With AMC’s award-winning series Mad Men returning Sunday night, I recently had the chance to participate in a roundtable interview with Jon Hamm. Since the cast is always guarded when talking about upcoming storylines, most of the interview covered the big storylines of last season, his reaction to reading the script for the season 6 premiere, the meaning behind the new poster, Don’s attraction to Megan, the challenges of directing and acting with the tight schedule, how much Matthew Weiner tells him about the season, and a lot more. Hit the jump to either read or listen to what Hamm had to say.
Before going any further…spoilers from previous seasons are discussed during this interview. In addition, some minor plot points from the season six premiere are discussed, but nothing that would ruin the episode. However, if you want to be spoiler free, I suggest reading this after the premiere.
If you’d like to listen to the audio of this interview, click here. Otherwise the full transcript is below. Look for another Mad Men interview tomorrow night.
JON HAMM: Great. I can tell you everything about Season 5.
I do want to start by asking what were the big — obviously, [showruner] Matt [Weiner] tells you a lot, but what were the big surprises? Or does he tell you a lot?
HAMM: I get more information than most I guess is the better way to say it. At least more than most of the actors I think. Obviously the writers are in the room so they know, they see the board, they see how it all progresses, they have to, they have to write it. But I get a lot of information. I’m used as a sounding board on a lot of the stuff as well, I think effectively. There was a lot that was a surprise for me.
What were the twists and turns of the season that really, you were like ‘Wow!’
HAMM: Lane’s situation was a significant surprise, I think to a lot of people. I think Don’s fidelity honestly was surprising to a lot of people. Again not necessarily me, but it was I think an interesting way to move to progress the series and the character forward. And then of course set up the last two seasons and see what happens because of those developments.
What was your reaction to the script this season for the first episode?
HAMM: Number one, I was glad I didn’t have a lot of lines. I didn’t have a lot to memorize. It was interesting for me. Where we left off Season 5 with the question ‘Are you alone?’ It’s a different question than ‘Are you single?’ It’s a different question than ‘Are you lonely?’ And it’s a different question than ‘Are you with anyone?’ It’s ‘Are you alone?’ What does that mean? The reason we don’t get an answer to that is because there’s a lot of different meanings to that. We open with a man sitting in paradise reading about hell. And I think that’s an interesting juxtaposition. We see it in the key art and as the season progresses you’ll see a lot of dualities and two sides of this person. We also ended last season with Don walking out of the light and into the shadow. We saw Don leaving Megan in the spotlight and retreating to the shadow. I think that’s significant. So I think that and I think where we’re at in the ’60s and where we’re at in the culture at large — not just United States culture but world culture — it’s such a turbulent time. I think that that all serves to add depth to this story and to this man’s journey. How is he going to navigate these increasingly choppy waters?
You can’t talk much about this season but the advertising for this season is very interesting. The one poster that’s been out there, are there any clues in there?
HAMM: Well, I think the central motif of it obviously is these two versions of this one man crossing. Both central, but which one are we supposed to be following? One of them is with somebody and one of them is not. I think that shouldn’t be lost on people. One of them has a briefcase in his hand, one of them doesn’t. It’s a very rich image.
HAMM: There’s a one way, there’s a stop sign, there’s a lot of things. Those aren’t mistakes. If you guys have talked to Matthew you realize that he doesn’t say ‘Let’s put 12 tape recorders out here because 12 is a fun number!’ No, he says ‘Let’s put seven, because we need seven.’ He thinks about these things. He’s very involved in that. Matt was very involved in the choosing of this particular image and finding the artist he wanted. He wanted this specific style of art. I think somebody said ‘You know that guy’s still alive. Why not have him do it?’
He’s been doing it for 50 years.
HAMM: Yeah, it’s amazing. And honestly that’s an amazing opportunity to have that person come and contribute his vision to the show. When I saw it I was like ‘Whoa’. Because it’s so different also from our normal stylistic kind of cues which are very graphic and very sparse. This is chaotic and different and in may ways kind of suggests the world we’re moving into. Bright colors and crazy tones and a lot going on.
There’s a big disparity between where Peggy was headed and where Don was headed in the last season as far as her becoming more — I don’t want to say more hip — but more in the know. It looked like people like Don and Pete were challenged by this new political hipper maybe going into a Beatnik sort of mentality. Without saying anything does that continue, that disparity of attitude?
HAMM: Part of what we’re continually exploring is time doesn’t stand still for any of us, unfortunately. The longer you survive in any industry the more you run the risk of facing irrelevance. As you grow older and the next generation comes up, you find yourself out of step with music or popular culture or movies or TV or cinema or whatever because you’re old and you have shit to do. You have a life. Teenagers are built to consume popular culture. That’s all they have time for because that’s all they care about. This was the time at which that market segment just became the only market segment that was being appealed to. We’re still in that world. The majority of feature films these days are pitched to 14 year olds. They just are, whether it’s Twilight or Transformers or whatever these huge franchises, millions and millions and millions of dollars because they’re the ones that see it. They buy the toys, they buy the books, they buy the magazines, they buy the posters, they buy the ancillary stuff. That’s not new. So Don when he has people like Ginsberg and Peggy and Stan and this sort of younger generation, surrounded by them, realizes that’s an asset. I think that’s a big part of why losing Peggy was a particularly difficult goodbye. But obviously Peggy needed that. I think that is a difficult challenge for Don to find that relevance, to find that place. Or to accept the older patriarchal executive place in that world.
