With Mad Men squarely behind him, Jon Hamm can now focus on a broader range of opportunities that come across his desk. One of the first projects he signed on to after closing out the AMC series was Greg Mottola’s action comedy Keeping Up with the Joneses, in which Hamm stars as Tim Jones, a super spy who goes undercover with his wife (Gal Gadot) in a quiet suburban neighborhood. Before long, their too-perfect appearance comes into question by their more mild-mannered neighbors, played by Zach Galifianakis and Isla Fisher, with hilarious consequences.
While on the film’s set in Atlanta, I got a chance to talk to Hamm about the movie and his career, along with a small group of journalists. Every bit as charismatic and confident as you’d expect the man who brought Don Draper to life to be, Hamm also alternated between good-humored self-deprecation and downright nerdery when discussing his favorite comic book stories. And while it was quite fun to walk down memory lane with Hamm as he reflected back on his early career days and how they prepared him to be open for any acting opportunities, it was also evident how eager he was to hold his own against contemporary comedians.
But first, let’s get the elephant out of the room when it comes to Hamm’s post-Mad Men career and whether or not this movie is his “next step”:
In the sense of sort of every bit of my career outside of Mad Men has been a response to Mad Men. [laughs] Yeah, I wish I could point at some posted on my wall and say, “Oh, I’m at this point.” But this opportunity came up and I’ve known Zach [Galifianakis] for almost 15 years now and really wanted to do something not on the internet with him. [laughs] This came up and it was just a great fit. I’ve worked with Greg [Mottola] before and he’s just a great guy and a wonderful director. It just kind of coalesced into this really unique opportunity.
As perfect a fit as it was for Hamm, the role of a super-spy also sounds like Don Draper’s ‘James Bond’ fantasy:
Yeah, totally! And I’m having an increasingly difficult time with people taking me seriously anyway, so this is the perfect segue into that. It’s, again, like I said, it seemed to coalesce into this really nice, serendipitous experience, and, other than the rain, which has been horrible here in Atlanta, everything has been kind of an expression of that.
Since Keeping Up with the Joneses is billed as an action-comedy, we were curious as to how Hamm has been enjoying the action side of things so far:
It’s fun! It’s the fun kind of action because it’s funny. It’s not so overly earnest. It’s a good group of people, so apart from being the most innocuous quote ever, it is actually the fun part of making movies. I certainly don’t know how people can pull [them] off; being as ill-informed of action sequences as I am, I know how incredibly taxing they must be for people who do them for a living. But man oh man have they been fun.
It sounded like Hamm was a little more comfortable in the comedy department than he was with the precision driving, fight scenes, and shoot ’em ups that occur throughout the film, but don’t expect him to be shouldering the comedy load alone:
There’s certainly a straight-man function to [my character], obviously, when you’re in a frame with Zach, but there’s been a lot of, ample opportunities, I would say, to play and have fun. That was one of the things that drew me to it was that my character is not just this straight-laced action-figure guy. He has a sense of humor and, I don’t think I’m giving anything away from the film, but as we sort of find out in the movie, he’s sort of a reluctant spy. The whole point is that he’s really good at his job, he just doesn’t really like it because it’s not fulfilling to him. So that was kind of the place where we jumped off with this character and hopefully that, and it sounds a little cliche, but hopefully both of these guys can learn something from each other without it being that obvious. It’s certainly one way to go to say, “Oh, they’re the spies who live next door,” but he’s sort of the reluctant action hero. That’s what we’re hoping for and that’s how I’m playing it anyway, so whether it works is up to you guys to determine, but that was the spice that stirred the soup for me, anyway. We hope that that comes across.
He may be a capable spy, but at some point in the movie the neighbors are going to stumble across his little secret. While Hamm didn’t reveal exactly how that moment would go, he did talk about how the process of getting to that moment worked on set:
It’s very scripted, we’re not just making stuff up as we go along, although there has been a fair amount of improv and finding, not necessarily funnier versions of what’s there on the page or, honestly, just working with what’s in the actual … as a screenwriter, you write something down and you think, “Okay, it’s in the ‘Bad Guys’ Lair,'” and “What’s in the lair?” Well, on the day, you go, “Oh, there’s all these fun things to fuck around with. What can we actually do with this?” Zach is pretty great, everyone honestly has been pretty good with being present and saying, “That’s kinda something maybe we could do,” and Greg’s been super amenable to that. I won’t necessarily give you exactly what the reveal is, but it’s fairly gradual and pretty funny.
