Hamm on 'Mad Men's' End: 'The World Has Changed, But Don Draper Hasn't'

Don Draper may be beset by his own series of personal demons that may, in the final season of "Mad Men," finally bring him to his figurative knees. But for the guy who plays him, actor Jon Hamm, the end of the story of the complicated, carousing '60s-era ad exec is, as he puts it, the apogee of his creative career.

As the show begins to air its final run of episodes, Hamm sat down with a small circle of press to discuss his feelings -- but not spoilers -- about the end of one of television's finest and most fascinating dramas, including letting go of Don and the angst that infused the role and reviving himself through his many comedic sideroads.

What can we expect from the final episodes?

Jon Hamm: Well, I'm not allowed to say anything…

Come on, what are they going to do to you at this point?

Exactly -- make me not do press? I think big picture, Matthew was very clear in saying that he wanted what we're calling 7A and 7B, to be one cohesive story. And I think I can say with some degree of certainty -- I read all of them and acted in them -- that's true. When last we saw Don, he was watching Bert shuffle off this mortal coil. We ended up with [Bert singing] "The Best Things in Life are Free." And I think that, very clearly and obviously, it was chosen for a reason. And I think Don -- to say that to a person who makes his living in advertising is pretty clearly a lesson, or meant to be a lesson. So big picture, we'll see how that lesson is learned or if it is. That's as cryptic as I can be.

Did you have favorite arcs over the years?

Yes, is the short answer. I've had so much. I've said this before, and I think it bears repeating: This has been the single creative apogee of my creative experience in my life. Not a lot of people in my business get to work this long on something that they can be this proud of. And that's good, bad and indifferent, I mean, the stuff that I've enjoyed and the stuff that's been really hard, it's been an acting decathlon in many ways. And that's part of being the lead on a show is you have to do all colors of the rainbow, but it's also, that's the dream.

This will be 20 years that I've been in Los Angeles. I got here in 1995, and if you would have told me 20 years ago when I drove down the 5 through the Tejon Pass in my 1986 Corolla Toyota that was overheating so I had to literally turn on the heat and put it in neutral to coast down the Tejon Pass on the 5 -- it was a fuse problem, you guys; just a bad fuse -- that in 20 years I would be sitting here talking about this, I would have been over the moon.

No one gets to have this experience. Very few people get to have this experience. And I can only look back on it with gratitude and humility and be very pleased that I made the decision very early on to give myself over to this completely and listen as much as I talked and absorb as much as I put out. And I think that's a pretty good lesson to anybody starting out and getting your feet wet in this career. If you spend your life talking, you're going to miss a lot. So sometimes, it's better to listen.

Don can be both despicable and really likable. What's been the biggest challenge of playing both of those at once?

Making him human and keeping him human. I think a lot of people in all of our lives can be despicable, and sometimes you have to work with those people, deal with those people, manage those people, handle those people in some way. Then you have to understand that that's part of being a human being, is sometimes being in a shitty mood and having a bad day, having a bad week. And part of being an adult is not judging everyone immediately on their first impressions and managing kind of their expectation there.

So you're correct in saying that Don has been a lot of things to a lot of people, and not all of them good. And my hope for Don is always that this incredibly troubled man, this incredibly talented yet incredibly troubled man, would find balance in his life, would find peace in his life. And hopefully, he does.

Can you talk about who you were the first day you showed up to play [Don], and who you are coming out of it?

Have you ever seen like a puppy when, like, somebody rings a doorbell? And they kind of wag all of their bodies, and they pee on the floor. There's such a mixture of excitement and terror and awe and wonder and hope and fear, all going on at once. I've never been that much of a tail-wagger, so to speak, but I was vibrating on the first day of school, so to speak. Because getting there was such a journey. I had to audition seven, eight times. This has all become apocryphal at this time, but a long, long time of, "Well, maybe," and, "We'll see," and, "But..." and, "There's also this," and, "Maybe not." And at every stage of that, if you have one shitty audition, they go, "Never mind." And you have five good ones and one bad one, they go, "Buh-bye" and they pull the thing and there you go. So I was able to wiggle my way through that somehow and get the job.

