How a band of Hollywood rejects created the smartest and most seductive show on TV
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."
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.
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.
After film school at USC, Weiner was supported by his wife, Linda Brettler, a successful architect, and wrote script after unsellable script. He was a writer on sitcoms like Party Girl and Becker, but got tired of pitching jokes. "I let my contract run out on Becker," he says. "I decided I would rather change my career than go back there." After winning $8,500 on Jeopardy!, he used some of the money to make an unreleased autobiographical film called What Do You Do All Day? It was about an unsuccessful writer supported by his architect wife. "It's loosely based on The Odyssey," Weiner says sheepishly.
But he couldn't let go of a pilot he started writing in 1999: Mad Men. He had no special interest in the early Sixties, no connection to the world of advertising. Yet somehow, this project became his obsession – an epic pilot, the only one he ever wrote. "I wanted to write the greatest pilot ever," he admits. "That was my ambition. I wanted it to be profound, and 1 wanted it to be true, and I wanted it to be about a man my age and what I was interested in: Who do you look up to? Why am I still 18 inside? Why am I so ungrateful for everything that I have? And who am I?"
He felt unworthy of his giant ambition. "I hadn't written anything else, and I never sold anything," he says. But it got him his big break. In 2003, on the strength of the Mad Men pilot, David Chase hired him to write for The Sopranos. Two weeks after he started, he was told to stay home from work one day. People felt he was talking too much in story meetings. "It was really embarrassing," he says. "You're on the Yankees, and you're swinging at every pitch."
Chase recalls that Weiner, with whom he eventually became good friends, never really shut up. "There was a lot of talk and chatter in the first few weeks – so much that I couldn't think," Chase says. "Later on, as he became part of the fabric of the show, even though he would get 'no' 10 times in a row, he would still come at me. Whether or not his ideas were used, Matt understood the characters and was somebody I could talk story with. Obviously, now his ideas are used all the time. He needed his own show for that."
When HBO passed on Mad Men, Weiner took the pilot elsewhere, and he has spoken of his disappointment over the rejection. If it seems personal for him, that's because it is. In his head, the characters on the show are all reflections of himself. Not just Don Draper – every single part.
"There's no doppelganger there," he says. "I am a mixture of Roger, Peggy, Don, Pete, Joan, Betty. They all behave in ways I'm embarrassed to behave, and they all have qualities I wish I had. There's a lot of Joan in me: She has sexual confidence, which I wish I had. Pete is the guy I tried to be in high school: I was the towel snapee. I'm attuned to moments of humiliation. When Peggy is dancing in one episode and Pete says, 'I don't like you like this,' it was a hard thing for me to admit that I had been him – jealous and cruel. If you're a mean or vindictive person, I don't think you can learn it. You have to be raised with it."
Was Weiner raised with it? "I was raised with all of it." Both parents? "It's a mother thing, and it's a father thing. We're all like that to each other. Everyone's family is like this. That's what this thing is about. Mad Men is a constructed world for me to talk about how I feel about the world, for me to talk about my family, talk about my parents, talk about my fantasies, see my wish fulfillments, trash my enemies, vanquish my fears. Just to see them played out."
From a certain angle, you can see the entire history of American television encapsulated in Mad Men. Here's a brilliant writer not allowed to watch TV growing up, who then proceeds to devote his adult life to creating a lavish vision of all the tawdry TV fantasies he wasn't supposed to have watched. For his leading man, he creates a goyish Midwestern hero whose life is based on a lie. But through that deception – that very American act of self-creation – Don Draper discovers an authenticity he probably would never have found if he had remained Dick Whitman, the son of a violent hick and a prostitute who died in childbirth. Draper's success, as envisioned by Weiner, turns on his ability to make other people envy him, his power to make people want to either stand in his shoes or get into his pants. And for all his own success, Weiner admits he's still driven by such petty impulses.
"Life's not fair," Weiner says. "You get to a certain point where you're too old to be saying that, but it never stops being infuriating." No matter how much you rise to the level of a Don Draper, you never outgrow the temptation to escape into some-body else's identity. "I worked with a guy who said he went to Harvard," Weiner says. "Then everybody found out he didn't go to Harvard. We still saw him every day, and nobody gave a shit. It was shocking to me. I was like, 'Oh, my God, I could have told people I went to Harvard all this time?'"
Weiner was picturing leading men from the Sixties when he created Don Draper. "James Garner played this kind of corrupt Boy Scout in a number of movies," he says. "I saw black hair. I saw – if Gregory Peck and James Garner had had a baby, that guy."
The guy he got, Hamm, had been in Hollywood for a decade, with a list of credits split among forgettable TV shows (The Division, Providence), small-budget movies (Kissing Jessica Stein) and waiting tables at restaurants (at least one of which, Cafe Med, on Sunset Boulevard, wasn't bad). The year before he auditioned for Mad Men, he read for seven TV shows and completely struck out. "Seven tests, zero jobs," he says. "I was supernervous, nonpresent and terrified."
Hamm auditioned for Mad Men six times, but Weiner knew immediately that the actor had something in common with Draper. "That man was not raised by his parents," he famously told his casting director the moment Hamm left the first audition. The hunch was spot on: Hamm's parents split up when he was two, and he was raised mostly by his grandmother. How could Weiner tell? "Without sounding too California, there's a kind of AM radio that goes on when we're casting that gives you an intuition about a human being," he says. "I got the feeling that Jon understood a kind of independence, and he had a wound."
