Jon Hamm has had plenty of memorable moments in his career, particularly during the seven seasons he played charismatic ad executive Don Draper on Mad Men. But his first day of filming Top Gun: Maverick — where he plays Beau “Cyclone” Simpson, the current head of the Top Gun flight school and a skeptic of Tom Cruise’s Pete “Maverick” Mitchell — is definitely up there.
“It’s a memory that I’ll never forget,” said Hamm. “Because I remember walking onto the set for the first day, and I’m in my Navy gear, in my very crisp officer’s uniform, and on an active naval base in San Diego. And walking onto set, there was a huge American flag. Everybody’s sitting in their chairs. And I see Tom Cruise and I’m just like, ‘Whoa, this is actually happening. This is very, very cool.’ And he came up to me with his million-dollar smile and said, ‘We’re so glad to have you. This is going to be so fun. I can’t wait.'”
It has been a longer wait than anyone expected. Production on Top Gun: Maverick began four years ago, but the film’s release date has been pushed back multiple times due to Covid. Hamm had some waits of his own during the pandemic. He turned 50 in the spring of 2021 but couldn’t have a big celebration at the time. He spoke with Rolling Stone for the Last Word interview earlier this spring, right before heading out on a multinational European vacation with his girlfriend, actress Anna Osceola — a belated milestone-birthday gift to himself. With Maverick hitting theaters on May 27, Hamm talked about the challenges of playing the authority figure who doesn’t trust Maverick, his goals for his career post-Mad Men, the time he shoplifted all the Fletch novels from his local Waldenbooks, and a lot more.
You were 15 when Top Gun came out. What did you think of it?
I did multiple viewings. And that also coincided with the golden age of home video, as well. So the copy of it at the local video store was pretty worn out, too. It was a very big, important movie for kids my age at that time.
Because it was so cool. I mean, there weren’t a lot of movies like it. Tom Cruise was in that sweet spot of being twentysomething years old. I mean, he was great looking. He was an amazing actor. We all saw the writing on the wall as to what he was about to become. And then you had Val Kilmer, Anthony Edwards, Tom Skerritt. You had a pretty, pretty solid lineup. You had a young Meg Ryan in a very small role. It was just a cool movie that really somehow tapped into that Reagan-era zeitgeist of being a little jingoistic, but not too much to where it hits you over the head. And obviously, the overarching vibe of the way that movie looked was just to make it look cool. I mean, it seemed like every shot was at sunset and everybody was sweating just enough to look extra awesome.
Were you Team Maverick or Team Iceman?
Obviously, Tom Cruise is who you want to be. You want to be Maverick. You don’t want to be Iceman. But it’s funny, I just watched that documentary on Val Kilmer’s life, and just watching him go through his whole life and his career and how young he was and how important that was for him, too, and how good he was in the film. … He’s a genuinely believable kind of heel, even though he’s playing kind of both sides of the equation. It’s a really great performance that he brings to it as well.
What are the challenges in playing the character who disapproves of the guy everyone’s coming back to root for?
Part of it is in the writing. There’s very much a sensibility that makes sense, that is sort of seriously believable. His questions to Maverick are real. Like, “What are you doing? Why are you still a captain in the Navy? You should have been running things by now. And what’s your damage? What’s your malfunction?” And we obviously know that Maverick, by definition, has an anti-authoritarian streak. His call sign is not Go Along to Get Along, it’s Maverick. From my standpoint, to be able to play the guy whose incredulity at Pete Mitchell’s capacity to succeed in this mission, it made sense. I’m a little bit younger than Tom and my character has risen through the ranks in a way that Tom’s hasn’t, and it’s like, “I’m who you’re supposed to be. And yet you’re still here doing grunt work.”
You’re an actor, and a role is a role, but given how important the movie was to you when you were younger, did you have any concern of, “Do I want to play the jerk who tells Maverick he’s washed up?”
No, honestly, because there’s also a second level to it in my character. There is what becomes of begrudging respect. Part of it was in Tom Skerritt’s character in the first one, where you’d see, like, “OK, this guy, he’s got a job to do. He’s got to train these guys. And he can see a lot of himself in Maverick.” And it’s all baked into the script in that way. So, Cyclone does eventually come around and kind of get that “OK, Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell’s skillset is a pretty unique one, and it’s something to be valued, for sure.”
