When you think about it, it’s kind of unusual we haven’t seen the true “Jon Hamm Action Movie” yet. There’s no doubt it’s been offered, but it’s not really there. That’s usually what we see when an actor makes the jump from a critically acclaimed television show to a leading role in films. (Think George Clooney in The Peacemaker.) Instead, Hamm has been taking more offbeat roles like what we saw last year in Baby Driver or Marjorie Prime. Or getting his own film produced, like he did with 2014’s Million Dollar Arm, which underperformed and, as Hamm says, he learned a lot of lessons from that experience.
Well, now we’ve got the Jon Hamm leading role a lot of people have been waiting for with Beirut. Tony Gilroy wrote the script 27 years ago and it’s finally been brought to fruition by director Brad Anderson. Hamm plays Mason Skiles, an ex-CIA operative who, in 1982, is stuck trying to mediate labor union contract negotiations, and doing a poor job of it. When things get rough, Skiles heads to his local bar and gets drunk. The CIA wants Skiles to head back to Beirut after an agent goes missing. Teamed with another agent, Sandy Crowder [Rosamund Pike], the two try to negotiate the release of the captive agent in a movie that just moves along.
This is a good role for Hamm. Skiles isn’t an action hero. He’s an, at times, mopey ex-CIA agent who retreats to the hotel bar anytime things get out of hand, which is a lot. (Honestly, I’d watch five more Mason Skiles movies starring Jon Hamm.)
I met Hamm at another folksy hotel off Park City’s Main Street (this town has a lot of folksy hotels) where the team in charge of the movie gave us our own private room to talk, which is a rare commodity at Sundance. Hamm was in a reflective mood, looking back on what makes him tick when it comes to his post-Man Men movie choices. And Hamm is very proud to point out that Baby Driver got three Oscar nominations.
Jon Hamm: Swanky joint!
It is. And you have the better chair. That looks very comfortable.
It’s not comfortable at all.
Yours at least has armrests.
Well, I have armrests. There you go.
I don’t have any armrests.
You could, like, lay down and we could do it just chilling out on the bed.
Beirut feels like the lead role people been waiting for you to do for a while.
You know, it’s funny, the evolution of this film is such a strange journey, like 27 years, something like that. Tony wrote it in 1991. And he’ll say this to you: He wrote it because he had written The Cutting Edge, the D.B. Sweeney, Moira Kelly ice skating romantic comedy and he wanted to be taken more seriously. And so he wrote this kind of very multilayered story about kind of the beginnings of institutionalist, fundamentalist terrorism and what are the beginnings of that? Nobody’s born with hate in their heart. It has to come from somewhere, and why does that happen? And how do we solve that, honestly? So I got to play a character, and I love the character. He’s a smart guy.
But he’s a little bit of a screw-up, too.
He gets lost in the intractability of the problem, and because of that, kind of tries to anesthetize himself, really. But mostly it’s about dealing with people face-to-face. Getting in a room with that guy. I want to be in a room with that guy, let me talk to him face-to-face as a human being. And when you do that, it becomes a lot harder to hate somebody. We see it on the internet now, people can type whatever they want in the comment section anonymously, “That guy’s a piece of shit, fuck that guy.”
You used to comment anonymously on sports websites…
[Laughs.] I did not, actually. I had constructive comments.
But it’s true, when you see someone in person they are a lot less likely to say something nasty.
So I think that that’s the interesting thing about this, and I think that if there’s any kind of overarching theme, it’s when you treat people as a group or a symbol or a religion or a sect or a nationality or what have you, it becomes easy to just write off an entire population. But when you actually deal with them as human beings, we all want the same thing. We want our kids to grow up safe. We want a good place to hang our hat at home, we want somebody to love, somebody to love us. That’s the human condition, you know? Everybody feels that.