Jon Hamm has had, as they say, an interesting career. His mother died when he was in high school and his father when he was a sophomore in college. When he moved to LA to become an actor in his mid-twenties, he got his car impounded over unpaid parking tickets and he didn’t quit waiting tables until he was almost 30 — his self-imposed deadline to “make it” as an actor.
People have differing expectations of what “making it” looks like, but certainly Jon Hamm has made it by just about anyone’s definition. Since his break-out role as Don Draper in Mad Men, which premiered in 2007, Hamm has gone on to do… pretty much everything. Drama, comedy, assholes, nice guys, geniuses, and dullards — you’d be hard-pressed to find someone less typecast than Jon Hamm. Unless that type is “handsome.”
The first time I saw Jon Hamm in person it was earlier this year, at the junket for Amazon’s Good Omens, in which Hamm plays a kind of pompously inept middle-man working for Heaven. This time around he’s promoting Richard Jewell, Clint Eastwood’s movie about the Olympic Park Bombing hero-turned-suspect-turned-hero, in which Hamm plays another inept functionary. Hamm’s FBI agent Tom Shaw (a composite, unlike most of the other characters in the film, which are based on specific people) isn’t comical like his Good Omens character, and is the opposite of blasé. He’s overworked, put-upon, and hard-drinking. In a key scene, he leaks important information to Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs, played by Olivia Wilde (a character that’s been criticized for perceived inaccuracies), and doggedly pursues Richard Jewell (played brilliantly by Paul Walter Hauser) as a suspect.
The other constant between the two characters? Well, handsomeness, mostly. Hamm, who has said he looked too old to book the kinds of teen roles most actors his age were getting when he first came to LA, now mostly looks his age (48), but in an aspirational way where even his creases look perfectly placed. Hamm was backlit by a rare clear view of the LA skyline (it had recently rained) from his ninth-floor window at the Four Seasons when I met him, wearing a muted plaid with tasteful frames. “Why can’t I ever be this well put together?” I thought, which is probably what most men think when meeting Jon Hamm. He’s not even short! I wish I could report that he was an asshole, but alas…
So is it true what they say about Clint Eastwood? Does he really shoot as fast as they say?
Yeah. What’s under-reported about that is that it’s not really so much the pace. It’s the efficiency. He doesn’t waste a lot of energy. Any complicated system can sometimes have a lot of unnecessary movements and things. Clint, I think, over the years has refined his system to be very efficient. But he does it for a reason, and that reason is just to make the actors feel comfortable. He is an actor, and he understands that the distractions and silliness — all that stuff is not useful.
Did he give you any memorable notes from this one?
Everything the guy says it’s pretty memorable! He’s an amazing conversationalist. He’s really funny. He’s remarkably engaged with what’s happening. He’s a professional. The proof is in the pudding. The man’s had a 70-year career, and fifty of those he’s been directing. So it’s not lost on me how proficient that he is and what he knows. You just want to shut your mouth and open your ears when you’re around him.
A lot of other people are playing real people. Yours is fictionalized. Did you have any real people that you could go to for—
There were definitely real people of whom my character was kind of compiled from. There was Kent Alexander and Kevin Salwen. They wrote the book, The Suspect, and they were a treasure trove of information about all of the law enforcement agencies that were following Richard and were sort of unfortunately led down the wrong path by their own procedures — and in some cases, their biases and their wrongheaded belief in their instincts.
Why does your character have such a hard-on for Richard Jewell in the movie?
I think the real impetus of the investigation was profiling. And they say, “Okay. Well, this behavior pattern generally comes from this type of a person. And so, let’s start looking for this type of person.” And then, once you kind of go down that road, then all of a sudden, anything outside of that Venn diagram, so to speak, you tend to discount or discard. And it’s incredibly helpful in some cases. You get guys like the Unabomber they caught through a profiling thing. But it can be really distracting also. And when somebody fits the profile, your confirmation bias tends to kick in. “Okay. Well, then this also must be true, and this also must be true. Then, this also must be true.” And you start piling on all of these circumstantial bits of maybes that don’t really add up to a 100% thing. That was the case here, unfortunately. We just had this kind of perfect fit that just happened to be the wrong person. And it ruined the man’s life, and it ruined his mom’s life, and it ruined his friend’s life.
It also ruined the reporter’s life [Kathy Scruggs]. Is there a reason you think that the movie doesn’t really mention that or focus on that as much?
I don’t think it ruined her life. Of all of the organizations that were rightfully sued by Richard and his people, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution was the only one that didn’t have to settle. If you read the book, there’s a lot about Kathy Scruggs — she’s a complicated individual and a hell of a reporter. But she’s pretty much exonerated in all of this when you read the book and the follow-up of what actually transpired as well — the movie is obviously a movie.
