Jon Hamm will hate this. He’ll cringe and roll his eyes. But it’s important.
It was the heady days of 1996 television – billowing chinos and frosted tips firmly in their reign of terror. A young woman named Mary was looking for a, “sexy, hot man who is honest…and someone who knows how to give a good foot massage.”
She was a contestant on the set of The Big Date and her choice was down to three (let’s be kind and say) eligible suitors. There was Marc, the stunt man, who wanted to “take her home and show her [his] flexibility.”
There was the lightly-goateed, tip-frosted Marcus, who wanted to, “take her to Vegas, or bungee jumping…and at the same time, squeeze her like a little teddy bear.”
And the last contestant was 25-year-old Jon, who made his humble pitch from behind the curtain of a parted, Jeremy London ‘90s fringe.
“Well, I’d start off with some fabulous food. A little fabulous conversation…”
“What else fabulous, Jon?” taunted the host, who would later go on to helm such hits as Temptation Island and Antiques Roadshow.
“…Well, I’d end it with a fabulous foot massage, for an evening of total fabulosity.”
Jon grinned big and awkward. Mary kind of cringed. She chose Marc. The next girl chose Marcus. Jon’s fabulosity would have to wait a while before being realised.
On an overcast, kind of drizzly day in West Hollywood, Jon abjectly refuses to watch that two-minute clip. It was his first TV appearance. And it’s the only time he’ll be ashamed, or abashed, all day.
But it’s a perfect checkpoint in a hero’s tale - a reminder that a grinny, awkward 25-year-old Jon can, a little over a decade later, become Don Draper; a core part of redefining and rejuvenating masculinity and style for a generation.
More importantly, it’s a reminder that Jon can become Jon Hamm.
Some guacamole arrives on some typically overthought matte black LA crockery. Jon Hamm is dressed like a man ought to be - a no-fuss gingham shirt from Rag & Bone, punchy-but-not-too-punchy green chinos, some boots, a scruffy cap from his amateur baseball team. We’re in a bizarre luxe co-working-space-cum-members-club, if that makes any sense. Why’d he choose this joint?
“I didn’t,” he shrugs, licking some rogue guacamole from an index finger. “It was chosen for me, like everything else in my life.”
Before we talk filmography, about the movie he’s meant to be flogging, about style or strand-perfect hair, we’re into an interesting-if-sudden deep dive. We wheel around geopolitics, around race relations, around the democratisation of information. Jon Hamm, you quickly learn, is thoughtful. He’s interesting. And interested.
“This is probably the first time where the heterosexual, white male has slipped. It’s still the most dominant cultural thing on the planet, but it’s slipped. Like, marginally. And people are losing their minds: ‘What do you mean I have to pay attention to someone else’s viewpoint? I’ve never had to do that my whole life.’”
Apparently most are surprised by Hamm’s thoughtfulness. “For whatever reason - that I played a dummy, that I’m marginally good looking, that I’m an athlete? Some people think that those things can’t go together.
“But I was a teacher. I was a very good student. I love learning. Teach me things, man. Let’s make everything a teachable moment.”
The 45-year-old’s voice is straight from a soundstage, a deep baritone littered with kind Midwest inflections. It carries comfortably. That subtle country twang is out of St Louis, Missouri. Hamm grew up there, raised by a single mother – his parents divorcing when he was two-years-old.
“I was a total latchkey kid - took the bus home, walked home, had to call my mum when I got home,” he says.
Ever the athlete, Hamm was on the swim team, on football team, glued to the TV on game day. “They would show the Rose Bowl, this college football game, and the sun would be setting, and it’s Pasadena, and there’s girls in bikinis and they’re hitting beach balls up in the air and you’re like, ‘You’ve gotta be kidding me – where is that? That is heaven.’”
Hamm’s mother passed away when he was 10-years-old. He moved in with his father. He went to college, first in Texas, then Missouri, and eventually graduated with an English degree. “With honours,” he’ll remind you. Then, at 20, he lost his father. Hamm tumbled into depression, though was never treated for it – he figured he was just being sad and lazy.
With memories of the Rose Bowl, of Pasadena sunsets and girls in bikinis, Hamm decided to make out for California in 1995, pushing a 1986 Toyota Corolla, its odometer on the wrong side of 100,000 miles, from Missouri to Los Angeles. In his wallet was $150, a parting gift from his grandfather.
The night before he left – in the middle of a freezing cold snap in St Louis, where he’d been sleeping on a friend’s couch – Hamm had a vivid, lucid dream. He could see his mother, father and maternal grandmother. One by one, they reassured him. They told him, ‘You’re going to be okay. You just need to get on the road. You’ll be okay. We’re watching out for you.’
“I woke up completely emotional. I was wrecked. It was so very real. It was cathartic.”
Aside from a freezing, nervy drive up the Rockies, the road trip went off without a hitch. Jon Hamm, 25, made it to California.
Then, of course, the struggle really began. Hamm took some waiting work on Venice Beach, alongside a carefree actor and actress on-the-make who were “probably models”. They wasted away a half-dozen afternoons boozing and playing volleyball. Hamm distanced himself.
