Af­ter the fall,ll, stand­ing tall ll

Jon Hamm look­sooks be­yond Mad Men

The Guardian Weekly - - Front page - Sanjiv Bhat­tacharya

Jon Hamm and I are at lunch to dis­cuss his lat­est movie, Baby Driver, from the direc­tor Edgar Wright. But, of course, we’re talk­ing about Don Draper in­stead, the ex­is­ten­tial ad man that Hamm im­mor­talised in Mad Men. Jones in West Hol­ly­wood is a very Mad Men restau­rant. “You re­mem­ber the fall­ing man?” he says. He means the open­ing cred­its where an an­i­mated Draper falls through the air. “He falls and falls and then lands on the couch sit­ting per­fectly. That’s Don’s jour­ney. Straight down and then pulling up at the bot­tom.”

As Draper, Hamm’s jour­ney lacked that per­fect fin­ish. It was an as­cent from ob­scu­rity to star­dom but, in the fi­nal sea­son of Mad Men, as his ca­reer was peak­ing, his life-chang­ing role came to an end, he split up with his part­ner of 18 years (the ac­tor and direc­tor Jen­nifer West­feldt) and he went to re­hab for drink­ing. It looked like things were un­rav­el­ling.

“I can see why peo­ple would think that,” he says, brow fur­rowed. “But it’s not domi­noes fall­ing. It’s one chap­ter clos­ing and an­other be­gin­ning, and as hard as it is to go through, it’s ul­ti­mately healthy and nec­es­sary.” Not a midlife cri­sis then? “No, but a ma­jor shift. Get­ting fa­mous, com­ing off a reg­u­lar sched­ule on a show, com­ing out of a long-term re­la­tion­ship, get­ting older. It’s a re­arrange­ment of stuff that was in a spe­cific or­der be­fore. And that takes some get­ting used to.”

He looks big­ger than he does on TV – 1.9 me­tres and 90kg, square-shoul­dered and square-jawed. Hand­some, but in a weary, un­shaven way, as though life sits heav­ily on the shoul­ders some­times, hand­some or not. And it’s a look that serves him well in Baby Driver, a blast of a movie, in which he plays Buddy, a Wall Street type whose midlife cri­sis has led him to join a gang of rob­bers led by Kevin Spacey.

“I saw him as a hand­some thief in that tra­di­tion of Steve McQueen in The Get­away, or Ge­orge Clooney in Out of Sight,” says Wright, “but with a much darker un­der­cur­rent.” He wrote Buddy with Hamm in mind. They’ve been friends for years, ever since meet­ing at an af­ter­party for Satur­day Night Live, when Hamm hosted in 2008. Prac­ti­cally neigh­bours in Los Feliz in LA, they’d go for drinks at a lo­cal restau­rant called Lit­tle Dom’s. “I just gave Edgar a ring: ‘Hey you want to grab a drink?’” says Hamm. “Be­cause if you’re not work­ing in LA, you’re not do­ing any­thing.”

But Buddy is only a sup­port­ing role – Ansel El­gort is the driver of the ti­tle. This has largely been the way with Hamm’s movie ca­reer, from Brides­maids and The Town, up to Ab­so­lutely Fab­u­lous and Keep­ing Up with the Jone­ses, and he is fine with it. “Sure, it’d be fun to do a big fran­chise movie, or an­other pres­tige TV series, but mostly I just grav­i­tate to­wards peo­ple whose work I find … non­tra­di­tional,” he says. Peo­ple like Wright, or Char­lie Brooker – he’s ap­peared in the TV show Black Mir­ror.

Wright wrote Buddy as a char­ac­ter with a dark side. He starts off as El­gort’s ally, but ends up try­ing to kill him. “That’s what Matthew Weiner [the creator of Mad Men] saw in Jon, too,” he says, “a hand­some, strong male with se­crets.”

In per­son, though, Hamm’s not es­pe­cially se­cre­tive. He’s happy to talk about the ther­apy he went through af­ter Mad Men, for in­stance. “I know in Eng­land you say ‘ther­apy’ and peo­ple are like, ‘Woah, are you OK?’ But here it’s like go­ing to the den­tist. If you can af­ford it, why wouldn’t you?”

He learned the im­por­tance of struc­ture, a morn­ing rou­tine and sched­ule. “I used to have six to eight months of ev­ery year all planned out, and then it evap­o­rated,” he says. “Some peo­ple im­me­di­ately build the scaf­fold­ing back up, but I’m more sub­ject to in­er­tia – a day turns into a week turns into a month and then you can’t see the shore any more.”

You can hear the ther­apy in the way he talks. He wants to avoid “pat­terns that are repet­i­tive and de­struc­tive” and in­stead choose “in­spi­ra­tion and cre­ativ­ity”. And this in­volves “en­gag­ing with life”, which is trick­ier for Hamm than for most. Even just com­ing to the restau­rant to­day from a photo stu­dio five min­utes’ walk away, he chose to drive rather than walk past a build­ing site.

“It’s weird that that’s the re­ward: ‘Oh you did a great job at some­thing, so we’re go­ing to hound you in pub­lic so that you feel ev­ery move you make is watched,’” he says, only partly amused. “Go­ing through that for the first time at 35 was like: ‘Woah!’ Now I can clock if I’m be­ing pho­tographed from across the street. I just try not to pick my nose.”

