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Jon Hamm Talks New Beirut Movie, Life Before Mad Men and Rehab
Apr 4, 2018
Jon Hamm has arranged for us to meet for breakfast at what must be one of Vancouver’s most opulent hotel restaurants. All wood-and-gold midcentury mod, it’s the sort of place Don Draper, the hard-drinking, never-not-dashing Eisenhower-era adman Hamm played on Mad Men, would frequent—that is, if he were Canadian, lived in the 21st century, and had a soft spot for nouvelle cuisine.
Hamm arrives looking less than Draper-iffic. It’s not likely that he’s hungover—he had a stint in rehab for alcohol abuse three years ago—but he’s battling the onset of a cold. His outfit is a triumph of comfort over style, perhaps best described as Rejected L.L. Bean Model: broken-in dad jeans, running shoes with miles on them, and a shawl-collared wool sweater the fishermen working on the freighter ships docked in Vancouver Bay would probably dig. Either Hamm is in the early stages of growing a beard or he woke up the last couple mornings, looked at his razor, and thought, Screw it.
Jacket by Visvim. T-shirt by Citizens of Humanity. Jeans by 34 Heritage. Boots by Wolverine 1000 Mile. Pilot’s watch chronograph by IWC; iwc.com
Make no mistake: At his worst, Hamm, 47, is still more handsome than most of us on our best days. Dark hair, green eyes, geometrically perfect jawline, winning smile. (His very first acting credit was “Gorgeous Guy at Bar” on Ally McBeal in 1997.) Looks that even fellow head-turners assume earn him special treatment. Rosamund Pike, his costar in the spy thriller Beirut (April 13), shared a story with me: En route to Morocco to film, she and Hamm found themselves sprinting through a Madrid airport to make a connecting flight after the gate closed. Pike remembers thinking, “If those green eyes can’t get us on this plane… I was absolutely convinced that they would open the gate for The Hamm.” (They didn’t.)
After Mad Men poured its last martini in 2015, critics asked repeatedly: Would Hamm be able to transcend the character who made him famous and enjoy a successful second act? The question was rooted less in his acting ability than in the lazy assumption that audiences would look at him and see only Draper.
The rebuttal is Hamm’s work. In the three years since Mad Men ended, he’s done everything but play into expectation. He’s nailed the comedy thing on television, with standout roles on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp. On the film front, in 2017 he played a hologram with a heart in the cerebral drama Marjorie Prime and a lunatic bank robber in the heist flick Baby Driver. This year, in addition to Beirut, in which he plays a former diplomat dragged back to the Middle East and into his past, Hamm starred in Nostalgia (which came out in February), as a tender yet emotionally detached collectibles dealer who goes home to contend with his own family’s heirlooms and history. He’ll also join Jeremy Renner, Hannibal Buress, Rashida Jones, and more in the comedy Tag (June 15), about a group of friends who, for 30 years, have played the eponymous childhood game. And next year, he’ll portray the archangel Gabriel in Good Omens, Amazon Studios’ adaptation of the Neil Gaiman–Terry Pratchett novel.
Overstated as it was, the typecasting issue was easier for Hamm to address than his personal burdens. For him, 2015 alone was a doozy: Not only did he wrap the seventh and final season of Mad Men and check into rehab, but he also split from actress/screenwriter Jennifer Westfeldt after nearly two decades and details of his involvement in a 1990 fraternity hazing gone wrong resurfaced. Nostalgia director Mark Pellington tells me about a quality he noticed in Hamm from their earliest conversations about the movie: “He had his own grief.”
After Mad Men poured its last martini in 2015, critics asked repeatedly: Would Hamm be able to transcend the character who made him famous and enjoy a successful second act?
For the most part, Hamm is a gracious guy who exudes humility; it is a persona that seems to come naturally to him. At the hotel restaurant, as we wind our way back to a secluded table, he says, “I’m sorry for the last-minute change of plans”—we were supposed to go hiking but couldn’t due to a scheduling change. He shows a willingness, within what he deems reasonable limits of public interest in his private life, to discuss just about anything. But when I bring up the hazing, his tone becomes tinged with anger, and he doesn’t hesitate to let me know he thinks a line has been crossed. “I hope I didn’t sign up for a hit piece,” he says. The exasperation in his voice stems from the fact that Hamm has reached this new phase of his career through a lot of hard work, and he’s wary of the past, particularly the long-ago past, pulling him down.
