To appreciate the full range of Jon Hamm’s acting ability, you need to watch his sex scenes. As Don Draper, the brooding and tortured advertising executive on Mad Men—which returns in March for its fifth season—he’s had no shortage of sexual dalliances that are, well, brooding and tortured. When Draper gets especially depraved, as he did last season, ordering a prostitute to slap him repeatedly across the face—“Harder,” he insists, “again”—it is not so much erotic fun as the sad self-flagellation of a recently divorced man whose life is slipping away. Compare that with Bridesmaids, last summer’s comedy hit in which Hamm and Kristen Wiig have one of the most ridiculous sex scenes. Hamm’s character initiates all sorts of bizarre and unnecessarily complicated positions, less lovemaking than merciless pounding. Not every actor can do two kinky bedroom scenes and make an audience laugh at one and cringe at the other. But not every actor is Jon Hamm.
Much like George Clooney, Hamm seems to have been born into the world a handsome middle-aged man. But also like Clooney, he had a long road getting there. Matthew Weiner, the creator of Mad Men, claims that after watching Hamm’s audition, he said, “That man was not raised by his parents.” He was partly right. Hamm was born in St. Louis to Deborah, a secretary, and Dan, who ran the family trucking business. The couple divorced when Hamm was two, and he lived with his mother until she succumbed to abdominal cancer just eight years later. He moved in with his father, who passed away from diabetes on New Year’s Day 1991 while Hamm was studying at the University of Texas. By 20 he was an orphan without many prospects. He transferred to the University of Missouri and immersed himself in theater, doing 15 plays in just two years. In 1995 he moved to Los Angeles with $150 in his pocket and dreams of being a Hollywood actor.
Hamm had some minor success at first, winning small roles on TV shows including The Division and Providence. Friends gave him work whenever they could—he had a walk-on role as a cable guy on The Sarah Silverman Program. And his girlfriend, Jennifer Westfeldt, cast him in the 2001 indie comedy Kissing Jessica Stein, which she co-wrote and starred in. But for several years Hamm was just an occasionally employed actor who waited tables to pay his bills—by his own account, “not the horse you wanted to bet on.” At least until 2007, when Mad Men made him a star virtually overnight.
Hamm used his newfound fame to prove his range. Whether hosting Saturday Night Live or playing Tina Fey’s clueless yet dreamy pediatrician boyfriend on 30 Rock, he’s surprisingly comfortable delivering a punch line. As Fey explains, “Jon Hamm has the comedy skills of an SNL cast member, the exoskeleton of an Arrow shirt model and the gratitude and work ethic of a person who got famous after the age of 30.” This month the 41-year-old Hamm takes another stab at comedy with the movie Friends With Kids, directed by and co-starring Westfeldt.
We sent writer Eric Spitznagel, who recently interviewed Craig Ferguson and Paul Rudd for playboy, to talk with Hamm at the Chateau Marmont in West Hollywood. He reports: “I was hoping he’d want to partake in some afternoon recreational drinking, maybe even downing a few of Don Draper’s signature old-fashioned cocktails. But instead he drank Diet Cokes and nibbled on an iceberg lettuce wedge. At one point he wandered over to the next table to give a back massage to his friend, author and Daily Show correspondent John Hodgman, who was dining with indie rockers Aimee Mann and John Roderick. Hodgman introduced himself as Hamm’s ‘personal trainer’ and insisted that the Mad Men star wear a full tuxedo for their workout later that day. ‘No problem,’ Hamm responded without cracking a smile.”
PLAYBOY: For a while it looked as if you might lose your job. Contract negotiations between Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner and AMC delayed the fifth season for about a year, and there was some speculation that the show wouldn’t return. Was the wait frustrating?
HAMM: The truth is it wasn’t Matt’s negotiations that took long. The protracted negotiations were between the studio and the network. In the world of network television, there is a very large pie, and the studio and the network get the biggest pieces of that pie. The rest of it is crumbs. They’re nice crumbs, don’t get me wrong. But they’re the crumbs that start with t and m rather than b. When corporations fight, it generally takes a long time. There are a lot of lawyers. The minute you start taking that shit personally, you’ve lost.
