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Inside 'Mad Men': A Fine Madness

How a band of Hollywood rejects created the smartest and most seductive show on TV

September 16, 2010
mad men jon hamm elizabeth moss christina hendricks january jones
Elizabeth Moss, January Jones, Jon Hamm and Christina Hendricks of 'Mad Men' on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Robert Trachtenberg

Who is Matthew Weiner? He is not Don Draper. But today, especially, he is the furthest thing from Don Draper anybody could imagine. At a studio in downtown Los Angeles, he is auditioning actresses for a bit part on Mad Men, the hottest and most glamorous show on TV. Weiner specified in the script that the character is a cocktail waitress in 1965 Manhattan – 20 years old, black, beautiful. So his to-do list this afternoon is sitting in the Mad Men casting room and watching Hollywood's hungriest starlets flounce in to catch his eye. For most of us, this would be "a fairly pleasant day." For Don Draper, it would be "Thursday" But for Matthew Weiner, this is a tough day. You can tell because he looks down and sighs, "Wow, this is a tough day."

'Mad Men' Behind-the-Scenes Pictures

The girls are all gorgeous and their skirts are short – partly because it's July in L.A. and partly because they're here to read for the role of a cocktail waitress on Mad Men. One of the girls, noticing everyone's eyes on her flimsy sundress, jokes, "It's so hot out!"

"I know," Weiner mumbles. "It's, like, Yom Kippur hot."

This, whatever it means, is not what Don Draper would say.

As the afternoon drags on, more girls parade by, all eager to please, and each wearing less than the one before. ("At least she wore a shirt," a female casting agent says of a girl whose half-unbuttoned blouse reveals the absence of a bra.) Yet none of this seems especially fun or even funny to Weiner. Five-eight, balding, possessed of a high-pitched voice that can seem curiously inert, he sits with his back to the wall and offers the actresses little more than a forced smile. At the moment, he does not look like the world beating Hollywood producer he is. He doesn't strut like a 45-year-old wonder boy who has the TV world by the short hairs. Instead, he has the sweat of a man who has worked hard for his success and does not quite trust it now that it's arrived. He admits, without a trace of bravado in his voice, that he has become "one of the few writers in this town who doesn't have to raise money, worry about creative control or attract an actor." It just hasn't occurred to him to breathe easy and enjoy the ride. He doesn't even seem to know how to fake it.

In the opening scene of the new season of Mad Men, an interviewer asks Draper, "Who is Don Draper?" Rather than confess the truth – that he's a flimflam man who fabricated his whole identity from a dead Korean War officer and built his entire life on a lie en route to a Madison Avenue advertising career – Draper merely takes a drag on his cigarette. "I'm from the Midwest," he says. "We were taught it's not polite to talk about yourself."

In a sense, Mad Men is Weiner's attempt to figure out this question for himself. He has created an elaborate pageant of American fantasies – guys and dolls who look like they have it all, even when their private worlds are complete frauds. The advertising wizards of Mad Men swagger through the office, knock back cocktails, knock back lovers. They live out JFK-era America's tawdriest dreams, almost as if it's a professional code – to sell these dreams to America, they have to experience them from the inside, with all their inherent betrayal and manipulation. After three seasons on AMC, a basic-cable network previously known for endless reruns of second-rate movies, Mad Men established a hold on America's fantasy life like no show since The Sopranos. "The big question the show is trying to answer through Don has to do with identity," Weiner says. "Who am I? – It's only the biggest theme in all of Western literature."

To make it happen, Weiner assembled a cast he could relate to – veteran actors who had spent their careers toiling in relative obscurity. Jon Hamm, who plays Draper, had a few scenes in We Were Soldiers. January Jones, who plays his brittle and ethereal ex-wife, Betty, showed up in the third American Pie movie as Stiller's love interest. Christina Hendricks, who rules the offices of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce as Joan, appeared in a video for the Nineties rock band Everclear. Nobody wanted them. Today, everybody knows their names, everybody covets their careers, everybody wants to get next to them.

The fact that they were unknown quantities is part of the show's power. Like the characters they play, and like their creator, they're mystery men and women. As Hamm says, "If Rob Lowe had been cast in this part, it would have been different: 'Oh, it's the new Rob Lowe show.' But there was no backstory with me, so people can project all this stuff and genuinely believe the mystery of this guy."

When Hamm says "this guy," he means Don Draper – but he could also mean the equally mysterious man who created the show. Weiner writes or co-writes every episode, usually dictating to an assistant. He also serves as executive producer and show runner. Like Draper, he came out of nowhere. His major previous experience was writing for The Sopranos – but HBO passed on the chance to make Mad Men, and the rejection agitated Weiner so much that it has become part of the show's lore. Despite his impressive track record, Weiner still sees himself as a beleaguered underdog, battered by rejection and disappointment. That's where his vision comes from.

'Mad Men' Cover Shoot Behind-the-Scenes Video

Weiner grew up in Baltimore and Los Angeles, the son of a famous neuroscientist. He wasn't allowed to watch TV on school nights. "When my parents went out, they'd come home and feel the TV," Weiner recalls. "If it was hot, you got in trouble." So young Matt developed some coping skills: He would ask his parents for help with homework when they were watching The Roekford Files, just so he could watch out of the corner of his eye. On weekends, he was allowed to taste forbidden fruit: The Love Boat, Fantasy Island, Sonny & Cher. "I had an incredible sexual experience with Cher, in my mind," he says. "Even before I knew what it was, I thought, 'Oh, my God, I just want her to take the rest of whatever that is off.'"

In high school and at Wesleyan University, Weiner tried out for plays but was frustrated to find himself getting cast as the weirdo. "I did not know who I was," he says. "I was angry all the time because I was not being cast as the leading guy. I had some fantasy that I was going to be the guy who got the girl – and was funny, too." Not surprisingly, his rock & roll idol was king nerd Elvis Costello.

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