PLAYBOY: Didn’t you audition six times for Mad Men?
HAMM: It was at least six, so I had every level of opportunity to be humiliated. Matt tells this story now that he knew I was perfect for Don Draper after the first audition. My response to that is, Well, I wish he had fucking told me. It would’ve made me feel a lot better.
PLAYBOY: Why didn’t he tell you?
HAMM: Because it wasn’t entirely his decision. There are studios and networks to be appeased. That’s the way the sausage is made. All it takes is one person who just goes [makes a fart noise and thumbs-down]. If they’re powerful enough, it ends. You could have five of the greatest auditions you’ve ever had, and in the sixth you’re a little off your game, or the guy had a bad piece of fish at lunch and doesn’t like anything, and it’s over.
PLAYBOY: You’ve said you were at the bottom of their list of actors. How did you know?
HAMM: I’d been around long enough; I knew how these things worked. You go to the sign-in sheet and see 15 people have been there before you, and they’re recognizable names. At the time I remember thinking, It would be nice if they cast me, but they’ll probably just cast the movie star who kind of looks like me. It was surreal. Every day I was sitting in the room, waiting to audition, and there were nine guys who looked exactly like me but with longer résumés.
PLAYBOY: How did you find out you had the job?
HAMM: It’s actually a funny story. I was at their production office in Manhattan with Matt, and he told me, “I want you to walk around this office like you have the part.” I thought, I’d much rather walk around like I have the part because I have the part, but okay. He was introducing me to all the department heads, saying things like “This is Don.” I said, “Don’t say that. You’ll jinx it!” We ended up going across the street to the Hotel Gansevoort. They have a roof deck, and it was a pretty spring day. Matt and I had a few drinks with the network brass. Then we were riding down in the elevator, and the woman in charge of making the decisions said, “You probably know this by now, but you’ve got the job.” In the elevator with us was Franz Beckenbauer, who was a pretty famous European soccer player in the 1970s. He’s a coach or manager or something now. Literally the moment they told me I got it, the elevator opened and the lobby was filled with photographers. The lights were flashing and people were rushing toward us, shouting, “Oh my God, oh my God!”
PLAYBOY: Did you think all the attention was for you?
HAMM: For a split second. I was still on the adrenaline rush of getting the part. But nope, it was just some excited Germans who wanted to meet their soccer hero.
PLAYBOY: Your first play was a first-grade production of Winnie-the-Pooh.
HAMM: That’s right. I played the titular character.
PLAYBOY: Can you give us a taste? Was your Winnie goofy and bumbling or confident and soft-spoken?
HAMM: It was more bumbling. It wasn’t that nuanced. My mom made the costume out of a Butterick pattern, and I had a pillow taped to my belly. I tumbled around and tried not to knock the set over. A VHS tape of this play does exist, by the way.
PLAYBOY: It’s out there somewhere?
HAMM: Oh, I know exactly where it is. And it’s not going anywhere.
PLAYBOY: Did you have to fight for the role like you fought to play Don Draper?
HAMM: No, it was pretty easy. The teacher assigned everything, and I think I was picked to be the main guy because I was the only one who wasn’t terrified of standing in front of an audience and looking like a moron. Everybody else just wanted to be trees.
PLAYBOY: In high school you were both a jock and a theater kid, right?
HAMM: That’s right. I played football and baseball, and I also did as many plays as I could.
PLAYBOY: Those two worlds don’t often intermingle, especially in high school. Did your jock friends give you grief about doing plays, or vice versa?
HAMM: I went to a progressive school in St. Louis, the John Burroughs School, that was founded on John Dewey’s principle that education is experience. You’re supposed to experience as much as you can. My teachers said, “Listen, we’re not all good at everything, but you never know. Maybe you’ll like painting, so try it. Maybe industrial design is going to be your jam.” There was a theater teacher, Wayne Salomon, who was a big believer in getting the football players to do plays. He’d tell us, “It’ll look good on your college résumé.” There was no stigma attached to it. Nobody would say, “You’re doing theater? Oh, you’re gay.” And that’s huge for teenagers, because at that age everything is microanalyzed.
PLAYBOY: It’s a big age for self-doubt.
HAMM: Exactly. What will Sarah think if I do this? A typical teenager’s whole world is caught up in that swirl of overthinking, but that was removed from the equation for us. Theater was just a fun thing to do, and I think that’s why I stuck with it for so long.
