Jon Hamm: How the 'Mad Men' Star Became a TV Antihero icon

The man behind Don Draper opens up about the series that changed television, his inner demons and those notorious Tumblr accounts

"Don's trying to manage this seismic change in the culture, "Hamm says. "And in many ways, he's failing." Credit: Mark Seliger for Rolling Stone

At 9 AM on a Thursday, Don Draper might just be rolling out of bed, feeling rough from another night of charbroiling his lungs and drinking enough Canadian Club to fell a horse, one step closer to his inevitable coronary. Or maybe he'd be at the office already, Brylcreemed and freshly shaved in a shirt so white and crisp it could give you a paper cut, ready to toss off another bit of adman genius. Or maybe he'd throw us a curveball, as Draper is wont to do, and would be waking up at a Palm Springs mansion or in a client's bed or left for dead in a cheap motel somewhere, the latest twist in five seasons of zeitgeist-encapsulating unpredictability that have made Mad Men one of the smartest, richest, most compelling shows on TV.

But Jon Hamm is not Don Draper – at least not totally, not all the time. And so on this particular Thursday, Hamm is sitting bright-eyed and baseball-capped on his elevated front porch, the morning's second cup of coffee in his hand, a folded-up copy of the Los Angeles Times on his knee, confident and easy like the king of all he surveys, which at the moment is his well-manicured side street in the upscale-hip L.A. enclave of Los Feliz.

"Morning!" Hamm says, peering over the balustrade. "Come on up!" He tosses the paper and leads the way inside, speaking quietly so as to not disturb his partner of 15 years, writer-actress Jennifer Westfeldt, who's sick in bed with their shepherd mix, Cora. "You want anything before we hit the road? Water? Coffee? Let's take a couple of roadies," he says, dumping the contents of the coffee pot into a pair of travel mugs. He slips on his tennis shoes and some designer aviators, and makes for the front door. "Ready to roll?"

We were originally supposed to meet two days from now, to hit baseballs at a batting cage in Burbank. Hamm's a big baseball guy: He grew up playing as a kid in St. Louis – a catcher, hit for power – and still wears a Cardinals cap like Draper wears a pocket square. But he had to reschedule: Apparently he forgot Saturday was Westfeldt's birthday. He proposed a hike this morning instead. "I think all parties involved will be happier this way."

Hamm isn't stellar when it comes to birthdays. One time, years ago, he was invited to a surprise party for an actor buddy of his, and he nearly ruined it by showing up a month early. "Literally a month," he says. "He opened the door like, 'What are you doing here?' And I'm like, 'I'm … here … for … the … ?' Meanwhile his wife's behind him going, 'No, no!'" A few years later he told this story to Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, and Weiner put it in a script. "Ripped from the pages of my own idiot life," Hamm says.

Hamm heads outside and down the block to a set of hidden steps that lead up to sprawling Griffith Park. He and Westfeldt have lived here for more than 10 years, and they know all the neighborhood's secrets. "There's Megan's place there," he points, meaning Fox, who appeared with the couple in the movie Friends With Kids. "And January is just around the corner" - meaning Jones, who plays his ex-wife, Betty, on Mad Men. ("If I worked more," Jones says, "we'd carpool.")

Hamm bounds up the stairs two at a time. When he reaches the top, he's a little winded, tiny beads of sweat on his forehead, so he takes a minute to catch his breath. Everything about him looks too big - the granite jaw, the dockworker shoulders and, of course, his massive size 7 5/8 head. "I have the second-largest head of anybody who's ever hosted Saturday Night Live," he says. And, to answer the obvious follow-up: "Ben Affleck. Wow. I thought I had a big head until I met that guy. Motherfucker. Don't quote me, but I'm pretty sure it starts with an eight."

Soon the trail opens up, and we're on a dirt path leading up to the Griffith Observatory. Hamm has seen snakes and coyotes up here, but right now there's just some old Asian ladies doing tai chi. We crest the hill, and he pulls off his shades and turns to take in the view, the Kodachrome-blue California morning: "Not bad, huh?"

