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Inside 'Mad Men': A Fine Madness

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Hamm grew up an only child in St. Louis, in a decaying mansion that belonged to his father's family. "You could put the stuff that was in my house all over the Mad Men set," he says. "It would fit right in." His mother died of cancer when he was 10; his father followed a decade later. At the University of Missouri, he drifted into acting. "The theater department is generally the place where the orphans go," he says. In 1995, after a year of teaching at his former high school, he headed to Hollywood to try his luck. "A lot of people look at New York and L.A. and are transfixed by their aspirational qualities," he says. "A show like Seinfeld really resonates, and you have these kids who are cornfed Midwesterners identifying with Jerry's Jewish Upper West Side drama in a way that they have no real connection with."

The only actor Hamm knew in Hollywood was Paul Rudd, who had roomed with a friend of his in college. Shortly before Hamm arrived, Rudd landed a role in Clueless and was soon getting big parts. The two were close friends, but Hamm never felt comfortable asking Rudd for help. He proceeded to go three years without being offered a single role.

You get a sense from Hamm, 39, that his years of disappointments have stuck with him – he has a very Midwestern reluctance to embrace his success, or to even acknowledge that it's happening. Like Draper, he knows the power of silence. "I fly very low on the radar," he says. "Mark Twain said it: 'I'd rather say nothing and be thought an idiot than open my mouth and remove all doubt.' Another Missouri boy, Mark Twain. The petulant, shitty movie-star mentality-that burns out pretty quick."

Hamm is aware that this is a good problem to have, kind of like the fatigue that has set in ever since he was cast as Draper. "For something that's very low-impact-we're not baking bricks or carting cement-you do have to be mentally acute for a significant period of time, and that becomes pretty draining," he says. The only sign that the grind of shooting 14 hours a day is taking a toll are the strange discolored patches on his hands.

"I have vitiligo," he says. "It's stress-oriented. It comes and goes and waxes and wanes." He looks at his hands. "This did not exist before the show," he says.

Mad Men is shot at Los Angeles Center Studios, a huge lot in downtown L.A. Weiner's attention to period detail, from conversational idiom to collar-point widths, is evident in every episode. But on set, the work of his prop team kind of blows you away. There are stacks of old Look magazines, marked-up ads on the bulletin boards of the copywriters, genuine expense-report sheets on the desks of the account executives. In Room 3769, tacked to the wall beside Joan's desk, are Roger Sterling's receipts from a trip to Durham, North Carolina, to woo the folks at American Tobacco (hotel: $2.80; cab to restaurant: $1.12; dinner: $19.44).

"It's all very meticulous and researched to a pinpoint," says January Jones. "There's no ad-libbing or changing anything. Matt will come down during a take to fix your pronunciation of a word. There's no 'gonna' or 'shoulda' – it's 'going' and 'should have.'"

In the corridor, Vincent Kartheiser, who plays the slimy and grasping partner Pete Campbell, is pacing up and down dressed in his character's shark-blue suit, a script in hand. Of anyone in the cast, the 31-year-old Kartheiser probably has the least in common with the character he plays. Campbell – who comes from old New York money, went to Deerfield and Dartmouth, and has a friend named Ho-Ho – wants nothing more than to make his name in the business world. Kartheiser – whose father worked for a tool manufacturer in Minnesota – until recently didn't own a car and even got by for a while without a toilet. ("I was remodeling, so I was just in between toilets," he says.) He's been acting since he was six and appeared in Another Day in Paradise with James Woods, but before Mad Men he was mostly kicking around Hollywood. "I used to be able to get by for a whole year on one $35,000 paycheck," he says. "It didn't take a lot to live. It still wouldn't if I stopped redecorating."

Elisabeth Moss, who plays the aspiring and plucky copywriter Peggy Olson, also started out as a child actress and played Martin Sheen's daughter on The West Wing. "It wasn't like I was Dakota Fanning or anything," she hastens to note. "And I think I did a movie-of-the-week where I played Sandra Bullock's daughter. It's all very fuzzy. Do you remember what you did when you were six?" But like her castmates, the 28-year-old has a touch of pride about the fact that Mad Men's stars were relative unknowns before Weiner put them to such brilliant use. "Matt always says that he basically hired a bunch of not-famous people, but people that had been working for a really long time." For Moss, the best thing about playing Peggy is the chance to show the kind of ambitious career girl who was seldom depicted in TV shows from the 1960s. "I feel lucky to tell the story of women in the workplace at that time," she says. "It's the beginning of women's lib and the beginning of feminism."

All of the characters on Mad Men carry their own unspeakable secrets – Peggy's pregnancy, Don's childhood, Pete's total creepiness. (Well, that one isn't really a secret.) But Joan, the office bombshell, may live with the saddest secret of all. She's married to a man who raped her, and nobody comprehends how bitterly she's been thwarted by the sexual politics of the era. Part of the fascination is that Christina Hendricks, who plays Joan with deliriously swiveling hips and an unnervingly steady gaze, seemed to appear out of nowhere. Her father worked for the Forest Service; she grew up in Idaho, Oregon and Virginia, and began dyeing her blond hair at age 10. "I was this goofy-looking goth kid," recalls Hendricks, 35. "I went through the gamut of colors, the purples and the blacks and fire-engine red and blond again." Her first TV gig was an ad for a Visa card, two weeks after she arrived in L.A. "It was a promo for the new James Bond with Pierce Brosnan," she says. "My line was, like, 'I'm going to have to see your ID, James.'" When she accepted the part on Mad Men, her agents promptly dumped her. "It was on a network that didn't have any shows," she explains. "They said, 'Honestly, honey, you really think this is going?' I said, 'Well, at this point, let's do the good stuff and see what happens.'"

Joan's background is the most mysterious of any Mad Men character. We never find out anything about her childhood or family. In conversations with Weiner, Hendricks has come up with a simple back story for Joan – she probably grew up in Washington state – but it remains mostly a blank slate. "The clues are revealed as they come out," she says. That's the price of working with Weiner: You only know what he gives you, and scripts are handed out only two days before shooting. After three and a half seasons, all we really know about Joan is that she shocks us with her toughness. "There are all sorts of challenges thrown at her," Hendricks says. "Horrific things. And she consistently pulls it together, cleans it up and moves forward. Sometimes she's walking through mud, but she does it."

Like Hendricks and everyone else in the cast, January Jones is left pretty much to her own devices as Don's ex-wife, Betty. "I don't talk to Matt unless he needs to talk to me about something," she says. "I need not to think about my character. Betty is so blissfully ignorant in certain ways, so I feel like I should be too." As Jones plays her, Betty is the least sympathetic character on Mad Men – quite a feat, considering the competition. Raised on the promises and lies of an earlier generation of Don Drapers before she fell for the man himself, Betty wanders through life in a childlike haze, walled off from her husband and humiliating their kids. "I don't feel like I need to relate to her," Jones says. "The biggest obstacle for me is not to judge her."

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