‘Mad Men’ star Jon Hamm looks back: ‘It was a long, strange trip’

Jon Hamm never wrote for “Mad Men,” and he only directed two episodes of the show (declining a chance to get behind the camera again for this final season, for reasons he explains below). But he has inhabited the role of Don Draper for so long, and paid so much attention to the great work being done by everyone in front of and behind the camera on the show, that he can be as talkative and thoughtful on the subject as anyone this side of Matthew Weiner himself.

Yesterday, Hamm and I spoke about the last day of filming and how it feels to be done with this career-making role, looked back to the show’s early days, charted the evolution (and, at times, lack thereof) of Don, the growth of co-star Kiernan Shipka, and a lot more, all in advance of the final season premiere, Sunday night at 10 on AMC.

(Also, while I usually just present these interviews as transcripts, there was a moment where Hamm busted out a celebrity impression that I did not want to be the only person ever to hear, so look for that to be excerpted in the appropriate place below.)

I spoke with Matt a few weeks ago, and he described a ritual over the last few weeks of filming, where when it was each actor’s last day, the whole cast would start coming to be there to say goodbye, and that the biggest crowd came when you filmed your last scene at the end of the very last day of production. What do you remember about that day?

Jon Hamm: Obviously, it was a long day. It was a last day. We said goodbye to some heavy hitters that day, as well. There were quite a few tears shed and speeches and applause and all of that stuff. Then all of a sudden, I worked consistently throughout the day, so I was not only working and doing my stuff, but I was cleaning out my trailer and putting stuff in my car, so other last day. And then it was time for the last scene. We did it, and it was fine. It wasn’t the last scene in the show if you’re watching the show, so it wasn’t a big, tough, important scene in any way, but it was the last thing we shot. I do remember looking up after hearing, “Check the gate” and “we’re good” and “That’s a wrap,” and looking up and seeing so many people, it was really kind of breathtaking to realize, “Oh, right. This is everybody.” It wasn’t just the cast, it was a lot of the crew, and writing staff and production staff, and the construction staff, rigging staff. You realize, “Oh, yeah, everybody’s done.” It was a big, full, all-hands-on-deck moment. It was really great. It was really heartwarming and devastating and beautiful, and a reminder of how much everybody in all departments cared about this thing we did.

You’ve told me in the past that you auditioned so many times that you eventually performed almost every Don scene in the pilot. But do you remember the first scene you actually filmed as the character?

Jon Hamm: From what I remember, and this may be fog of war, I think Slattery remembers it differently, but I remember it was the scene where I walked into the office, changed shirts and did all that stuff. John remembers it being us walking down the hallway into my office, and I meet Peggy for the first time. But I know both of those were on the same day, and me and John became fast friends after that day, because we had a lot of work together.

How long did it take you to feel fully comfortable in the role? Was it in the pilot? A year later when you were filming the first season? Never?

Jon Hamm: I felt very comfortable after the first day of the pilot that I’d got the job. I had performed, in some way, shape or form, most of the beats in the script in the audition process. I was aware of the arc of the character in the pilot, at least. Then, not doing any work on the show for really another year was a bit of a relearning curve to get back into it. And I had that every season, probably up until the fourth, or maybe the fifth. We had such long hiatuses that were so indeterminate and indefinite, and it took a long time for us to get picked back up. We would wrap the season, and it would just be like, “Well, maybe we’re coming back to this,” and everyone would go off and do other projects. And we would get a call eventually that we were doing it again, and we would be very excited, but it would be, “Oh, right, we’ve got to get back into this mode.” The downtime and the time it would take to relearn would be shorter and shorter every year, but it was a process to get back into it after the pilot, and after each successive season.

Was there a specific moment or way where you tended to feel, “Okay, I’m Don Draper again”?

Jon Hamm: I wish I could say it was like the nickel would drop. But that period of wobbliness would get shorter and shorter. Which is a testimony to what a good handle Matthew and the writing staff had on all the characters as well. Once you started saying the word and seeing the other characters and going, “We’re back into this mode again,” it would fall into place relatively quickly. But there were always a few days of just, “What am I doing?” You would take a few more takes than you normally

Don suddenly starts sounding like Jerry Lewis, I can imagine.

(Jon Hamm briefly turns into Jerry Lewis.)

Do you have a favorite Don Draper pitch?

