Jon Hamm: the Mad Men star now playing the bad boy
Two years ago Jon Hamm’s life seemed to fall apart – his career-defining role as Don Draper ended, he split with his long-time partner and he entered rehab. Now, with a newfound drive, he’s back on our screens. The Mad Men star talks about why he couldn’t
Not so long ago, Jon Hamm was wondering whether there was any room left for him in Hollywood. His 10-year stint as Mad Men’s broken, bruised and brilliant Don Draper had just come to an end and the actor feared fans would call time on him too. Once his character walked off into the sunset, would anyone care what happened to the man behind one of TV’s most loved, yet most loathed men?
“It’s kind of scary. ‘Oh no, what’s next? Are people going to like me in any other capacity?’ I genuinely, after Mad Men finished, believed I’d had my moment,” says the 46-year-old. “I was lucky to have that and resigned myself to the idea of never working again, or at least not on that level. I still carry that with me
for the most part.
“But it’s also the fun part of the job: what’s next? I had a friend who always used to say that the most exciting word in the English language is ‘next’. Use the good part of the fear of the unknown and enjoy it.”
That he has done. Since the end of Mad Men in late 2015, Jon has shown a gung-ho openness in his choice of projects, excelling in comedic roles such as the crackpot cult leader in Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, the “super assassin” in the TV hit Wet Hot American Summer, and last year’s Keeping Up with the Joneses. He has taken on more than a dozen TV and film projects in the past two years – ending any concern his career would flail post-Mad Men – and this month takes a villainous turn as Buddy in the hotly anticipated Baby Driver, a heist-cum-romance film.
It was a welcome chance for one of Hollywood’s nicest men to finally play the bad guy.
“The bad guy is the best. It’s a lot of fun.
And you don’t get it until you’re doing it,” says Jon. “I’ve never played an out and out bad guy; there’s been plenty of conflicted guys, plenty of anti-hero sentiment, I’ve done the comedic bad guy, but Buddy, he’s bad to the bone. But not
in a one-note sense, he’s bad in a nice way; a fleshed out and realised character.”
Jon’s role as Buddy, a Wall
Street type whose midlife crisis has led him to join a gang of robbers led by Kevin Spacey, called for plenty of simmering menace – as well as some red-hot driving skills.
For an actor who has spent most of the past decade officebound, wearing suave suits, how did he manage suddenly having to do dangerous driving stunts?
“I felt very alive,” he says. “You’d get out of the car after doing a 50mph [80kph] sideways stunt and your heart was going dududududud, so fast. It was thrilling, it was real, there were no special effects, you were in it, and I appreciate that not only as an actor but as an audience member. We all check out a little with the CGI [computer-generated imagery] – the danger isn’t there. But when you know it’s real, it locks you and you feel yourself getting incredibly wound up. Your chest tightens.”
He admits the chance to loosen up and play an action role for the first time was hugely rewarding.
“Getting to do action at my age – there aren’t many years left [to do that] unless I’m on the Tom Cruise diet – so I’m counting my blessings. I’m saying, ‘Hell yes!’ to these movies.
“These are the kinds of movies I watched as a kid, very highadrenalin escapism and getting to do that and be a part of that is pretty gratifying.”
It’s true that Jon’s career is back in high gear again, but he’s well aware that success has come at a terrible personal cost once before.
Back in 2015, just as his career had peaked with the wrap of the successful seventh season of Mad Men, he split from his partner of 18 years, writer-director Jennifer Westfeldt, and went into rehab for alcohol addiction.
He admits he is still on his own and has been open about his difficulty adjusting to single life. “It’s hard. It’s hard to be single after being together for a long time. It’s really hard. It sucks.”
He has never gone into details about his rehab, but he is outspoken about the benefits of therapy.
“Medical attention is medical attention, whether it’s for your elbow or for your teeth or for your brain,” he says. “And it’s important. We live in a world where to admit anything negative about yourself is seen as a weakness, when it’s actually a strength. It’s not a weak move to say, ‘I need help.’ In the long run it’s way better, because you have to fix it.
Therapy, he says, is “like going to the dentist. If you can afford it, why wouldn’t you?”
If only his alter ego Don Draper had had the same openmindedness. Does he miss him?
“I miss the people who I don’t get to see nearly enough because they’re all scattered across the globe. Do I miss Don? We had an amazing, significant, very important time together, he gave me this career that I have, it’s all down to him.
“I don’t miss the heavy load that came with playing an often quite despondent character that came with a lot of emotional
I don’t miss the heavy load that came with playing an often quite despondent character.
Getting to do action at my age… I’m saying, ‘Hell yes!’ to these movies.
baggage. But it’s 10 years of my life, where I wouldn’t change one thing.”
The last time we saw Don, in the final episode of Mad Men, he was finding inner peace at an ashram. Does Jon think he maintained this new path to inner solace?
“Nope!” he says, and laughs. “He went back to exactly who he was, because that’s who he is. I know he had his Zen moment, but c’mon, there’s no way. I think he’s far too damaged, far too long in the tooth. It was a great, very poetic, symbolic ending. I was a big fan, but if we’re speaking in the long term, Don is Don, he’s who he is.”
It has been important for Jon to play beyond Don, and not repeat himself.
“I’ve devoted enough time to one character. Eight months of the year for a decade. I hazard to say that’s enough. Even if I was offered on a silver platter an exceptional variation, amazing writing, brilliantly formed, I still might have to move on. There would always be that comparison with what went before, which was – and I’m not afraid to say so – the role of a lifetime.”
He admits he was offered a few of those roles straight after Mad Men ended.
“Oh yeah. A lot. They want you again and again for the same type of part – smoking cigarettes, looking suave, wearing a hat, he’s great with the ladies – until you’ve been used up and spat out and you never work again.
“Some people have followed that path, and are happy with the outcome – good for them. But it’s not for me; Don Draper is a character I played, he’s not who I am.”
If the acting gig doesn’t work out, though, there are plenty of other options.
Jon has been a teacher, a waiter, and worked on a porn film as a set dresser.
“It was soft porn. Very, very soft porn,” he defends, laughing. “And that I will never be doing again! But I’d go back to waiting. I always liked working in restaurants, I liked being surrounded by that humanity.”
Teaching, he says, is his fall-back career. “I loved it, and I’ve often thought about going back. I probably will; I’d like to.”
His chiselled good looks could easily have seen him typecast, so Jon has welcomed the chance to break out of the Mad Men mould.
CLOCKWISE FROM ABOVE: Jon as Don Draper, the Mad Men role that made him famous. With former partner Jennifer Westfeldt – the couple split in 2015 after 18 years together. Jon with his Mad Men co-stars. In the 2016 actioncomedy Keeping Up with the Joneses with Gal Gadot. Ansel Elgort and Jon in Baby Driver (see Kate Rodgers’ review of the movie on page 161).