HAMM: I think that’s everybody’s challenge. Whether you’re Tom Brady or whether you’re… there’s always somebody younger hungrier that’s gunning for your job. They may not have the skill set that you have or the experience that you have but there’s always somebody else.
Or Alex Smith.
Do you think part of his attraction to Megan was that she was part of this younger generation and he could learn from that?
HAMM: Uh, yeah, I think honestly part of Season 5’s hiccup was that Don and Megan were this dynamic duo at the office and then he realized that she didn’t want it. ‘But you’re so good at it, why wouldn’t you? It’s the greatest job ever!’ ‘Not for me, for you.’ That’s a hiccup for him. She says, ‘I wanna go do that.’ ‘Why on earth would you want to give all this up?’ Because it’s not her dream. It’s Don’s dream. I think navigating that was a tricky thing. He says to her at one point, ‘You want to be somebody’s discovery, you don’t want to be somebody’s favor.’ That’s a big realization and I think a big thing for Don to do — letting that go.
If you could give Don advice, what advice would you give him?
HAMM: Oh Lord. I’ll answer that question by answering a different question but hopefully it’ll make sense. It’s more like ‘What do I wish for Don?’ I think there’s a world a resolution to his issues where I wish for him to find peace and or balance and or happiness. I think Don’s life has been one out of balance for quite some time. Not to get too Life of Pi on anyone here — which was an excellent film by the way, if you haven’t seen it please do — we find out more in Season 6 about why Don is how he is. And why Don does what he does. His house is built on a week foundation. He’s a fundamentally damaged and broken guy. I guess I would wish for him or I would advise him to fix that foundation. And then work on the house. Don’t work on the house first. Work on the foundation first. I hope that was cryptic enough.
Speaking of cryptic. Last season I remember our roundtable because you were talking about the poster for last season and you were like ‘You’ll find out soon enough what it means’ and of course it was the Joan episode. So now I’m excited about — Are you messing with us? Or is it just part of the job?
HAMM: You know what, I think I’ve said this before but I find it interesting that we’ve become the standard bearer for this idea of being secretive. I’m a TV fan, I watch a lot of TV shows and I don’t see anybody talk about their season at the beginning of the season.
HAMM: No one does. Like they came out on Homeland and said ‘Oh yeah, by the way, here’s how it’s gonna end. Tune in!’ And yet we’re the kind of people who are known as the cryptic secret keepers of all time. Obviously part of experiencing television especially in the media landscape that we live in now is that it’s so easy to have the experience be spoiled. You click on the wrong link or you’re reading a thing about maybe there’s gonna be an Arrested Development movie and you look on the other links and you see Mad Men. You go, ‘Oh Mad Men!’ Click. And there’s an episode summary and you go, ‘No I haven’t seen that! What happened! I didn’t want to know that! I just wanted to know about the Bluths.’ It’s so easy to disseminate that information instantly and globally. We just try to be careful. We just try to be as careful as we can because we don’t want anybody that wants it to not have that experience of seeing it at their own pace. You can watch TV on your phone now and you can watch it in your car — Please don’t by the way. I’ve actually seen that and I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me? Are you kidding me?’ Driving a car and watching a television show. — it’s personal for people.
I think people that like the show like the show and they want to watch it how they want to watch it. Some people come to the show late. I was a late adopter of The Wire. I started with Season 5 and then I watched Seasons 1-4 on my phone on a movie set over the course of about two weeks. It didn’t lessen the experience for me because I hadn’t read anything. And this was in a pre-Twitter era, I think for me. Which I still am in a pre-Twitter era. It was just as real for me because I’d heard that it was great but never heard any of the specifics. I think we can hope people come to this show however they come to it but they get to experience it without it being spoon-fed to them or told, ‘You have to watch this one and then this one! This is why this means something!’ Who wants that? Then it’s like homework. Then it’s like you gotta do your popular culture studies homework or something and write a paper about it. Nobody, I don’t think, other than people who get paid to do it…
HAMM: Most people don’t sit at their television and take notes. Most people. The vast majority of the television audience doesn’t sit and take notes on television. You guys get paychecks, that’s different.
You mentioned Lane’s death last season. I think it really hit Don pretty hard and he had a lot of guilt around it as well. Do we see that lingering with him as we go on? I noticed the firm is still called Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, without giving anything away.
