'Mad Men': Jon Hamm On Directing, Megan And Don, Don And Joan And His Future On TV
If there's one thing "Mad Men" actors have gotten good at over the years, it's giving interviews that don't give away too much about what's to come on the AMC drama. As fans of the show are well aware, creator Matthew Weiner hates the idea of even the time frame of the new season becoming public knowledge before the show's return, so there's little to no upside for actors who drop big clues about what will happen when "Mad Men" finally returns March 25.
But that's fine; as Part 1 of my interview with "Mad Men" star Jon Hamm showed, the four previous seasons of "Mad Men" supply a bountiful array of non-spoilery themes and ideas to talk about. And it's not as if Hamm doesn't address the new season in a big-picture way (he even talks about which episode will mark a Season 5 turning point). There are no spoilers, of course, but there is some food for thought.
In the second half of my interview with the actor, Hamm talks about what it was like to direct the third hour of the show's fifth season, the failure of Don's marriage to Betty, the ways in which "Mad Men" is and is not like "The Wire" and the Season 5 exploration of the relationship between ad man Don Draper and office manager Joan Harris. Hamm also discussed how long he thinks "Mad Men" should run and where he sees himself once the AMC show wraps up its run.
The interview below has been edited and slightly condensed.
What was the most challenging thing about directing "Mad Men"?
Well, it’s funny. What I thought was going to be the most challenging thing, wasn’t. I thought I was going to be just exhausted. I’d watched [John] Slattery [direct and act at the same time]. I'd watched ["Friends With Kids" director/actor Jennifer Westfeldt, Hamm's longtime girlfriend] do it, and I watched Ben Affleck do it. All three of those people I had worked with within a year, and I watched them all direct themselves, and I thought, "Man, how are they doing it? How are they staying awake?" Feature-film directing and television directing are two very different things, but when I watched all those guys do it, I was like, "I'm going to be tired."
What ended up happening -- and then I confirmed this with all those people -- is that you get so excited about what you’re doing that you get energized. It wipes out the fact that you have to be there for 14 hours and you’re tired.
I guess the hardest part was just kind of finding a confidence in the vocabulary of directing, and what was really helpful in that respect was we have a crew that now has been pretty consistent for the last three years. Even after the long hiatus, with people going and doing other things, we had something like 85 percent of our crew come back, which is a crazy high number, because people get jobs and people have kids and they move. When you’re off for a year, the world moves on. People have to pay the rent, but for whatever reason, the stars aligned and we got a lot of our crew back. So I had a lot of people watching my back.
I've been thinking a lot about Season 4 and the overall arc of the series. So much of the show to me is about not just finding other people to love, but I think for Don, it’s learning how to be loved -- how to just accept it and be okay with it and feel safe with it. And maybe Megan is his first step at integrating those ideas into his life. She might be someone who can love him in a way he can accept, in a way that feels safe.
I think that’s a good observation. Part of Don’s baggage is this sense of keeping everything so close to the vest. This was the fundamental issue with Betty -- there was no room to really be vulnerable or be loved, because it was all held back by this secret and not from an unwillingness to share, an unwillingness to open up.
Maybe he didn't feel fundamentally worthy of that relationship.
I think it’s a big part of it. There was the scene when Betty finds the box [of Dick Whitman documents] and confronts Don about it, and he's like, "When was I supposed to tell you this? On our first date?" She says, “Why? Did you think I wouldn’t love you?” And he says, "I didn’t think you’d ever love me." It’s heartbreaking and you’re like, "This poor idiot." Because she’s the prom queen and beautiful and Bryn Mawr and that whole thing.
When the show started out, Don looked like a million bucks and he had this interesting, complex life with so many women and so much success. And Season 4 was about just kind of kicking the crap out of everything he'd built and taking away everything he'd had. Is Season 5 another version of that? Is it what they would call in sports "a rebuilding year," or is it just its own thing?
I think it’s its own thing. We're not "The Wire." "The Wire" was amazing, but it was very much predicated on the fact that it was a totally different story every year -- [a group of] characters in a completely different thing with this very loose arc of the investigations. By end of Season 5 of "The Wire," whatever thread was started in Season 1, so much of that was gone. It was part of why that show was amazing -- it had the trust in its storytelling. This season is going to be about teachers, another season is going to be about politicians, another season is going to be about the docks. And it’s all about Baltimore. It’s all about why this city has failed in so many ways, and it was a great examination of that.
One of the reasons that television is an amazing way to tell a story is because over the space of 13 episodes, you can focus on one aspect of it, tell that story, and then next season, wipe it out, start again, tell a different perspective on it, take a different angle on it. We don’t do that. We have a much more, I think, consistent perspective in that, it’s about Don. It’s about Peggy. It’s about Roger. It’s these people, through their lens.
That said, obviously Season 1 is very different from Season 4. Season 3 is very different from Season 4 in many ways. Season 5 and Season 4, I think, are much more consistent in their perspective. In a funny way, and I talked about this with Matt, but Season 5 feels a lot more like Season 1. This is established. We’re not rebuilding in the sense of Season 4, when we just started a brand-new business and everything was new. Don was unmarried. Everything was in flux. Whereas this season, everything is relatively stable.
Obviously, we still have to generate business. We have to hustle for it. Relationships are trying to work and are failing or not, and it’s a challenge. But I was like, "This really feels like Season 1." It feels like we know these people and we’re moving through and then something will come out of left field and then it's, "Holy shit."
By this point in the show's life, there's a lot of interesting thematic ideas to talk about as well. I came across something I said in one of my episodic reviews, and it’s so pretentious, but I'm going to read back to you something I wrote: "Do people change or do they come up with strategies to deal with the defects and problems they can’t change? And does that itself constitute some kind of evolution?" To me, that’s one of the central questions of the show.
