Sunday 22 April 2018

Don Draper's final pitch

As 'Mad Men' returns for a last series, set in the glorious technicolour of the 1970s, leading man Jon Hamm talks about his career-defining role - and why he'd love to visit Ireland

Journey's end: Jon Hamm waves goodbye to the character Don Draper, which made him a household name after seven seasons.
Journey's end: Jon Hamm waves goodbye to the character Don Draper, which made him a household name after seven seasons.
Don with the women in his life: From left to right, ex-wife Betty, daughter Sally, on-off-again wife Megan, protege Peggy and business partner and some-time confidant Joan
Don's daugher Sally Draper in Mad Men

Patricia Danaher

Twenty years ago, when Jon Hamm gave up teaching to chase his dreams of being an actor in LA, his manager gave him a roll of dimes, so that Hamm could call him via pay phone to see if there was any work going.

Two decades later, the 44-year-old star of Mad Men is clearly in a very different place.

As the final season of the iconic show kicks off, Hamm's profile has never been as high. But like anyone for whom success did not come easily or overnight, he is taking none of the hype surrounding the show for granted.

When we meet in LA just days before the first show of the final season airs, he's still sporting that beard, which is his "not working" beard and nothing to do with fashion - the series might finally have reached the 1970s, but clean-cut Don never looked one to embrace the facial hair of the era.

Hamm's enjoying taking some time off and says he will use his free time to travel, including, perhaps, a first visit to Ireland.

"For a 44-year-old man, I am embarrassingly under-travelled and now that I'm not working it's time for me to start seeing a few other hemispheres.

"John Slattery [Roger Sterling] has been giving me great tips about Ireland, where all his people are from and I figure it's about time for me to change all that," he says.

Coming to the end of a show that threw Hamm into the limelight as a sex symbol and star, in a way that none of his other pretty consistent work on television ever did, he's grateful for all that the show has made possible for him.

"I've been given a lot of opportunities because of this show and that's not lost on me. I hope I'll make educated and well-motivated choices from here out".

And all that sex symbol stuff? "You've probably seen photos of me in ill-fitting shorts and flip flops from before Mad Men, so that'll give you some idea of where I am day-to-day!" he says.

Of all his awards and accomplishments, one of the things Hamm's proudest of was creating a scholarship at his old high school in St Louis, named after his beloved mother, Deborah, who died of cancer when he was 10.

"The platform I've been given to help me raise awareness for charities has made me very, very proud. The first recipient of the scholarship in my mother's name graduates this year and I'm just so glad to have been able to make a social and community impact with all of this."

Unbecoming Don Draper will also come as a relief to Hamm's girlfriend of 17 years, Jennifer Westfeldt, who has had to endure many social indignities when out with her boyfriend, since the start of Mad Men. Hamm says he genuinely thinks that people have no idea whatsoever when they are behaving inappropriately.

"Listen, it's lovely when people recognise your work and even better when they recognise it positively. I did have people in the past come up to me to tell me they hated my work, instead of keeping that opinion to themselves!

"But it's great to be recognised for something that you're proud of. Have people been inappropriate with me? Sure, and it's a very odd thing to be looked at as something that people want or claim ownership of.

"We live in a strange time now where everyone seems to think that because you are seen or spotted that you owe people a photograph or a conversation. That can be really weird, but you have to be adult enough to say "ok, this is where we say goodbye and you have a wonderful time and enjoy Central Park.

"Jen has been supportive throughout the entire time, through everything in the 17 years we've been together, she's been supportive for the entirety of the journey. It's a challenge sharing anybody who is in the public eye.

"Certain people have the remarkable capacity to not really understand how weird they're being, so you try to take it with as many grains of salt as you can, as people can be very awkward. You hope it's coming from a loving or a kind place but it's weird to live in a time where there's an expectation of ownership of you and that's very odd to be on the other side of."

So what's the worst thing that's ever happened to him or them as a couple, at the hands of a fan? He pauses. It seems there are several to choose from.

"I won't get into the specifics, but you can certainly imagine. I've had married men come up to me and say, 'my wife really wants to meet you and take a picture' and I'm like 'that's terrible. All of what you're saying is terrible. It doesn't make sense. Why would you do that?' It can often be weird, so you try to graciously make it less awkward in every way, shape or form that you can."

This is as much as I can get him to say about weird fan behaviour, though it's clear there's been a litany of strange events. He switches gears to talk about the pleasures of home.

"It's so nice to be done with the show because it means I can be home more and around my dog Cora. She'll be getting more walks and ear scratches and treats, because she's been around for all of it too. The whole family has. It's been a long journey with long hours and all you want to do is get home. It makes you miss home and that's where we're all headed, hopefully."

It's been a few days since word came out of his rehab stint for alcohol dependency and I wonder how I can delicately ask him about life imitating art, given the quantities of booze the characters on Mad Men put away. The question embarrasses him, but the pro that he is, he reaches for an answer to give me.