And then they said, "Great!" And they're measuring you for the thing, and they're like, "Okay. We're building shirts for you. And this is the tie." And you're like, "Oh, my God. Now, I have to do this! So that part of it is, you're looking at this thing, and you're just like, please, don't let me fuck this up. Please, just be present, be good, be real. And you have to kind of subvert all of that energy and push it into a cohesive kind of force that then becomes believable in a way. And that gets easier to do because you spend more time in this person's head and this person's shoes and this person's life and this person's office and house.

And round about Season Four or Five was when that first day of school feeling started to go away, I at least felt like a senior. I didn't feel like a freshman going, "Does anyone want to sit with me at lunch? Where's home room?" At least at a certain point, you start to get a little more [comfortable] -- at least that feeling goes away a little quicker.

Did you feel good walking out, that those experiences added up to something?

Absolutely. Again, it's such a complete -- I haven't had this experience, either. I don't know if many people have, even in our cast. But to have the experience of completing something is a rare thing in this business. Sometimes they pull the plug. Sometimes they're like, "Sorry. Didn't work. Thirteen and out," whatever it is. You go, "But we had fun. Episode Fourteen was going to be really good..." You don't get it. But to be able to know that whenever it was that Matt finalized his deal with the show and the network and the studio and the blah, blah, blah, blah, to say, "Okay. Here's the end point. We know that's what it's going to be."

And it wasn't in two episodes. It was in like two seasons or three seasons, whatever it was. To give that guy that kind of time to say, "Okay. Now, I can write. Now, I can figure out how I want to land this plane and where I want to land this plane" is a really wonderful luxury. And certainly nothing I've had the experience to do before. So I felt all of the feelings from the beginning of the day released into like, oh, we did it. We did it. High-five.

Having been part of something so phenomenal, do you feel like you're ruined for life as far as scripts go?

No. I don't feel ruined. As you guys well know, working in this industry at this time, there are so many good things out there, and so many talented people are getting the opportunity to do really creative, out-of-the-box things. Whether it's on Netflix, which again, if you think about when we started in 2006, we shot the pilot -- Netflix was delivered to your mailbox. There was no streaming. It wasn't possible. We didn't have iPhones. We didn't have any of that. It was all different back then. And now, it's this crazy multimedia platform landscape, On Demand, all this stuff. There's so much out there.

The bad version of that is that there's a lot of noise, and there's a lot of things you've got to sift through. And maybe you don't like everything. But the good news is there's a lot of really creative people that are getting a shot. Younger people that would have never -- they would have been toiling away in a writers' room for 20 years trying to get their shot to get their pilot on the air somehow, are now getting deals. Beau Willimon [creator of "House of Cards"] was one of my students when I was a teacher in St. Louis, Missouri. He's running a show! And a great show! And you're like, holy shit! You played Hamlet in "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern." And again, he was very talented as a 17-year-old. And Ellie Kemper, same thing. She's a talented 15-year-old. Now, I'm in her show ["Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt"]. It's bananas. But it's wonderful, too.

I mean, Jesus, look at "Too Many Cooks!" Somebody did that. That doesn't happen in a weekend. Somebody put pen to paper and put production schedule with 500 setups in it in this incredibly intricate, weird thing that they knew no one was going to watch. It was on at 4 in the morning on Adult Swim. They knew no one was going to see it, and yet it became this phenomenon because it's fascinating. And it's funny and it's good. And it's different and it's original. So there's a landscape out there now where the different, the creative, the original, can get seen by a critical mass of people. So do I feel spoiled? No. I feel excited.

Don has really adapted to the different media. So how would Don handle the Internet?

Not well. I don't think anybody's handling it really well right now.…Not a lot of 90-year-olds are super savvy on the Internet, to be fair. That's legit. What's this "web?" Give me a broom! So I think that's still being figured out day to day. I think if you look at the tentative movement that even giant corporations are having in maximizing the web and all this stuff, there's a lot of people wasting a lot of money on stuff that doesn't work. And you think, "Whoops -- that was a billion dollars that maybe could have been better spent, like building schools or maybe a bridge that doesn't fall down." There's a lot of things that that money could be used for that might have a little more purpose in everyone's day to day life.

