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

From The Big Issue


Agnieszka Holland: In Darkness

In Darkness “tries to recreate the horrors without being superficial”Director Agnieszka Holland is striving for reality and honesty in her film about Polish Jews hiding from the Nazis

By Stephen Applebaum, March 8, 2012

It is late January and two days since Agnieszka Holland's tough Holocaust film, In Darkness, was nominated for the foreign-language film Oscar. She has been in this position before, but 2012 is the first time that the 63-year-old director has represented her homeland: Poland. On the night, the prize will go to Iran's A Separation. For now, though, Holland feels like she is carrying the weight of the Polish people on her shoulders.

The Long Road Home

How Yaacov Weksler-Waszkinel reconciled his Polish upbringing with his Jewish roots


What makes a Jew? This was one of the questions at the heart of Israeli filmmaker Ronit Kerstner's documentary Torn, which screened as part of the 10th Kinoteka Polish Film Festival in partnership with UK Jewish Film last week.

A moving and thought-provoking study of a man struggling for recognition as a Jew, the film follows Romuald-Jakub Weksler-Waszkinel (now known as Yaacov Weksler-Waszkinel) - a Polish Catholic priest who, 12 years after his ordination, discovered that he was the son of Jews killed in the Holocaust - as he tries to settle in Israel under the Law of Return.

The statute doesn't recognise Jews practicing other religions, however, and the Ministry of Internal Affairs rejects his application for citizenship. Instead, he is granted temporary residency on a religious worker's visa. He tries to join Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu to study Hebrew and Judaism, but has a request that initially dumbfounds its leaders: he wants to be able to leave on Sundays to observe Mass at a nearby monastary.

A compromise is found allowing him to worship privately in his room. But one kibbutznik still wants to know: “Who are you, Yaacov? Are you a Jew? Are you a Christian?”

Although the question has haunted him for most of his life, sitting in a small screening room at the Everyman cinema in Hampstead it seems clear that the gentle 69 year old is a man at peace with himself, having reconciled his seemingly irreconcilable Christian and Jewish identities through the love of his adoptive and murdered parents.

“The only reason I cannot say no to my Polish parents is their love for me,” he says. “The only reason that, for the rest of my days, I am going to shout that I am Jewish, is my love for my Jewish parents. The rest is the Holocaust. My only fault is to be born at the wrong time, and to survive.”

Circumstance has made him a Jew who cannot deny Jesus, the Jew he believes plucked him to safety, but he doesn't feel torn. It is the world that wants to tear him apart, he insists, “because people like to have clear and strong divisions . . . I simply want to be both. My life has formed me in this way and I believe I can't be otherwise. Without my Jewish parents I would have no life. Without my Polish parents, my life would have perished.”

The latter were devout Catholics who showered him with love. He had no reason to think he wasn't their offspring, although he did sometimes wonder why he didn't share their Slavic features. So did other people. “I had black curly hair and on the street they called me 'Yid',” he says. “Children would say, 'Who are your parents?' It was a big problem.”

He asked his doting mother, Emilia, what a Jew was because he had never met one (and wouldn't until the anti-Zionist purges in 1968, the same year he found out about the Holocaust), but waited decades before asking her if he was one himself. “I was afraid,” he says candidly. “When I went to church all I heard was bad things about Jews, like Jews murdered Christ. And when I went to my religion lessons, the sister who was teaching us showed us pictures by Bosch with all kinds of frightening types that Hitler, apparently, had used to portray Jews. I didn't want to be somebody like that.”

He would often search for evidence of his father in his face in the mirror. One day he thought he'd spotted something. “I shouted, 'Mum, look, I am similar to Dad, aren't I?'” His mother didn't reply. “Because of that silence I said, 'If I am a Jew, you will see what I am going to do to myself.' When I looked in the mirror, I saw tears in my mother's eyes.”

It was a profound moment that years later, on 23rd February, 1978, when he finally confronted the ailing Emilia about his origins, she said was the reason why she'd kept the truth from him for so long. “She told me, 'What, do you think that we don't love you? How could we tell you if we knew that you could take your life?'” Yaacov understands: “I really believe that if I had been told earlier, today I would be in a psychiatric ward, because it was too strong an experience for me.”

Emilia could only tell him that he was born in the ghetto in Swieciany and that his father was a tailor; she didn't know his biological parents' names. These were revealed in 1992, when Klara Jaroszynska, a Polish nun who had helped Jews during the war, went to Israel and met survivors from Swieciany who knew that the town's only tailor was called Jacob Weksler (he died in the Stutthoff concentration camp). He then discovered that his mother was Batia, a Zionist, and that he had an older brother, Samuel – they both died at or on the transport to Sobibor. When he was shown a photograph of Batia, “I found the first person who I was similar to,” he says tearfully.

There were living relatives too – an uncle and an aunt - who'd escaped through Russia and were living in Israel. They knew nothing about him. When they met, his uncle wanted to know how, as a priest, Yaacov could “cope with carrying the hatred of 2000 years”? “I burst out crying,” he says, “because there is no answer to that. No words can express the hurt that Christianity has caused Jews for 2000 years. But one answer sprang into my head: 'But, darling Uncle, I am not 2000 years old, I am only 49, and I love you. And it's me who has found you, not you who has found me.'”

Returning to Poland, Yaacov became more and more aware of the antisemitism that was still being preached from pulpits by Catholic priests. He felt isolated and lonely, and as his retirement as a philosophy professor at the Catholic University of Lublin approached, he decided to move to Israel.

Today he is a permanent resident and works at Yad Vashem, who've named his Polish parents Righteous Gentiles.

"Yad Vashem is not my place of work it's my home,” he says, “because I am both an exhibit and a researcher. I belong in that time and everything that I find there is not about the fate of some nation or something, it is the fate of me and my parents.”

A shorter version of this story appeared in The Jewish Chronicle, 23rd March, 2012