PLAYBOY: For all the bad things about Don, he has some admirable qualities, such as his reticence. Is there power in being quiet and not revealing everything about yourself?
HAMM: I definitely think there is, and it’s something I try to imitate—which is weird to say as I’m being interviewed for a national magazine. I understand the irony there, or at least the hypocrisy.
PLAYBOY: In your defense, doing interviews is part of your job.
HAMM: Yes, there’s that. But it’s hard to escape the fact that we live in a world where everybody is clamoring for attention and people think their life doesn’t matter if they’re not on TV or the paparazzi aren’t following them. They don’t feel validated unless there’s a lens on them or they’re tweeting so more people can hear what they have to say, which all contributes to a vast echo chamber that serves basically to turn everything into noise. Eventually your life is lived in sound bites and reality shows and 140 characters, becoming smaller and smaller without any nuance or deeper reflective quality. I try to get away from that and listen more than I talk, except of course in this situation.
PLAYBOY: Do you have the emotional stoicism of Don Draper, or are you a heart-on-your-sleeve kind of guy? Will you cry at a sad movie?
HAMM: It depends on the movie. This is by turns hilarious and embarrassing, but I’ll tell it anyway. I cried at Marley & Me. Not just teared up a little but full-on cried. That was a fucking nightmare. Dead-dog stories always get me. And dead-mom stories—Terms of Endearment, stuff like that. If a parent dies in a movie, I’m a fucking wreck.
PLAYBOY: Because it relates to your own life?
HAMM: Oh sure, absolutely. I mean, come on, I’m not made of stone.
PLAYBOY: Your mother died when you were 10 years old. You were so young; did you even realize what was happening?
HAMM: There was not much awareness. When you’re 10 you’re kind of cognizant of how the world works, but it’s through the filter of a child. There’s definitely no sense of the permanence of death or the meaning of not being able to see someone or talk to someone again, especially someone as important as your mother.
PLAYBOY: She died of cancer?
HAMM: Advanced abdominal cancer. It started in her colon and then rapidly spread, as cancer does. This was in the late 1970s, early 1980s, when there was no early detection, no MRIs. They basically opened you up and went, “Oh shit.” They didn’t even realize she had cancer until it was very advanced. As such, it was a quick but probably very painful death. And it was hard to watch, because she basically shriveled up. She passed away when she was 35, so she was not a frail old lady. This was a woman essentially in her prime.
PLAYBOY: Do you remember anything about her last days, or is it just a blur?
HAMM: Mostly it’s a collection of images of other people in my family losing their shit. My dad, my grandfather, my grandmother, my aunts, all of them just breaking down around me. And I was thinking, What’s happening? What’s going on? Just recently the father of a close friend of ours passed away suddenly, in an accidental, shocking way. My friend had two boys, and I asked how they were doing. And I was told, “They don’t know. I don’t think they have a real concept of it.” When I talked to the older one, who’s eight, it was obvious he knew that I was sad and wanted to help. He wanted to make me happy. And that’s what I was like when my mom died. I was the kid who said, “Come on, Dad, let’s take a drive. Let’s go do something.” I didn’t have the capacity to understand that I was sad, but I could recognize it in others. “Come on, Grandpa, let’s go fishing.” That kind of thing. That’s what it was all about or at least what I remember about it. It was a long time ago.
PLAYBOY: Your father passed away 10 years later, when you were in college. Was that easier or harder?
HAMM: It was worse in many ways. By the time you’re 20, you have a sense of mortality. You still think you’re bulletproof, but you do have this realization that things end, and sometimes they don’t end well. So that was particularly hard. It was also worse because that was my last parent. When you’re a kid you think, Well, somebody will take care of me. I’ll land on my feet somewhere. As long as there’s Atari, something is bound to happen. But when you’re 20 things are significantly different and significantly harder. I’m certainly not ranking which parent I loved more, but it was different.
PLAYBOY: You were officially an orphan.