HAMM: With a couple of the big events in Don’s life that have ended badly or opposite the way he wanted them to end — I’m thinking specifically of his brother’s suicide, Lane’s suicide and Joan’s decision last season — Don had the capacity to change those things and tried. He gave his brother money and said ‘Take this money, get away from all of that and all of this. This will help. Go live your life. I can’t be a part of it but do that.’ And the brother went left and went the other way and ended his life. That sat very heavily on Don. With Joan’s situation: ‘Joan, you don’t have to do this. I will win this account. Please don’t do this. I told everybody that we’re not OK with this.’ Unbeknownst to him it had already happened, but he had the best intentions. He finds out later that it didn’t matter. That sat very heavily on him. And then with Lane, he finds that Lane is doing this, he initially covers for him with Cooper and says ‘No, no, no, it was me. I fucked something up, don’t worry about it.’ Confronts Lane, says, ‘Here’s your way out. You can’t be here but there’s a way out of this, trust me. It’s easy to start over. I’ve done it a million times. You will be fine.’ And Lane doesn’t take his advice. I think it does resonate in his life that he in a lot of situations is very good at convincing people to do what he wants and in these three particular life-altering situations he couldn’t. That’s an interesting observation I think.
HAMM: It’s the best one.
Talk a little bit about directing this season and the challenges of directing and acting and the schedule.
HAMM: Directing had been brought up to me at the end of Season 3. I said, ‘No, thank you.’ During the time between then and now I saw John Slattery do it very capably, I saw Ben Affleck do it also very capably and I saw Jennifer Westfeldt do it also very capably. I’m talking about acting and directing at the same time. So I thought, ‘OK I have now seen a couple of examples of this in action and I think I might be a little bit more prepared for the responsibilities of this.’ And I did it last season. And I did it again this season. And it was as interesting to me this season — I had a lot more to do in my episode this season as an actor. It was sort of a degree of difficulty more challenging in that respect. You are completely of two minds on set. It’s a very very difficult mindset to stay in. You’re watching one thing as a director and especially if you’re in the scene you’re watching one thing as an actor. I remember doing scenes with Ben on The Town where I would be like ‘Wow, you are totally watching me as a director right now and not as an actor.’ It’s a very interesting switch to be able to flip. He’s very good at it and justifiably lauded for his talent.
I found it again, I think I said this last year but it was a continuation of that, I found it completely invigorating and a really really interesting perspective shift on a group of people and a set and a situation that I thought I knew intimately. You take your perspective from here and you turn it 180 degrees and you go, ‘Oh my god, I didn’t even see that whole side of it. That’s crazy! There’s a whole thing that’s happening behind me too? That’s nuts!’ It’s just as an actor your focus is constantly in front of you. As a director your focus is 360 degrees. That was once again fascinating. I hope I did a good job. I was obviously being facetious in saying it’s the best one. But it is.
We had a very spirited discussion with Vincent [Kartheiser] earlier, discussing about you directing and saying he’s been searching for things you’re bad at and can’t come up with anything. I think it would actually make a lot of male readers happy to know that you are bad at something. Is there anything you’re not good at?
HAMM: Um… yeah. Yeah, there’s tons of things I’m not good at.
That’s so funny.
HAMM: Roundtable interviews.
Thinking of things that you’re bad at.
HAMM: Thinking of things that I’m bad at. I guess I’m too friendly? That could be bad. It’s, you know… I’m not… Look. No one’s perfect, least of all me. Vinnie’s very kind to say nice things about me and if I may return the compliment he is criminally overlooked for what he brings to the show. He is a phenomenal actor and a wonderful guy. And in creating the character of Pete has somehow made this person who on the page is loathsome — punchable I think he’s been described in many an article — and yet has infused this character with this aching sadness and longing and vulnerability that is remarkable to watch. I actually had an incredible scene that I directed with he and Alison Brie, where I was like, ‘I could shoot this all day.’ It was a long scene and it was a lot of story in the scene but it was like a little one-act play. I felt bad that they were both so good that we didn’t have to do it 100 times. They’re both such wonderful actors that I could go to each one and say, ‘OK do the thing that you did where you’re not quite that way and a little more this way,’ and then watch them play off each other. I was like, ‘Let’s do this all day! This is great!’ That’s Vincent. And Alison as well. Vincent, his creation of Pete Campbell is ever evolving and for my money always interesting. So that’s what I’m good at! Not good at.
HAMM: I don’t know. I think it’s dependent upon the material honestly. I’m a big Downton Abbey fan. I’m fascinated by that world and how different that world is. I actually shot a TV show over in Buckinghamshire which is kind of North of London. I guess Downton Abbey is East of London? West? Wherever it is. Outside of London.
HAMM: And it was on one of these gigantor manors that was on 400,000 acres and had sheep and cows and everything. I was looking at this house like, ‘Oh my god.’ And the caretaker comes up and goes, ‘You know this is only a third of the real house?’ I go, ‘The other house had two more?’ And he goes, ‘Yeah this is only the middle part. There were two wings.’ I was like, ‘You gotta be kidding me!’ And they had lakes and trees. It was this crazy thing and I’m fascinated by that. I think that’s part of, a small part but a part of our show that resonates with people. It’s close enough in our time that we recognize things like phones and cars and planes and briefcases and things that we have now. But it’s also different enough, so we’re separate enough, that we can look at these people and go, ‘At least I’m not like that asshole.’ So I don’t know, I would do… Do you have a script?