(Editor’s note: On Monday night, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution sent a letter to Warner Bros. and Clint Eastwood demanding that they “immediately issue a statement publicly acknowledging that some events were imagined for dramatic purposes and artistic license and dramatization were used in the film’s portrayal of events and characters…We further demand that you add a prominent disclaimer to the film to that effect.”)
Well, she died before Richard Jewell did and she was…
Yeah, she had her demons to be fair. She was not the healthiest individual, but nor was Richard, and nor were a lot of the guys that my character was based on. It’s unfortunate that a lot of the people that were around for this were not around when they actually arrested Eric Rudolph. Richard was around and he was actually in a viewing room and he had a panic attack. Because he couldn’t believe that this guy did that, which says a lot about Richard’s humanity. I don’t know what it is in human beings that makes them want to set off a bomb in a crowded place. I just don’t understand that. It doesn’t compute. I think that was the case for Richard too, especially, and then to be accused of it. I think it was really hard for him.
Do you think this movie blames your character more for leaking a Richard Jewell’s name, or Kathy for…
I don’t think it blames anybody. It’s not an indictment of law enforcement. It’s not an indictment of the government. It’s not, you know, “the federal government’s out to get us.” It’s not any of that. I think it’s about human beings and about how people can make mistakes and about how people’s actions can be misconstrued. And I think it’s about how people can take something and really turn it and make it something that it isn’t. I really do think that the movie is an exoneration of a man who did his job and was wrongfully accused of something that he didn’t do and is still thought of as something that he isn’t.
And I think it’s an important lesson to remind people that all the gossip and the rumors and the bullshit that we have to deal with now, and even more so now with social media trolls. When they’ve typed something online like, “Fuck that fat piece of shit,” or whatever. You’re like, “Whoa, dude. Why would you spend the effort? What is that doing? How is that helping anyone, anything? Does it makes you feel better to shit on somebody?” I don’t know if it does, but I don’t get it.
People have accused the movie of playing fast and loose with the Kathy character. Do you think that’s true at all?
I think the people that have done that haven’t seen the film and certainly haven’t read the book. I would encourage people to see the movie and read the story behind it and then come to that conclusion. It’s a little bit like making the movie’s case. The people that haven’t seen the movie are complaining about it. It’s kind of what we’re saying don’t do in the movie. Don’t jump to conclusions.
So, you’re in the Top Gun sequel coming out.
Who do you play in that?
I play the admiral, the air boss of the base that Maverick is based out of. I can’t really say much about it. I swear to God, there’s a sniper from Paramount on top of that building over there.
Right, but Maverick is in the plane again in this one, right?
Oh, for sure, man.
For a while, they said it was going to be about drone operators or something.
Yeah, there’s a lot you can say about it, but I will not say.
Alright, fair enough.
I’ve got my eye on it. There’s a “top gun” right there that’s going to shoot me in the face if I say anything.
So, I did a round table with you for Good Omens in London. You were talking about how you had a boss when you were working in restaurants who was kind of like a know-it-all. Did you have anybody from your life that you sort of put into this character?
Not really. I think this guy’s a little more of a put-upon worker bee. He’s assigned this thing that he thinks is just a bullshit assignment, and then it turns into this global situation. He’s a good cop. He’s got his demons. But he’s, at the end of the day, a real servant of the law, servant of the higher-ups. So, I don’t know. I think what the movie does say about law enforcement is that there are people out there who are paying attention and being diligent, and sometimes they get it wrong.
Do you think it’s a story about absentee bosses to some extent? Because it seems like the FBI guys were told to focus on Jewell by higher-ups. And then, Kathy Scruggs was told by her bosses to write the story up in a certain way.
I don’t necessarily think it’s about absentee bosses. I think it’s more about how we all, in any job, we have procedures that we go through. And for the most part, those procedures are effective, and they lead us to accomplishing the goals. But sometimes, they lead us astray. And I think what the movie really tries to highlight is that when you lose sight of humanity, that’s when you’re in danger of really going astray. And that’s what I think Clint did a marvelous job of with this film is really highlighting that kind of human cost of things like this.
Do you enjoy this kind of character or more comedic characters? Do you have a preference?
I don’t. I’m fortunate enough to be kind of appreciated on both sides of the aisle, so to speak, because I’ve invested myself in both of those things. I like doing serious hard drama and emotional scenes as much as I like doing cut up funny nonsense.
Is one harder?
They’re both hard. I don’t think anything’s easy. If it was easy, anybody could do it. And as we’ve seen, not anyone can just walk in and do this stuff. But I think they’re both a challenge, and that’s the fun part of what I do. I get to be challenged and work with some of the coolest people in the world, Clint being the top of that list. Tom (Cruise) being at the top of that list. Sam Rockwell being at the top of that list. Kathy Bates, Paul Walter Hauser, who is a revelation in this film and a beautiful human being. It’s a heartbreaking performance. I consider myself incredibly lucky. I wake up every day grateful for what I have and what I get to do.
‘Richard Jewell’ opens this coming weekend. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.