A Transformative Year For Don Draper, Jon Hamm The plot shakeups at the beginning of this season's Mad Men have left Jon Hamm's character Don Draper a broken man. Hamm talks about Draper's evolution, details how he auditioned for the role and talks about his newest movie, Ben Affleck's crime thriller The Town.

A Transformative Year For Don Draper, Jon Hamm

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Jon Hamm, stars as Don Draper in the AMC series "Mad Men," about the professional and private lives of people in an advertising agency in the 1960s. For three years in a row, the show has won an Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series, and Hamm has been nominated as Outstanding Actor in a Drama Series.

Don Draper epitomizes the creative, troubled, handsome, sexist, cigarette-smoking, liquor-drinking man of the '60s. But this season, his life has really gone off the rails. We'll talk about that a little later.

Beginning tomorrow, you can see Jon Hamm in the new film "The Town," which was directed by Ben Affleck, who also stars in the film. It premiered last weekend at the Toronto Film Festival.

Affleck plays the leader of a crew of bank robbers from a working-class Boston neighborhood. At the start of "The Town," they rob a bank and take as their hostage a bank manager, played by Rebecca Hall. The robbers are masked, and they blindfolded her, so she doesn't recognize Affleck when he keeps tabs on her to make sure she's not talking to the police. They soon fall in love.

Jon Hamm plays the lead FBI agent investigating the armed bank robbery. In this scene, he's questioning Affleck.

(Soundbite of film, "The Town")

Mr. JON HAMM (Actor): (As FBI Special Agent Adam Frawley) You and your boys didn't just roll a Star market over in Malton(ph) for a box of quarters. No, you decided to bang it out in the north end at 9:00 in the morning with assault rifles. You dummies shot a guard.

Now you're like a half-off sale at Big and Tall. Every cop is in line. Fortunately, though, for you, this guard has miraculously clung to life. Now, if it were up to me, and they gave me two minutes and a wet towel, I would personally asphyxiate this half-wit so we could string you up on a federal M1 and end this story with a bag on your head and a paralyzing agent running through your veins.

But I do want to say one thing. You're here today so I can personally tell you that you are going to die in federal prison, and so are all your friends. No deal, no compromise.

GROSS: That's my guest, Jon Hamm, with Ben Affleck in a scene from the new film "The Town." Jon Hamm, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It is really wonderful to have you here.

Since you were playing an FBI agent, you had an FBI consultant to work with. Was that helpful? What did you get from that?

Mr. HAMM: It's tremendously helpful. We had a consultant on set at all times to sort of make sure everything was as authentic as possible. And - but more to the point, before we even started shooting, I was able to hang out with quite a few of the law-enforcement agents in Boston.

And in particular, the Violent Crimes and Robbery Task Force that handles bank robberies and violent crimes at the federal level is actually made up of a sort of consortium of federal, state and local law-enforcement agencies, and they work very closely together.

And because of that, they're able to use sort of the local knowledge that the Boston Police Department has of these neighborhoods and of these criminals and of these sort of gangs, these crews that go and knock off armored cars and banks. And then they can pursue them at the federal level, as well, and use the vast power of the federal law-enforcement system to sort of bring these guys to justice. And they're very, very good at their job.

GROSS: So I read that the FBI consultant who worked with you on the set had actually arrested some of the extras who were used in the movie who were actual ex-cons. So did the FBI agent and the ex-cons have any direct contact that you witnessed?

Mr. HAMM: Sure. It was always a strange day when the two sides would meet. And there were quite a few. We had a few of our guys in our crew that couldn't go to certain locations because it would violate their parole.

So that was part of a very conscious decision on Ben's part to hire local guys and to hire guys with specific knowledge of certain neighborhoods in Boston. And sometimes you get some of the elements that come with that are sometimes some of the more unsavory elements in the world, but they were all on their best behavior, and we certainly had no shortage of...

GROSS: You're saying nobody robbed you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HAMM: No, nobody robbed us. So that was very fortunate.

GROSS: So did any of the ex-cons or the FBI consultant at any point say to you, uh-uh, you're doing it wrong, it's like this?

Mr. HAMM: I didn't have a sort of gotcha moment on set really at any point. But I was able to really handle the weapons a lot and get very comfortable with all that. And that's the biggest obstacle in any of all that is just not looking like an idiot when you're running around, holding a gun the wrong way.

