Thursday, December 21, 2017

Mad Men is back! / Don Draper / A man to project your fantasies on

January Jones and Jon Hamm
Mad Men

Mad Men is back!

With the long-awaited fifth season beginning next week, Guardian writers meet the actors who play their favourite characters in the show

Stuart Jeffries, Kira Cochrane, Tim Jonze, Esther Addley and Sarah Phillips

Wednesday 21 March 2012 20.00 GMT

Don Draper
A man to project your fantasies on

What's it like to be too handsome? The actor who made his TV debut as "gorgeous guy at bar" in Ally McBeal in 1997 stops fiddling with his bagel and looks at me glassily across the coffee table of a Soho hotel room. "That's ridiculous. What's too good-looking? That's a ridiculous thing to say. There's no such thing as too good-looking."
Isn't there? Maybe there is. There was, reportedly, a moment in 2007 when creator Matthew Weiner and director Alan Taylor hesitated over casting him as the lead in Mad Men. Was this guy, with his lantern jaw, bedroom eyes, covetable hair and other annoyingly scintillating attributes, too damned perfect to play Don Draper? Maybe they should go back to one of the 79 other actors who had auditioned for the role.
Was it like that? Hamm shakes his head. "It wasn't like they came up to me and said: 'So Jon we would like to cast you but ...' That seems silly in many ways because I'm not ..." He pauses for ages, pours a coffee and sips it. Hamm speaks very, very slowly during this interview in a pleasing baritone as though he's the lead in The Leonard Cohen Story (which, incidentally, must happen: imagine Don Draper trying out Famous Blue Raincoat on his girlfriend in a freezing 4am New York apartment).
Not what? "... I'm not Brad Pitt, for God's sake." This is true in a trivial sense. But also false in a more substantial one. When a Newsweek reporter was asked to research an article headlined Why the Ladies Love Jon Hamm a couple of years ago (tough gig), she heard the following from friends: "He looks like he would know how to throw me to the wall and do me right" and "He has that whole 'strap a sword to me, I'll cut down men and then ravish you' thing." Aren't these precisely the fantasies that Pitt, certainly circa Thelma and Louise if not Tree of Life, unleashed among his target demographic?
When I put this to Hamm, he smiles Oliver Hardy's dainty smile and plays with his meal prissily. He talks like Kris Kristofferson on downers and eats breakfast as if a graduate of Little Lord Fauntleroy's Finishing School. Hamm's wearing a button-down plaid shirt, blue jeans and a brown jacket – the sort of blah outfit you can pull off if you can look in the mirror and think: "Clooney isn't all that." He looks younger, more boyish, less self-assured but more carefree than Draper.
"I think a component of this character," Hamm replies finally, "is that he is presentable in the world and Matthew saw that in me – that he's a person in the room who maybe you wanna talk to. Or you're attracted to or whatever it is. And I'm glad to have that capacity."
This is why the last time we saw Don Draper, in the finale to season four, was such a disappointment for so many women (and no doubt men). There, you remember, he proposed to and was accepted by his secretary Megan rather than choosing Dr Faye Miller, the no less gorgeous but more intellectually, and probably emotionally, challenging shrink. "Even though Don ended up making this overture to Megan," said Matthew Weiner, "and the audience felt sort of peculiar about it, so did the people in the office." Peggy (the clever and idealistic copywriter) even had to be counselled by Joan (the voluptuous and pragmatic secretary) for the affront to having her illusions shattered.
Don, I suggest to Hamm, went for the easy option, choosing the 25-year-old cutie on the other side of the office wall who could manage his kids and work schedule, rather than the woman who might tear his world up into interesting shreds. "I agree with everything that you say, but I don't write the story. That is part of the reason why we are challenged and why we are fascinated by this man. Over the first four seasons we came to see how he chose Betty and how he came to be with Betty. I think what Matt did really wonderfully was to show how cyclical these things are. Early in the season when Dr Miller said: 'Guys like you are married in a year. Don't worry about it,' Don is taken aback. But it turns out to be true. At the end of the season Joan says practically the same thing to Peggy: 'Why are you surprised? And why do you care? Who gives a shit? You can't be so affected by this.'" Don, that's to say, isn't as interesting as our romantic projections.