Jon Hamm: I think I can look back on probably three of them as the most meaningful, and they’re probably the ones you would expect: Lucky Strike, Kodak and then Hershey’s as my favorites. Just because, for me playing that character, those were such important moments in the development of the character. You have this guy at the top of his game. And then at the end of the first season, still doing very well, but you can see the cracks in his home life and the foundation. By the time you get to Hershey’s, it’s all somewhat fallen apart, but he still has the capacity to tell a story and move people in a room. I think Don will always have that ability. I think it’s just a matter of him coming to grips with not only where he is in his life, but where he is this career, and in in this culture, and this larger definition of life, of what’s the priority to him and what’s important.

Doing those big speeches and telling those stories – did that come relatively easy to you, or were those scenes challenges to do?

Jon Hamm: They’re never easy. I can throw one more in there, that was pretty significant, because I can remember shooting it pretty well, and it speaks to this question, and it’s the Jaguar pitch, that was interspersed with what the audience had found out about Joan. Essentially, it’s the closest thing to being on stage that you’ll ever get as a television and film actor. You’ve got an audience, everyone’s paying attention to what you’re saying, and there’s no real deviation from the script. It’s a very interesting thing to be presenting in that way. And it’s very nerve-wracking. You have to have a hell of a lot of confidence in what you’re doing, but also in the fact that it’s going to land the way you want it to land – whether it’s supposed to kill, or supposed to be emotional in some way, or devastating, or bad. I’ve had to do versions of all of those when I’m pitching. I think what I kind of learned, or what was interesting for me in the last few seasons was watching Elisabeth (Moss) have to go through the process of being the center of attention, and the person that’s got the majority of the water to carry in a scene. It was interesting to me. Elisabeth is obviously an incredibly talented, capable and confident actress, and I watched her change on the day, not that she doesn’t focus every day, but it was definitely a change to see her go, “Oh, shit, today’s my day.” It was very interesting for me to be an observer to that process, rather than the one going through it. And then of course she killed it.

Was there ever a point where you or Elisabeth, or both of you, started to wonder if Matt was heading towards Don and Peggy becoming an actual couple?

Jon Hamm: I’m pretty sure Elisabeth would say the same thing. I just don’t think it’s ever in the writing ever. I have been asked a lot of times to go through and pick favorite scenes and this and that, and I usually pick the same couple of scenes, but one particular time, I was thinking out of the box and picked a scene from “The Suitcase,” but it wasn’t one of the ones that usually gets highlighted from that episode – which remains one of my favorite episodes, and a really wonderful hour of television. The scene I was talking about in this particular place was a scene in the middle of the show where they’ve had their fight about the money and all this other stuff, and established that they’re going to go down this road and crack this case, no pun intended, of Samsonite. They’re sitting in a bar and listening to a fight, and they’re talking, which is a lovely juxtaposition of a fight happening and them not fighting. But they’re talking about stuff, like friends talk about stuff – “What was that about?” and “Why did you ever do that?” – and it’s stuff that they’ve obviously known for years, and for whatever reason, they’ve just never talked about. And here they are in this place, and it comes up, and she mentions, “Why didn’t you ever make a pass at me?” And he says, “Is that what you wanted?” Her take on it is, “What am I, not good enough?” And his is, “No, you’re better than that.” It’s a weird thing, and then it’s discussed and then let go, because she then says everyone thinks she slept with him to get this job, and, “My mother thinks that you were the father of my child, because you were the only one who came to visit me,” and they have this lovely conversation about life. It’s several pieces of big relationship stuff that gets dropped in what seems to be a relatively innocent conversation where nothing happens. And when the show is working at its best, that’s the kind of stuff that really resonates with people. These character moments that come out of left field. I can think of another one, strangely enough, at a bar, with Don and Joan, where they’re talking about their past, which we don’t get a lot of information about. But obviously, these two characters know, they lived it. Don was scared shitless of her. And she says he’s become intimidating, too, and they have a nice moment, and then they go their separate ways.

Well, speaking of the women in his life whom Don did make passes at, do you feel like there was a through line for the women he had affairs with, versus the ones he chose to marry?

Jon Hamm: There’s a ton of theories out there, and it’s a testament to the fact that people care enough to write blogs and reviews and things, which is nice: Don only likes brunettes! They all look like his mom! I don’t know if there’s necessarily a through line, other than that there’s something clearly missing in Don’s life – not just his romantic life, but his day to day emotional experience that is being unfulfilled. I think that when he starts these affairs or relationships or even marriages, they’re an attempt to not only just fill that hole, but address some missing quality. Unfortunately, Don is not quite as evolved as he should be, or thinks he is. Very often, he goes down these roads without really thinking about what else could happen. He keeps trying to rebuild this house on a fucked up foundation. Instead of fixing the foundation first and addressing those very significant issues in his own emotional makeup, like advertising helps us, he seeks to solve the problem with a newer, brighter, better thing than fixing what’s really the problem.