GROSS: Was this your first role with a gun?

Mr. HAMM: No, I'd played a soldier in a movie called "We Were Soldiers" quite some time ago. So I and I grew up around guns, and I'm from St. Louis, Missouri, and most of my family were hunters and fishermen and whatnot. So I was relatively comfortable around guns.

But still, there's a very specific technical knowledge that you have to have. And all the guys on the other side, as well, you know, Jeremy and Ben and Owen and Slaine, all those guys had to be very comfortable with their weapons, too, because these are people that, these are tools to them. They should look like they're very comfortable.

GROSS: So how'd you get the part in "The Town"?

Mr. HAMM: I had read a very early version of this script quite some time ago. I think it was probably between seasons one and two of "Mad Men," and another director was attached, and another I think a few other actors were sort of circling it. And they were looking at me for the part that Jeremy Renner actually ended up playing, the Jim role.

And I didn't really respond to that, but I read in reading the script, I was like, well, I'd rather play the cop. That one seems to be a little more for me. But it ended up going away and falling apart, and the studio couldn't come to terms with the director involved, and the budget got too big, and all of this other stuff started happening. And like movies do, it fell apart.

And a couple years later, maybe a year later, I was talking to someone from Warner Brothers, and they said: Have you read this script "The Town"? And I said, yeah, I read it. I thought it fell apart.

They said no, no, no. We're really looking at it again, and we're going back at it. Ben Affleck is going to direct it, and he's going to rewrite it, and he's going to star in it.

And I had seen "Gone Baby Gone" and was really blown away by that as a film. And obviously was familiar with his work as an actor and very much familiar with his work as a writer and thought, well, thats way more intriguing. I'd love to read his version of the script. And they said, we'll get it to you in a couple weeks. He's got a draft due on such-and-such date.

And I read it, and it was tremendously different. The movie had gotten much more spare, and I think part of that was budgetary considerations, but I think also the majority of it was because Ben wanted to make this kind of throwback action film that's very bare bones and kind of lo-fi.

And he did that from the script level all the way through principle photography and editing and everything else. He made a very stripped-down, classic kind of action film.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jon Hamm, and he plays an FBI agent in the new movie "The Town," which was directed by Ben Affleck, who also stars in it. Can we talk about "Mad Men"? I love that show.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I know so many people who love that show. And this has been such a transformative season for your character, Don Draper. To demonstrate that, I'd like to just play a couple of short clips.

So you start off season one, you're this, like, creative advertising genius. And you create ads that reach into people's deepest desires and motivations. In this scene from the first season, you're running an ad meeting for an ad campaign for a new aerosol deodorant. The staff has pitched an idea comparing this new aerosol to space travel, and then you think no, no, no, that's all wrong. We're heading in the wrong direction. And here's what you have to say.

(Soundbite of television program, "Mad Men")

Mr. HAMM: (As Don Draper) Brass tacks, who buys this? Some woman. Your girl or your mother will pick this up walking through the grocery store or the druggist. We should be asking ourselves: What do women want?

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) I don't know, but I wish I had it.

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As character) Meet a chesty alien girl also wants to get into a suit.

Mr. HAMM: (As Draper) Im not asking what do women want in some bull(BEEP) research psychology way. I'm asking: What would make a woman look at this man's deodorant and say, I want that?

Unidentified Man #3 (Actor): (As character) I've stopped trying to figure out what they think.

Mr. HAMM: (As Draper) Maybe I should stop paying you.

Unidentified Man #4 (Actor): (As character) Well, I always thought women liked the way we smell.

Unidentified Man #5 (Actor): (As character) That explains a lot.

Unidentified Man #6 (Actor): (As character) I feel like we're close here. I mean, this one, the can's right-side-up, but the guy's upside-down.

Mr. HAMM: No, let's bring it down to earth. You think they want a cowboy. He's quiet and strong. He always brings the cattle home safe. You watch TV. But they want something else, inside, some mysterious wish that we're ignoring.

GROSS: Okay, so that's Don Draper, played by my guest, Jon Hamm, in season one of "Mad Men." And let's get to this season. Now, this season, oh, man, it's been a rough season. Don Draper has become an out-and-out alcoholic and...

Mr. HAMM: Well, a less-functioning alcoholic.

