When I sat down with Jon Hamm two weeks ago to chat about Sunday’s (April 7) Season 6 premiere of “Mad Men,” my first question was about the sense that as the show gets deeper into the ’60s, Don Draper’s polished image has begun to fray around the edges.
At that moment, Hamm seemed a little frayed himself. Yes, he still looked dashing enough to do a magazine photo shoot or walk a red carpet, but he was also clearly fighting off an unpleasant cold. After a day of interviews, his voice was raw and he was bundled up as if it were a January day in Manhattan, rather than a March day in Los Angeles, complete with a scarf that could be described as nothing less than jaunty.
Like a trooper, Hamm weathered my 10 minutes of questions, which marked the end of his interview schedule for the day. He had a good answer for my question about Don’s fraying and also about the increased emergence of Dark Don in recent seasons. He talked about the process of directing his second episode.
And although you won’t get any concrete spoilers out of anybody associated with Matt Weiner’s Emmy-winning drama, Hamm dropped some hints about aspects of Don’s past that may return or be explained this season.
Click through for the full Q&A.
HitFix: I’m liking that as the show gets deeper into the decade — I’m not gonna talk about specifics, don’t worry — we’re getting later in the ’60s and things are starting to get more loose and ragged along the sides. And as that’s happening on the sides, Don is also getting a little more frayed, a little less polished. Is that fraying around the edges challenging for you to get to play?
Jon Hamm: Somebody else described it by saying that it seems very grim and gritty and grimy. And…Yeah. Something weird happened. It’s always funny to me how weirdly perfect the show echos the times, the contemporary times that we’re in. Something weird happened at this point in the ’60s when everything just started not working and breaking down, systems and organizations and things that we kinda depended on for their stability and their solidness. The curtain was pulled back and people were like, “Wait a minute! No one’s running anything. What’s happening?” or “We don’t trust the people that are running everything!” And New York City, which was for years the kind of perfect city of people and systems and things working together and people living together, at some point, there was a blip. And then all of a sudden it was on fire and people were blowing things up and they were tearing down parks to put highways over them and they were just rewriting the map with a big crayon.
And I think that that’s our template, that’s our foundation that we’re setting this season on is after that blip. So the chess board has been kind of bumped and now all of the pieces are on the wrong squares. So I think that’s where you’re seeing this fraying and I think everybody’s gotta figure out, not just my character, but everybody’s gotta figure out their place in this new situation.
And for Don, it’s another case of sink-or-swim. He’s always been an ambitious guy. He’s always been a good adaptor. And he’s often used the tools at his disposal, whether it’s his charm or his ability to lie, or his ability to get creative with the truth, to find a place for him and his in that new paradigm. I think that this season is another test of that. How do we find our way through this new reality, a reality that, by the way, he is now further out of the mainstream and further disconnected from. We saw that last season with Megan giving him the Beatles and him going like, “What is this garbage? What is this? I do not understand it” and being on the wrong side of history with that.
HitFix: He’s certainly been on the wrong side of history at times over the years, but is he becoming more and more on the wrong side as we progress?
Jon Hamm: Well, he’s not getting any younger. Nobody gets cooler as they get older, after a certain point. The currency of the realm, it seems at this point, is “cool” and the youth are driving not only the cultural discussion, but the political discussion and the geo-political discussion in a bigger way than ever before. It’s still the old people that are making the decisions, but the riots in the streets and the marching, all of that stuff is being driven by the youth. And Don’s not young and yet Don’s job requires him to maintain that finger on the pulse of what’s cool, what’s interesting, what’s hip, what sells. So I think that’s why, to use a specific example, I think that’s why the loss of Peggy was particularly difficult for Don. It wasn’t only because of their personal relationship and Don’s special relationship with Peggy, but the fact that one of the tools in his toolbox was taken away.
HitFix: Last season, we got more and more of the Dark Don. There was that particularly troubling fever dream episode and that sorta forced a lot of viewers to step back and go, “What is Don capable of? What is the darkness that this guy is capable of?” Do you have a good grasp on how far Don would go under some circumstances?
Jon Hamm: I think we saw a lot of that in Season 4, too, when he was divorced and single and he couldn’t quite figure out where he was and what his place was. I don’t know what the answer to that is. I think a lot of that comes from parts of Don’s past that we haven’t seen, that we don’t know about. And I think a lot of that gets revealed this season. We learn a lot more about where Don comes from and why Don does what Don does, psychology and from a developmental standpoint. And it makes sense. It explains a lot. So how dark can he go? I think pretty f***ing dark. I think that the few times that he’s given over to that side, it hasn’t been necessarily pretty and I think it’s a struggle for him to keep that part at bay. But I don’t think it was a mistake that one of the last images of last season was Don walking away from the light and into the shadows. Megan was in the spotlight and Don was in the shadows. I don’t think it’s a mistake that Don starts this season sitting on a beach in paradise and reading about Hell.
HitFix: You directed for a second time this season. Once you had the first-time jitters out of the way, what was the experience of doing it again?
Jon Hamm: It was great. I’ll make the comparison to when I did “30 Rock” the live show the first time and then the second time. They wisely bumped up the degree of difficulty. They made it a much harder show because they said, “OK. We can DO this. Now let’s do it great.” And while I will not sit here and say that my episode is “great,” they made it harder for me. I had a lot more to do. I had a lot more challenging scenes. From a directing standpoint, anything with more than three people in it is just a nightmare, because it takes forever. And then extras and locations and flashbacks, all of this other stuff, you really have to be very aware of how this is all going to cut together, or else it’s just a mish-mosh and it looks terrible. So the degree of difficulty was significantly higher from kinda a filmmaking standpoint. And I appreciated that. First of all, I was happy that I was given the opportunity again to come do this and then also trusted with one where the training wheels are off the bike.
HitFix: Did you have the chance to look at the episode you did last season from a certain distance and go, “OK, I wish I’d done this, this, this and this”?
Jon Hamm: It’s interesting because the director doesn’t get the final cut of anything. It’s Matt’s choices really going there and he’s free to completely rework and recut the episode. Your responsibility is to get the footage and to make it look as beautiful or as interesting or as compelling as possible. But a lot of that has to do with the fact that these are cut to time. We’re not making a film every week. And it’s not a pay-cable network. We still have commercials, so you can’t make it an hour-and-five minutes or 49 minutes or an hour-fifteen. You don’t have that leeway. So Matt, being the ultimate decision-maker and the creative force behind the show, gets to have final cut. So I’m happy with what I get to present to him, but what I present to him and what ends up airing are two completely different things.
HitFix: Having done this a couple times, are you going to be prepared to and are you going to want to direct more out in the non-“Mad Men” world away from Matt?
Jon Hamm: Yeah. You know, honestly I found it really invigorating. I thought it was exciting. I watched Jennifer do it on “Friends with Kids” and I watched Ben do it on “The Town” and I think it’s obviously a different skillset doing television than film, because you’re kind of coming on to an established, well-oiled machine and your job is to make sure that the machine keeps moving smoothly. But it’s fun. It’s like a fun puzzle that is stressful and anxiety-inducing, but it’s pretty fulfilling when you finish it. You really have a sense of accomplishment.
HitFix: And you’d be game to direct again in Season 7?
Jon Hamm: We’ll see. I haven’t been asked, so we’ll see!
“Mad Men” returns to AMC on Sunday, April 7.