As metaphors go, this is not a terrible one: Hamm on a mountaintop, all of Hollywood at his feet, declaring things "not bad." He's too Midwestern-modest to say so himself, but there may be no better actor on TV right now. In five seasons of playing the philandering, alcoholic antihero Don Draper, he's inhabited the role so thoroughly even Daniel Day-Lewis has given him props. Not since the days of Tony Soprano (for whom Weiner also wrote) have an actor and a role been so perfectly paired. Hamm plays the steely-eyed Draper with such walled-off restraint ("I'm never going to win the award for most acting," he says) that it's easy to underrate him, as the Emmys have for five years running. "He's at a disadvantage on this show," says his friend and co-star John Slattery, a.k.a. ad chief Roger Sterling. "He's not a drug kingpin. He's not blowing shit up. And yet day after day I see him do all these amazing, subtle things. People don't even think he's acting half of the time."

And therein lies the question everyone asks: How much of Draper is really just Hamm? According to Hamm, not much. "Don is a very complicated character, and I'm a fairly complicated individual, but that's pretty much where the similarity ends." And he has a point. Hamm is a jokester who's been masterful on SNL, hilarious in Bridesmaids and killed it in a six-episode run as Liz Lemon's boyfriend on 30 Rock. (Hamm originally auditioned for the role of Jack Donaghy, but says, "Tina was basically waiting for Alec Baldwin to say yes.") He enjoys dudely pursuits like poker, fantasy football (he plays in a league with Sports Guy Bill Simmons – team name: Mizzou Bizou Bizou) and his rec baseball team out in the Valley, where they drink beer after games and it doesn't matter that he can't pick off an overweight father of four. He favors dorky-cool lingo like "my joint" (for his house) and "copy that" (for OK), and drops the word "Dickensian" in conversation as capably as he does "fuckstick." And he's a former all-state linebacker and longtime video-game nerd – not so much the first-person shooters but more fantasy games, like his favorite, World of Warcraft.

But ask Hamm which kind of character he likes to play as – a Warrior, a Rogue, a nefarious Warlock? – and he suddenly turns serious. "I," he says, "would never share that."

And this is the point at which the Hamm-Draper distinction starts to blur. Because, yes, Jon Hamm is a 42-year-old who loves Budweiser, Wilco and Words With Friends. But there also may be a little more Draper to him than he'd like to admit.

"Matt writes around who we are as people," says Jones. "And he puts a lot of Jon into Don. His charm. His vulnerabilities. His flaws. There is an air of mystery about the guy – like, where did he come from? All of a sudden he's Don Draper, and he's a huge star. I'm not gonna speak for him, but they've maybe got a similar past."

Weiner says that Hamm prefers to keep his private life private. "We're work friends," Weiner says. "Maybe when the show's over we'll go on vacation together. But there is a distance, and I don't think that's bad. Most of us don't get that – most of us are strippers. But part of what's going on with that character, Draper, is that the guy, Hamm, is unknowable."

Christina Hendricks, who plays the office-manager-turned-partner Joan Harris, has worked with Hamm for more than seven years. Given the show's 14-hours-a-day schedule, it's possible they spend more time together than they do apart. And yet, Hendricks says, "I know Jon at work. I don't know him very well at all."

"You can tell as soon as she puts it that way," Weiner says, "that she knows exactly who that guy is."

Back at the homestead, Hamm climbs into his Mercedes CLS63, pulls it onto the 101 south, and drives the 15 trafficky minutes to a 20-acre complex called Los Angeles Center Studios. This is Mad Men's headquarters, at the old Unocal Building downtown – a location chosen by Weiner partly for its resemblance to Fifties-era Park Avenue skyscrapers like the Seagram Building and the Lever House. Hamm's last job before becoming a full-time actor was waiting tables at a Latin restaurant three blocks from here. Sometimes he even parked in the same lot. He has a better spot now.

Most of the cast members are here already, tucked away in an area they call Base Camp, a little warren of trailers with potted trees and a fire pit. Elisabeth Moss, who plays copywriter Peggy Olson, is watching YouTube videos on an iPad, still recovering from the flu that swept through last week. Hendricks, also in flu recovery, is reading a Diana Vreeland biography and working on her knitting. Over on an outdoor couch, Jones is sitting in the sun, when someone behind her lets out a massive belch. "Was that Rich?" she asks without turning around. Incredibly, it was – Rich Sommer, who plays bespectacled TV-department head Harry Crane. Jones laughs. "I know their burps."

