Jon Hamm On The Evolution Of Don Draper On 'Mad Men'
Hamm has never won an Emmy despite 13 nominations, including two this year for Mad Men. In 2010, Hamm talked with Fresh Air about how Draper was "losing touch" with his life and the world around him.
Originally broadcast Sept. 16, 2010.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
We're concluding our Emmys series with another of this year's nominees, Jon Hamm. He actually had two nominations this year - for outstanding lead actor in a drama series for his performance as Don Draper on AMC's "Mad Men" and for his work as a producer on the series. He's received a total of 13 nominations during his career but has yet to win. The series "Mad Men" has won Outstanding Drama Series of four times. It was the first basic cable show to win that award.
"Mad Men" is about the professional and private lives of people in an advertising agency in the 1960s. Don Draper started off epitomizing the creative, troubled, handsome, sexist, cigarette-smoking, liquor-drinking men of the '60s. But then we slowly watch him repeatedly undermine himself and most everyone he cares about. Let's start with a classic "Mad Men" moment from the final episode of the first season. Don Draper's most famous advertising pitch - he's at a meeting with representatives from Kodak, pitching an ad campaign to launch their new slide projector, which is round, like a wheel. In fact, Kodak is calling it The Wheel. Midway through this pitch, Don starts showing slides which happen to be heartwarming old photos of his own family, but his marriage is actually falling apart.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MAD MEN")
JON HAMM: My first job, I was in-house at a fur company with this old pro-copywriter Greek named Teddy. And Teddy told me the most important idea in advertising is, new creates an itch. You simply put your product in there as a kind of Calamine lotion. We also talked about a deeper bond with the product. Nostalgia - it's delicate, but potent.
Sweetheart? (Fan-like noise from device operating as it's switched on).
Teddy told me that in Greek, nostalgia literally means the pain from an old wound. It's a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn't a spaceship; it's a time machine. It goes backwards, forewords. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It's not called The Wheel, it's called The Carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels. Around and around and back home again, to a place where we know we are loved.
GROSS: The first time I spoke with Jon Hamm, in 2008, he told me that he modeled some of the character Don Draper on his father.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
HAMM: My father was sort of a big-deal businessman in St. Louis in this time, in the '50s and '60s. And he was - worked for a company that his grandfather and his father had owned. So I – literally just looking through old photo albums, and I could see - I mean, here was this guy, this man who was the sort of master of his domain and the sort of ease with which he moved through this world. St. Louis is obviously a much smaller pond than Madison Avenue in New York City, but that kind of largesse and ease was a big part of what informed my interpretation of Don.
GROSS: I've got to ask you a question about that. Your character of Don has a way of kind of crossing his legs. It's a kind of power position for him. When he crosses his legs, it's like, I own extra space around me.
GROSS: I own all the space around my body. Did your father kind of sit that way?
HAMM: Yeah, he was a big guy. He was about 6'3", and he owned the space he was in. He was a very friendly, very gregarious, very fun, very funny guy, but he also had, you know, a lot of sadness in his life. My father met my mother, who was a secretary, and they got married, but my mother was my father's second wife. His first wife died at a very young age, and my mother, his second wife, also died at a very young age. So this is a man who had a tremendous amount of sadness for being in such a sort of powerful and elevated position in his life. He did have a lot of sadness.
So I didn't have to look too far to find any kind of inspiration for this guy. And you know, my father passed away when I was 20. So it's a drag that he doesn't get a chance to see this because I think he would really enjoy the result.
GROSS: Jon Hamm, recorded in 2008. I spoke to him again in 2010, when "Mad Men" was in its fourth season.
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GROSS: Now, you auditioned for the part of Don Draper six times, at least that's what I read. So when you were doing the audition, you had to portray a Don Draper confidence. But because you hadn't landed a really big role before, you were probably, as many actors are, insecure at the time of the audition. You were still a waiter, weren't you?
HAMM: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: Yeah, so you probably didn't have quite the confidence that you had to convey. Or maybe you did. But I'm wondering how confidence came into play during the audition.
HAMM: Well, you have to, I mean, as any actor, you have to - and this is successful, unsuccessful, working, non-working - you have to portray a sense of confidence. And if you have to manufacture it, if you have to fake it, if you have to drum it up from somewhere in your subconscious, you have to do it.
So I was - and I had worked as an actor and was on a television show and had a lot of experience. So I wasn't coming in fresh off the turnip truck, so to speak.