Another important woman in Don’s life: Sally. What was it like watching Kiernan Shipka grow from this innocent little girl into this very poised and polished young woman?

Jon Hamm: The funny thing is that she was pretty much always this. She’s a preternaturally mature, just a good kid. And has been really the whole time. And obviously has been growing into a young lady, or adolescent. She’s going to turn 16 this year, my god. She’s smart. She wants to be doing what she’s doing. She’s enjoying herself. She’s nice. And she’s being raised by two really good parents. She has nice people in her life that are really reminding her to do the right thing. She’s been a lovely co-star the entire time. She couldn’t have been more of a kid, which is nice. Sometimes, you work with child actors who want to be adults, and you’re like, “We’re not hiring you to be an adult. You really need to be a kid, and don’t forget that.” And I think she’s really doing a great job at that. She’s a really nice young woman, and I really only wish her the best moving forward, and I think she’ll have a heck of a future if she wants it.

I’m now thinking of that scene where she spends the night at his apartment in the village and serves him breakfast the next morning, and the dynamic is much less father/daughter than husband/wife. What was it like filming something like that, and do you think at that age she even grasped that second level of it?

Jon Hamm: I don’t think she was ever able to fully understand a lot of what she was thrown into, but I do know her parents were very protective of her. As we all were. We were all very understanding that in the wrong way, this could be traumatizing and terrible even to a kid who understands that they’re acting. I honestly don’t think she got the second layer of that, in the way most kids don’t when they’re in an awkward situation with their parents. They’re just like, “Oh, this is morning, and here’s some food.” Not that, “Wow, this is super weird and awkward.” I can certainly point to certain moments in my life that in retrospect, I can go, “My god, I should not have been there as a child.” Part of that is for the audience to understand. It’s in there for the audience. That’s the level at which the show works, it works because Matt and the guys and gals in the room layer that stuff in there. And it feels exactly as awkward as it should. And that’s on purpose and part of why it’s, for my money, a very good show. And a lot of good television is able to work on several levels like that.

How long did it take you to figure out where the boundaries were between Don Draper and Dick Whitman, and how to play each facet of the character?

Jon Hamm: It was fairly early on. I can’t point to a specific moment, but Matt had shared with me Don’s backstory, and I was able to internalize that and realize this guy is in many ways playing a character at work. He’s assumed another identity. I was very much cognizant of making the choice of being on when Don was at work. And that would bleed into his life when he was with Betty, in that he was very much playing at this character of Don Draper, and had gotten quite good at it at a certain point. He was a very good mimic in many ways, a very good adapter. So that was a cognitive choice. And then when I got the opportunity to go to California and be in good shoes, there were a lot of external cues that helped that transition as well, not just for me as well, but for the audience – getting out of the Don Draper gear. One of the first times you see me in California, I’m wearing basically someone else’s clothes. His clothes don’t fit, his hair doesn’t look like. It’s all ersatz in a way, but to Don, it feels comfortable. He can breathe. He is who he is in those moments. And for Don, that check-in, that going back to California – that’s why losing Ann was such a huge blow to him. It’s not a mistake that it happens at the end of “The Suitcase.” The whole emotional spark is that he gets this call and has to call back, and knows that the person on the other end of the line will say that this person has died, this final connection to your actual life is gone. He says to Peggy at the end of that there’s no one else who really knows me, and she says, “That’s not true.” So that’s a big reveal in his life, too. But it was fairly early on that I was able to internalize that dichotomy and understand at a very fundamental level that I was tasked with making those two people different people. Obviously, one doesn’t have a twirly mustache and a monocle. It’s not an evil twin situation, but it was very on purpose from my perspective.

You mentioned before getting to wear different clothes. Over the years, other characters’ looks have changed dramatically. Peggy is more stylish, Pete’s hairline has receded, Stan grew a beard, and a few characters in these new episodes now have mustaches. Don’s look has remained constant. Has that helped you stay centered in the character, or have you ever wished that you could grow muttonchops or a ‘stache?

Jon Hamm: I think it makes sense. I think Don is invested in staying Don. The wonderful irony that the show supports is that the world doesn’t give a shit if you stay Don. The world keeps moving, the world keeps turning, and people get older, and young people become older and more important and cooler and interesting, and actually staying the same becomes a liability, especially in the advertising industry. Don talks a lot about nostalgia, and we have Frank Sinatra and Nixon coming back, all these moments of the old guard coming back. But we all know, because it’s 2015 now, youth rules. We know that inevitably the millennials will get old and tired again, and then there will be the bilennials or trilennials, or whatever the next generation is, and we’re all going to end up on our lawn shaking our fists in a bathrobe yelling at the moon. I think it’s on purpose from a creative standpoint. And I support the choice. That’s how we start the final season, if you look at season 7 as one long season, you see the LA airport, and it’s all bright colors and new things and shiny planes, and new things and hippies and hot women and colors and psychedelics, and through it all moves this gray man that we’ve seen for the last 10 years, and he’s exactly the same. And he looks so out of place.