This week was a nut-crusher,” Hamm tells me. “Early wake-ups. Go all day.” The movie he’s shooting in Vancouver, Bad Times at the El Royale, is a crime caper set in a hotel that straddles the Nevada–California border. He describes it as a “weird one-off kind of noir.” The production—helmed by Drew Goddard, a screenwriter (Cloverfield, World War Z, The Martian) and director (The Cabin in the Woods), and starring Chris Hemsworth and Jeff Bridges—has been filming for a while, but Hamm has a supporting role and only recently arrived on set. “Coming on a movie the last second, you have to ramp up the pace quick. It’s like jumping on a stationary bike someone is already pedaling.”
Jacket by Tom Ford
As we settle into our seats for breakfast, Hamm sniffles and smiles and does his best not to let fatigue interfere with his ability to be pleasant and present. Having an “attitude of gratitude,” as he puts it, and living in the moment are concepts he’s become more conscious of and committed to, but we’ll get to that in second. We haven’t even gotten coffee.
That doesn’t mean he shies away from tough conversation. After ordering the first of what will be several cups of the house artisanal roast, Hamm tells me about the place where he acted as an adolescent: John Burroughs School, the pricey private school in his hometown of St. Louis that he attended from seventh to twelfth grade. As we talk, it becomes clear he is attached to JBS because it has informed much of who he is. He went there because of his mother, Deborah; it was her dying wish.
Deborah, a secretary at a direct-mail outfit, divorced Hamm’s father, Dan, when their only child was two. Hamm lived with his mother until he was ten, when she succumbed to cancer at 36. “She died so fast,” he says. “Colon cancer that spread to her liver, stomach; it was unchecked, and it was invasive, and it was aggressive, and it was fatal.”
“We’re talking 1980 in St. Louis. Not exactly a hotbed of mental health. I was given a book called What to Do When a Parent Dies. And I was like, ‘All right, I read this book. I guess I’m fixed.’”
Hamm moved in with his father, who ran a trucking business and had two daughters from a previous marriage. (His first wife died of a brain aneurysm.) Dan didn’t know how to help his son navigate the grief of his mother’s death. “He wasn’t really capable,” Hamm says matter-of-factly. “It was that weird kind of midwestern thing of not really knowing what to say, so just say nothing. Instead of what we now know: Just say anything, just connect, just be available, instead of shutting down and going into a separate room and staring out the window. He was a man who lost two wives. He was a pretty sad guy. He had his issues.” Hamm pauses while the waitress sets down his scrambled eggs and bacon; when she leaves, he adds, “I just watched him crumble.” There’s another moment of silence, then Hamm continues as he peppers his eggs: “Plus, we’re talking 1980 in St. Louis. Not exactly a hotbed of mental health. I was given a book called What to Do When a Parent Dies. And I was like, ‘All right, I read this book. I guess I’m fixed.’” Except, of course, he wasn’t.
Jacket by Wacko Maria
Two years after Deborah’s death, once Hamm was old enough, Dan honored her wish and sent their son to JBS. Hamm was one of the few students who didn’t come from a wealthy family; he was from the North Side of the Lou, the other side of the proverbial tracks. He developed a close bond with middle-class kids like himself, and their families became his families, their mothers his surrogate mothers. Among them was Maryanne Simmons, who tells me, “Jon was obviously quite smart. And when he came into our lives at the age of 12, he’d matured beyond his age because he’d seen some stuff. I didn’t sense any, I don’t want to say sadness, but is moroseness a word?” She also recalls that the young Hamm was very aware that “every day he was at Burroughs, he was there because of and for his mother” and, she makes a point of noting, “he loved his dad.” When Simmons watched Mad Men, she saw a lot of Dan Hamm—the charisma, the unhappiness—in Don Draper.
Hamm did well at JBS. He earned good grades. He acted in school plays. He was a linebacker on the football team. Onstage and on the field, the motherless boy with the reserved dad liked being part of a team. In 1989, he went off to the University of Texas and pledged the Sigma Nu fraternity, through which he found a family of brothers and got himself into serious trouble with the law.
