Jon Hamm: Mad Men's Don Draper Redefines Himself On Thursday night, Mad Men creator Matt Weiner signed a new deal with AMC to create at least two more seasons of the Emmy-winning drama. On today's Fresh Air, actor Jon Hamm talks about playing the character Don Draper and details how he auditioned for the role.
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Jon Hamm: Mad Men's Don Draper Redefines Himself

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Jon Hamm: Mad Men's Don Draper Redefines Himself

Jon Hamm: Mad Men's Don Draper Redefines Himself

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of, sitting in for Terry Gross.

"Mad Men," the Emmy-winning AMC drama about a Madison Avenue advertising executive in the 1960s, won't be presenting new episodes until next year, but it will be back for a season 5. The network and the show's creator just agreed to terms which will continue "Mad Men" through its seventh and final season.

Our guest, Jon Hamm, stars as Don Draper, a creative director at the advertising agency who epitomizes the creative, troubled, handsome, sexist, cigarette-smoking, liquor-drinking man of the 1960s. But in the most recent season, which just came out this week on DVD, he's gone off the rails.

He's started a new agency, ended his marriage and done an awful lot of drinking, and not just during the film's legendary three-martini business lunches. In this scene, Don has just won a Cleo Award, the ad-world equivalent of an Emmy or Oscar, and after the celebratory party, holds an ad-hoc meeting with a potential client, the representatives of Life Business Cereal.

The meeting had been canceled earlier in the day, but Don takes the opportunity to pitch them anyway, and when they reject his first concept, the obviously inebriated Don Draper tries, tries again.


JON HAMM: (As Draper) How about: Life is just a bowl of Life cereal? Life is sweet. Enjoy the rest of your Life cereal.

VINCENT KARTHEISER: (As Pete) Don, they're not expecting you to do this right now.

HAMM: (As Draper) Give me a second. Life, the reason you get out of bed in the morning. Life, the cure for the common breakfast. Life, it's sweetness never ends. Life, eat it by the bowlful.

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) Oh, oh, there you go: (As character) Oh, oh, there you go: cure for the common breakfast. Love it. It's got the health angle. Life makes you feel better. It's got protein. Very nice. That dog'll hunt. Wonderful.

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As character) We'll get that put together for you.


Jon Hamm, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It is really wonderful to have you here.

This has been such a transformative season for your character, Don Draper. This season, oh man, it's been a rough season. Don Draper has become an out-and-out alcoholic and...

HAMM: Well, a less-functioning alcoholic.

GROSS: A less-functioning alcoholic, exactly, exactly. And you've been blowing it at pitch meetings. And what makes Don Draper's behavior even worse in that scene is that the slogan that the clients from Life Cereal like best is one that Draper actually lifted from the portfolio of a job candidate. And he's so drunk, he doesn't even realize he did that.

HAMM: Unconsciously.

GROSS: Yeah. So Jon Hamm, did you have to rethink your whole portrayal this season of who Don Draper is? And this season starts with a journalist saying to Don Draper: Who is Don Draper? And the whole season has been basically asking that question.

HAMM: You know, I think yes and no. I think the character has and is evolving, and certainly circumstances in Don Draper's life have changed. Don's getting older. The country is moving through a significant period of change.

GROSS: His wife has left him. She'd remarried. He's living alone in Greenwich Village. Even - he's propositioned, well, he slept with his secretary, which was a terrible thing to do, and then kind of ditches her and fires her. And then...

HAMM: To be fair, she resigns.

GROSS: She resigns, okay. Who would stay under those circumstances? And then also, I mean, even, like, you've even lost your touch with women. I mean, things are kind of getting back to an even keel. But, like, you've propositioned who've turned you down. It's kind of rough.

HAMM: Well, I think, what - again, as I say, this character is evolving. And what is happening is, in my opinion, and I think Matt Weiner, the show's creator, would agree with me, is that Don is sort of losing touch with not only his life but with the world around him.

And as the world is changing, as he is getting older, as his circumstances are shifting, the old paradigms aren't working so much anymore.

But it definitely is a season about redefining who you are when all of that stuff gets stripped away, when you're no longer, when you no longer have the perfect wife and the perfect family and the perfect job and the perfect approach to every problem.