"It's obviously a health matter and a private matter and I don't really want to get in to talking about my health because it's personal and between me and my family and not really for public consumption.

"I've seen all the discussion trying to link it to the role and I honestly don't have anything to say about that either. Acting can be a difficult endeavour and like all of life, it presents its own challenges. Life throws all sorts of things at you and that's why you have friends and family and co-workers and professionals to help you.

"I've been very fortunate that throughout the most recent 24-hour period, I've had family and friends and people to support me, so I guess that's all I'll say about it and leave it there."

Having walked away from a full-time job as a drama teacher in Missouri to join the multitudes in LA hoping to make it, I wonder what sticks out for Hamm the most?

"When I got to LA in 1995, there were four networks that you could get jobs on and you wouldn't even think about trying to get a studio movie when you were new to town.

"My first manager gave me this roll of dimes and said 'now, you'll never be able to not call me back' and I was like, 'are you kidding me, I'm going to use this money to pay for parking and buy food. I'm not going to use these to call you!' Pay phones were the only way to call people then, the seachange in technology has been amazing.

"And you don't live in a place for 20 years and not change a bit too. I'm very different at 44 to what I was at 24, and hopefully better.

"Everyone has a first day in the new city and a first day on the new job and it's always terrifying. Then the next day comes and it's a little less terrifying and then a couple of weeks and months go by.

"The crazy thing about LA is that every day looks alike, so you can look down and be eating your Cheerios and you look back up and say 'where did that year go?'

"My friend's mom used to call it 'Lotus Land' out here because you can very easily fall into this weird pattern where time floats by and you haven't done anything. I was very aware not to fall into that and I'm very fortunate that I didn't."

'Mad Men' season 7 part two premieres on Sky Atlantic tomorrow at 9pm.

Mad Men: Eight burning questions

By Benji Wilson

1 Will Don's return to SC&P be triumphant?

"No man has ever come back from leave - even Napoleon," said Bert Cooper, not long before he died. "He staged a coup but he ended up back on the island." The first half of the final season saw Don's glorious return to the agency, with several of his old muckers - Peggy, Pete - all rallying around their general, who appeared to be kinder and, at the least, sober. But there have been comebacks before, and normally new-edition Don soon reverts to his boozing and philandering.

2 Will Don kill himself?

It may sound a bit extreme but the Mad Men titles feature a man who looks suspiciously like Don Draper falling from a building. There has long been speculation that the only way out for Don from his double-life - and remember, what he did in stealing another man's identity could land him in jail - is to, well, make like the titles.

3 Have Don and Megan actually split up?

They seemed to end it all in the first half of the final season with an east-west coast phonecall that was, all things considered, remarkably amicable. Is that really the last we'll see from the girl who, in Zou Bisou Bisou, gave us Mad Men's single best musical moment?

4 Will Sally turn in to Betty?

Don's teenage daughter Sally (Kiernan Shipka) has been a case study in how children turn in to their parents - not, in her case, a good thing. Though her relationship with her father appears to be taking a turn for the better, we last saw her flirting with boys and learning how a lady lights a cigarette. The world does not need another Betty Draper.

5 Could Betty turn in to Betty Friedan?

Betty Francis, as she is now known, showed some signs in the first half of the final season of becoming a feminist, telling her husband Henry that she is tired of having her opinions dismissed. Betty as a bra-burner would be some turnaround. Then again the 70s are just round the corner.

6 Whither Peggy?

If Mad Men is Don's story, Peggy is avowedly its number two priority. Don's descent has mirrored her rise, and some of the show's best episodes - The Suitcase, in series 4, most famously - have featured just the two of them, mulling things over. We left Peggy last year having just aced the Burger Chef pitch, with a performance so emotionally brilliant it had one of the (male) clients wiping away a tear. Her victory, on pure merit alone, is almost complete. It would be nice to see one of the best female characters of the last two decades have a happy ending.

7 Can the world learn to love Pete Campbell?

Pete Campbell was set up as the slimiest of snakes in Mad Men's opening seasons. Idiotic, entitled and generally odious, as his career options have receded so has his hairline, and in the main you've felt he's got what's coming to him. And yet… Mad Men has always drawn characters in subtle shades, and the last two series have sown the seeds of Pete as a misunderstood hero. He appears to have found solace in the good vibrations on the West Coast, he has a new girlfriend and, with a sweater tied round his shoulders, the man who only ever wanted people to like him is starting to be liked.

8 Is that really it for Mad Men?

Breaking Bad, which like Mad Men is made by AMC, has been granted another life in the form of a spinoff, Better Call Saul. But according to actress Christina Hendricks, speaking at this year's Television Critics Association tour in America, there will not be any Mad Men spin-offs. The show's over when it's over.

Irish Independent

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