According to reports, when Hamm was a sophomore, he and several of his fraternity brothers hazed a pledge so severely that their actions permanently shut down the frat’s UT chapter. Assault charges were filed against the 20-year-old and fellow members that were later dropped. A 1991 lawsuit claimed that Hamm lit the kid’s pants on fire; physically abused him; and, along with his brothers in a part of the Sigma Nu house called the “Party Room,” hooked the claw of a hammer underneath his crotch and led him around the room.
When I bring up the incident, which was reported in Texas newspapers at the time and resurfaced in 2015, first in the tabloids and then in The Washington Post, Hamm bristles. He tells me, “I wouldn’t say it’s accurate. Everything about that is sensationalized. I was accused of these things I don’t… It’s so hard to get into it. I don’t want to give it any more breath. It was a bummer of a thing that happened. I was essentially acquitted. I wasn’t convicted of anything. I was caught up in a big situation, a stupid kid in a stupid situation, and it’s a fucking bummer. I moved on from it.”
That same year, Dan died of complications associated with diabetes. Hamm went home to lay his father to rest and never returned to UT. “My dad was sick. He ended up dying in the middle of all of this and I had to rally my own mental health and become a better person because of it. I’m happy that I became a better person. Everyone goes through a weirdness as a young person, especially in college, when you’re trying to figure things out.”
“Everyone goes through a weirdness as a young person, especially in college, when you’re trying to figure things out.”
Hamm moved into his half sister’s basement and enrolled at the University of Missouri. He worked as a waiter and a dishwasher, and he sank into depression. But one day an opportunity presented itself: In the local paper, Hamm read about open auditions being held by an acting company passing through town. With little else in his life to look forward to, he went—and promptly landed a role in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. After one performance, a member of Mizzou’s theater department approached him. “He was like, ‘Who are you? Why aren’t you in the theater department? I want you to be in some plays. Come audition for a scholarship.’” Hamm did, and he earned the scholarship, or, as he puts it, “I got picked.” He started thinking if he was getting picked to act so often, maybe that’s what he should do with his life.
Jacket by Simon Miller. Shirt by Save Khaki United.
How was a Missourian with zero connections in Hollywood to go about making a career as an actor? Hamm didn’t have a clue. While he was working it all out, JBS welcomed him back, this time on staff as an eighth-grade acting teacher. He did this for a year, until, with help and encouragement from a mentor at Mizzou, he decided to move to Los Angeles.
Hamm had long dreamed of making the move, ever since his mom had taken him there to visit her sister. He was nine. His aunt had a swimming pool; there was the ocean, the sunshine. They spent that week visiting amusement parks, riding the roller coasters. It was a blast. It was also the last big trip he took with his mother. Why wouldn’t he want to return to L.A.?
Hamm was 25 when he headed west. “I had a 1986 Toyota Corolla,” he says. “It was a piece of shit.” Right before leaving Missouri, he said goodbye to the families who’d more or less taken him in as their own son. Simmons remembers hugging him, giving him a few hundred dollars, and, as he drove off, closing her eyes and holding her breath. Perhaps she knew that no matter how far he got from Missouri, he couldn’t escape the hardships that had shaped him. But Hamm knew a deeper truth. He says he wasn’t running—that’s not his way—but was instead “turning the page.” He was reinventing his future.
The Corolla had a bad fuse; if the heater wasn’t running, the car would overheat. Hot air blasted Hamm for the duration of his journey. But he made it to his aunt’s house, where he stayed for six months.
Once there, he struggled. He’d do just about anything to pay the bills, even work as a set dresser on soft-core skin flicks. Hamm tells it best: “I got that job because of a friend of mine, this girl who was like our stage manager in college. She was always the hardworking type. I was hanging out with her and another friend of ours from Mizzou, commiserating at a potluck. None of us had any money. I’d lost my catering gig. I was like, ‘I need a job.’ My friend said, ‘You can have my job. I’m doing set dressing.’ I said, ‘I don’t know how to do that.’ She says, ‘It’s not that hard. They’ll hire anybody.’ She says, ‘It’s just soul-crushing for me. I can’t do it.’ I said, ‘Soul-crushing: That sounds amazing. I’ll do it.’ And she’s like, ‘It’s for these Skinemax soft-core titty movies.’ I asked, ‘What do you do?’ She hands me this bucket with all of her tools in it and says, ‘You just move shit around. Do whatever they want you to do.’ I went in the following Monday and said, ‘I’m the new set dresser.’ Literally, no one blinked.”