A few nights ago were the Screen Actors Guild Awards, which Hamm says were "kind of meshugas." (For a former frat dude from Missouri, he can drop Yiddish with aplomb.) The cast didn't win anything – "We're used to being bridesmaids at this point" – but went out together afterward anyway, and some of them are still paying the price. "Too much red wine," says Jessica Pare, who plays Don's wife, Megan, hiding behind a pair of hangover shades. "I should have stopped at one two-liter bottle." When Slattery walks by, she buttonholes him to apologize for a drunkenly earnest conversation that they had, and he laughs and tells her not to worry about it.

Hamm walks past Jones on his way to his trailer and gives her a little squeeze on the shoulder. "Hey, Bubby," she says, not looking up. He goes inside for a few minutes to strap into his "gear": white undershirt, monogrammed belt buckle, cuff links, tie. He comes back out and takes his regular seat at the table, in front of a spiral notebook filled with pages of tally marks – the score from their never-ending game of dominoes. I ask who the reigning champ is, and Hamm points to himself and mouths, "That would be me."

Hamm is what's known around the set as "number one on the call sheet." This is both literally true, in the sense that his name is at the top, and also refers to his special place as first among equals. Weiner discusses scripts with Hamm in a way he doesn't with other actors. He calls him "the class president" and "the prom king." Pare says he's more like a team captain. Moss says if there's ever a problem, Hamm is the one the cast will go to for help. After all: "Who else would you want going to bat for you but Don Draper?"

"They're called 'privates' for a reason. I'm wearing pants, for fuck's sake. Lay off. When people feel the freedom to create Tumblr accounts about my cock, I feel like that wasn't part of the deal."

The flip side of this is that they really don't want to let him down. "He's like the dad," says Moss. "You don't want to keep him waiting. You don't want to fuck up. You can see, especially the guys – if they start fucking up, they turn bright red. Because they all want to please him." Moss says that even Weiner is subject to it – not wanting Hamm to be disappointed in him. "I have a feeling that even if he had the smallest part on the show, that would still be happening," admits Weiner.

There's just something about the guy that commands power and respect. Weiner, who created Draper, sees similarly alpha tendencies at work: "Jon can be silent in a powerful way. And he's got a temper, which is a surprise, because there's so much charm. He's brought an intensity to the character that I didn't anticipate. For example, I didn't know Don would get so much pleasure out of dominating his enemies. But Jon brought that, and it's gold. I don't know whether he draws on his relationships in real life. But I know that when he and Vinnie [Kartheiser]'s characters were going at it, Jon could play the game on and off the field."

Kartheiser, who plays conniving accounts man Pete Campbell, has a story about besting Hamm at dominoes three times in a row. Hamm came back and destroyed him, beating him methodically for a week straight. "He's just a merciless competitor," Weiner says. "You don't want to see him lose. I don't think he's ever turned over a table – but if someone close to him beats him, they are dead to him until he beats them back."

Hamm spent 10 years slogging away in L.A. before finally landing his breakthrough role. He worked in catering, tended bar and for a time worked as a set dresser on soft-core porn shoots. He was once dropped by his agency after three years of booking nothing. After that he played generic firemen, soldiers and handsome cops. ("We'll find old photos of him in turtlenecks, and make fun of him," says Moss.) But then came Mad Men and Don Draper, at which point the 36-year-old journeyman named Jon Hamm was transformed into Jon Hamm.

"I guess it gets back to my thing of trying as hard as I can, all the time," says Hamm. "I don't believe in going through the motions, or dicking around. I don't like to leave a lot in the tank. Because I feel like, if you win, then it's a legitimate win – and if you don't, then you know you need to get better. But if you just dog it – what are you learning? That's my least-favorite excuse: 'I wasn't really trying.' Fuck you. Yeah, you were. You just lost."


Subtract the hair, six inches and the ability to remain silent for more than 15 seconds, and there's something Draperesque about Matthew Weiner. For starters, his slavish commitment to secrecy. In a time of teasers and instant spoilers, Weiner relishes keeping viewers in the dark. Part of it is to preserve the show's commercial value to the network. But mostly it's about just having fun as an entertainer. "It kills him when something gets leaked," says Moss. "The one time iTunes released an episode early, it was, like, suicide watch." It's not that he's controlling, she's quick to point out. "It's just that he wants everyone to enjoy the show exactly the way they're supposed to." She pauses to consider this. "Although that does sound very controlling..."

