There's a moment in season four of Mad Men when Don Draper (Jon Hamm) goes visibly gooey at the prospect of seeing a film starring Catherine Deneuve. The feeling is mutual. Sort of. Speaking to this newspaper in 2011 – while defiantly smoking on the balcony of a London hotel – Deneuve sounded like a swooning schoolgirl on the subject of Mad Men. "Don Draper! Jon Hamm! Now that's what a man is supposed to look like."
“That’s incredible,” says Hamm, when I inform him about his celebrity admirer. “Bonkers! Who would have thought it? I’m just some guy from Missouri.”
Old-fashioned masculinity hasn't always worked in Hamm's favour
Had Hamm been born a few decades earlier, he might have made a terrific onscreen romantic partner for the French grande dame. In common with George Clooney, he has a chiselled squareness that seems to belong to a different, silver-screened age. "He was the only person I saw that I felt had this old-fashioned masculinity," Mad Man series creator Matthew Weiner told Vanity Fair in 2009. "He reminded me a little of James Garner, or William Holden, or the other movie stars that I loved who were Boy Scouts."
That old-fashioned masculinity hasn't always worked in Hamm's favour. He spent most of his 20s failing to land acting jobs. Aged 25, he worked as a set dresser on a soft-core porn film. The following year he landed his first credited role as "Gorgeous Guy at Bar" in an episode of the legal drama Ally McBeal. He was 29 before a 19-episode story arc on NBC's firefighter drama, Providence, allowed him to quit waiting tables, and 35 before Mad Men brought him international recognition.
He’s happy to have been a late bloomer: “Who knows what I would have been like if I had been famous at 20?” he says. “I know other people that really struggle with being in the public eye. And I struggle with it. It’s a tremendously challenging life in some ways. Having people say things about you that aren’t true or people making assumptions about you. Those things can be difficult. I’ve met Saoirse Ronan. She’s been famous since she was 12 and I’ve no idea how she’s the well-adjusted person that she is. She’s my hero. I have nothing but respect.”
A difficult childhood
Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner has often spoken of Hamm's vulnerability as the deal-breaking factor in his casting. Hamm certainly had a difficult childhood. His parents divorced when he was two and he was raised by his mother in St Louis, Missouri, until her death from colon cancer when he was 10 years old. His father died when he was still at college.
“There’s some quality I have that resonates with people,” he says. “I don’t know if that’s endemic to how I grew up. I just know that this is the one thing I’ve done in my life that I kept getting compliments for and that people encouraged me to keep doing. I was raised by a single mom so it was very much me and my own thoughts a lot of the time. I always had a very active imagination and was encouraged from a very young age to sing out. I’ve never been shy about expressing my opinion or standing in front of people. I had great teachers and I was encouraged at every step.”
I'm fortunate just to be in the room and be considered for the things that I am. You just pinch yourself and think 'wow'
He's been acting since he was six years' old, when he played Winnie the Pooh in a school production. After graduating from the University of Missouri in 1993 with a degree in English, he returned to his old high school to teach drama. One of his students was Ellie Kemper, who he'd later work with on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. In 1995, he quit teaching and relocated to Los Angeles with a car and $150 in his pocket. There were lean years ahead, but he kept on hoping to catch a break.
“I never got to despondency because I always had just enough affirmation to keep me going,” says Hamm. “I never felt like Sisyphus pushing a rock up an impossible incline.”
Post-Mad Men, many Hamm watchers have wondered about his career. "Jon Hamm Is a Great Actor, So Why Can't He Find Another Great Role?" asked a Variety headline last year.
Hamm may not be headlining tent-pole releases, but he has found plenty of interesting roles in the independent sector, essaying Allen Ginsberg's lawyer in Howl (2010), an animator in Ari Folman's experimental, The Congress (2013), and playing the holographic companion of an Alzheimer's patient in Marjorie Prime (2017).
“I just know that I have wildly disparate interests and tastes,” he says “I’m fortunate just to be in the room and be considered for the things that I am. You just pinch yourself and think ‘wow’.”