When all of that stuff gets stripped away, who are you at the foundation? And as we know about Don Draper, he isn't, he's not honest with the world, about who he is. And so, you know, his fundamental dishonesty needs to be addressed before any sort of real growth can happen, and it remains to be seen if he's strong enough to do that.

GROSS: There was recently on "Mad Men" a real turning-point scene. It's the scene where you basically reach bottom. You bottom out. And it's after this scene that you realize something has to change in your life, and you try to start cutting back on the alcohol.

But this is a scene where you've gotten so drunk after someone who was very important to you has died that Peggy, one of the women you work with, basically has to drag you into the restroom, where you're kneeling in front of the toilet and just heaving and heaving.

And when you come out of it, there's even, like, a yellow puke stain on your shirt. And so it's like, we are seeing you at your lowest. And everybody who has just thought of Don Draper as this, like, you know, handsome guy and everything, we're seeing the consequences of all of Don Draper's actions play out.

And I just wonder what it was like for you to shoot that scene where he is at his lowest.

HAMM: It was a tremendously kind of exciting and cathartic and sad and wonderful scene to film. And, you know, Matt, very early on in the series states...

GROSS: This is Matt Weiner, the creator of the series.

HAMM: Matt Weiner, yes, sorry, the writer and creator, executive producer of the show, stated early on that one of the driving principles of the show is that actions have consequences.

And I think some of the early criticism of the show was like, well, these actions don't have consequences, like, this guy gets away with everything. He's a liar, he cheats on his wife, nothing ever happens, blah, blah, blah.

And what we're now finding out is, well, they don't necessarily have to have consequences on the same day or in the same episode or in the same hour of television, but they will have consequences. And we are seeing the consequences of three seasons of behavior kind of come to a head in this particular episode.

GROSS: At what point did you find out that your character, Don Draper, was going to undergo this transformational change and that the consequences would catch up with him this season?

HAMM: Well, I trusted in Matt to tell the story the way he wanted to tell the story and to be honest about it. And again, as I said, very early on, he said actions will have consequences. So I imagined that this would come about at some point.

We don't really talk in specifics about how the show is going to progress episode to episode and season-long arcs. So - and we're not really allowed in the writers' room to go sort of peek and see where our people are going and what's going to happen.

And I honestly really don't like knowing, like, what's going to come down the pike, for fear of somehow subconsciously playing the end of the story or playing information that my character shouldn't have.

That said, Matt and I sit at the beginning of every season, and we talk about what the season is going to bring and what the arc of the season could be or should be or might be. But this is well before anything is written, and we talk in very, very general terms and themes and feelings and ideas.

GROSS: Now, you auditioned for the part of Don Draper six times, at least that's what I read. So when you were doing the audition, you had to portray a Don Draper confidence. But because you hadn't landed a really big role before, you were probably, as many actors are, insecure at the time of the audition. You were still a waiter, weren't you?

HAMM: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: Yeah, so you probably didn't have quite the confidence that you had to convey. Or maybe you did. But I'm wondering how confidence came into play during the audition.

HAMM: Well, you have to, I mean, as any actor, you have to - and this is successful, unsuccessful, working, non-working - you have to portray a sense of confidence. And if you have to manufacture it, if you have to fake it, if you have to drum it up from somewhere in your subconscious, you have to do it.

So I was - I had worked as an actor and was on a television show and had a lot of experience. So I wasn't coming in fresh off the turnip truck, so to speak.

But auditioning is a terrifying process. And it's a really soul-crushing process sometimes because essentially what people are saying is not necessarily that we don't like your acting but we don't like you. And that's hard to take. But I really wanted to do this part, and I really felt a relationship to it, and...

GROSS: Why? Why did you feel a relationship to it?

HAMM: I've said it in other interviews, but this character very much reminded me of my father. And he - my dad would have been 27 years old in 1960, when we start the show. So he would have been a little younger than Don Draper, but he was a very powerful businessman, you know, in St. Louis, Missouri, where I grew up.

And he had a lot of friends and knew a lot of people and had a lot of power and had a lot of connections and was a pretty sad guy not because he subsumed somebody's identity and had a basic, you know, fundamental lie that he was living, but he, you know, my father was twice widowed and had a tough time.

