Jon Hamm Wants To Make Movies On His Own Terms

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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.

And everything you’re saying is definitely a part of this movie, but if someone’s reading this they’re going to think it’s a lot more somber than it actually is. Because this movie moves.

No, it does move. In the greatest sense of what Tony does as a screenwriter, it’s taut. I mean, it’s a very taut thriller. And the story does move and the story does go, but it’s also about something. That’s what I really liked. And Brad Anderson is a phenomenal director. You can’t pin the guy down.

It’s an odd Sundance movie. Maybe “odd” is the wrong word. But after a week of watching somber Sundance movies, this felt like something I’d be watching at the local Wehrenberg 14.

It’s funny, there’s a reason that movies like this aren’t necessarily in Sundance, because the independent cinema, it’s really hard to get the finances, the resources together to shoot something this ambitious. And we had an amazing team of designers, an art department that made Morocco look like 1982 Beirut. I mean if I could show you sort of side-by-side pictures, you’d think, whoa.

Being a 27-year-old script, who did Tony Gilroy originally have in mind for this movie?

Oh my God. You know, there were so many people attached to this throughout the years. I mean, I don’t know if they’re true. John Frankenheimer was going to direct it. Johnny Depp was going to be in it. Brad Pitt was going to be in it. And they had a deal with somewhere, and, you know, like it does in Hollywood, things fall apart.

I could watch you play Mason Skiles like five more times. You can give them Bourne-type titles, like The Skiles the Limit Or A Wink and a Skiles. I’ve got it all plotted out.

[Laughs.] Amazing. Fantastic. Throw it at Tony.

This should be a franchise. It’s a different city every time.

Well, I had somebody ask in one of the Q&As, they said what happens when you and Sandy [Rosamund Pike] get in that car at the end? Where do they go? And I was like, you know what? I didn’t really think of it. And I think in an earlier draft there might have been more of a romantic kind of connection, which is also another thing I really like about the film, that that’s not the story that we’re telling.

If it came out in the ’90s, they would make that be in there.

Exactly. There’d be like a thing and they’d have a love triangle and whatever, and this was not that, and I really thought it was kind of great. You know, there’s no big kiss at the end.

I’m specifically thinking of I Love Trouble, that Nick Nolte, Julie Roberts movie where there just had to be a romantic subplot.

Oh, yeah. So, I don’t know. It’s funny that you say that, because that’s the first time I thought there could definitely be a sequel to this film, of like where does it go next.

What has been your strategy post-Mad Men for movies? Because you’ve done like eclectic roles like Baby Driver...

Three Academy Award nominations there!

Yeah, pretty good.

You know, I want to work…

Because you’ve avoided the leading man action movie. And I’m not saying that’s what this is, because this is different, but it has a quality of that.

I mean, I guess I just want to work with people whose work I really enjoy. I want to work with people whose work I think inspires me in some ways, scares me in some ways, who I think are better than me in a lot of ways.

I don’t know a lot about what happened with something like The Day the Earth Stood Still, but I know it didn’t do that well and you haven’t really done stuff like that since.

An interesting thing about that film was somebody clearly fell out of it and so they offered me the part, and it was like literally like read the script, get the part, go, get on a plane the next day. And it was right during the writers’ strike, so it was one of the only things that was shooting. And I’m very proud of that film. I did a good job in it. I was good in it. And, you know, it was a big studio thing, and there’s inherent issues with a lot of things like that.

But it does feel like you’ve avoided doing that type of film since then.

Well, and mostly I’ve been able to kind of sustain myself and my career on doing other things, and I get to work with, or I choose to work with people, like I said, who inspire me in some way, who I think are better than me. Whether it’s Robert Carlock or Tina Fey, whether it’s Edgar Wright, whether it’s Tony Gilroy, Brad Anderson. The people that I get to work with are the people who I’ve been looking up to. So I mean, that’s why it’s so eclectic, because I’m not that guy who has to have a spring slot and a fall slot, winter slot – I’ve got to fill them up with studio pictures.

You seem to choose wisely. Baby Driver and now Beirut.

Well, and hopefully I get some goodwill, at least from the community if not from the audiences. My favorite actors when I was growing up in Missouri were actors that would show up in movies and they weren’t necessarily the leads either. You were like, oh, he’s good.

Who’s an example?

You know, like Lance Henriksen. Like people who you’re like, who’s that? What’s he doing? Scott Glenn. These guys that were like coming out of nowhere. You look at like Jeff Bridges, whose career I’ve loved since I saw Last Picture Show. But he kind of blew up in the ’90s and they started sticking him in all these kinds of movies and you could tell that like he just didn’t want that, and he went away. And he studied Buddhism and wrote poetry and would do The Big Lebowski or he’d do something else, and then kind of came back now and then he’s kind of reemerged as a leading man again, but kind of on his terms. And it’s really great.

So that’s what’s important to you? On your terms?

Kind of, yeah. And the business is evolving so weirdly. Old paradigms don’t really hold. The things that the studios put out now are just existing IP or repurposed IP. It’s not just the cape and tights situation. Either you’re in a movie based on a board game or something…

I made reference to the Wehrenberg 14 in St. Louis earlier, but this kind of movie, Beirut, doesn’t play at the Wehrenberg 14 anymore. Now it’s a Sundance movie, and 10 years ago this was a big mainstream release.

Yeah. So I think that the industry is still kind of trying to figure it out and it’s exciting in many ways, too. Because you do get good movies like Three Billboards or I, Tonya. Baby Driver, I mean people were shocked that Baby Driver performed at the box office because it didn’t have a number behind its name. You know? And I was like, that’s why it performed! Because people wanted to see something different.

People are hungry for something new.

I mean, I went back and watched Scott Pilgrim. And first of all, that movie has an amazing cast. I mean, if you look at who’s in that movie, all of them are movie stars now.

Right. And no one saw it when it came out.

No one saw it. Because at that time in 2010, the only thing anybody wanted to see from big studio things was superheroes. It was right at the beginning of that. And this thing kind of fell through the cracks, because nobody knew it. Comic book nerds knew it because it was based on a comic book. But you look at it, and the skill at which they executed that film, if that movie came out now it would make $200 million. It was just ahead of its time.

With a tag, “From the director of Baby Driver.”

Yeah! It’s really good. So, you know, there are so many things about what movies are successful and what movies aren’t that’s out of your hands. It’s up to timing, it’s up to fate, it’s up to “Did it snow on the weekend that the movie came out,” or whatever. I made Million Dollar Arm a few years back. I love that film. I have so many dads that come up to me who are 1ike, “I saw your movie on the plane and I cried and I took my kid to see it.” It’s a perfectly good Disney film. It happened to come out the weekend that Godzilla came out, and Godzilla literally stomped it, so…

Oh, that was the same weekend?

Yeah. The second iteration of Godzilla.

The Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla.

Yes. You can’t do anything about that. You know, all you can do is put your best foot forward.

That’s tough movie for a release date, because that’s almost holiday film but it’s about baseball, so you can’t really release it around the holidays.

Yeah. It was a lesson. Whatever. But I got to go to India and meet so many cool people and make a film that I’m really proud of. That’s all you can hope for at the end of the day.

I have to literally run to another interview that starts in five minutes…

Who are you interviewing next?

Domhnall Gleeson and Martin Mull.

You know, you should ask Domhnall about his old sketch group. Did you ever see any of his sketch comedy?

I haven’t.

Ask Domhnall about Your Bad Self, it’s really funny.

[Note: I passed along what Jon Hamm said to Domhnall Gleeson and Gleeson has an interesting story about Jon Hamm, so this will all be continued in that interview tomorrow.]

You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.