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Mad Men Q&A

Mad Men Q&A

With John Hamm (Don Draper).

Jon Hamm (Don Draper) is the winner of a Golden Globe Award for his work on Mad Men. The critically acclaimed series – focusing on the world of a New York ad agency in the 1960’s – has also won the Emmy for Best Drama in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011, with Hamm himself receiving an additional eight Emmy nominations for his television work. He’s also enjoyed supporting roles in films: The Town (2010); Sucker Punch (2011) and Bridesmaids (2011).

Q: Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner has told us there’s never been a point where you’ve said: “Don wouldn’t do that”. Is that true? And are there times where you’ve thought, “Do I really have to do this?”

Both of those are true. I made the decision very early on, knowing the entirety of Don’s back-story when we were shooting the pilot, that Matt had a grasp on not only the character, but also how to tell the story. Living with a very talented actress and filmmaker (Hamm’s partner of fifteen years, Jennifer Westfeldt), I understand that it’s way better when it’s one person telling a story rather than a committee. So I decided that I would, in a word, trust him, and I think that trust has been borne out. There have been several times when I’ve opened a script and gone, “Okay, what are we doing? Where are we going with this?” But again, as an actor, just trusting the person who is creating the show is a lesson and it’s a lesson that I think a lot of people can learn. Trust the guy. If you want to be in business with him, trust him. Let him do his job. And conversely, let me do my job. Hopefully we’ll all get along and hold hands and sing songs.

Q: What can you tell us about your character in Season Six?

It’s a continuing exploration of the world we’ve set up and the characters that we’ve established. And I think that we’ve earned, hopefully, the right to continue telling that story and exploring these characters. We’ve set the story against the backdrop of an increasingly turbulent time, not only in American history, but in world history and culture. And I think that watching these people manage their way through this sort of shifting landscape lends an additional level of richness and resonance to the story. So that’s what we’re going to see. Also, Don’s not getting any younger. And neither am I by the way, which sucks. But it’s a continuing exploration of that. That’s all I can say.

Q: Is it a more intimate portrait of the character this season?

I think a big part of what we look at this season is mortality… Obviously Don is getting older and he’s continually surrounded by youth and the increasing importance of the culture of youth. So what does that say about someone who’s not young, his relevance in life? It’s almost like the aging lion who used to rule the pride and now is sort of decreasing in relevance. It’s by turns a fascinating, hopefully, and sad revelation, especially when it’s counterpointed with a character like Peggy or a character like Pete rising. Or even a character like Joan… These are all things that we explore in the season…

Q: Death has been looming over the show for some time. Last season, Lane committed suicide and there are rumors that Pete might do the same… Another rumor is that the show’s opening animation sequence is actually Don and that he’s going to commit suicide as well.

I think part of what makes it fun for us, as people who work on the show, is reading a lot of the speculation. What it really means is that people are invested in the show enough to write a three paragraph blog post on what they think everything means. That means that people will watch. It means that we’re doing our jobs, creating something that people want to take the time to investigate.

Obviously with Lane’s untimely departure last season and the imagery we have at the top of every show that creates a mood. We’ve been fairly consistent with that mood, hopefully not to the detriment of the show’s humour – which I think there’s a lot of – and the show’s honest emotional resonance. The image in the beginning is of course Don, but it’s also a fantasy and it’s also taking place in his head. It’s not a literal depiction of somebody falling out of a window because that doesn’t end on a couch. That ends in a puddle. These are people that have problems in their lives and they deal with them as best they can. Lane found himself in an unfortunate situation that he dealt with as best he could, or at least the best he thought he could, which was sad and terrible and tragic. Let’s hope there’s no more of that.

Q: Do you see Don as someone who likes himself?

I think Don likes himself sometimes. But I think everybody likes themselves sometimes. I really don’t know anybody that walks through the world 100% of the time thinking, “I’m amazing.” I think those people are crazy or delusional in some way, obviously. Even Donald Trump, I think, probably doesn’t like himself 100% of the time.

I think that’s a part of Don’s constant struggle – not only behaving in a way that is likable to himself and the people he’s surrounded by, but also choosing a path that becomes satisfactory and keeps him happy. I think that’s the central irony of the show. We have a person who is at the foundation, fundamentally, bifurcated. He is two people: Dick Whitman and Don Draper. Which one of those people will win? Is there a struggle? Does somebody need to win? Hopefully all of those questions will be answered by the end of… Not this season, but the next.

Q: Are you ready for a Mad Men movie? And how would you imagine Don Draper on the big screen – an existential hero, like he is, or more of a James Bond type?

If they ever make Mad Men the movie I hope they at least cast me in some part (laughs).They would probably cast somebody way more famous than me.

But I don’t know, honestly. I think the reason there are very few television shows that become successful films is that they’re completely different ways to tell a story. We’ve been fortunate to be on television when we have been on [the air]. I was saying this in an interview previously, but I think it’s interesting because our show’s success is because we’re in this particular television landscape where you don’t need 17 million people a week to be successful. You can have a significantly smaller number and yet still maintain the money that it takes to keep you on the air. Had our show been around 15 years ago or 20 years ago, it would have never been possible. It doesn’t appeal to enough people. But had our show come on the air 60 years ago, I think it would have been successful. I’ve been watching a lot of the old Twilight Zone recently. They’re these incredibly dense, unique stories that were on primetime and were watched by millions of people. There’s no way that show gets on the air now, but it was a huge success back then.

So I think that’s kind of why there probably won’t be a Mad Men movie. It’s hard to condense the world that we have into such a small package and make it appealing to the number of people that it needs to appeal to. There’s a reason that we’re going to watch Transformers movies until we all die. Because there’s endless iterations of that for 2 ½ hours that can crash into each other and entertain people. It’s just impossible to do it with our [show] and maintain the truth of story. We could turn Don Draper into James Bond, make him a spy and run around and kiss pretty girls and rappel down windows. But that’s not Mad Men. That’s James Bond. They have similar hair but that’s about it.