This evening, drinking a gin and tonic at a rooftop bar high above Sunset Boulevard, Hamm comes across more like a hand some cop than a leading man: dark jeans, black sneakers, navy-blue windbreaker, aviator shades. He looks five years younger than Don Draper and moves with the easygoing, athletic boyishness of the high school jock he once was. "I play a character that's constantly dressed up," he says with a shrug. "I don't really have much in comparison to the way Don holds himself. I'm not that guy. I don't really look like that."
So do clothes make Don Draper? "Part of it is the suit, but another part is a choice," he says. "This is a person who takes himself very seriously at work, a guy who's going to walk in and command a room. I'm not that way in real life. I don't grab the mic." Still, he instantly identified with Draper's cutthroat nature. "My life at the time was trying to get a job," he says. "Talk about ruthless – being an actor in L.A. and not working is nothing but hustling. I just really responded to it on some visceral level, and that may have been what Matt picked up on. That may be why the character resonates coming from me."
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."
Jones, 32, grew up in South Dakota, acting out plays she wrote with her cousins and sisters before moving to New York and L.A. to try to make it as a model and an actress. "What else am I gonna do – waitress?" she says. "I can't even make toast!" But until Mad Men, her career wasn't going anywhere. "I was just disenchanted with the business," she says. "I'm auditioning for all these crap girlfriend roles, with nothing to do. There's no creative freedom, I'm not feeling fulfilled artistically – I'm done." That, she says, is why she and her cast-mates appreciate how lucky they are. Like Weiner, the man who sees himself in each of their characters, they know what it's like to go for years without a sliver of hope.
"For this to happen was a fluke," she says. "Every once in a while something like this happens magically, and we get to thrive from it. But especially in our case, no one is taking it for granted. And the reason for that is Matt's enthusiasm. When he found out I got an Emmy nomination, he ran up and picked me off the ground and said, 'Oh, my God! Are you excited? You better lie excited!' No one around here is at all jaded by what's happened – least of all Matt."
It's almost noon in Los Angeles, and Weiner is just showing up at the office. He stayed up late the night before to cut the script for Episode 11 – "It was huge," he explains – and he has already run the streamlined version by a woman in accounting. "I had to share it with somebody who didn't already know the story," he says. "That's how you know if it works."
He leads the way to the writers' room, which is connected to his office by a reception area. At the height of production – this week, the crew is editing Episode Eight, casting Episode 10, revising Episode 11 and working out the plot for Episode 12 – Weiner spends only an hour or two a day with the writers, though he seldom wanders out of shouting distance. The writers' room has a long table, a ratty love seat and three giant whiteboards covered with plot points and themes. The components of each episode are laid out on a system of colored index cards, each featuring a single word: SUBWAY, LUCKY STRIKE, SEX. "The cards are in code, so the actors don't know," Weiner says.
Weiner is obsessed with keeping the plotlines secret until they air. Each page of script that a writer brings home at night is stamped with their name, and they are required to shred them the following morning. When actors come in to audition, they are instructed to leave their "sides" – the script pages they read from – at the door. Fake character names are written into scenes, and contextualizing details are kept so scarce that even the actresses reading for the part of the black cocktail waitress can't tell which character will be addressing her as his "chocolate bunny."
"We realized that all the leaks happened whenever we would cast an episode," Weiner says. "The actors would immediately go update their IMDB page. But a lot of our commercial value comes from the audience having no idea what's going to happen." It's one of the rare times that Weiner sounds more like a suit than like a guy in creative.
Weiner likes to say that Mad Men is an exploration of identity – the gap, as one character puts it this season, between "what I want, versus what's expected of me." Yet all his characters manage to discover who they are only by slipping into disguises. They get paid not just to fulfill the greediest aspirations of American consumers but to feed them whole new fantasies, to put all sorts of desires into their heads. The current season's essence is summed up in the very first episode, when Draper mocks a couple of prudish swimsuit-company executives with an ad showing the lower half of a bikini babe and the slogan "So well-built, we can't show you the second floor." It applies to Don himself, and to the startup firm of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, an outfit that is all front and machismo. But it also applies to America. Mad Men's protagonists inhabit the forefront of the New Frontier and the Great Society, enjoying the era's emerging freedoms without facing any of the struggles or recriminations that lurk around the historical corner. The show's subtle confrontations with race, drugs and the still-nascent war in Vietnam hint at massive changes in American culture – changes that Mad Men's dream merchants are the last to see coming.
"A good advertising person is like an artist, channeling the culture," Weiner says. "As consumers, we think of advertising as this noise that gives us messages we don't want to hear. But the people who make it they're holding up a mirror, saying, 'This is the way you wish you were. This is the thing you're afraid of.' Don is just reflecting an idealized version of ourselves."
This season, Weiner has taken a step back from the broader themes, placing less attention on the world around Draper and more on his new life as a divorced man. "Don is getting older," he says, "and there's suddenly his inability to close deals" – with nosy reporters, with his ex-wife, with the nurse who lives across the hall from his dreary Greenwich Village bachelor pad. "It adds a layer of poignancy. I wanted to explore what it's like for a man my age to go through a divorce. I was really interested seeing how internal 1 can take the story." For the man who sees a reflection of himself in every character he has created – in Peggy's hesitancy, in Joan's confidence, in Betty's narcissism-Mad Men is ultimately an attempt to document the intimacy and desires that even a man as confused and divided as Don Draper discovers in the most unexpected places.
"Whenever people talk about movies, they ask how big a story has to be," Weiner says. "I'm like, 'How big is a story about two people? It's gigantic."