GROSS: A less-functioning alcoholic, exactly, exactly. And you've been blowing it at pitch meetings. And here's an example. You've just won a CLIO, which is, you know, an Oscar in the ad world. It's like the Academy Award of the ad world. And this is for a commercial you did for Glo-Coat Floor Wax.

And then in the after-party, you've gotten drunk. And then you're holding a meeting with the people from Life breakfast cereal because their plane was late, so you couldn't hold the meeting earlier in the day.

Mr. HAMM: Yeah, we thought the meeting was going to be canceled because their plane was grounded, but it turns out they made it through, and this unexpected meeting happened.

GROSS: So you're drunk at this meeting. You've pitched them an idea which they've rejected, and then uncharacteristically after they reject this idea, you just kind of like start spinning out one idea after another. Here's the scene.

(Soundbite of television program, "Mad Men")

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

Unidentified Man #7 (Actor): (As character) Don, theyre not expecting you to do this right now.

Mr. 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 #8 (Actor): (As character) Oh, oh, there you go, the 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 #9 (Actor): (As character) We'll get that put together for you.

GROSS: That's my guest, Jon Hamm, in a scene from this season of "Mad Men," 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.

Mr. 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.

Mr. 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...

Mr. 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.

Mr. 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. And what we found out about Mr. Draper is that he is sort of infinitely adaptable.

So whether or not he pulls out of this particular funk, we'll see, 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 I think that's what and as we know about Don Draper, he isn't, he's not honest with himself about - he is with himself, but with the world, about who he is at his foundation. He is a completely constructed character.

GROSS: He stole the identity of somebody. He stole the name, yeah.

Mr. HAMM: (Unintelligible) somebody else. And so he's, 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: My guest is Jon Hamm. He stars as Don Draper in the AMC series "Mad Men," and he plays an FBI agent in the new film "The Town," which opens this weekend. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jon Hamm, and he stars in "Mad Men" as Don Draper. He's starring as an FBI agent in Ben Affleck's new movie "The Town."

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, 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.

Mr. 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 create of the series.

Mr. HAMM: Matt Weiner, yes, the writer and creator, executive producer of the show, stated very 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?

Mr. 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 dont - 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?

Mr. 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.

Mr. 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 - and 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?

Mr. HAMM: I've said it in other interviews, but this character very much reminded me of my father. And my dad would have been 27 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 assumed someone'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.

GROSS: Jon Hamm will be back in the second half of the show. He stars as Don Draper in the AMC series "Mad Men," and he plays an FBI agent in the new film "The Town," which opens this weekend. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Im Terry Gross, back with Jon Hamm. He plays an FBI agent in the new movie "The Town," which opens this weekend, starring Ben Affleck, who also directed the film.

Hamm is best known for his starring role on the AMC series "Mad Men," about the professional and personal lives of a group of people working in an ad agency in the 1960s. He plays Don Draper, who is creative but troubled. He's very handsome and seductive. But this season his drinking, smoking and womanizing have really caught up with him. The character has quickly risen to the status of iconic.

You were very funny in "30 Rock," playing a doctor who was dating Tina Fey. And because youre 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

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.

(Soundbite of TV show, "30 Rock")

Ms. TINA FEY (Comedian, Actress): (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.

Unidentified Woman (Actor): (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.

Ms. FEY: (as Liz Lemon) Okay. Thank you.

Unidentified Woman: (as character) Youre welcome.

Mr. HAMM: (a Drew) What was that? Why didnt she call you sweetheart? And where's the complimentary app sampler? What's going on?

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

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

Ms. 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.

Mr. HAMM: (a Drew) Oh, I dont think that's true.

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

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

Ms. FEY: (as Liz Lemon) Did she say it on TV?

Mr. HAMM: (a Drew) No. She said it to me when she jumped escalators to try to talk - oh. Well, I dont want to live that way. I dont want you to treat me that way.

Ms. FEY: (as Liz Lemon) Are you sure?

Mr. HAMM: (a 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

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

Mr. HAMM: I certainly dont. I dont 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. It is, I think, that that is the larger point of that whole storyline is a comment on that - 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 dont feel that way. I have enough self loathing and cynicism in me to go autocorrect at any particular time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So youre 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.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Saturday Night Live")

(Soundbite of applause)

(Soundbite of cheering)

Unidentified Man: And now, "Don Draper's Guide to Picking Up Women."