And so it was interesting. It just resonated for me in that respect. So I really wanted to do it. And I thought the writing was excellent, as has been borne out, and I wanted to make the best of the opportunity. So I feel like I did represent confidence walking into the room, and the next seven times I had to walk into the room, I tried to be as confident as I could coming back.

BIANCULLI: Jon Hamm, speaking to Terry Gross last year. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 2010 interview with Jon Hamm, the star of the AMC drama series "Mad Men." Hamm has been nominated as best dramatic sctor for every season he's starred on "Mad Men," but he also performs on comedy shows, such as "Saturday Night Live" and "30 Rock."

GROSS: You were very funny in "30 Rock," playing a doctor who was dating Tina Fey. And because you're so handsome, when you go to a restaurant together women send over drinks, and the waitress gives you free food, the mayor comes over and wants to dance with you.

And Alec Baldwin explains to Tina Fey that this is because beautiful people are treated differently than moderately plain looking people. They live in a bubble, and the bubble is a world of free drinks, kindness and outdoor sex.


GROSS: So I want to play a scene after Alec Baldwin explains that. And you and Tina Fey are in a restaurant, and you want to order something off the menu, and Tina Fey says no, I'm going to order for you. And she covers your face with the menu so that the waitress can't see how handsome you are and then she orders. Here's the scene.


TINA FEY: (As Liz Lemon) Let me order that for you. Excuse me, we will have a turkey burger deluxe and a catfish po boy with a diet raspberry Fanta.

BIANCULLI: (As character) I'm going to come back in five minutes. You try to order off the menu again, I will smack those glasses off of your face.

FEY: (As Liz Lemon) Okay. Thank you.

Unidentified Woman: (as character) You're welcome.

HAMM: (As Drew) What was that? Why didn't she call you sweetheart? And where's the complimentary app sampler? What's going on?

FEY: (As Liz Lemon) Okay, Drew, this is how most people live. See, because of your whole, you know, Disney prince thing...

HAMM: (As Drew) Actually, they used footage of me from my high school swim team to draw Prince Eric.

FEY: (As Liz Lemon) Right. Because of that, you live in a bubble where people do what you want and tell you what you want to hear.

HAMM: (As Drew) Oh, I don't think that's true.

FEY: (As Liz Lemon) Drew, I'm going to tell you this for your own good, you can't put Gatorade on salmon.

HAMM: (As Drew) Oh, yes you can. That hot Italian lady from the Food Network told me so.

FEY: (As Liz Lemon) Did she say it on TV?

HAMM: (As Drew) No. She said it to me when she jumped escalators to try to talk - oh. Well, I don't want to live that way. I don't want you to treat me that way.

FEY: (As Liz Lemon) Are you sure?

HAMM: (As Drew) Yeah. Liz, I'm an adult. You can be honest with me. I can take it.

GROSS: Well, you can't really take it, as it turns out.


GROSS: So do you ever feel like you live in that bubble, the bubble of beautiful people?

HAMM: I certainly don't. I don't consider myself some sort of beautiful person by any stretch of the imagination. But I do think that our culture sort of does that in a certain sense with celebrities in some capacity.

BIANCULLI: how our culture is sort of obsessed with the beautiful people and treating them just so because you desperately want to be part of that group. I don't feel that way. I have enough self-loathing and cynicism in me to autocorrect at any particular time.


GROSS: So you're very funny at satirizing, you know, Don Draper and perceptions of you. You hosted "Saturday Night Live" a couple of times, and on one of those episodes you did a sketch called "Don Draper's Guide to Picking Up Women." I just want to play some of that.




HAMM: (As Don Draper) Hello, I'm Don Draper and I've been fortunate enough to have affairs with many women. Some say, boy, Don, how do you do it? Well, it's simple. And you can do it, too, if you follow my four easy steps.


HAMM: (As Don Draper) Step one, when in doubt, remain absolutely silent.


KRISTEN WIIG: (As Jessica) Hi, I'm Jessica.


WIIG: (As Jessica) We're shy, aren't we?


WIIG: (As Jessica) Marry me. I want to have your children.


HAMM: (As Don Draper) See? Step two, when asked about your past, give vague, open-ended answers.

CASEY WILSON: (As character) So, Don, tell me about your family. Any brothers and sisters?

HAMM: (As Don Draper) There was a man with bright, shiny shoes. I saw him dancing until the accident.