And yet, isn't it more fun to have an app that you can see somebody's butt in real time or whatever version that is that's sold for a billion dollars that two kids can now go rent a boat and throw stink bombs off of in the Mediterranean. Okay. I guess. Look, it's what the market will bear. I can't be mad at it, but it's a curious state of prioritization when that's the case. So I don't know, honestly.

I think when you look at what Don's place was starting the show and leaving the show, I don't think it's a mistake when you see the beginning of last season, season 7A, I guess we're calling it, was this bright colors and this vibrant thing. This montage of all this beautiful stuff. And you see this solitary, gray, figure kind of moving through it. He hasn't changed much. The world has, but he hasn't.

In the first episode, it seems like he's got a little bit less weight on his shoulders, but also, everybody else has embraced the period. Don's still dressing the same. Is he kind of the last holdout on that?

Don, as much as he's a creature that's survived by adapting, he may have reached the limits of his adaptation too. I think there's a lot of that. I don't know if I would agree that he doesn't have a lot of weight on his shoulders at this point. The first episode's pretty [Exhales heavily] Aahh...

There are moments, too, where it looks like he's enjoying his life.

Yes. And I think that he's also wise enough and aware enough to go, like, what's next? I think, again, if I'm looking back to a couple cues, at the end of season 7A, he says, "The Best Things in Life Are Free." At the beginning of season 7B, he says, "Is That All There Is?" I don't think the irony is lost on anybody on that.

Last year's run of episodes ended with that musical number. And this premiere, there's that dream sequence. Is it interesting for you that the show is sometimes metaphysical and surreal?

Yes. I think it is interesting. It's a very tricky tone to capture, and a tricky line to walk. But Matthew's always been interested in that. And I think he's been consistent in his treatment in jumping around in time, whether it's been seasons. Wondering, what year is it? That's never been a question. What year is it? It's the day after the trial that ended last year. That's normally the answer. But we've established that -- we'll see. It might be 1978. It might start on the set of "Jaws."[Whispers] It doesn't. But if you look over the history of the show, those things are well established, and Matthew's fascination with the metaphysical and the spiritual and things like that are a very important part of the show too.

This is a person who, in many ways, is very spiritually bereft and is searching for something. And you see it when he goes to California. And you see various versions of Tarot and tea leaves and a lot of things that are these kind of -- ghosts are a big thing. Flashbacks to his past are a big thing. His own mind, when we see how that works, and where his creativity springs from in many ways. So he may not be the most in tune with it, but he's very aware of it. And Matt's been very capable, I think, in riding that dial to where it doesn't get laughable, where you're like, "Oh, great. The swami is saying, 'breathe deep into the thing.'" We're not into that head space just yet. But I think that's meaningful to a lot of people.

The heaviness of Don, how is that, to walk around in his shoes for so long. And were your comedy roles outside of the show an antidote to a lot of that?

Ah, yes. Second question first. And it's not easy to maintain that head space for a long time. It's challenging. It can be challenging and interesting as an actor. But I can only imagine, if you're playing "Long Day's Journey into Night" and you're going into your third year, you'd probably be a little bummed out every night going, "Gee, another thing…" But it doesn't mean it's not a beautiful play, and it doesn't mean it's not a wonderful couple of roles for actors. But it's heavy. It's heavy. It slumps your shoulders, and it's a lot of weight to carry. And you want to go home. And you want to wash it off and leave it at work. And I've been fairly capable in doing that.

And certainly able to go and do some of the goofiest shit on the planet with other people, which is also really nice to do. And I've been fortunate enough to be asked to. I'm not a writer. I wish I could write. I can barely make my way through a text without any Emojis. So I'm fascinated by people who have that creative capacity, whether it's Tina [Fey] and Robert [Carlock] or Kristen [Wiig] and Annie [Mumolo] or whoever -- most recently, David Wain and Michael Showalter with their incredible redo of "Wet Hot [American Summer]," which is one of the funniest things I've read and they've kindly asked me to be a part of. So yes, is the answer. It's fun to be able to do that stuff, because it's so goofy and dumb. And fortunately, there's chocolate and vanilla. You have both sides of the buffet to eat from.

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