“I wanted to get an [acting] job and I made a deal with myself. I said, if I’m not doing what I want to do by the time I turn 30, then I’m going to do something else. I felt like 5 years was plenty of time to get something done.” He figured a presidential term is only four years – and they got stuff done.
But this was the era of Dawson’s Creek. Of 90210. 25-year-olds on the make were being cast as high schoolers and Jon Hamm barely looked like a high schooler when he was in high school.
“There was something about my energy, the way I carried myself. Something sort of … older, more weathered, more… seen more of life. I’d lost that youthful exuberance. Whether that’s losing your parents, or feeling detached from any kind of group. Whatever it was, that came across.”
Life fell into an unsteady rhythm of side work and auditions. Hamm did a stint at well-known Café Med on Sunset Boulevard – taking the bus to work just a few kilometres down the same road we now sit on. Things were slow.
And then they teetered to life, just like people had told him. It was a small part on a small show. A one-off episode cast as ‘That Guy’ on Allie McBeal. A recurring role here. A pilot there. And right around his deadline age of 30, there was We Were Soldiers – his first movie. He quit the restaurant gigs.
At 35, with a few more credits secured, Hamm went back to the drawing board – back to testing for pilots. The last one he auditioned for was a new AMC piece called Mad Men.
Matt Weiner, the show’s creator, was on the lookout for his Don Draper – the show’s orphaned, weathered, reserved protagonist.
When Hamm walked out of his Mad Men audition, Weiner turned to the rest of the room, and spoke without hesitation: “That man had no parents.”
Mad Men, of course, would become a singular television entity for the naughties. Airing on a failing network, helmed by a relatively inexperienced writer and an anonymous cast, it took less than a season for it to stand on its two handsomely brogued feet. It was a pre-noon cocktail of hedonism and archive-perfect sets and costumes and slow, deliberate character development and confident, pedantic scripting. Mad Men was a story from another time, tailored perfectly to modern times. It appealed to mass audiences with its day-drinking and day-fucking and throwback New York masculinity. It appealed to critical audiences with its carefully woven gender and cultural commentary.
It made stars of Hamm and his colleagues. It made pomade-parted hair, rich tailoring and brooding stares a ubiquitous look from London to Sydney to New York and beyond. Banana Republic designed a collection around the show. Michael Kors had a Mad Men-inspired runway show. It was a style moment. And, naturally, Hamm made that moment a teachable one.
“It made me conscious of presenting in a certain way. Before that, my style was sort of frozen in my early 20s. But the biggest thing – I just started buying clothes that fit. I started paying attention to it. Having them put on me and tailored, I was like, ‘Oh shit!’ You recognise that there’s a big difference in quality and fit.”
Last week, he was at Tom Ford’s show in New York. It was his first runway.
“The aesthetic is more like the ‘70s - it’s very sexy, it’s very cool. He’s a connoisseur. I feel amazing in a Tom Ford suit. I wore one this weekend. I got a ton of compliments on it. I feel good. When you look good, when your clothes fit you, you feel confident – it’s not a mistake.”
For Hamm, getting Mad Men marked the beginning of a long journey. It also signalled an end to a tenuous time in life.
“[Getting role like that] All of a sudden, the rest of your life looks really different. The game changes, and you’re like, I’m the same person I was a year ago – five minutes ago.’”
On a practical level, Hamm could suddenly buy, do, or be anything he wanted. Suddenly, he was at the Golden Globes. The SAGs. The Emmys. “…and winning?!” he says with maintained wonderment.
Perks came – numerous and instant. “As soon as you make a lot of money in this country, all of a sudden, you don’t have to pay for anything anymore. I try to give it away to people. I give it to shelters. But it accumulates.”
With his velvety baritone accelerating from pleasant to iconic, Mercedes tapped him for voiceover work. As part of the deal, he nabs a new car each year.
“I have the most beautiful car in the world now. Hands-down. Even the valet guy today was like, ‘Holy shit!’ It’s the nicest car I’ve ever been in.”
With the spotlight comes the ridiculous. And so it was, a few years ago, the rumour du jour was that, ‘Jon Hamm Has A Huge Cock’. Dubbed the ‘Hamm-aconda’, it was made complete with a (possibly?) Photoshopped image. For a while, a half dozen Hollywood blogs were on the Jon Hamm dick beat.
“It was a topic of fascination for other people – certainly not me. By the way, as rumours go - not the worst rumour.”
To set things straight – he didn’t actually go through a phase of wearing no underwear. “I’ve always worn underwear - 100 per cent of the time. In fact, I love underwear. What’s better than a comfortable pair? Who wants an old pair of underwear?
It’s a six month, eight month rule – you’ve got to refresh the collection.
“That makes sense. In fact, there’s a certain sweet spot where they’ve been washed enough, and they’re super soft, but they haven’t lost the elastic yet. It’s a slippery slope. I feel that slippery slope is me, right now. I’m worn-in a little bit, and almost just old – about to be tossed in the bin.”
That Hamm is hilarious and sharp of wit might also come as a surprise. He also has these wonderful ‘get-off-my-lawn moments’, too. (On social media: “If you’re going to be a dick, put your name on it. Own it. It’s only fair.”)