Weiner says there are consequences for any actor who lets a story line slip. "They signed a legal document," he says. "It's enforceable. We had an issue once and sort of went down that road – I won't talk about it. Sometimes they don't come back."

Slattery jokes that if Weiner could do all the jobs himself, he would. Weiner doesn't disagree. "Have you ever been driving a car and let go of the wheel?" Weiner says. "I kind of feel like it's a car and I've got to drive. Maybe that says a lot about me. But I'm afraid, whether it's rational or not, that if I relax, the show will be bad."

At this point in Mad Men's timeline, we're well into the late Sixties, when the ground beneath the country is starting to give way. Season Five ended in the spring of 1967. On the horizon in the months that follow: the Summer of Love, war protests at the White House, race riots, My Lai, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy and the 1968 Democratic Convention. In other words, a nation coming apart.

Weiner sees parallels with where we are [today. 'We're at a moment of very low self-esteem in this culture," he says. "There is a vision of who we are – the most powerful country in the world, the land of opportunity, the land of tolerance – and yet there's a revolution going on. There is painful inequality, painful injustice. We're having this disconnect where we think we're a certain way, and then we look in the mirror and we want to throw up."

Weiner says that disconnect will be big with Don this season as well. "Dick Whitman [Draper's birth name] is an unwanted child, an abused child, a coward, an opportunist and, on some level, a criminal. And Don Draper is handsome and successful and, even when he shows weakness, a shark. So what's that guy going to do when he knows the person inside is substandard? Is there anything to do, or does it just make you sick?"

One of the best things about Mad Men is the sidelong ways it tackles our culture. Weiner, who says he believes in "the cyclical nature of time," says this is intentional. "We keep making the same mistakes," he says. "For instance, you can't pick a year between 1960 and 1980 and not see it filled with gun violence. And yet no one's ever done shit about it. You'd think gun violence would be affected by the president being shot in the head. You'd think a Marine getting a rifle and shooting 45 people would have done something. But it didn't."

In the end, Weiner says, "We're living in a state of anxiety right now. And this season we're gonna turn up the heat on the anxiety."

"I've never looked at acting as therapy. It's not some deep psychological exercise. I don't sit there and think about my dead mom or whatever, and go, 'Oh, I'm sad.'"

"Johnny!" says Hamm. "Where's my drink?"

Hamm is on the soundstage now, about to shoot a scene at the office. He's yelling to Slattery, who's directing the episode. Most people on the set call Slattery "Slatts," which distinguishes him from Hamm. But Hamm is a little more flexible. "I call him John, I call him Slatty, I call him fuck-face," he says. 'We're fairly informal."

Walking onto the Mad Men set feels slightly disconcerting – like you just stepped out of a time machine that isn't working quite right. The period details are immaculate: the rotary phones with the numbers on the base (Don: KL5-0126); the hand-assembled herbal cigarettes that are perfect replicas of Old Golds, L&Ms and Kents; the bottles of fake whiskey that assistant prop master Johnny Youngblood has spent hours turning just the right shade of brown (six drops of food coloring for Glenlivet, 12 for Jack Daniel's). But there's also a poster board with a Super Bowl pool on it, and in between takes, everyone is on their phones. ("That was the biggest change between Seasons Three and Four," says Hendricks. "Everyone was calling their agent a lot more.") Keep in mind the next time you're watching: Don Draper might have an iPhone in his pants.

Hamm doesn't have much to do in this scene: He walks into the room holding a whiskey, and delivers a dozen or so words. But there's a moment where he has to react to what someone else says, and the way he does it is so wry and pitch-perfect that it's hard to imagine anyone else doing it as well. It sounds tautological, but Hamm really does make a perfect Don Draper.

"What he does is actually not easy," Moss says. "He sits there with a drink and a cigarette, not doing anything, and you can't take your eyes off him. Not everyone can do that." Slattery says he wanted to play Draper, but Weiner told him, "We already have that guy." He was bummed until the first day of shooting, when he realized, "Oh, wow. They really do have that guy."