But auditioning is a terrifying process. And it's a really soul-crushing process sometimes because essentially what people are saying is not necessarily that we don't like your acting but we don't like you. And that's hard to take. But I really wanted to do it. And I thought the writing was excellent, as has been borne out, and I wanted to make the best of the opportunity. So I feel like I did represent confidence walking into the room, and the next seven times I had to walk into the room, I tried to be as confident as I could coming back.
GROSS: So you’re very funny at satirizing, you know, Don Draper and perceptions of you. You hosted "Saturday Night Live" a couple of times, and on one of those episodes you did a sketch called "Don Draper's Guide To Picking Up Women." I just want to play some of that.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And now, "Don Draper's Guide To Picking Up Women."
HAMM: (as Don Draper) Hello, I'm Don Draper and I've been fortunate enough to have affairs with many women. Some say, boy, Don, how do you do it? Well, it's simple. And you can do it, too, if you follow my four easy steps.
HAMM: (as Don Draper) Step one - when in doubt, remain absolutely silent.
KRISTEN WIIG: Hi, I'm Jessica.
WIIG: We're shy, aren't we?
WIIG: Marry me. I want to have your children.
HAMM: (as Don Draper) See? Step two - when asked about your past, give vague, open-ended answers.
CASEY WILSON: So Don, tell me about your family. Any brothers and sisters?
HAMM: (as Don Draper) There was a man with bright, shiny shoes. I saw him dancing until the accident.
WILSON: Oh, how mysterious.
HAMM: (as Don Draper) Step three - You have great name.
FRED ARMISEN: Hi. I'm Nathaniel Snerpus.
AMY POEHLER: Well, hello.
HAMM: (as Don Draper) Don Draper.
POEHLER: Let's get me out of this skirt.
HAMM: (as Don Draper) And finally, step four - look fantastic in a suit. Look fantastic in casual-wear. Look fantastic in anything. Sound good. Smell good. Kiss good. Strut around with supreme confidence. Be uncannily successful at your job. Blow people away every time you say anything. Take six-hour lunches. Disappear for weeks at a time. Lie to everyone about everything.
HAMM: (as Don Draper) And drink and smoke constantly. Basically, be Don Draper.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This has been "Don Draper's Guide to Picking Up Women."
GROSS: That's my guest, Jon Hamm, on "Saturday Night Live."
Who wrote that sketch?
HAMM: I don’t know who wrote that one. I'm not sure, honestly. The interesting thing about that, and I haven't heard that clip in quite some time, is that you can hear Matt Weiner laughing in the crowd reactions. He has a very particular laugh.
GROSS: Seriously? Really? He was in the audience?
HAMM: He was in the audience that night. That was the first time I hosted and quite a few of our cast and crew were in attendance. And, yeah, I could pick it out. I could hear it. It's very funny.
GROSS: Were you confident in your dating years?
HAMM: Not particularly. I was sort of a late bloomer and was not really necessarily one of the cool kids and - not really. I mean I was just kind of like the sort of weird kid that didn’t do much of anything, actually.
HAMM: That should be enough to show you how awkward I was when I was dating. I can't even talk about it.
GROSS: Now, earlier in our interview you said that the portrayal of Don Draper is based in part on your father who was a businessman, who was very powerful and important in - was it St. Louis where you grew up?
HAMM: St. Louis, Missouri, yeah.
GROSS: Yeah. So what kind of business was it?
HAMM: Trucking, actually. Trucking and heavy hauling. And it was a family business, three or four generations before me, and started with a block and tackle and a horse and wagon, pulling - pulling stuff up off of barges off the Mississippi and loading it on to wagons and carts and heading it out West. That turned into, you know, over the road, 18-wheeler, rigging and block and tackle for railroads and stuff. And the '60s was kind of the height of over-the-road trucking and interstate commerce and obviously, my dad had to deal a lot with the unions and the teamsters and so there was a lot going on and he was kind of right at the center of it.
HAMM: And what happened...
GROSS: ...Go ahead.
HAMM: Go ahead.
GROSS: No. No. You.
HAMM: Oh. What ended up happening was, you know, container ships and shipping - overseas shipping actually, ended up overtaking over-the-road truck and heavy hauling. So the business sort of dried up and then, as happens, sort of they started to conglomerate. And we ended up getting bought out, I think, in the early '80s and then that was the end of that.
GROSS: Awkward to bring this up, but did he have to deal with the mob also?
HAMM: There were definitely elements of that obviously, when you’re talking about, you know, trucking and teamsters and that kind of thing. There was - there was. At my dad's funeral there were a few guys with pinky rings, to say the least.