Like Don Draper who has some­thing of a spir­i­tual awak­en­ing at the end of Mad Men, Hamm also speaks of a Zen ap­proach to life and en­joy­ing “the now”. “Don’t worry about what hap­pened a year ago, or what movie I’m go­ing to get next. Ac­tors get wrapped up in all that and miss that it’s a beau­ti­ful day out­side. My fo­cus is on be­ing present. Be here now. Which is a great al­bum ac­tu­ally.” So no plan? “Well I’m not a rud­der­less sk­iff, but I don’t waste en­ergy wor­ry­ing about it. I have so lit­tle en­ergy as it is.” He grins. “I’m a big nap guy.”

One can’t be­grudge Hamm a nap af­ter the road he’s trav­elled. Born in St Louis to a sec­re­tary mother and a fa­ther who ran a truck­ing busi­ness, he was two when they di­vorced, 10 when his mother died of cancer and by 20, he’d lost his fa­ther and grand­mother, too, who had played a sig­nif­i­cant role in rais­ing him. “That’s what’s bit­ter­sweet about my success,” he says. “My par­ents never got to see it.”

You can hear the ther­apy in the way he talks. He wants to avoid ‘pat­terns that are de­struc­tive’

For two years, he lived in his col­lege room-mate’s par­ents’ house, in the base­ment, even­tu­ally find­ing a job as a high-school drama teacher. Then af­ter a year of that, he de­cided to give Hol­ly­wood a try, mov­ing in with an aunt in Sil­ver­lake. If it didn’t work out in five years, he told him­self, he could al­ways come back and teach.

For years, he got nowhere. “Paul Rudd was my one con­tact, and he was a big deal al­ready – he was off to do Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet. So I said: ‘Look, I’m only go­ing to ask one thing and that’s it – just give me a num­ber to call.” That led to Hamm’s first man­ager, who led to his agent at Wil­liam Mor­ris, and then three years of au­di­tions with­out a sin­gle bite. Then he lost his agent. It was around this time he worked as a set dresser on a porn film, in be­tween wait­ing ta­bles. And look how things came around. “I worked at a restau­rant down­town where the park­ing lot we used be­came the stu­dio where we shot Mad Men.”

There were tough years. De­spon­dent. “Watch­ing other peo­ple suc­ceed while you’re stuck is hard,” he says. But his per­sis­tence paid off. He went from his first credit on Ally McBeal as “Gor­geous Guy at the bar” to a TV series, Prov­i­dence, which af­forded him his first house in Los Feliz, where he lived with West­feldt. They hung out with a com­edy crowd back then – David Cross, Jack Black, Pat­ton Oswalt. Hamm has been a com­edy guy ever since. Tonight, in fact, he’s off to do some im­prov for some friends.

“Jon’s com­edy chops are not in ques­tion,” Wright says. “He’s very dry, very quick. When he hosted SNL, Lorne Michaels [the pro­ducer] took to him im­me­di­ately and Jon did 30 Rock, The Un­break­able Kimmy Sch­midt … It’s rare to find a dra­matic ac­tor who’s also funny. Hand­some peo­ple aren’t usu­ally funny ei­ther.”

When I put this to Hamm, though, he bris­tles. “That’s cer­tainly not been my ex­pe­ri­ence. Kris­ten Wiig is a beau­ti­ful lady and she’s one of the fun­ni­est peo­ple I know. And Tina Fey, Amy Poehler …” And men? “OK, well, Aziz An­sari is a hand­some man.” Aziz An­sari? “Yeah. And Tom Cruise is re­ally funny. And Ge­orge Clooney, Matt Da­mon …”

At 36, he be­came a by­word for a kind of un­apolo­getic mas­culin­ity, a pre-fem­i­nist phi­lan­derer with a tumbler of liquor in his hand. He was in­vited to the White House to meet Barack Obama and rub shoul­ders with Jay Z. And as a late bloomer Hamm surfed the wave with­out los­ing him­self. As Wright says: “Ac­tors who find success late are of­ten very grate­ful. It adds to Jon’s wry take on life.”

The im­pact of Mad Men makes him qui­etly proud. “It’s a mo­ment peo­ple will re­mem­ber. And I was happy that I was good in it. No­body wants to be like the worst guy on the field. Oh God, don’t pass to him …”

But he checks him­self. “I’m not rest­ing on my lau­rels, I prove my­self ev­ery day …” And we’re back to liv­ing in the now. Em­brac­ing the present.

There are films in the pipe­line – a thriller with Rosamund Pike, a drama with Cather­ine Keener – and a cou­ple of oth­ers on the boil, “but I don’t spend ev­ery wak­ing hour try­ing to wres­tle them into ex­is­tence.” He has no plans to di­rect hav­ing di­rected a cou­ple of episodes of Mad Men. And he doesn’t pine for the dizzy heights of Mad Men ei­ther, though he sus­pects that kind of cul­tural im­pact is the do­main of tele­vi­sion more than movies these days. “The age of the in­deli­ble movie per­for­mance, like The God­fa­ther, is in re­ces­sion. But it’ll be back. Even pleated trousers are com­ing back.”

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