How, if at all, has your relationship with Matt changed over the last decade?

Jon Hamm: I don’t know if it’s really changed that much, honestly. We’ve always been the kind of binary star, if that’s a way to say it. These two things orbiting one another, and doing our jobs separately, and coming together to do the job as well. It’s certainly been the longest professional relationship I’ve ever had, and I’m pretty sure I’m that to him as well. It’s been like any relationship: it’s got its ups and downs, ins and outs, backs and forths. I think from the very beginning, we were both able to say, “Okay, not only is quality job one” – because now, having played an advertising executive, I can only speak in advertising slogans – but also, we both are here to service this show that has meant so much to us. Certainly not to the detriment of our families, or our health, or our personal life or whatever, but we are here for common purposes.

I want to say, at least as an aside, we’ve been talking for 30 minutes and we haven’t dropped this call yet. Let’s give a shout-out to AT&T I think, right now. But it’s been consistent, I guess I would say.

You’ve gotten a chance in other shows like “SNL” and “30 Rock” and “Kimmy Schmidt” to show how funny you are, but you only occasionally get to demonstrate that side on “Mad Men.” Do you have a favorite comic Don moment, or just a favorite comic “Mad Men” moment from someone else?

Jon Hamm: You can’t really talk about being funny on Mad Men without just talking about Slatty. He gets all the good lines. It’s pretty great. So much so that they literally filled a book with his one-liners, which is pretty awesome. I’ve gotten my chances to be silly and dumb, but it’s not the character. I don’t think Don is a very frivolous guy in any way, shape or form. He’s got too much to lose. But he’s not a stick in the mud, either. He knows how to have fun, and he certainly knows his way around a good joke. He’s a salesman, after all. Most of the fun we had on the show, we had as people, not necessarily as characters. You can look at “I’m Peggy Olson, and I want to smoke some marijuana,” and the ridiculousness of Paul Kinsey, and Harry Crane’s hilarious dismissals. There’s been a lot of great stuff: Pete and Lane fighting, which I don’t think was supposed to be funny, but certainly was. There’s a lot of it. And it’s been augmented by the fact that as soon as they called “Cut,” we’re having a really good time as a group of people that really enjoyed spending time with each other, and continue to do so.

And finally – and I know this is a big one – how does it feel to be done with this role and this show?

Jon Hamm: Yeah, that is a big one in the sense that it’s impossible to answer with a quick one-liner. But it feels by turns wonderful and terrifying and satisfying, and sad. I think it’s probably a feeling that anybody that’s been on a show like this, on a show that’s been so culturally significant, and career-wise significant, and just meaningful in so many ways – when that’s done and it’s final, it’s tricky. It’s challenging. But what doesn’t go away is the experience of doing it, and the memories. A lot of people asked me what I took from the set, and I didn’t really take anything. I have a lot of stuff that over the years has accumulated. But I didn’t really take anything. I wanted to concentrate, it’s why I didn’t want to direct this year when they asked me to, I just wanted to be present with the show, and be with my thoughts and my memories of this 10-year span of this show. And really savor it. It was a very long, strange trip. And I’m obviously glad that it happened. And in a way, I’m glad that it’s over. There are opportunities to do other things.

I’m a huge fan of television, and it’s a really good time to be a fan of television, because there’s so much good stuff out there. In every genre, really. It’s an exciting time to be a person who appreciates this thing that we’ve all put so much work into. I’m not just talking about our show, but all of the wonderful stuff that I’ve been able to be around, in terms of awards shows and parties and retrospectives and panels. All of these things have been such a wonderful experience from a professional standpoint. I’m very cognizant of the fact that a lot of people don’t get to do that. I’m very grateful and humbled that I got picked. Because I know it doesn’t happen to a lot of people. And I’m very proud of it. So it’s all of those things. But it’s sure been nice to have a version of a conversation like this with a lot of people whose work I respect, and whose opinions I really respect as well. From the snap, people in the criticial community and cultural community have really been supportive. That’s tremendously helpful. It’s never lost on me. So I’ll take this time as I have, to a lot of folks recently, to say thank you.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com