'People really needed convincing that they wanted me'
We know him as handsome Don Draper, Sixties ad man at the centre of the TV show Mad Men. But it took him seven auditions to land the part and, as he tells Chrissy Iley, he'd been toiling in Hollywood bit parts for years
Chrissy IleySunday 27 April 2008 11.02 BST
There are many things to love about Mad Men. Its impeccable style - the suits, the martinis, the ashtrays. The lighting (fluorescent office, amber nightclub), the permanent halo of smoke, the way women wear corsetry to work and are revered and despised in equal parts, the sexualised selling of ideas - all are period-perfect. It's a Polaroid of the advertising world of early Sixties Manhattan on Madison Avenue. It is politically incorrect and recreates an era where great change was about to happen but had not happened yet. It has the repression of the Fifties more than the swing of the Sixties. At the heart of the drama is Don Draper, rarely without a chunky glass of bourbon in one hand and a cigarette in the other. He has a Grace Kelly-style wife, a beatnik mistress and another lover, a gorgeous Jewish woman from the Upper East Side.
Draper is played by Jon Hamm. This year, he won the Golden Globe for best actor ahead of Hugh Laurie (House) and Jonathan Rhys Meyers (The Tudors). He is 37 and is being compared with George Clooney, who was about that age when he got his ER break and had similarly been toiling unnoticed in lesser-known US series.
I am waiting for Hamm in a cafe in Silver Lake, a boho-chic part of LA, wondering what he is going to look like without the suit and Brylcreemed hair. And here he is, as tall, lean and buff as could be in jeans, battered navy polo shirt, all unshaven and solicitous. How is my jetlag? How is my life? He recommends Devil's Nest, a scramble of avocado, sour cream, spicy sausage.
Hamm is not self-consciously Hollywood, showy or full of himself, which probably comes from several years working at the coalface of showbusiness and before that as a waiter and a teacher. 'I taught daycare when I was in college. I taught after-school stuff for little kids.
'I was a theatre major in college and they didn't prepare you for the massive amount of rejection you have to go through. Most people who are successful, like George Clooney and Brad Pitt, had to eat shit at a lot of auditions and still not get the parts. So you have to develop resilience. Especially for Mad Men, where it took seven auditions to get the part. People really needed convincing that they wanted me.'
The show was created and written by Matthew Weiner who was a writer and producer on The Sopranos. He pushed for Hamm despite the cable network's nervousness because this was the cable channel AMC's first foray into drama series and it wanted the security of a star name.
Hamm had been a regular for three years on a show called The Division. 'It was on a network called Lifetime, which is soft programming for women. It was a cop show, five women and me, but the women got to be much more macho than me. I was the slightly emasculated cop; now I get to be a little more masculine,' he says. But, he shrugs, he's no alpha male. 'I was raised by a single mother and I've been in a 10-year relationship with my girlfriend. My whole life I've been surrounded by women.'
Does he at all resemble the slick but haunted ad man Don Draper? 'The closest thing I have in common with Don is that I'm looking for something. If you look at the literature of the early Sixties, like Cheever and Updike, it's existentialist. People sitting around smoking, thinking 'what am I doing with my life?'. Postwar America was riding as high as it's ever ridden. It had an incredibly paternalistic sense of its place in the world. America was the good cop. It healed Japan after it had utterly destroyed it, protected the world from communism. Americans had money, ability to travel and see the world. And at the core of it was: I'm still not happy. What Don Draper is doing is trying to sell happiness because he can't buy it himself. I think that resonates.'
The eggs arrive and he eats heartily. Does he smoke as much as Draper? 'I gave up 10 years ago when I started teaching kids. I don't miss the hacking cough in the morning or the mouth that tastes like cat litter, but I miss it when I'm on this show. It's glamorous, I got to tell you. [They smoke a non-nicotine herbal blend.] In the show, we know smoking kills, but we don't give a shit. These guys had three-martini lunches... I appreciate alcohol. I love the place that alcohol holds in our society, but I'd never attempt to drink as much as Draper.'
Hamm may relate to the smoking and the drinking, but not to the way the women are treated. He is devoted to his girlfriend, the actress and writer Jennifer Westfeldt, while Draper and his colleagues spend most of their time humiliating women when they are not sleeping with them and even when they are. They refer to Peggy, his frumpy secretary, as 'a lobster. All the meat in the tail'. At one point, Draper says to one of his inamoratas: 'What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons.'
Draper sells lies for a living. He cheats. He is emotionally withholding, morally ambiguous, with a past he can't face up to, yet we can't help rooting for him. There's a genius in this portrayal. Hamm stares into his Devil's Nest. 'There's a vicarious thrill in it. When we see people misbehave, sometimes we want them to get away with it.
'I've gotten away with a lot in my life. The older you get the more you realise you're not getting away with it, it's taking its toll somewhere. So you try not to put yourself in those situations. Part of the mysterious process called growing up. Some people do that better than others. It's a daily struggle, especially in this city where everyone is a child and often rewarded for it.'
I tell him I cannot imagine him as a child. 'Well, I was forced to grow up very early because I lost my mother when I was 10. So that tends to take a lot of childhood out of the equation and you become very aware of adult things.'
Hamm's parents divorced when he was two and he lived with his mother. 'She died suddenly over the course of about three months. A stomach ache one day turned out to be an advanced cancer that spread rapidly through her internal organs. She had two-thirds of her colon removed and it killed her.
