now that Jon Hamm is as at home in a suit as a fish in water. As the philandering, cigarette-puffing ad man, Don Draper, he's got to wear some of the sharpest duds on any recent TV show, turning him into a fashion icon. Even Hamm, though, is at the limits of what he can pull off, when he arrives for our interview on a rooftop terrace in Cannes, rocking a cream-coloured Salvatore Ferragamo two-piece. The Cote d'Azur setting gives it context, but only just.

This would matter more if Hamm were just simply a clothes horse, but he's proven himself to be much more. Since breaking through with Mad Men, in 2007, the actor has resisted many offers to play “guys in suits, in the 60s,” and shown impressive versatility in dramatic roles in movies such as Howl, The Town, and The Day the Earth Stood Still, while his work on Tina Fey's 30 Rock and Saturday Night Live has highlighted his comic chops.

This week he gives his womanising image from Mad Men a hilarious spin, playing an “unrepentant douchebag”, in the Judd Apatow-produced comedy, Bridesmaids, half of whose cast, including the brilliant Kristen Wiig, will be reunited in an independent feature written and directed by Hamm's partner of 14 years, Jennifer Westfeldt - they've come to Cannes together to talk it up - called Friends with Kids.

If Hamm's life seems enviable today, it hasn't always been so. His childhood in St. Louis, Missouri, was blighted by the divorce of his parents, at age two, followed eight years later by the loss of his mother to cancer. He then moved in with his father and grandmother, both of whom died during his first two terms at the University of Texas. Eventually, Hamm headed to LA, where he was taken on by the prestigious William Morris Agency, because, he recalls, they thought he looked like “a guy who could work.” However, when Hamm failed to land a single acting job in three years, he was dropped. This was a tough break for someone who had already battled chronic depression. So did he consider giving up wanting to act? Of course, says Hamm.

"There were a hundred moments like that. The majority of your time is being like, 'What am I doing here?' It's vast stretches of doubt followed by very brief flashes of encouragement. It's not unlike golf,” he says, mentioning one of his favourite past-times. “You can hit 30 bad shots and then you'll hit one and it's like, 'I got it! I figured it out!' Which, of course, you didn't. You just got lucky. Which is a very similar analogy to acting. You just happen to get lucky every now and again. And perseverance pays off.”

Westfeldt suggests that part of the problem was that he always looked older than his years. “He was sort of 30 when he was 20, and 40 when he was 23,” she says. “The gorgeous guy who also happens to be dark and tortured and complicated and a comedy geek, I don't think anyone knew what to do with him at 25.”

Slowly, the tide started to turn in his favour. Hamm scored a 19-episode run on the TV show Providence, which led to parts on programmes such as Point Pleasant and The Unit, and a role in Mel Gibson's Vietnam-era vanity project, We Were Soldiers. When he read the script for the pilot of Mad Men, it was “one of the best pieces of writing I had ever had the chance to read,” he says. He didn't think, as an unknown face, that he would get the role of Don Draper. But somewhere during the seven-audition process, the series' creator, Matt Weiner, decided Hamm would be perfect, and he was cast.

The show has become not merely successful, but a full-blown cultural phenomenon. If traders on Wall Street once wanted to be Gordon Gekko, these days people in advertising aspire to be like Draper, despite his less than savoury behaviour. “It's a terrific compliment that, regardless of the nefarious dealings of my character, people relate to the show,” says Hamm. For him, playing Draper has been one of the most challenging experiences of his career to date, because “unlike a lot of experiences I've had in television,” he says, “it can be tremendously exhilarating one day and tremendously devastating the next.” This is what he thinks makes the show appealing for a lot of people: that you never know what you're going to get from week to week.

Hamm says he could talk for hours about why he thinks Mad Men has caught the imaginations of audiences around the world, but mostly he thinks it is down to its take on the Sixties and the cool period detail. “I think people find a vicarious thrill of living in a different time that represented for a lot of people a better time. But the ironic part is that it wasn't better at all for a tremendous part of society. If you were white, wealthy and male, it was awesome. If you were not in any of those categories, it was not as good. And I think that's the myth that the show tries to explode. And the fact that it sets it in this tremendously stylish, tremendously creative, tremendously intellectual, tremendously volatile time - not just for America but elsewhere, too - adds to the ironic impact, to the dramatic impact, to the cultural impact, to the resonance of the landscape.”

As he readies himself for the start of filming on the fifth series, and for his first time in the director's chair on episode three, Hamm still can't wrap his head around the fame (long overdue, in Westfeldt's opinion) that Mad Men has brought him. “It feels kind of ridiculous and crazy, because, in my mind, I'm literally the same person I was since I've been cogniscant as a human being, which is a goofy little kid from St, Louis, Missouri,” he laughs. “It's very exciting, but it's also very surreal.”

His connection with Mad Men will continue for the foreseeable future, but while Weiner will definitely be with the series for three more seasons, Hamm says he “hasn't necessarily” yet committed to three more years. “I'm very happy with being a part of the story until the story is finished. And I think I very wisely put my trust in Mr Weiner and his ability to not only tell a story, but also to know when to end a story . . . And it's better when things have both ends rather than continue on until people get resentful.”

In the meantime, the actors' popularity looks set to continue to grow thanks to his comedy sex scenes with Kristen Wiig in the opening scenes of Bridesmaids, which has already broken through the all-important $100 million box office barrier. The movie has been described as a “female Hangover”. He thinks this is unfair though, because it "resonates". "For all of its hilarious laughs and hugely funny sequences,” Hamm says, “Bridesmaids has an emotional resonance that is literally tearjerking. I cried both times I've seen it, I will admit it.”

© Stephen Applebaum, 2012

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