Mr. 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

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

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KRISTEN WIIG (Actress): (as Jessica) Hi, I'm Jessica.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WIIG: (as Jessica) We're shy, aren't we?

(Soundbite of laughter)

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

(Soundbite of laughter)

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

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

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

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WILSON: (as character) Oh, how mysterious.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of bell)

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. HAMM: (as Don Draper) You have great name.

(Soundbite of giggling)

Mr. FRED ARMISEN (Actor): (as Nathaniel Snerpus): Hi. I'm Nathaniel Snerpus.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. AMY POEHLER: (as character) Well, hello.

Mr. HAMM: (as Don Draper) Don Draper.

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

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. 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.

(Soundbite of applause)

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

(Soundbite of bell)

(Soundbite of applause)

(Soundbite of cheering)

Unidentified Man: This has been "Don Draper's Guide to Picking Up Women."

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

Who wrote that sketch?

Mr. HAMM: I dont 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?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Really?

Mr. HAMM: Yes. I could...

GROSS: He was in the audience?

Mr. 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?

Mr. 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 didnt do much of anything, actually.

GROSS: Now...

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

GROSS: My guest is Jon Hamm. He stars as Don Draper in the AMC series, "Mad Men." And he plays an FBI agent in the new film "The Town," which opens this weekend. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If youre just joining us, my guest is Jon Hamm and he plays Don Draper in "Mad Men." He plays an FBI agent in the new film "The Town," which is a crime film that was directed - that is directed by Ben Affleck, who also stars in it.

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 very powerful and important in - was it St. Louis where you grew up?

Mr. HAMM: St. Louis, Missouri, yeah.

GROSS: Yeah. So what kind of business was it?

Mr. HAMM: Trucking, actually. Trucking and heavy hauling. And it was a family business, three or four generations before me, and started with a block and tackle and a horse and wagon, pulling - pulling stuff up off of barges off the Mississippi and loading it on to wagons and carts and heading it out West. That turned into, you know, over the road, 18-wheeler, rigging and block and tackle for railroads and stuff. And the '60s was kind of the height of over-the-road trucking and interstate commerce and obviously, my dad had to deal a lot with the unions and the teamsters and so there was a lot going on and he was kind of right at the center of it.

GROSS: Did...

Mr. HAMM: And what happened...

GROSS: Go ahead.

Mr. HAMM: Go ahead.

GROSS: No. No. You.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HAMM: Oh, what ended up happening was, you know, container ships and shipping - overseas shipping actually, ended up overtaking over-the-road truck and heavy hauling. So the business sort of dried up and then, as happens, sort of they started to conglomerate. And we ended up getting bought out, I think, in the early '80s and then that was the end of that.

GROSS: Awkward to bring this up, but did he have to deal with the mob also?

Mr. HAMM: There were definitely elements of that obviously, when youre talking about, you know, trucking and teamsters and that kind of thing. There was -there was. At my dad's funeral there were a few guys with pinky rings, to say the least.

GROSS: So, in our previous interview you said that your father was a salesman who could sell anything to anybody. So it sounds like he wasnt literally a salesman.

Mr. HAMM: Well, by the, you know, like I said, he had sold the business in the early '80s. And after that he, you know, he would've been 47 years old in 1980, so he had plenty of career left to do. So he sold cars, he sold trucks and yeah, he hustled, you know, he had a kid to take care of so he had to make money somehow.

GROSS: Earlier you described your father as a very successful businessman but also very sad.

Mr. HAMM: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Do you mean depression or...

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

GROSS: Your mother.

Mr. HAMM: No.

GROSS: No? Oh.

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


Mr. 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 around about 1969, I suppose, who was much younger than he was and had me in 1971 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: Were you close at all with your father before your mother died? Had you been seeing him much when you were living with your mother after your parents separated?

Mr. HAMM: Yeah. It was a, you know, shared custody so it was a, you know, sort of a every other weekend or something like that, not dissimilar to the Draper children. But, yeah, I loved my dad. I loved spending time with him and, you know, youre a little kid. You dont really understand what happens in between adults and adult relationships. You just think like, well, why aren't you guys together? You know, you used to be together. Why aren't you anymore? And the sort of vagaries of adult relationships are lost on little kids. So, yeah, I didnt really get it and, you know, by the time I was old enough to understand that stuff both of them had passed away, so that's kind of lost to the sands of time, I suppose.