'When you are 10, you just don't have the tools to process it. You're coming home from playing kick-ball to talks about how they've got to set you up a trust fund [which paid for his high-school education]. I do have very good memories of being a kid running around, but that all pretty much got lost. It was hard to bounce back from losing my mum. It's an incredibly tough process and you see a lot of that in Don as well. His childhood was... ' He searches for the word. Tortured? 'Yeah.' This would be the moment where Don Draper would light a cigarette and smoke the pain away. Hamm dips his sourdough into his eggs and swills it about.
It must have been strange suddenly to go and live with his father? 'Sort of. Though I loved my dad and I would see him every other weekend. It wasn't like he was a guy I didn't know. He had not remarried, but he had two children from a previous marriage, one of whom was living with him, as well as my 80-year-old grandmother.
'My dad was in many ways essentially Don Draper. A businessman in the Sixties, very powerful, self-assured. I didn't find out about that when I was a kid. He passed away when I was 20. We didn't have a chance for many adult discussions or to deal with each other as adults. He was sick for several years. He just degenerated over the last couple of years until he passed away. He packed a lot into his 63 years. It was a hard life.'
Hamm came west to LA from St Louis in 1995, prepared for hard work. 'I tried to get my affairs in St Louis in order the last year I was there, but I was never very good with money and by the end of the summer I had saved only $150. Fortunately, gas was cheaper then and I made it here in my car. The car died an interesting death. I had $1,600 of parking tickets accrued in my first four or five years here and the good people of Los Angeles decided to take the car back on their own.'
In Los Angeles he lived in a big house, just down the road from where we are having breakfast, with four other guys. In those days, the eastern district of Silver Lake was not cool or sought-after. It was rough. 'It was a crazy house and it was so cheap even I could afford it. An 85-year-old woman owned the house. She was a soap actress who lived in New York and we were four guys, my size and bigger. But we broke so many pieces of furniture, these little-old-lady chairs you would sit on and they would crack. Plus we would have parties and the keg would leak. It was my job as the diplomat of the group to say to her, "Marilyn, we love you" and make her feel good. I was always the one who was behind on the rent. I was very proud that once I started working I was able to pay her back completely.'
Hamm now lives just down the road in his own place with his girlfriend. 'We met through some mutual friends at somebody's birthday party. We didn't really hit it off immediately. She thought I was a cocky asshole.'
Soon after, she called him from New York to ask if he would come over and work on a project with her. It started off as a sketch. She thought maybe it would be a play and it turned into the critically acclaimed movie Kissing Jessica Stein in 2001. 'I was working downtown as a set dresser for some very bad softcore porn when I got the call from New York. I was making $150 a day and my friend was the electrician, so we would share a ride to work. I would carry my little bucket around and move what needed to be moved, but I would be terrible at it. I would fall asleep in a corner and they could never find me. So when I got the call, even though we had not particularly hit it off, I was like, yes, anything but this. I had no money, no car and all these parking tickets. Anything to get out of here.
'I borrowed the money from a friend and went to New York and we did this cool little play which turned into Kissing Jessica Stein. That's when Jen and I became really close. A year after that, we started going out and that was 10 years ago. We just had our anniversary in Mexico. We had a blast. We very much complement each other in this insane industry. We live and we work it out together. It's been great.'
It sounds as if she was a grounding force in his life? 'It's hard when you move cities and don't have a lot of friends and you're just trying to keep your head above water and trying not to get caught up in all this bullshit, to go out on auditions and not be totally soul-crushed when you don't get it. Especially out here, especially in the television industry where they dangle all this in front of you...
'And then they pull it back at the last second every time. How many more times am I going to be like Charlie Brown trying to kick the football and have them pull it away again? A lot of people after five or six times think, this is not for me, I'm done. It is so arbitrary and capricious.'
'Eventually I got there. Everybody on Mad Men is at the top of their game and it feels great.' And is he happy? 'Absolutely I am. I have a pretty stable relationship that brings me love and happiness and comfort. I have a great house and a great dog.' He shows me a picture of a dog wearing a baseball cap.
What about babies? 'I don't necessarily want kids. A lot of our friends are having children and I don't know if it's for me. I haven't come down hardcore on either side of the argument. I think when people come from a stable family having children becomes a celebration and I'm not sure it would be that way for me.'
And perhaps, for the moment, being the main guy in the best show on TV is enough. 'It doesn't suck,' he admits.
With that, he picks up the bill for breakfast as if that's perfectly normal when, in fact, it's unheard of.
No Hollywood actor has even bought me a chai latte before. And then he offers to drive me home, as he doesn't want me to wait and call a taxi. I live half an hour away. We sit in his car listening to Steve Jones on the radio. How much better can it be?
Slices of Hamm: His life story
Born 10 March 1971 in St Louis, Missouri. His mother died when he was 10, his father when he was 20.
1995 Moves to Los Angeles.
2000 First TV role, as a firefighter in NBC's Providence.
2001 Starred alongside his girlfriend, actress Jennifer Westfeldt, in Kissing Jessica Stein.
2008 Wins best actor Golden Globe for his role as Don Draper in Mad Men.
He says: 'I'm not the kind of actor that craves attention 24-7 - but it's part of the deal. You're the leader on the set.'
They say: 'The sexual politics are remarkable; the sex is even more interesting, and the hot centre of it all is Jon Hamm.'
Salon.com, which last year voted Jon Hamm the sexiest man alive.
· Mad Men continues on Sunday nights on BBC4, 10pm and is repeated on BBC2 on Tuesday evenings, 11.20pm