HAMM: Exactly. You’re on your own. But that’s life; that’s the way it is. Sometimes it doesn’t play out the way you’d like. I’m not a big “everything happens for a reason” guy, because that suggests there’s way more order in life than I think there is. But things happen, and there are consequences. And life is dealing with those consequences.
PLAYBOY: If your parents had lived, would your life have gone in a different direction?
HAMM: One hundred percent. Absolutely.
PLAYBOY: Would you have been an actor?
HAMM: I don’t know. I think anybody who chooses any kind of career in the arts—and I’m using that term loosely for what I do—comes from a place of being a little bit unmoored. If I had grown up in a two-parent household and had parents telling me what to do, I’m sure their first piece of advice would not have been “You should be an actor. You should move to L.A. with no money. That sounds like the best plan.”
PLAYBOY: There was a moment during the production of Mad Men when you looked at yourself in the mirror of your dressing room, dressed in Don Draper’s suit, and realized that the character looked a lot like your dad. What were the similarities?
HAMM: It was the costume. There was an aha moment of seeing myself in all that gear and realizing I looked exactly like my father. I mean, I look like my father anyway. I have a little more hair than he did, and I’m a little skinnier. He was a big guy; his nickname was the Whale, so you can imagine. Other than that, I’m a pretty good likeness. But there was something about the suit. I remember his closet was filled with suits in every style and color, like a rainbow of linen and cotton. That’s what he wore; that was his uniform.
PLAYBOY: Do you still use your dad as inspiration for Don Draper?
HAMM: Sometimes. Maybe not consciously, but it’s there; it’s always there. I think about my dad a lot. He was in the trucking industry, which was far less glamorous than the advertising industry. There were a few more Teamsters involved. He was a third-generation part of the business. My dad’s grandfather, my great-grandfather, started it with basically a horse and a wagon in the late 19th century. When my grandfather took over, in the 1940s and 1950s, it was all about interstate trucking, with 18-wheelers and big rigs. By the time my dad got the business, in the late 1960s and 1970s, everything had changed. The business model had drastically shifted. It’s like the way Blockbuster became irrelevant overnight because of Netflix. There are still video stores but not the way there were in the 1980s and 1990s. That’s what happened to the trucking industry. Container shipping became significantly cheaper, and air freight was significantly cheaper. It was much easier to get stuff places, so you didn’t have to depend on trucks anymore. My father basically inherited a business during its decline, which probably didn’t feel good.
PLAYBOY: Did you ever ask him about it?
HAMM: He died when I was 20, so I didn’t have a lot of adult conversations with him. I didn’t have the time.
PLAYBOY: Or the emotional maturity, probably.
HAMM: It wasn’t what I was thinking about at 17. “Hey, Dad, tell me about your business.” I had homework to do and girls to not make out with.
PLAYBOY: If you had a chance to have a conversation with your father or your mother today, what would you ask them?
HAMM: [Pauses] That’s an interesting question. I think about it all the time. [pauses] I guess I’d just ask about their lives. The hard part of having an adult life when your parents aren’t around is not having that adult wisdom that I think is incredibly useful as a human being. There are times, even when things are going well, when you can’t help but think that you’re some kind of giant fuckup. But if you had a parent who could say, “Seriously? You think you’re fucked-up? That’s nothing!” And then they’d tell you about all the mistakes and bad life decisions they made at your age. I think that would make a huge difference for me. I’d be like, All right, I feel better. They screwed things up so much more than I did, and they turned out okay.
PLAYBOY: If it had been an option, could you see yourself being the fourth generation in your family’s business?
HAMM: I’m pretty glad I didn’t have to follow in my dad’s footsteps, because I would be the worst salesman on the planet. I don’t have that gene. I have a lot of friends who are salesmen, and they’re constantly on. It’s like a stand-up comic who always has to have material at the ready. I’m just not able to do it.
PLAYBOY: But you sell yourself in auditions, right?
HAMM: I suppose I do. They’re the worst things in the world. I’m sure there are more humiliating ways to torture yourself, but I haven’t experienced them. It’s the rare person who’s good at auditioning, who can just come in and do their thing and leave and still have self-respect and dignity. I’m not one of them.