PLAYBOY: Were sports also just a fun thing to do, or did you ever consider going pro?
HAMM: At a certain point you realize, or at least I realized, that you can take athletics only so far. I’m a good athlete. I’m coordinated and can do a lot of things, but I’m certainly not at the elite level. And honestly I had no real drive or desire to put the time and effort into honing that skill. I played football in high school and was recruited by a lot of colleges, but they told me things like “You’ve got to put on 60 pounds and work out every day.” I said, “Nope, not going to do that.” I was also a pretty good baseball player and had some interesting offers, but they said I’d have to spend three hours a day in the cage. I just wasn’t interested. It’s repetitive and boring and I don’t want to do that. I gravitated toward theater because it mixed things up. And the students who did theater were very much my people.
PLAYBOY: In what way?
HAMM: Go to any theater department in the country and it’s usually made up of the outcasts and the misfits and the orphans. It’s like, “Come on in; we’re always open.” It’s the Island of Misfit Toys. It’s a place where they can express themselves, and it’s welcoming and not exclusionary. There’s plenty of time to be made to feel like shit once you get to Hollywood. [laughs]
PLAYBOY: You moved to Los Angeles in the mid-1990s with just $150 in your pocket. Did you seriously think that would be enough?
HAMM: Well, it was all I had in the world. And I had some credit cards that were on the way to being declined. My mom’s younger sister lived in L.A., and I called her and said, “Hey, if I can make my way out there, can I stay with you for a little bit?” She said, “Absolutely,” so I knew all I had to do was get out here. This was in an era of significantly cheaper gasoline. I drove a 1986 Toyota Corolla that had pretty good mileage. I had stops planned along the route where I had friends I could stay with and get a bed, a shower and free food.
PLAYBOY: That must have been quite a trip for you to remember every leg of it more than 15 years later.
HAMM: I just love road trips. I love driving and maps. This was in an era way before CDs and satellite radio, back when you could tune in to AM radio and find some weird station to listen to for a few hours. I loved it all. And the plan worked great, with the exception of my friend in Carlin, Nevada. Turned out he’d moved and forgot to mention it to me. I didn’t have a cell phone, obviously, so I didn’t find out until I tried to call him from a gas station and his phone had been disconnected. So I slept on the side of the road. But I made it to Los Angeles and somehow my $150 lasted. I pulled into town on Thanksgiving Day.
PLAYBOY: Just in time for dinner?
HAMM: Well, my aunt and uncle had plans elsewhere, so I actually showed up at an empty house.
PLAYBOY: That sounds vaguely depressing.
HAMM: It wasn’t. I was happy just to be there. The first thing I did was call all my friends back home. I was like, “It’s 85 degrees here! I’m sitting outside on a porch!” Then I went to an orphans’ Thanksgiving hosted by a friend my aunt and I both knew from St. Louis. Coincidentally, one of the people at the dinner was Kevin Williamson, who had just sold a script called Scary Movie, which would later become Scream. So that was my intro to L.A.
PLAYBOY: And then came the hard part.
HAMM: Exactly, yeah. Then it was time to find a job, an agent, a place to live and all that shit, none of which came easily. I called people I knew. I called Paul Rudd, who I knew from college, and said, “I’m going to ask this only once, because I don’t want to be that guy. I need a favor. Can you give me one person to call who will take my call?” He gave me a number, and that meeting turned into another meeting, which turned into another meeting. The dominoes started falling and I eventually got an agent, and then I didn’t work for three years and my agent fired me.
PLAYBOY: Do you have any perspective in hindsight? Why couldn’t you break through?
HAMM: It was just bad timing. This was in the late 1990s, when teen dramas like Dawson’s Creek were popular. I was out of sync with what the market was looking for. They wanted bright, bubbly and young. I was none of those things. I mean, I was young. I was only in my mid-20s, but I didn’t look young.
PLAYBOY: You were too young to play the parents but too old-looking to play the teenagers.
HAMM: Right. I was in between the two camps. I remember I went to an audition and Peter Gallagher was there trying out for the same role. I was like, “Are you kidding me? I’m 27! No offense meant to Gallagher, but come on, man. Why am I here?” It was depressing. So I was dropped by my agent, got cast in a play and got another agent. That agent got me my first real job, that job turned into a longer job, and on and on. It was a slow process and there was a lot of wheel spinning.