GROSS: Your father died when you were about 20?

Mr. HAMM: Twenty years old. Yeah.

GROSS: Was the sadness that you said he had, was that kind of contagious?

Mr. HAMM: To me?

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. HAMM: I dont think so. I mean again, that's, his sadness was sort of a world-weariness and a product of life choices and all that kind of stuff, whereas I was a little kid, you know? Youre a teenager or youre a, I guess the preferred term these days is tween, you know, sort of adolescent. You got your whole life ahead of you and you think youre bulletproof and youre excited to get up in the morning and go to school and play football and play baseball and do all that stuff. So I was a pretty happy kid.

GROSS: So you were 10 when your mother died. Did you understand death then?

Mr. HAMM: Probably not. And again, this is in the Midwest in the early, early '80s. This was not exactly the - there wasnt a lot of therapy happening back then. I was given a book - literally given a book that said what to do when a parent dies, which I dutifully read. And it didnt really help. It was sort of like I would really just have my mom back than have to read about other kids that lost their parents. But no, its a - it was, you know, it's a tough thing to take at that age. And I dont think I really got over that for quite some time.

GROSS: Did anybody sit down and try to explain to you what death meant?

Mr. HAMM: You know, there were sort of like these awkward conversations with my sisters or my dad or somebody, and that's why I would always kind of be like I understand it and I get it. And then they would get super emotional and because they obviously felt it at a, you know, super deep level. And so then I would just get bummed out that they got bummed out trying to explain to me this situation that sucked anyway. You know, it was kind of like, well, why are we even talking this if it's going to make you sad and it's going to make me sad and it's going to make everybody sad? Like, we all kind of get it, right? Let's just move on, which was probably not the most healthy attitude to have at 10. But, yeah, it's not fun. I dont wish it on anybody.

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 didnt 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.

Mr. 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: What's the best school play you were ever in?

Mr. HAMM: I can go from the alpha to the omega. The first school play, which was in many ways the best, was when I played Winnie the Pooh when I was in first grade at Robin Hill Elementary School, because I got the lead. I got to play Winnie the Pooh and that was pretty great. But I think the most accomplished one was a production we did in college at the University of Missouri, of "Assassins," which is a Stephen Sondheim musical.

GROSS: Oh, wow.

Mr. HAMM: And it was not...

GROSS: Which assassin were you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HAMM: I played Leon Czolgosz, who assassinated President McKinley. And I recently saw the Broadway revival that they did and I was kind of like yeah, ours was as good as that, at least. I remember it very vividly, and we had an incredibly talented group of people and we really, really loved it. And that was an incredibly fulfilling time I had on stage.

GROSS: So when do we get to hear you sing? Maybe a revival of "Guys and Dolls" or something.

Mr. HAMM: Now, again...

GROSS: I could see you as Guy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HAMM: I dont know if what I do could be called singing - sort of making noise in the right rhythm, perhaps. But I was definitely the weak link, vocally, in that group of tremendous singers that we had in college. So, probably no time soon, at least no time without a tremendous sense of irony.

GROSS: And talking about singing, you did sing a couple of lines in the Emmys on that really funny opening number where everybody - it was kind of like a "Glee" tribute.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HAMM: It was a little bit of a "Glee" tribute. Yes. Jimmy asked me to be a part of that and I had seen the one that they did on his show called "Six B," where the cast of "Parks and Recreation" and the cast and writers of "The Fallon Show" did a very funny sort of sing-off. So I knew that they had it in them and I knew that they could do it, and that song, "Born to Run," I can sing - I can manage to do a passable Springsteen impression, I guess. So I was not asked to do a tremendous amount. I was asked to do just the right amount for me.

GROSS: Well, John Hamm, thank you so much for talking with us. Good luck with your new film, "The Town," and thank you so much for talking with us.

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

GROSS: Jon Hamm stars as Don Draper in the AMC series "Mad Men," and he plays an FBI agent in the new Ben Affleck film "The Town," which opens this weekend.

Coming up, we listen back to a 1988 interview with newscaster Edwin Newman, who was also famous for his writing about the English language. His death was announced yesterday. He was 91.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

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