I think that’s a big part of it. And I think now, five seasons in, and five or seven years into the lives of these characters -- however long it’s been -- it's almost like a half a generation, basically. When you look at the first season and you look how young we all looked, you think, "Those were different people." Those characters were different characters in Season 1.
So to answer your question about whether people change -- I think yes, but I think often it’s more of an evolution, as you said, and more often the world changes around them. They adapt to it. It's the second part of what you said. They build a series of strategies to deal with their world constantly shifting, and that, in and of itself, constitutes change.
You know, I look at the Don and Megan relationship, and I'm like, "Is that best that we can hope for Don -- that he makes better mistakes?"
Sure. I mean, that’s kind of the best we can hope for anybody really. Just [that] your mistakes don’t cripple you or devastate the people around you.
I think back to that innocent, hopeful look on his face when he’s proposing to her, and it’s just such a beautiful, vulnerable side of him. But part of me is thinking, "You’ve known her for how long?"
And then there is the scene, the really great scene with when Joan and Peggy are like, "That’s the kind of person that person marries." They have this moment where they are like, "What is this guy doing?"
I read somewhere that you said you and Christina have a lot of scenes this season, and people were like, "Ohhh, what does that mean?"
What I said was -- of course, it was completely blown up -- and I stand by this statement because I think it's accurate, is that the Don-Joan dynamic is explored. [When I said that at an event,] a gasp went through the crowd, and I was like "What? They work together. They know each other. They’ve known each other for many, many years."
You know people want them to get together.
I think that’s crazy.
I understand that response, but there is that amazing scene in "Guy Walks Into An Advertising Agency" where they have this conversation, and there's this vibe between them. A warmth. As a viewer, you're thinking, "These two people, they’re scrappers. They’re self-reliant, and they get each other."
The interesting thing is that you say they get each other. I look at it this way: They know each other. They’ve worked together for a long time and all I can say is that we explore it. We explore that dynamic.
Only professionally. Right?
It’s interesting. It’s an interesting dynamic and I'm glad that Matt wanted to explore it.
You know Matt has said that he wants to do seven seasons, but when I talked to him, it sounded like he was open to the idea of doing more than that. He said of course he would talk to you about it, but is your feeling that seven seasons is about right?
I want to be done with the show when the show is done. I guess I've described it like taking a long journey. You want to take off. You want to fly safely and then you want to land the plane and then you’re done. Hopefully, you’ve gone from one place and arrived there safely. You never want to bail out and pull the ripcord and you don’t want to crash. You don’t want it to end in an unsatisfactory way.
Whatever Matt’s agenda is, he knows how to end the story. He knows how to land the plane, so whenever that is, I hope we don’t overstay our welcome. I mean, I love the British model of television -- two seasons and out.
You’ve obviously had a lot of opportunities aside from “Mad Men" the last few years. Do you think “Mad Men” is a one-of-a-kind thing and after this, you would just focus on film? Or do you not think about your career that far in advance?
Well, I'm a big fan of television in all of its capacities and I would happily work in television my whole life.
I would. I think that a big chasm between TV and film is eradicated at this point. There is no such thing as people who won’t do TV. There is no, "Oh, I'm a movie star, blah, blah, blah, I'm only in this, I don’t do this." We live in a world where media is so weirdly consumed now anyway. Movies are on your phone and TV is on planes, I mean, it’s just crazy.
So I think the distinction of small-screen stars and big-screen stars is gone. I've had an awesome time working on movies. It's a completely different pace. It's a completely different animal. It's a completely different thing and I love it, but it's not fundamentally different from television. And the fact that you get to sit with a character for so long over X amount of seasons on television as an actor is awesome, especially if it's a good character. It can be golden handcuffs, if it's something where you're maybe not as creatively fulfilled, but [if it's good,] I love it.
How do you think you’ve changed the most as an actor? Are there areas where you feel more secure and areas where you want to grow or stretch more?
You know, I think it’s mostly about finding a level of comfort with the character. I've always had a high level of trust for Matt, and I made that decision very early on -- that I was going to just let him drive the bus and tell the story. I think that trust was well-founded and well-earned, honestly. I watched how he did this and how he shepherded this story and shepherded this project and believed in me, picked me out of obscurity, essentially.
You go, "All right, you trusted in me. All I want to do is deliver, so I'm trusting in you and I know you want to deliver." We both had something to prove. I mean, he was coming out of David Chase’s shadow and I was a random TV guy, so we both had a lot on the line and I think that from that kind of crucible can come some pretty great stuff. We've done it now five seasons and I'm tremendously proud of it.
So as to how I've changed, I think I've just become really comfortable in portraying this guy, and I'm [still] surprised by what happens. I'm not comfortable to the point of laziness. That’s not the case. But for whatever reason, I'm very comfortable in this guy’s skin.
Do you ever get scripts where you’re like, "This is going to be a hard one"?
Wait until you see Episode 4. [Note: Episode 4 should air April 8.] And by the way, the fourth episode of the season always seems like, for whatever reason, a big episode for us. I think episode four [of Season 1] was "5G."
It was fifth, actually. But yeah, there's usually a big shift around that time of the season.
It’s always around that time when something -- some bump in the road -- happens and [this season], that was one of them. I was like, "Holy shit, this is weird."
When I talked to him, Matt was saying the show is going to throw big stuff at people this season.
You know what, my statement about being comfortable in Don’s skin is something that Matt is, I think, finding as well. I think he’s comfortable with his characters as well, and giving them room to breathe and room to do stuff. All of them, not just Don -- Peggy and Roger and Joan and Betty, everybody.
Stay tuned for my extensive interview with "Mad Men" creator Matthew Weiner, which will appear on Huffington Post TV in multiple parts beginning later this week.