First published on 26 Mar 2012.
Jon Hamm is mildly bewildered. I’ve just asked him about his status as a sex symbol, and he just doesn’t get it. It doesn’t seem like false modesty either – Hamm’s a genuine rarity in that he wears his looks, his acclaim and his general popularity lightly. He’s 41 and he’s seen the other side of the coin – the crap jobs, the barely suppressed anxiety about the future, the sense of the years escaping. It turns out he’d given himself until 35 to make it as an actor. If his breakthrough hadn’t happened by then, he’d decided, "the market would have spoken". Fortunately, in the nick of time, everything changed.
Before the interview, in an attempt to tap into the alleged wisdom of crowds, I wondered on Facebook if any of my friends had a question for Jon Hamm. About the nuance and psychological heft of his portrayal of the cruel, charming, charismatic Don Draper. Or about Mad Men’s organic, effortlessly inevitable ascent towards the top table of US TV drama, where it now sits, holding its own alongside contemporary classics such as The Wire, Six Feet Under and The Sopranos. Or the way the show elegantly probes the nascent cracks in the American dream by revealing the dysfunction and inherent deception behind the facade. No chance. Before long, the thread looked like the front rows of a Justin Bieber concert.
Hamm is amused but surprised. "The sexy thing is so ephemeral and meaningless other than in the world of selling magazines, he avers. "Who cares, when it’s reduced to just that? You might as well be a Kardashian and have a sex tape. It’s not for me to define. It’s exclusively in the purview of others and I can’t remotely be a part of it. I guess it’s better than the alternative. I mean, what’s the opposite of a sex symbol? A person who makes children cry when they see their picture?" Is part of the problem that, when people see Jon Hamm, they exclusively think of Don Draper? It must happen a lot. "Yes. And it’s really a huge mistake to conflate me and Don. I have so very little in common with that character. I consider myself an actor. It’s kind of what I do. And it’s a great job to be able to play this guy. But I have a personal life and I have a character that I play. Ideally, I’ll have more than one…"
For now, though, this one is enough. If Hamm is remembered mainly for Draper, then, as he breezily puts it: "It could be worse, right?" As we approach the fifth season of Mad Men, Don has wrong-footed us once again. After his separation from Betty and the death of his anchoring female influence Anna, he’s brutally turned his back on the beautiful, independent and intelligent Faye in favour of Megan and when we last saw him, was wandering around with a daft grin on his face, looking, as Joan put it with her customary catty precision, "like he was the first guy in the world to marry his secretary". Don might well imagine that he’s approaching sensible maturity. But we wonder if he mightn’t be turning into Roger Sterling. Either way, expect the big loser here to be poor, blameless Megan, who can presumably expect a couple of years as arm candy-cum-unpaid childminder-cum-cuckolded victim before being traded in for a fresh model. Charismatic and charming he may be, but Don really is a terrible man. Is it slightly worrying that he’s become such a totemic figure in our TV landscape?
Hamm sees Draper as part of a wider tradition. "It goes right back to Macbeth or Hamlet. These people are interesting because they’re not paragons of goodness. Don is a winner but he’s failed a lot in his life too and that’s the compelling part. If it’s just a guy who does everything the right way then what are we watching? James Bond or something.’ But Mad Men has a much bigger audience now. Presumably there are viewers who view Don’s rakish villainy and the show’s take on the prehistoric sexual and racial politics of the era with a certain fond nostalgia? "I guess with anything, you worry about people who are getting it for the wrong reasons," reckons Hamm. "But the show isn’t really driven by that audience. If those folks happen to come by, they’ll probably get bored real quick. We’re not making Jersey Shore. Mad Men has been a word-of-mouth thing that’s grown organically and exponentially. We’re certainly not driven by a section of the audience, or the need to put more tits in it or anything. There isn’t an imperative to tart it up or dumb it down."
He’s right, of course. Mad Men will develop just as its creator Matt Weiner intended. "Part of the reason that it hit the way it hit was that there was no expectation and no name attached to it," Hamm recalls. "Had it been, say, 'Mad Men starring Pierce Brosnan, it would have had a patina on it. Not necessarily bad, just different. And so we were able to allow for this audience to kind of find it and then own it." He’s too discreet to say so, but things have changed. And the biggest change has directly involved him.
A few days after the interview, I attend a live Q&A featuring Hamm at the Curzon Cinema in Mayfair. It’s fair to say that there’s a lot of progesterone in the house. After some questions from a visibly awed Jo Whiley, the floor is thrown open. "Can I just ask you to say my name?" gasps one blushing lady. Jon Hamm is a modest and likeable guy and a superb, intuitive actor who has worked hard to land the role of a lifetime. "I would do this job until they shot me in the head and buried me," he tells me. He’s possibly surprised by how many people have come to feel the same way. But he’s going to have to get used to it.
Mad Men, season five, begins April 12, 8.30pm on Movie Extra.