So is he resentful that Weiner took his character in a direction he may not have liked? "I can't be that. I've given over to Matthew, I think wisely, complete domination and ownership of Don. This sounds strange but he's the creator and he's the guy who moves the chess pieces and I'm here to service that."
Insanely, we're meeting so Hamm can promote a season he can't tell me anything about. "If I did spill, you'd love it!" he says. Does Don marry Megan? Does he get it on with Peggy? Or Joan? Roger Sterling? "It'd be more fun to talk about it after it's happened so that you could ask: 'What were you thinking? Why were there dinosaurs? And then there were the Muppets and the episode when you were all skating, that was ridiculous." Just reveal something! Hamm gives me his taut-lipped, raised-eyebrow look. He even knows how Mad Men will end in three seasons' time, but of course won't say.
Is he worried about being typecast as the mohair-suited lothario? "I get 60 or so scripts about sharp-suited ad men in the 60s, sure. But I'm never going to do that again. This is something that very well could have been a pilot, nothing more. The reason I pursued it was that I was fascinated by this character from the pilot and I think I can say that that fascination has resonated for more than a few people. I don't think I've necessarily been pigeonholed but I could have been. I think with the good graces of other people who have helped me, I've been able to take on other roles almost diametrically opposed to Don Draper."
He means, among other things, his comic performances in Tina Fey's sitcom 30 Rock and in the Kristen Wiig-scripted film Bridesmaids. "When those people say, 'Hey, do you wanna come play in our sand box?' you go: 'You kidding me? Yeah!' I didn't stumble into those things." (It's striking that two brilliant women comedy writers re-imagined Hamm by riffing, probably not unconsciously, on Don Draper's sexy persona.)
Managing his career to ensure he doesn't get stereotyped is a problem Hamm never expected to have. The St Louis-born, English-lit grad arrived in Hollywood aged 25 with a five-year-plan. If he didn't make it in acting by 30 he would leave town and do something else. For the life of him, Hamm says, he can't imagine what. During those five years he waited tables, worked as a porn movie set designer ("I moved furniture around sweaty naked people") and played bit parts in TV shows and films of mostly dubious merit.
Today, 41, he has arrived. He's hungover from partying at the Baftas. "I was standing next to Stephen Fry and I thought 'Wow! I can't believe I'm doing this.'" Presumably Fry thought the same thing? 'I don't think so. But still I just flashbacked to my 19-year-old self pirating Fry and Laurie videos."
Only after the interview do I realise how much sense it makes that Jon Hamm loves Fry and Laurie. After all the double act did proto-Mad Men in their sketch as two crazy businessmen, drinking huge 10am whiskies, bawling business things that don't, ultimately, make sense, and fretting about women (Marjorie in Stephen Fry's case). Maybe mid-80s Uttoxeter wasn't so unlike mid-60s Madison Avenue.
Hamm has teamed up again with Bridesmaids stars Wiig and Chris O'Dowd, as well with Megan Fox, for the upcoming Friends With Kids, a film written and directed by his partner of 14 years, Jennifer Westfeldt, which he co-produced. Its premise is that a pair of thirtysomething best friends notice the toll that having kids has taken on the couples they know and resolve to bypass that stress by having a child and then having a platonic relationship while dating other people. Like that's going to work. Was that a phenomenon he and Westfeldt noticed among their friends? "There are parallels. Jennifer would say that she was inspired by true events." Would he ever consider a similar arrangement? "What – having a kid with Jen and then leaving her for someone else? That, my friend, is not on the agenda. She's a truly inspiring and talented and amazing woman. I have this thing for strong women, you see."
Unlike, it seems, Don Draper.
Stuart Jeffries

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