Vest, shirt, and trousers by Tom Ford. Shoes by O’Keeffe. Socks by Pantherella.
If you think that working behind the scenes of a soft-core film is the least bit titillating, Hamm insists you’re mistaken; it was boring and every bit as soul-crushing as advertised. Then, in 1997, Hamm got picked once again: He met Jennifer Westfeldt, who was staging a play in New York called Kissing Jessica Stein and thought there might be a part in it for him. Without knowing what that part was, Hamm said yes to an audition. He said he’d fly himself to New York and do the play for free. Whatever it took. That wasn’t necessary: He won the role and was even paid for it. Hamm and Westfeldt began dating and eventually moved in together.
Hamm started to land bit parts, like the one on Ally McBeal. He was making a living as an actor, but barely. After one audition, he heard he didn’t get the role because he looked too old. His agency dropped him. Approaching 30, Hamm was ready to give up. Then he learned about an audition for a new show on AMC called Mad Men.
Given that the main character would be opaque, with a mysterious background slowly revealed over time, creator Matthew Weiner didn’t want a recognizable actor. He was looking for a talented unknown, someone without a public persona that might otherwise color Don Draper’s story. But launching a series without a big name attached was a risk; the actor cast as Draper would have to have what it takes to carry the whole goddamn show. Hamm had to audition five, six, seven, maybe eight times. It reached a point where he’d read just about every line of the pilot script.
After all that, he was picked yet again. Weiner’s only reservation was that Hamm had a “little bit of the leading-man disease from being on television, the sort of handsome, gravelly intensity that was not altogether authentic in certain scenes.” Despite his concerns, Weiner says, “I just thought he was the guy,” the one who had “the intelligence, the sensitivity.” Plus, “he seemed wounded.”
Since his arrival in Canada a few days ago, Hamm has been going nonstop on the El Royale set, shooting the first scene, which takes place in the lobby of the titular hotel. He says it’s intricate. “Everyone is checking in, and everyone is checking everyone out. It’s off-season, the hotel is dark, no one is who they say they are.” Hamm plays a traveling vacuum-cleaner salesman, but as the story unfolds, we learn that there’s more to him than just the sales pitch. Kind of like Don Draper. And Will, Hamm’s character in Nostalgia. And Beirut’s Mason Skiles.
When I mention that his meatiest, most moving performances involve men finally confronting the wreckage and reality of their past and—at least with Draper and Skiles—turning to booze to numb the pain, Hamm writes off the similarities as typecasting: “If you’re the handsome white guy, you tend to get cast as guys who are meant to be convincing in their jobs. What I’ve been fortunate enough to do, whether it’s playing a certified idiot on 30 Rock or a weirdo in Bridesmaids, is play against that in a lot of ways.” He pours himself what has to be his fourth cup of coffee and says, “The through line for Draper and Skiles, and I think it’s why people use and abuse alcohol—they medicate. Self-medicate. It’s really effective at its job, which is to ease pain. Whether emotional or mental or, in some cases, physical pain. That’s what they’re medicating, those world-weary American guys retreating into booze.”
Regarding his own breaking point in 2015—rehab; his relationship with both Westfeldt and Mad Men over—all Hamm will say is “I had a lot of shifts in my life. A lot of rearranging of priorities. I don’t think it was conscious, but it was necessary. It was tricky, and the dust is still settling in many ways.” He isn’t prepared to go into detail about such personal and painful moments and how they changed him, save for some platitudes—“Good, bad, indifferent: It’s ephemeral. So sit in it for a minute and experience it. If it sucks, it too will be gone in a minute.” The man who’s made a living by hinting at the troubled inner lives beneath his characters’ poised surfaces says he’s a big believer in the idea that “the unexamined life isn’t worth living.” He just doesn’t want to go full Socrates right now. Not here. Not with a journalist. Not over bacon and eggs. “I think having a private life that you only share with your nearest and dearest is important,” he says as he picks up the check. “Otherwise, who are you?”