GROSS: We'll hear more of the interview I recorded in 2010 with Jon Hamm, after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We're concluding our Emmy Awards series with Jon Hamm, who stars in "Mad Men" as Don Draper. He's received 13 Emmy nominations, including two this year. Let's get back to the conversation we recorded in 2010.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
GROSS: So, in our previous interview you said that your father was a salesman who could sell anything to anybody. So it sounds like he wasn’t literally a salesman.
HAMM: Well, by the, you know, like I said, he had sold the business in the early '80s. And after that he, you know, he would've been 47 years old in 1980, so he had plenty of career left to do. So he sold cars, he sold trucks and yeah, he hustled, you know, he had a kid to take care of so he had to make money somehow.
GROSS: Earlier you described your father as a very successful businessman but also very sad.
GROSS: Do you mean depression or...
HAMM: Well, he had a sad life in a lot of ways. You know, his first wife - his first wife was - he had two daughters with and she died of a brain aneurism very suddenly and very tragically, leaving him to sort of take care of these two little girls and that was difficult for him. He then met and married my mother around about 1969, I suppose, who was much younger than he was and had me in 1971 and then got divorced. And my mother was out of that relationship pretty quick. So then had, you know, three kids and no wife and was ended up sort of back home living with his mom. And then when my mother passed away, when I was 10, I then had to move back in with my dad and my grandmother, his mother. So, yeah, he was a sad guy. You know, he had a lot of I think he probably had a lot of regret in his life. And yeah, it was a - the best way I could describe it is that it was a tricky situation.
GROSS: Were you close at all with your father before your mother died? Had you been seeing him much when you were living with your mother after your parents separated?
HAMM: Yeah. It was a, you know, shared custody so it was a, you know, sort of a every other weekend or something like that, not dissimilar to the Draper children. But, yeah, I loved my dad. I loved spending time with him and, you know, you’re a little kid. You don’t really understand what happens in between adults and adult relationships. You just think like, well, why aren't you guys together? You know, you used to be together. Why aren't you anymore? And the sort of vagaries of adult relationships are lost on little kids. So, yeah, I didn’t really get it and, you know, by the time I was old enough to understand that stuff both of them had passed away, so that's kind of lost to the sands of time, I suppose.
GROSS: Your father died when you were about 20?
HAMM: 20 years old. Yeah.
GROSS: So you were 10 when your mother died. Did you understand death then?
HAMM: Probably not. And again, this is in the Midwest in the early, early '80s. This was not exactly the - there wasn’t a lot of therapy happening back then. I was given a book - literally given a book that said what to do when a parent dies, which I dutifully read. And it didn’t really help. It was sort of like I would really just have my mom back than have to read about other kids that lost their parents. But no, it’s a - it was, you know, it's a tough thing to take at that age. And I don’t think I really got over that for quite some time.
GROSS: A lot of people start off in their path toward adulthood on the path that their parents want them to take, whether that means, you know, going to college when they didn’t want to or, you know, going into business when they prefer to be artist or, you know, whatever. But since you lost your mother when you were young and your father died when you were 20, when you were 20 you no longer had parents to either displease or please. So like, I'm wondering how that affected, if at all, your decision to give acting a shot, which is a very, very risky decision.
HAMM: I'm sure it had some effect. I'm virtually certain - 100 percent -that had both my parents been around, I probably would've done something completely different with my life. But, you know, I think all performers come from a place of sort of self-doubt and pain. And, you know, Ray Romano said once very accurately and hilariously that, if his dad would've spent more time with him he probably would've become an accountant instead of a comedian. So I think that anybody that wants to get up on stage and tell jokes or do plays or sing songs has some sort of, at a fundamental level, desire to be paid attention to - and I am no different.
But my mother, very early on, instilled in me an incredible desire to learn and an incredible curiosity about the world and an incredible joy in achieving things. And so that's probably the - and she also put me in creative writing classes and acting classes when I was a little kid and encouraged me to do - to do stuff. And so that's probably the biggest influence in what got me here.
GROSS: Well, Jon Hamm, thank you so much for talking with us.
HAMM: Thank you very much for having me. I appreciate it.
GROSS: Jon Hamm, recorded in 2010. Final filming for "Mad Men" wrapped earlier this summer. The second half of the final season is scheduled to air next year. And that concludes our Emmy Awards series. Jon Hamm has been nominated for Emmys 13 times but has never won. I'm thinking - next year. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.