Mad Man star John Hamm is quite the gentleman actor when it comes to interviews, as STEVE PRATT discovers when asking about the sporting film Million Dollar Arm.
THERE are actors who submit themselves reluctantly for interview because it’s in their contract. Others, like Jon Hamm, embrace what some regard as an ordeal and give a little bit of themselves in conversation.
He ends the round-table interview by shaking hands with each of his interrogators. He doesn’t need to, but he does. It’s good PR, of course, but he seems genuinely grateful for the interest, even when the topic of Mad Men is inevitably raised. His charming manner and willingness to engage with the press puts me in mind of how George Clooney has handled the press in similar situations.
He’s in the UK to promote new Disney film Million Dollar Arm, in which he stars as a sports agent who goes to India to find new baseball talent. Based on a true story, it’s a so-so family film that won’t offend anyone and, if truth be told, won’t win any awards. But it’s a good post-Mad Men showcase for him as he puts philandering, well-dressed advertising man Don Draper to bed for good.
Hamm certainly looks different, sporting a beard and casual clothes. Yes, he’s exhausted but “it’s part of the deal”, he says on this, his last interview of a long day. He was heading back to the States for last Monday’s Emmy awards ceremony.
“I have to go lose an award real quick, then I can go back to growing a beard and falling asleep,” he jokes.
Million Dollar Arm is set in the world of sport and while Hamm reckons he wasn’t close to becoming a professional athlete himself he does “identify as an athlete and an athletic kind of person. I rapidly realised that my talents did not necessarily lie in that arena. So you do the next best thing, you become an actor and you can fake it”.
Million Dollar Arm took him to India for filming, an experience he sums up as “hot” which isn’t surprising as the production arrived to film in May, only to learn that Bollywood movies don’t shoot outside at that time of year because it’s too hot. “Everything was new. I’d never been to Asia. India is such an amazingly rich tapestry, not only from a cultural standpoint but from a religious and culinary standpoint,” he says.
“Just the differences in landscape going from the far South in Mumbai to further North. It would send me to Wikipedia every day when I would get home. I’d want to learn more about whatever I had seen or heard or learned that day.”
As his characters points out India is a place of extremes. “It’s just sort of an assault on all of your senses. Mostly positive but in some negative ways. It shouldn’t work, there’s too many moving parts, and yet it does. And it’s a testament to the incredible people there that they make it work. It’s a remarkable place,” he says.
“The Taj Mahal is breathtaking. You aren’t really prepared for how big it is. And you really aren’t prepared for what exists on both sides of it and in front of it, these other two beautiful temples and then this unbelievably gorgeous gate that leads you up to it. Then you see this breathtaking, beautiful, perfectly symmetrical 700-year-old edifice.”
But the subject of Mad Men can’t be avoided, just as the scale of its success couldn’t have been predicted. Hamm says when they shot the pilot episode so many things could have gone wrong just as they could with marketing and other aspects of the production. “Yet none of them did,” he says.
“It was just this incredibly serendipitous thing where the right path was chosen every time. Some of that may have been luck, some may have been studious hard work on the part of marketing and creative people. There was some kind of ineffable quality that it just happened to be the right thing at the right time. People wanted to see that particular story at that time.”
Playing Don Draper, he found himself inhabiting a character that men wanted to be like and women wanted to go out with. “I don’t know why anybody would want to date that guy. He’s a pretty bad dude to date,” says Hamm.
“Part of it was the mystery of it. It was set up in the pilot that you would want to know more about Don Draper and who he was, what he was after. That’s part of telling a good story – tune in next week.”
He knew from the beginning, from reading the script, that Mad Men was something special. Then you hope that you don’t mess it up, he adds. “Getting the job is the hard part but doing the job is the scary part.”
Don Draper, a man with “a pretty significant dark side”, has turned Hamm into a sex symbol. In a recent magazine interview the actor said that he can walk through New York’s Central Park and every third person will ask for a kiss. People think he’s Don Draper, unable to separate actor and character. This is one area he doesn’t want to comment on, saying: “The last thing I want to do is keep banging on that one piano key and playing the same person over and over because it’s boring, not only as an actor but it’s boring as an audience member.
“I got an incredible opportunity with Don to play a character that has a lot of shades. He’s funny at times, dark at times, brooding at times, romantic at times, sad, loving, all of those things. He’s a dad, not the greatest dad but has a relationship with his kids. That was an opportunity over eight seasons and 90-something episodes to play a whole range of a lot of things.”
As an actor who’s achieved success later rather than earlier in their career, he’s able to handle it better than some of those who became famous early in their carer. He’s worked with Harry Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe and seen the way he handles early fame – and likes what he sees.
“He is a perfect example of how to do it. A big reason is he’s got very, very good parents, but he also surrounds himself with really good people. There’s no way of telling whether I would have been able to handle early fame or not. It’s a very strange experience to go through. You very much feel like you are looking at yourself from a mile high and it’s out of control of your own existence. Especially in the internet and cameraphone era.
“I honestly can’t imagine growing up in this era. I have no social media presence, I have no desire to be a social media presence. I don’t understand the constant desire to be connected and shared and liked and uploaded. I’ve really no concept of it. Which just makes me feel old.”