As Mad Men was winding down, what did you want your career afterward to look like?
You have this legacy, right? That never goes away. So mostly, it’s, “What do you want to make of the rest of it?” I’ve had an incredibly fortunate run, and to get to do things that I’ve always wanted to do, like be in a Top Gun movie, host SNL, work with people whose work I totally respect, like Tina Fey and Amy Poehler and Kristen Wiig. … I’m not chasing accolades or anything like that. I’ve had my fair share, and I feel like I earned them. Mostly, I just want to do things that I would want to go see.
You became famous for drama, but you go out of your way to do a lot of comedy.
It always feels nice to be invited to play in that sandbox. Whether it’s Tina Fey or Larry David or Bill Hader, those people are all operating at a very high level. I just got off a podcast with Dana Carvey and David Spade, and I’m like, “Oh, my God. I watched you guys from my friend’s basement.” It’s the Sally Field thing, right? “You actually like me. That’s very cool. Thank you.”
Do you think your looks have limited the amount of opportunities you’ve gotten to work in comedy? Are there downsides to being Jon Hamm and wanting to be funny, as opposed to being Carvey or Spade?
I mean, I don’t know. Paul Newman’s pretty handsome. He was pretty funny. I don’t necessarily think that there’s a barrier to entry, so to speak. And I’ve seen David out and about in the world. He’s doing just fine. I’m not worried about him. But I’m pleased to have some kind of credibility in that world.
Ever since I moved to L.A. in 1995, I was really plugged into the comedy circuit here. I’m kind of an only child, or at least while my mom was alive — my half-sisters lived with my dad — and I would go to the library and check out the record albums that were comedy records, and to my mother’s consternation it was Richard Pryor and Cheech and Chong, and stuff that wasn’t the most appropriate for a nine-year-old boy. But I thought it was so funny. I’m sure that I didn’t get half of the jokes, but I got the pace and I got the rhythms and I knew that was what jokes sounded like. And I was very aware that those people put a lot of time into constructing that and telling that joke and how that comes across. And even guys like Bob Newhart and the Smothers Brothers, you could tell that there was a rhythm there. It was almost like a magic trick. Then when I got into Steve Martin, and then later Eddie Murphy, and the big kind of arena comics of the Seventies and Eighties, it was just like, “Oh, man, these guys are at another level.”
What did you do to pay the bills before you started acting regularly?
Anything I could. My first steady gig was at a restaurant down in Venice. Within a few weeks of me starting, Darren [Pettie], the guy who worked the raw bar, was quitting to go to Juilliard, and suggested I do his job. I don’t hear from him until I’m shooting day one of the pilot of Mad Men, where he played [Sterling Cooper client] Lee Garner Jr. We saw each other in the makeup trailer, and he goes, “Who are you playing?” And I said, “Don Draper.” He goes, “[Long pause] Oh, my God, that’s great.”
Your mother died when you were 10, and your father died when you were 20. Have you ever thought about whether you would have moved out to L.A. to become an actor if one or both of your parents had still been around?
I think about it quite a lot. It’s the sliding doors of it all, right? Mostly I think about it in the sense that I wish they could see what I’ve been able to make out of my life. But I have my aunt, my uncle, and my other aunt. And I have extended family that have gotten to experience this with me, and my sisters, and my nieces, and my great-nephews and great-nieces. But, yeah, your mom and dad are your mom and dad. There’s never a good time to lose a parent. But, yeah. I’ve got pictures.
You’re playing Fletch in a new movie. When did you first encounter the character?
I saw the Chevy Chase movie, and it said in the credits it was based on a book. I went to Waldenbooks in the mall, and they had half a row of all the books in the series on a shelf. I just thought, “Oh, man, are you kidding me? I need eight of this!” I didn’t have any money, so I shoplifted them. I think the statute of limitations has run out, but I owe Waldenbooks $35 plus interest.
What’s the best advice anyone ever gave you?
Show up on time and be prepared. That was my high school acting teacher. And I can’t say that I’ve always done that, but I am a ridiculously punctual person. Those two things are pretty good lessons, not just for actors, but for anybody, to really be cognizant of other people’s time and be aware of your own as well. Demand what you need. And there’s a right way and wrong way of doing a lot of things; try to always be on the right side of that collision.