He talks further about age. About catching rockers Wilco the other night.
“They’re also a little bit older – the crowd is a little bit older. There were so few phones up. Everyone there was like, ‘I’m not gonna put it online, I just want to listen.’ They were great.”
Hamm’s currently starring in Keeping Up With The Joneses - a sort of Mr and Mrs Smith meets Bad Neighbours. His co-stars are Zach Galifanakis and Isla Fisher. He heaps praise on both. Next year, another comedy, a new Edgar Wright film alongside Simon Pegg. He also says he’d be open to doing a feature adaptation of Archer – though feels it’d work best if Jon Benjamin’s voice was dubbed over his acting.
Hamm’s comedic talents gained traction with a recurring role on 30 Rock. There, he played a love interest of Tina Fey - an inexplicably dense, stupidly handsome doctor who’s completely oblivious that the world bends, at every turn, to his handsomeness. In one episode, Fey attempts to shake him into reality: “Because of your whole, Disney Prince thing, you live in a bubble where people do what you want and tell you what you want to hear. You’re in the bubble!”
The joke was, of course, that Jon Hamm is so damn handsome, that he really would live in the bubble. Up close, all granite jaw and dimples and generous serving of stubble, Jon Hamm seems a prime candidate for permanent bubble tenancy.
“I don’t think that’s at all true,” he chimes. “Anybody that knows me would not say that.”
Today, certainly, the waitresses don’t linger and flirt. The gawkers don’t gawk. Here, at least, on this West Hollywood rooftop, on this Monday afternoon, Jon Hamm is outside the bubble.
Sure, there are bubbly moments in his life – the Merc, the Emmys. But it seems there’s always a part of Hamm with a limb cautiously out of the bubble. He’s too wary to be blissed out, to be wholly naïve.
Because even when you’ve been Don Draper, even when you’ve quit Café Med, even when you allegedly pack the ‘Hamm-aconda’ and drive The Nicest Car You’ve Ever Been In, there’s still a reach. There’s still some hustle.
“Am I consciously choosing what comes next? It’s hard to say. When you look at what’s out there in the feature world… I mean, I’m not Denzel Washington. I’m not Brad Pitt. And I’m not Matt Damon. And I’m not Ben Affleck. And I’m not Christian Bale. Those heavy dramas go to those guys. And they don’t make a lot of them. There are three, four, five a year. The Spotlights; The Fighters. What gets made now are superhero movies and comedies.”
On paper, the last 18 months of Hamm’s life have been hell. He’s been in and out of inpatient treatment for alcoholism. He’s split from his long-time partner – who’d seen and supported his career from the late ‘90s.
“There’s stuff you wished would have turned out differently - whether it’s people dying, or…but, that’s part of life too,” he says, stealing some time before continuing. “For me, it’s about understanding that it’s not the end of the world. The sun’s going to rise tomorrow. You’ve got to put your fucking shoes on. Pull your pants up. Take a shower. Don’t wallow. You want to tell me your sad story? We’ve all got a sad story. What are you going to do about it?”
“You know, a lot of people look at me and they go, ‘Oh, my god, you’re so lucky, you have this, you have that, you’re this, you’re that.’ Wanna trade places with me? Like, now?’ Sure. Do you want to do it when I was 23, and living out of my car? And had no parents or prospects? But that part led to this part.”
The eternal optimist in you knows that Hamm will be okay. You know that he’ll take this as a teachable moment. Because you don’t lose both of your parents before you can legally drink and crawl over the Rockies in a Corolla with $150 and sit through Mary’s decision on The Big Date and get Mad Men only to crumble now. You just don’t.
While today’s meal is on GQ, Hamm’s quick to slap down an Amex. Then, on spotting us in reception, after we’ve wrapped, he offers a lift.
And so, the valet giddily rounds the corner. We hop in. It’s nice. Real nice. The Mercedes S Coupe AMG 63 – that’s the nicest car Hamm’s ever been in.
We pull out into the Sunset Boulevard traffic. Hamm fires up the sound system. Wilco’s new CD unfurls through the speakers. Checks out: he’d mentioned he was at their concert last week, taking in their alt-country tunes and admiring their relatively smartphone-free crowd. Wait, no – as if by cosmic fate, it’s playing on the radio. Because Jon Hamm still listens to the radio.
We crawl down Sunset, where everyone appears a little hungover from last night’s Emmys. A five-minute drive stretches beyond 15. Finally, Hamm sees his opening and guns the Merc around indecisive sedan, giving him a honk for good measure. “What a guy,” he says through gritted teeth, flooring the car with glee. And for a moment, roaring towards the Chateau and the Hills, the inner kid, the inner fabulosity of Jon Hamm is easy to see.
Our hotel’s across the street – we can jump here, it makes things easier. Hamm’s having one of it. “No, I’ll spin it!” He pulls a slick u-ey into the hotel. He kindly waves away the valet with a polite, “No, thank you sir.”
And then Jon Hamm puts the Nicest Car He’s Ever Been In into drive and folds back into the Hollywood traffic with an easy grin and Wilco ringing in his ears, one foot firmly outside the bubble.