PLAYBOY: But as an actor who just wanted to get back to work, did you worry it was ruining the show’s momentum? A year is a long time to make an audience wait.
HAMM: I wasn’t worried. I think we’ve done a nice job over the past four years of establishing and growing an audience, and hopefully absence makes the heart grow fonder. If nothing else, we got to hang out with our families a little longer.
PLAYBOY: On 30 Rock Alec Baldwin once said that beautiful people live in a bubble of free drinks, kindness and outdoor sex. He was referring to your character, a dumb but attractive doctor named Drew Baird, but do those same rules apply to you?
HAMM: To Drew Baird, absolutely. To me, not so much.
PLAYBOY: When was the last time you had outdoor sex?
HAMM: It’s been a while. In the era of TMZ, I don’t think outdoor sex is a particularly good idea. It’s one of those things that sound way better than they actually are. There’s something not sexy about all the twigs and bugs and sand. You end up with stuff in places you don’t want it. It always looks better in the well-lit Skinemax version.
PLAYBOY: What about free drinks? Have you paid for a drink since Mad Men became a hit?
HAMM: I am a big tab getter. I’ve been the beneficiary of other people’s good fortune for a long time in my life, so I feel it’s karmic payback. But I’ve definitely had people offer to buy me drinks. It kind of comes with the territory when you play a hard-drinking character on TV. It’s never a bad thing, at least for guys. If you’re a girl, it would probably be a bit creepy and weird if strangers kept trying to buy you drinks. But for guys it’s usually just some bro who wants to say he did it.
PLAYBOY: Don Draper enjoys the brown liquors. Do you indulge?
HAMM: Oh sure. Never at work, but it is a time-honored tradition to celebrate your work upon completion. I live in a neighborhood that has a nice bar with off-the-beaten-track labels, so you can be adventurous and try something new every night. In the past four years or so, due in no small part to the success of our show, I think the world of specialty cocktails has grown up. It’s a lot easier to find a fancy bar where the bartender takes 10 minutes to make one drink. There are a ton of places in L.A. that do that now.
PLAYBOY: What’s the manliest thing you’ve ever done? Have you ever overhauled a car engine or popped a dislocated shoulder back after an injury?
HAMM: No, but I got hurt once shooting Mad Men.
PLAYBOY: What? How is that possible?
HAMM: I know, it’s kind of ridiculous. It’s not exactly the most stunt-heavy show. We were shooting the Korea flashback. There was an explosion, and I sort of dove through the frame. The first time we did it, I broke my right hand at the base of my pinkie. I heard it click and went, “Well, that’s broken.” And then the second time——
PLAYBOY: You hurt yourself twice?
HAMM: The first time was in rehearsals. We did it again for real, and instead of landing on my broken hand, which hurt tremendously, I landed on my left shoulder and kind of separated it. I’ve had a lot of injuries on this show, which is strange given the nature of it.
PLAYBOY: By “a lot of injuries,” what are we talking about exactly?
HAMM: I’ve gone to the hospital twice. [laughs] I know, I know, it’s embarrassing. During the first season, a piece of the set fell on my head and I got seven stitches. I think it says less about the show than it does about my durability and age.
PLAYBOY: After four seasons of playing Don Draper, does hedonism seem fun to you anymore?
HAMM: I think we’ve tried to portray that lifestyle accurately. A three-martini lunch is fun in theory. And it’s fun to look cool while you’re staring out of windows, drinking scotch and smoking. But the reality is, if you have a three-martini lunch, you don’t get much done in the afternoon. And if you stare out the window and smoke too much, you get fucking lung cancer.
PLAYBOY: Does Don still derive genuine joy from all the booze and recreational sex? Or did he ever?
HAMM: I remember something a friend’s dad said once. When the ritual becomes habitual, then you’ve lost the mystery and the fun of it. I do think the chemicals that Don ingests are a means to an end. It’s a way for him to maintain his energy and enthusiasm for living. But as with any addiction, there’s a law of diminishing returns. You never get the buzz you got the first time.