Part of what people respond to about Hamm is that he's a throwback, a grownup. When Mad Men first aired, most of the stars in Hollywood were either the Apatovian man-child types, or villains of the dickish Bradley Cooper variety. "For our hero to be in such a classic mold was fascinating and mysterious," says Weiner. "Like, 'Where has that guy been? Did they build him in a lab?' We put Jon in the suit and cut his hair, and he went from being this very contemporary boyfriend type to, you know, Gregory Peck. There was this vibe coming off him – the physical embodiment of confidence. People saw authority. People saw glamour. Weirdly, a lot of people saw their fathers."

There's a famous story – which Hamm thinks is apocryphal – about how, after Hamm left his first audition, Weiner turned to the rest of the room and declared, "That man was not raised by his parents." Supposedly this made him a perfect fit for the orphaned Draper, whose mother died in childbirth and whose drunken father was killed by a kick from a horse. Hamm, too, lost both of his parents young: His mother died of abdominal cancer when he was 10, and his father died of diabetes a decade later.

Hamm went to therapy and spent some time on antidepressants, but otherwise weathered the heartbreak with Midwestern stoicism. Hamm talks often about how Draper is inspired partly by his dad, a gregarious salesman and small-business owner whom Hamm knew only later, when he was worn down by life. One moment in Season Three, when Draper, on a bender, is driving down the road and throws his empty glass out the window, letting it shatter in the street, was, Hamm says, "a dead pull from my life. Driving home after my 11th birthday, pulling into our subdivision, and he was finished. Even in 1982, it was like – come on, dude. I'm no legal expert – but that can't be OK." Hamm says he makes the comparison often "because it's easy"; but he also does it because it deflects the conversation from his own life.

Hamm is able to access parts of Draper ­– a kind of outward self-confidence mixed with self-loathing – that seem dredged up from somewhere deep within. He cops to a little bit of it: "There's a desperation there, and it ties into fear of dying and fear of becoming irrelevant and fear of losing whatever it is you have," he says. "He's managing this seismic change in the culture, trying to ride the wave, and in many ways, he's failing. What happens to me as an actor when no one wants to hire me? None of us are getting younger. You saw the same thing in Don when Betty left him – he was devastated. He says, 'I was surprised you ever loved me.' Because he's so self-loathing. In his mind, he's not worthy."

Weiner thinks playing Draper has given Hamm an outlet for issues he might not address otherwise. "None of us were attracted to show business because we were secure," Weiner says. "Jon's humility is not an affectation – it's because deep down, like anyone in this job, there's a lot of self-doubt and a lot of history that he'd like to rewrite. Him being able to exorcise his demons in this fictitious environment, as painful as it is, is a gift. The correlation between Jon and Don Draper is 100 percent – but lucky for us, it's happening on a stage with a net, and we can say, 'Cut.'"

Hamm, not surprisingly, disagrees with this analysis. "Matt is remarkably intuitive and wildly intelligent, and it's his job to be an observer of human nature," he says. "But I've never looked at acting as therapy. It's not some deep psychological exercise. I don't sit there and think about my dead mom or whatever, and go, 'Oh, I'm sad.' Unless everyone else is seeing something I'm not." He laughs. "But honestly, I don't think I'm exorcising demons in the same way Matt probably is. I mean – I don't write it."

If there's one thing you might think Hamm would feel confident about, it's his looks. One of his first roles was on Ally McBeal as "Gorgeous Guy at Bar," and when he guest-starred on 30 Rock, Liz Lemon compared him to a Disney prince. (Meanwhile, recalls 13-year-old Kiernan Shipka, who plays Don's daughter Sally, "I remember people coming up to me and going, 'Is he that gorgeous in real life?' And I was like, 'Uh, I'm eight.'") But according to Moss, who knows Hamm about as well as anyone on the show, he genuinely doesn't think he's handsome.

"I mean, of course he's going to say that," Moss says. "But I think he actually doesn't get it. I'm like, Are you insane?' But he's one of those people who's good-looking and smart and funny and talented, and I don't know if he fully gets that about himself. Which, thank God: If he ever realized how great he is, he'd be a fucking asshole."

