A whole new pitch as Jon Hamm faces life after Don
As the end approaches for Mad Men, Hamm takes his biggest film role yet, in baseball movie Million Dollar Arm. He talks about success, his sporting life, and ‘curious’ Daniel Radcliffe
Jon Hamm: ‘I don’t believe in this divide: that you’re either sporty or arty or mathsy or a dreamer.’ Photograph: Ian West/PA Wire
Jon Hamm with Madhur Mittal in Million Dollar Arm
Jon Hamm is almost 6ft 2in. But, in person, when he jumps to his feet, the process seems to take even longer than one might expect. Maybe it’s an attitudinal thing. The 43-year-old is, it soon transpires, a relaxed, thoughtful fellow, precisely the kind of “cooler head” he hopes may soon prevail in Missouri, the troubled state where he was born and raised.
Or maybe it’s just his inner sports billy. Even under today’s thicket of beard and tweed cap, he still looks athletic. His physical movements are precise and easy. The shoulders are broad. The tan says “outdoorsy”.
“I have always considered myself a bit of an athlete,” he nods. “Mostly I like to play sports because I really don’t like to work out.” He winks. “Of course, I wish I was a bit younger – less aches and pains – but such is life.”
He soldiers on, nonetheless, with golf, tennis and avid fandom. When he isn’t participating he can be found cheering for St Louis Blues in the National Hockey League and St Louis Cardinals in Major League Baseball.
Sure enough, he knows one ball from another: he gamely affects a goofy Liverpudlian accent to chat about soccer. It’s not the most convincing Scouse sound, but maybe that’s deliberate. Hamm has a commendably offbeat sense of humour, as evidenced by his involvement in such Adult Swim comedies as Metalocalypse, Robot Chicken and Family Guy. “Liverpool,” he grins endearingly, through a vaguely Mancunian brogue.
Biggest role yet
Ball-watching is a skill set that came in handy for Hamm’s biggest film role to date. Disney’s Million Dollar Arm is based on the true story of an unlikely, zany talent search for baseball prospects around the Asian subcontinent.
In it, Hamm plays JB Bernstein, a struggling sports agent who travels to India in the hope of finding a promising young cricketer who can be retrained in baseball. Using a national contest called the Million Dollar Arm, Bernstein soon discovers Rinku (Life of Pi’s Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh (Slumdog Millionaire’s Madhur Mittal) and brings the youngsters back to Los Angeles. Unhappily, life in Tinseltown is challenging for boys who have never previously ventured outside the rural villages where they were born. And baseball proves even tougher to master.
“The best analogy I can think of is, if I handed you a golf club aged 17 and you’d never seen one before,” he says. “You’re asking, ‘What is this?’ And I say, ‘Next year you’re going to play in the Masters.’ That’s never going to happen. It’s just not. It’s kind of impossible. I don’t want people to walk away thinking this is a sports movie. It’s more than that. It’s a true story. Having met Rinku and Dinesh in real life, I still don’t know if I can entirely get my head around the enormity of what they accomplished.”
Hamm’s CV stretches back to the late 1990s. He has worked in every corner of the industry: at 24, he started his LA stage career as Flavius in a production of Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens; at 25 he was a set-dresser on a softcore porn film.
Still, shooting in such locations as Lucknow and the Taj Mahal was unlike any previous movie experience on Hamm’s eclectic resumé.
“It was thrilling,” he says. “The very first day we were shooting, the door of the van we were travelling in opens and someone says, ‘There it is [the shooting location]’. And I looked. Where am I? What am I looking at? And the reason I couldn’t see is because it was a typical busy day in Mumbai. So there were 4,000 people between here and there. Okay then. I guess we’re doing this. Honestly. It was super-inspiring.”
The boy Radcliffe
He talks about returning home every day on the Indian shoot to binge on “Wikipedia and Google Maps fests”. He loves people with questions, he says. He seeks them out as collaborators. In this spirit, he has nothing but nice things to say about the artist formerly known as Harry Potter.
“I just spent the morning with Dan Radcliffe on a radio show,” says Hamm, who played the older version of Radcliffe in A Young Doctor’s Notebook, the 2013 drama inspired by Mikhail Bulgakov’s autobiographical accounts of morphine addiction. “Dan desperately wants to know everything. It’s the thing I like most about him on a very long list of things I like about him. He is incredibly curious. And this is a person who doesn’t have to be curious. He’s an inspiration.”
Jonathan Daniel Hamm treasures curiosity because, he explains, that’s how he was raised and educated. He was born in St Louis County, Missouri, and he still has relatives in Ferguson, where he used to cycle as a youngster. Recent events have not been easy to watch.
His family were German immigrants who ran a successful trucking company. Older relatives still hope he will become an engineer.
“There’s maybe an Irish great-great-grandfather somewhere in there,” he says. “But it was a very German upbringing.”
So that means he’s hard-working and industrious? “It could mean a lot of things,” he laughs.
Hamm’s parents divorced when he was two. He lived with his mother, Deborah, until her death from colon cancer shortly after his 10th birthday. He soon retreated into sports and was a member of the football, baseball, and swim teams at the private preparatory school he attended in the affluent suburb of Ladue.
Does that mean he was a jock?
“The interesting thing is that we were encouraged to do everything. I don’t believe in this divide that you’re either sporty or arty or mathsy or a dreamer. Because the way I was raised, you were supposed to be as many of those things as you could be.”
As a teenager, Hamm was cast as Winnie the Pooh and as Judas in Godspell. Acting was fun, although hardly as serious as football or swimming. It wasn’t until he finished his English degree and went to visit his old chum Paul Rudd out in Hollywood that Hamm started attending auditions. It was the early 1990s and pretty boyband types were all the rage. There was little room for what Hamm’s friend Sarah Silverman has described as his “Midwestern farm yumminess”.
Still, there was work as “That Guy” in a 1997 episode of Ally McBeal and as “Pilot No 2” in Clint Eastwood’s Space Cowboys and in indie comedy Kissing Jessica Stein, the 1997 film that introduced him to writer Jennifer Westfeldt, his domestic partner of some 14 years.
“As an actor, you just hope to keep working to get work. All of a sudden you work on something that becomes successful and that’s great. And if you work on something that gains awards or notoriety, that’s great too.”
In this spirit, he has featured in The Day the Earth Stood Still, Bridesmaids, A Single Man and The Town. None of these projects, however, have propelled him into the public eye quite like his star-making turn as the philandering, mysterious Don Draper in Mad Men.
“None of us take it for granted. We’re all incredibly humbled by the cultural impact the show has had. We’re defined by it. We’re all navigating the post-Mad Men era and wondering, will I forever be known for this? Or will it be the first step in a long career? We’ll see. Come back. Let’s talk in a year, shall we?”
Million Dollar Arm is on general release