Entertainment

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Mad Men's Jon Hamm on popularity, being a leader, and his new ventures

Published 03/09/2014 | 07:52

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HOLLYWOOD, CA - APRIL 02:  Actor Jon Hamm attends the AMC celebration of the 'Mad Men' season 7 premiere at ArcLight Cinemas on April 2, 2014 in Hollywood, California.  (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)
Actor Jon Hamm attends the AMC celebration of the 'Mad Men' season 7 premiere at ArcLight Cinemas on April 2, 2014 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 20:  Actors Jon Hamm and Jennifer Westfeldt arrive at the Premiere of AMC's "Mad Men" Season 6 at DGA Theater on March 20, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 20: Actors Jon Hamm and Jennifer Westfeldt arrive at the Premiere of AMC's "Mad Men" Season 6 at DGA Theater on March 20, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)
Jon Hamm plays sports agent JB Bernstein in Million Dollar Arm
Jon Hamm plays sports agent JB Bernstein in Million Dollar Arm

Ham has bad press. There's ham- fisted, ham-handed and then for actors, the damning 'hammy'. But the actor Jon Hamm rises above his surname's connotations.

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Instead of "Darling" and a theatrical air kiss, you get "Howdy" with a firm handshake and smile.

'Making an entrance' also means turning up five minutes early.

Perhaps this agreeable attitude comes from the 43-year-old only finding real recognition later in life, when he started playing the enigmatic, womanising and "dismal" Don Draper in the glossy drama Mad Men in 2007.

He still could have let the success of the show, which is coming to a close next year, inflate his ego, but Hamm is at pains to point out the series isn't actually that popular.

"Honestly, not a lot of people watch the show," he explains with an apologetic smile.

"They may have heard of Mad Men but they may not have watched it, or they've begun binge-watching it later on, so it's only recently the attention has been noticeable."

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Taking advantage of this new recognition, the American actor is keen to "set an example professionally" by being a good leader, putting the right attitude out there and turning up on time. "That's a no-brainer," he laughs. "Yet you'd be surprised at how many people can't quite master it."

This approach was very much in evidence on the set of Million Dollar Arm.

Based on a real story, Hamm plays fading sports agent JB Bernstein who creates a televised competition to find two unknown Indian athletes, ideally cricketers, who he can train up as baseball players, believing that cricket and baseball share a similar motion and DNA.

 In choosing India, JB hopes to tap into a lucrative new market, but along the way, realises some home truths about his own life.

Sports fan Hamm connected with the story immediately.

"The more I read and found out about this story, the more impossible it seemed, and the more inspiring," says Hamm, who is free of Don Draper's suave suits, but nevertheless stylish in a fitted navy T-shirt and jeans, raven hair slightly longer than Draper's short back and sides.

"These guys weren't [cricketers]. One was a field hockey player and one was a javelin thrower... but still, they were athletes and they were willing to put in the incredible hard work."

That the two athletes, Rinku and Dinesh (played by Life of Pi's Suraj Sharma and Slumdog Millionaire's Madhur Mittal), were "willing to go the extra mile in a country where very often your life is set before you," moved Hamm.

Born in St Louis, the actor did his own version of going the extra mile by upping sticks for Hollywood in his 20s, to try and land that all-important breakthrough role.

For many years, he trod the well-worn path as actor slash waiter, sporadically boosting his wage with parts and the odd teaching gig.

By his early thirties he was considering giving it all up - but then the roles started trickling in.

There was indie flick Kissing Jessica Stein with his real-life partner, the screenwriter Jennifer Westfeldt, as well as TV series Providence and The Division.

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Then along came Mad Men, and that changed everything.

Understandably, parting with the show that made his name comes with mixed emotions.

"You can always wear a nice suit, and I've got several, but playing Don I will miss," says Hamm, who also played Kirsten Wiig's flaky lover in 2011's Bridesmaids.

He appreciates the next stage in his career is crucial.

"I'm still relatively early on in my career so we'll see if the public is ready to perceive me as anything other than Don Draper. But I've been very fortunate so far to have opportunities to play against that type, whether it's in [Tina Fey's comedy series] 30 Rock, Bridesmaids or what have you."

Whatever the reaction to JB in Million Dollar Arm, or to his voiced part in next year's family animation The Minions, the one thing you can be certain of, is Hamm won't be resting on his laurels.

"I definitely work hard," he says.

"I don't think anybody who achieves even a modicum of success hasn't worked for it. Luck only gets you so far and then generally, when that luck fades, it fades rapidly, so hard work tends to take over."

At this point in his career, where offers of a variation on the womanising, mysterious Don Draper types are falling thick and fast into his lap, Hamm has set himself some strict working conditions.

"I'd like to work with people who I find challenging and intimidating, and who are better than me," he explains clicking his shoes together and leaning forward into the table.

Modestly, Hamm is reflective about the qualities he brings to a role.

"Acting certainly isn't lead mining," he says with a slow smile.

"It's not the hardest job in the world physically, but it does require focus, attention and concentration. When you do all that, you can make people feel something and inspire them in some way... And I feel like sometimes I can do that."

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