A few weeks later, Hamm is at his neighborhood dive bar, watching his St. Louis Blues play the LA. Kings. He's dressed down in jeans and a cabbie cap, and ordering bottles of Bud from a waitress he calls "darlin'." (Hamm may be the only man in Hollywood under 50 who can call a waitress "darlin'" and pull it off.) After his second beer, he flags her down and puts in an order for wings - crispy, not too spicy. "And another round?" she asks.

"Might as well," says Hamm. "We're adults."

Hamm's been drinking at this bar through five different owners. No one bugs him, which might be part of why he likes it. The paparazzi know where he lives, and they'll sometimes ambush him and Westfeldt while they're out walking the dog or going to dinner. Lately they've been taking a lot of close-ups of his, well, manhood, which has earned an online following of its own. "Yeah, I'm familiar," Hamm says glumly. "Most of it's tongue-in-cheek, but it is a little rude. It just speaks to a broader freedom that people feel like they have – a prurience. They're called 'privates' for a reason. I'm wearing pants, for fuck's sake. Lay off. I mean, it's not like I'm a fucking lead miner. There are harder jobs in the world. But when people feel the freedom to create Tumblr accounts about my cock, I feel like that wasn't part of the deal." He takes another sip of Bud. "But whatever," he says. "I guess it's better than being called out for the opposite."

There's only one more season of Mad Men after this one, and the cast is already starting to think about what's next. Slattery wants to direct, maybe do some plays. Hendricks wants to get back to theater, too. Jones jokes that she might move to New Mexico and become a jewelry designer. And Kartheiser just seems depressed. ("I probably won't ever work again," he says. "Truly. It's OK.") As for Hamm, the consensus is he can do pretty much whatever he wants. This summer he's shooting a big Disney baseball movie – sort of a feel-good Moneyball in India, his first top-line role. For him the model would seem to be someone like George Clooney, who also broke through as a TV leading man well into his thirties. Hamm says he also likes Jeff Bridges: "He just seems to do it right."

In hindsight, last season on Mad Men was kind of an allegory for the show itself. As the agency got more successful, work threatened to poison personal lives. At the end of the season, Draper made a pitch to some executives at Dow Chemical that was bloodthirsty and cynical, even for him. "You're happy because you're successful – for now," he growled. "But what is happiness? It's a moment before you need more happiness."

"Jon could have gone nuts with what happened to him," says Weiner. "There's certainly a little misery that goes with success, and we put it in the show. Success is lonely. Your struggle has ended, but you don't trust it. You want to eat with both hands. Granted, Jon never did what Don did. But damn if he didn't feel it."

Back at the bar, "I Got You Babe" comes on the jukebox – it reminds me to ask what Westfeldt is up to. Just then, Hamm looks up. "Speak of the devil and the devil appears," he says. As if by magic, Westfeldt walks over, looking chic, and takes a seat on the next bar stool. She leans over and kisses Hamm on the cheek.

"I just went to see the new puppy," she tells Hamm. "Our friends got a new puppy. A golden retriever. Like, four months."

"So cute," says Hamm.

Hamm says he tries not to take Draper home with him. "But it does affect your headspace," he says. "I remember talking to James Gandolfini about the end of The Sopranos, and how emotionally exhausted he was. It's taxing, being that terrible for that long." Also, like Gandolfini, Hamm is aware that once you inhabit a character so iconic, that resonated so deeply in the American psyche, it can be a hard role to shed. "That's why I've approached my career as a constant veering away from Don Draper. The ladies' man, the lady-killer – we've seen that. I don't need to be that guy."

"And he's so versatile!" says Westfeldt. "Brilliant comedic actor." She rubs Hamm's back. "You can do anything."

"I can't do anything" says Hamm.

"You can do a lot of things."

Hamm smiles. "I can do more than one thing."

The two of them need to get to dinner, so Hamm excuses himself to use the restroom. Westfeldt takes the opportunity to talk about Hamm. After 15 years, she feels like she knows him pretty well – but she understands how other people might not. "There's just something old-fashioned about him," she says. "His closest people have always been his closest people. He met them in middle school, high school, a few after college. And I think that's lovely. I don't know if I have any secrets for you." She adds, "There are no secrets."

Just then Hamm returns from the bathroom. "Oh, there are secrets," he says, smiling. "But they're going to stay secret." Then he puts on his hat and takes Westfeldt's hand, and they head out together into the night.