WILSON: (As character) Oh, how mysterious.





HAMM: (As Don Draper) Step three: have a great name.


FRED ARMISEN: (As Nathaniel Snerpus): Hi. I'm Nathaniel Snerpus.


AMY POEHLER: (As character) Well, hello.

HAMM: (As Don Draper) Don Draper.

POEHLER: (As character) Let's get me out of this skirt.


HAMM: (As Don Draper) And finally, step four. Look fantastic in a suit. Look fantastic in casual wear. Look fantastic in anything. Sound good. Smell good. Kiss good. Strut around with supreme confidence. Be uncannily successful at your job. Blow people away every time you say anything. Take six-hour lunches. Disappear for weeks at a time. Lie to everyone about everything.


HAMM: (As Don Draper) And drink and smoke constantly. Basically, be Don Draper.




GROSS: That's my guest, Jon Hamm, on "Saturday Night Live."

Who wrote that sketch?

HAMM: I don't know who wrote that one. I'm not sure, honestly. The interesting thing about that, and I haven't heard that clip in quite some time, is that you can hear Matt Weiner laughing in the crowd reactions. He has a very particular laugh.

GROSS: Seriously?


GROSS: Really?

HAMM: Yes. I could...

GROSS: He was in the audience?

HAMM: He was in the audience that night. That was the first time I hosted, and quite a few of our cast and crew were in attendance. And, yeah, I could pick it out. I could hear it. It's very funny.

GROSS: Were you confident in your dating years?

HAMM: Not particularly. I was sort of a late bloomer and was not really necessarily one of the cool kids and - not really. I mean, I was just kind of like the sort of weird kid that didn't do much of anything, actually.

GROSS: Now...

HAMM: That should be enough to show you how awkward I was when I was dating. I can't even talk about it.

GROSS: Now, earlier in our interview, you said that the portrayal of Don Draper is based in part on your father, who was a businessman, who was a very successful businessman but also very sad. Do you mean depression or...

HAMM: Well, he had a sad life in a lot of ways. You know, his first wife...

GROSS: Your mother.


GROSS: No? Oh.

HAMM: His first wife. My mother was his second wife.


HAMM: His first wife was - he had two daughters with, and she died of a brain aneurism very suddenly and very tragically, leaving him to sort of take care of these two little girls. And that was difficult for him.

He then met and married my mother, who was much younger than he was, and had me and then got divorced. And my mother was out of that relationship pretty quick. So then had, you know, three kids and no wife and was ended up sort of back home living with his mom.

And then when my mother passed away when I was 10, I then had to move back in with my dad and my grandmother, his mother. So, yeah, he was a sad guy. You know, he had a lot of - I think he probably had a lot of regret in his life. And yeah, it was a - the best way I could describe it is that it was a tricky situation.

GROSS: A lot of people start off in their path toward adulthood on the path that their parents want them to take, whether that means, you know, going to college when they didn't want to or, you know, going into business when they prefer to be artist or, you know, whatever.

But since you lost your mother when you were young, and your father died when you were 20, when you were 20, you no longer had parents to either displease or please. So, like, they no longer had any say. And I'm wondering how that affected, if at all, your decision to give acting a shot, which is a very, very risky decision.

HAMM: I'm sure it had some effect. I'm virtually certain - 100 percent - that had both my parents been around, I probably would've done something completely different with my life. But, you know, I think all performers come from a place of sort of self doubt and pain.

And, you know, Ray Romano said once, very accurately and hilariously, that if his dad would've spent more time with him he probably would've become an accountant instead of a comedian. So I think that anybody that wants to get up on stage and tell jokes or do plays or sing songs has some sort of, at a fundamental level, desire to be paid attention to, and I am no different.

But my mother, very early on, instilled in me an incredible desire to learn and an incredible curiosity about the world and an incredible joy in achieving things. And so that's probably the - and she also put me in creative writing classes and acting classes when I was a little kid and encouraged me to do - to do stuff. And so that's probably the biggest influence in what got me here.

GROSS: Well, John Hamm, thank you so much for talking with us.

HAMM: Thank you very much for having me. I appreciate it.

BIANCULLI: Jon Hamm, speaking to Terry Gross in 2010. The latest season of "Mad Men" came out on DVD this week, and the next season will begin on AMC early next year. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

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