Q: The women in Don’s life aren’t happy, but he’s still the man every woman wants to be with. It seems like he’s not even happy himself, but men still want to be like him. What’s his secret?

I’m mystified by it. I’m just as mystified as you are. I find it fascinating and I don’t know the answer. I’ve asked this question in tons of interviews, why people find this guy to be any kind of role model or thing to look up to, other than the fact that he looks good in a suit, which is something I guess. But, you know, you’re right to say that the women very often in his life are confounded or confused or disappointed and that he himself is very confounded, confused and disappointed. I don’t know… I think there’s something fundamentally in Don Draper that people can identify with which is being maybe dissatisfied or seeking something or striving for something. I think we all have a little bit of that in us. And I do think he’s handsome and he has a nice turn of phrase. And he tends to get the girl and he tends to win the day. So there is that. It’s just the throwing up and passing out and getting beaten up and rolling cars and all that stuff that’s maybe less admirable in his character. Not to mention cheating on his wife… That part is less admirable. But let’s accentuate the positive. He looks good in a suit.

Q: Don Draper has this murky past that he’s trying to escape from. How much of that is a motivation in what he does?

I think less so now. At the beginning of the series when we first met Don we saw a lot of that anxiety about this past and what that meant. I remember having a conversation with Matt before Season Five. I said, “You know, it’s funny because the things you worry about at 40 are completely different things than the things you worried about at 20. And the things you worried about at 20, by the time you’re 40 you go, ‘Who cares’.” I think that Don finally went through a place where all of that stuff just mattered less and less until he came to Bert Cooper’s point of view, which was ‘Who cares.’ You are the guy you are in the room at any point in your life. The rest of it is noise. You either focus on the noise or you focus on your real issue.

So I think that murkiness of his past is much less. I think a big part of getting over that was Anna Draper passing away. I think that’s why it affected Don so viscerally when she did pass away, and we found out in the episode, The Suitcase, with Don and Peggy together. I think that that last kind of link to that – that specific, physical link to that past was finally severed. While it was incredibly emotional for Don, it was freeing in some way.

Q: We know Don is a cheater, but he believes in marriage. You’ve been in a long relationship in real life, but you never got married. What’s your own take about marriage?

It works for a lot of people. You know, it’s an institution for a reason. I think everybody should be able to get married, or not. Gay, straight – knock yourself out, enjoy it. If that’s your jam, do it. I don’t know. I’m not against it. I’m just not married.

Q: You mentioned Don’s infidelity, yet he’s remained faithful to his new wife. Were you pleased by that or surprised? 

I wasn’t surprised. What I think is the kind of death knell of any series television is when you start repeating the same things over and over and over again. It’s just boring as a viewer, as an actor, just seeing the same thing – what’s the point? So it was nice to see that shift, honestly…

Q: One of the things that Matthew Weiner has said about the show is that there are no villains. Every character has a reason for doing what they’re doing. What are the qualities that you most and least admire in Don Draper? Do you identify with any of them?

First of all, that’s a very salient observation about the show – there really are no villains. I mean you set up Pete as kind of a whipping boy, but he’s doing his job to the best of his ability and he’s very good at it. In many ways has saved the agency’s bacon more than once.

As for Don… The thing that I admire is his incredible creative capacity. It’s something that I aspire to have and to be creative in my chosen profession and to not settle or be happy with mediocrity. I think we’re in a world, at least creatively, artistically, that has so many outlets for expression that very often mediocrity becomes the standard of the day rather than excellence. And I think that Don strives for excellence. What I don’t like about Don is that he often succumbs to his demons instead of trying to rise above them and fight against them. And so do I identify with any of that? Do I identify with striving for excellence and fighting against demons? Sure. I’m pretty sure everyone here feels the same way.

Q: Matthew Weiner has said that you can’t tag a specific genre to the series. Do you agree? And what do you look for in roles outside of Mad Men?

I’ll answer the second one first – I don’t like to do the same thing over and over. When Mad Men first became successful, I was immediately offered every movie that was either a guy in a suit or the lothario who gets all the ladies. That was profoundly uninteresting to me because I got to do that at a very high level for the majority of the year. What I looked for were things like The Town, which was a more straightforward kind of cops and robbers, contemporary film. Or Bridesmaids, where I got to goof around and be a silly idiot – that’s going to be the title of my autobiography by the way, Silly Idiot…. Or 30 Rock or Saturday Night Live – things that were just different and exciting. I leave Don Draper over there and I get to do a vast sort of panoply of things that are exciting to me.

As for what genre our show is…  You know, it’s dramatic with comedic elements to it. It’s everything but sci-fi… Sometimes it feels like a soap, but sometimes it feels like a one act play. Sometimes it feels like a horror show and sometimes it feels like a 60s spy movie. I don’t think it’s any one thing. I think that Matt’s right. There’s not one thing you could say it is… We’re all incredibly lucky. We’ve been given this wonderful world, this wonderful sandbox to play in and I’ve been having a wonderful time doing it. And I look forward to keep doing it for another season and a half.

Q: Do many of the scripts you receive from the movie world pale in comparison to Mad Men?

Sure. I mean, you know, there are a lot of scripts out there and not all of them are great. But I think what we’ve been fortunate enough to have on the show is… It just raises our personal bar and I think that my bar is set very high if there’s something that I want to do. That doesn’t mean that I won’t do silly weird little one off projects – I mean, I’ve played a talking toilet (on the animated show, Bob’s Burgers). But I do have a much higher bar for things that I’ll do in a dramatic sense because life’s too short.

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