He's also game for larger ensembles, including Edgar Wright's Baby Driver, the incoming Bad Times at the El Royale, and Tag, a new knockabout comedy starring Hamm, Ed Helms, Jeremy Renner, Jake Johnson, Annabelle Wallis, Hannibal Buress, Isla Fisher, Rashida Jones, and Leslie Bibb.
I know there is a whole generation now that thinks in likes and clicks. That's part of the job of being an actor now
The playground game depicted in Tag began among 10 students at Gonzaga Preparatory School in Spokane, Washington, in the 1980s. Almost four decades later and they're still playing and going to extraordinary lengths to catch one another. One player was tagged at his father's funeral. Others have worn elaborate disguises. Their antics were chronicled in 2013 Wall Street Journal story titled "It Takes Planning, Caution to Avoid Being 'It'." The tag players sold the rights to their story the following month.
“I read the article the movie is based on first, long before I read the script,” says Hamm. “And I was like, ‘This is a really cool story’, And I came away from it thinking like, ‘I want to hang out with those guys’. The article opened like the film does, with somebody jumping out on this high-powered mid-town executive. There’s nothing funnier than seeing a grown-ass man in a suit playing this ridiculous game. There’s an infectious joy about it. I loved the idea of real people physically connecting and that it keeps them bonded.”
Hamm has proved his comic chops before, working on 30 Rock, The Sarah Silverman Show, and SpongeBob SquarePants. Tag required new levels of goofiness and dog-piling.
It was a good group for dog-piling and chasing, he says. "I had a blast. I've known a lot of these guys before. I worked with Renner on The Town and with Isla. But I also knew Ed and Hannibal and Jake through various social connections around the way and I knew that they were all kindred spirits."
The physicality of the game at the heart of the film dovetailed with Hamm’s own distaste for social media.
“I don’t know how people do it,” he says. “It’s just not part of my vocabulary. I know there is a whole generation now that thinks in likes and clicks. That’s part of the job of being an actor now. It’s part of the business model and part of getting a movie out there. But it’s a virtual world that I don’t engage with or understand.”
In the days before I interview Hamm, I revisit Mad Men, a show powered by rampant misogyny, constant philandering, and secretary wrangling. The very first episode sees Hamm's Don Draper tell an unhappy female client that he "won't let a woman talk to him this way". In fact, instead of seeing the Catherine Deneuve film in season four, Draper opts for Godzilla and dinner and booze with call girls. Part of the show's appeal was the inappropriateness of drinking scotch for breakfast and smoking in restaurants. But I'm still not sure it would have looked the same, or made the cultural impact that it did, in the post 'Me Too' era.
"I think that's probably right," says Hamm. "Me too and those movements are still very new so we don't really know where we are headed. I mean obviously these are great, welcome things because they're dealing with problems that have been around for a long time in the industry. But that might have made a lot of stuff in Mad Men more difficult."
Tag opens on June 29th
Those Mad Men and Women on film
Elisabeth Moss (Peggy Olsen)
Though TV viewers already knew her from The West Wing, Moss can claim to have got the biggest boost from Mad Men. Brilliant in Queen of Earth, The Square, High-Rise. Buried under telly awards for The Handmaid's Tale.
Christina Hendricks (Joan Holloway)
The heroic Joan figured on every newspaper masthead in the late noughties and Hendricks was propelled to roles in The Neon Demon, Drive and Sally Potter's underappreciated Ginger & Rosa.
John Slattery (Roger Sterling)
A character actor for decades, Slattery became busier still after registering as the most decadent partner at Sterling Cooper. Directed Hendricks in God's Pocket. Iron Man's dad. Ben Bradlee Jr in Spotlight.
January Jones (Betty Draper)
Betty was a controversial character – victim or menace? – and Jones has had a fitful career since the series launched. Emma Frost in The X-Men films. Co-lead in four seasons of Fox's The Last Man on Earth.
Jared Harris (Lane Pryce)
Perhaps the most established actor to gain an office in Sterling Cooper, Richard Harris's son went on to play Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows and Ulysses S Grant in Lincoln. Died bravely as King George VI in The Crown.