'Mad Men's Jon Hamm Says Goodbye to Don Draper

The actor reflects on an iconic role, meeting James Gandolfini and the beginning of the end

Jon Hamm Don Draper Mad Men
Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC
Jon Hamm as Don Draper on 'Mad Men.'
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In the final episode of Mad Men's sixth season, Don Draper had hit an all-time low – losing (or on the verge of losing) everything that was important to him. As Draper's epic journey turns toward the homestretch, with the seventh and final season kicking off this Sunday on AMC, we reached out to Jon Hamm, who opened up about what's next for his character, the lessons he learned from James Gandolfini and why Mad Men kind of really is all about Peggy.

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Can you tell me a little about where Don is? Last season, he lost or damaged a lot of things that were important to him – his job, his marriage, his relationship with his children. But the very last scene of the last episode ends with note of optimism – and a sense that he's had an epiphany that feels different than the previous ones that didn't really change his behavior. 
[Laughs]

How do you see that?
Well, I think it's true. When we last saw Don, he was not in great shape. He was essentially unemployed, his marriage was not great, his relationship with his daughter in particular was fraught. The last scene that you're talking about at least gave us a sort of glimmer of hope that perhaps he understood the severity of his situation. But we've seen Don in similar circumstances before, and sometimes he's able to get out of the fire without causing too much damage. I think this time he wasn't able to do that, and he recognized that, and realized that it's time to take some serious stock in his life.

So I think that's a pretty good jumping-off point from where we start in Season Seven. He's gotta clean up a lot of mess, and take responsibility for it, but also try to do it with as little fallout as he possibly can. He's not a very skilled surgeon. He's sometimes a bit more of a bull in a china shop. So I think that might prove very tricky for Don.

Something that Matthew Weiner said recently is that the story is all somehow going on in Don Draper's mind. What do you think he meant by that? 
I mean, I think there's a couple ways to look at the show. If you're looking at from a certain viewpoint, then obviously Don is the protagonist of the main story. I think you can also look at it as, concurrently, a story about Peggy. I don't think it's a mistake that the whole show starts on Peggy's first day, and watching her grow has been just as interesting, if not more interesting, than watching Don's decline. I think Don is aware of that as well. I think we saw that when Peggy went to leave on her own, and we saw it last year when we saw Peggy sort of assume Don's place at the agency.

Right.
So I don't think it's going to turn into a memory play all of a sudden. I don't think we're going to have a Dallas-style revelation – it was all a dream! I don't think it's all going on in Don's mind in that literal sense. I certainly hope not; I can't speak for Matthew. But I do think that we are, as we go down this trip, we're very much aware of Don's reactions to the world changing around him, and very often being left on the wrong side of those changes. 

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One of the other things that seemed significant about the last episode of the previous season is that most of the characters who are parents have an important moment with their children. For Don most significantly, it seemed to imply that the responsibilities of parenthood are something that he had lost, and was finding. Is there something to that?
I think the thing the show tries to remind everyone of is that the responsibility of parenthood doesn't go away, ever. I think you can see that, obviously, in Don's relationship with his kids, and in Pete's relationship with Trudy and Tammy. Even in Peggy's sort of wistfulness about her decision to give up her child. All of our characters are being reminded that, as kids are grow up and the world changes, their relationships with their children…they don't go away. You can pay as little or as much attention as you want to them, but they're always going to be there. Don doesn't give them the correct amount of attention as he should, but I think he's learning that lesson, hopefully not too late.

What has this very intense experience of being in almost every scene of 90-something episodes of television been like? 
I've made this comparison a lot, it's not like we're doing any kind of back-breaking labor, but there is a mental acuity that needs to be there constantly. And it is forever. If you aren't 100% committed 100% of the time, it's going to show. The first thing I think about when I come in to work, and the last thing I think about when I take off the suit, is "I hope I gave as much as I could. I don't want to leave anything in the tank." And when you come to the end of a show like this, you really don't want to leave anything in the tank.

Did you ever get a chance to meet or talk to James Gandolfini? He's one of the only people who's had a job to that is a lot like your job. 
I did…I knew Jimmy relatively well. I don't think we were friends – I wouldn't call him up and talk to him or anything like that. But I'd meet him at awards shows and out at the theater, here and there. He was incredible gregarious, always very friendly, and always very understanding of the difficulties in portraying somebody like this.

I know he had tremendous difficulty, many years running, playing Tony Soprano, and the psychic toll that that took on him. I know Bryan [Cranston] had the same thing with Walter White, and Lizzie [Moss] had a version of it with playing Robin Griffin in Top Of the Lake. Anybody that gets that deep into a character that can get that dark is challenged by it, in many, many ways.

Jimmy was, and is, a tremendous force in our community…his loss is felt, you know? He's gone too soon, and I look to him as a tremendous inspiration in everything I do. We shot with most of The Sopranos´ crew, during their second-to-last and last season, right next to their sets. So our show has a lot of their DNA in it, and that wasn't lost on Jimmy or David Chase. They've been tremendously supportive of Matthew and myself and the show. It's appreciated.

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Have you ever given any thought to what Don Draper would be doing now? Or if he would even make it this far? 
[Laughs] I'd like to hope that he would be alive, and I would like to hope that he would find … I say this about Don a lot. I hope that he would be able to find some measure of peace in his life. He's a tremendously damaged individual, and that damage tends to radiate outward from him. And often the collateral damage is as bad or worse than the original damage.

So I hope that the guy would be able to find some serenity, some peace, some happiness, and some stability in what has been for him a pretty unstable life – a couple of decades, a pretty rough patch. That would be my lasting hope, for the guy.