So just how great was it to work with Zach?
It’s interesting because, when I came to L.A. in 1995, I would go Largo, the old Largo, which had a great comedy night, Monday nights, that was this kind of revolving door of people who are now huge, hugely famous, either comic actors or actors in their own right or comedians that go on the road and sell massive tickets but back then were doing a couple nights a week in the alternative comedy seen. So that’s really kind of what formed my post-collegiate comedy brain, such as it was. It was The Ben Stiller show and Janeane Garofalo and Mr. Show and the vast amount of talent that came out of that, and then Largo, UnCabaret and a couple other L.A. shows that really highlighted this other kind of, I mean it was called “alt comedy” back then but now it’s become kind of the mainstream. And so, I don’t want to say I grew up on it because I didn’t, but I ingested a lot of it and it made me laugh.
Zach and I are similar ages, are in a similar pool from which to pull your cultural references and your senses of humor and what not. It’s really great, it’s really fun, it’s one of the reasons why I jumped at the chance to work with him because I thought that we could be very funny together. When I did “Between Two Ferns” it was very early on in the Mad Men sort of thing and I don’t think people really, A) knew who I was, B) cared, or C) thought that the guy from Mad Men would be funny so who cares, and I had a blast. We shot 90 minutes of stuff that we culled down into two-and-a-half, but it was fun. I’ve done enough stuff with these guys at UCB and all of these other comedy shows that I feel comfortable enough to be able to play with these guys and at least pick up what they’re putting down.
I think most of it is just being comfortable enough in your skin to be present in a scene. I think that’s whether you’re acting with one of your comedic contemporaries or one of your heroes or what have you; you have to maintain a presence and a confidence to be able to not just be completely overwhelmed by the moment. Part of that is experience, part of that is getting older and feeling like, “Okay, even if I suck at the first take, maybe we won’t use that and we can get better.” That’s why you get up in the morning is to hopefully have a fun day or rewarding day.
One big part of making sure every day felt rewarding and worthwhile was director Mottola’s organic sense of style and freedom for his to play around. Hamm admitted that:
I mean, honestly, that’s what I was talking about when I saw the group that they were assembling for this film. He was definitely one of the things that I sparked to; “value added” so to speak, because of that exact thing. Greg has been remarkably effective in bringing that kind of humanity to all of his films, and even within whatever genre it happens to be.
Since a spy comedy could go in a number of directions, Hamm tried to pin down exactly what the film was going for:
Well, I certainly hope so. We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel here in any way, shape, or form, but what we’re trying to do is say that this is a version of that that’s got comedic elements that hopefully will … like I said, Zach’s particular brand of humor is unique. I don’t think there are a lot of guys out there who are funny like he is. So when you bring in elements like that into something that you say, it has certain tropes to it, there’s a different way to kind of engage with it. That’s the best thing you can hope for. There are three movies, really, in the world; you just hope that some version of this will be the one to spark to whether you’re a kid who’s focusing on one thing, or a movie person who’s focusing on another thing, or a fan who’s focusing on something different.
Since anyone and everyone in Hollywood is being asked about superhero movies in one form or another, this question expectedly came up during our chat with Hamm. Would he jump at the opportunity if one came up?
I really do think it depends on the material. I’ve been, I don’t want to say misquoted because these have been things that I’ve said [laughs] but I think misconstrued is maybe a better way to put it, saying, “I wouldn’t want to do a superhero,” or what have you, but I love a lot of those movies and I don’t like a lot of those movies. I think that’s a fair assessment of a lot of those movies because there are a lot of them now. [laughs] Some are good and some aren’t as good. I guess what you hope is that everybody is learning and taking the good parts of the genre and building on that. I think that’s how you get the movies that we hold up now as excellent examples of the genre. Look, if the right thing came down the way and it was something that I could get my head around coming up with a take on, that I felt like I could spend a decade of my life giving over to, which is what you have to do, and the attendant other movies that I have to be in… I think it’s genius what they’ve done, I really do, I’ve gone on record … we have one of the biggest comic book nerds in the world on set today and I was going toe to toe with him today talking about stuff.
Some actors are trained to say things like that, knowing that their interest in superhero fare could quite possibly land them an invitation to star in whatever the next big comic book movie is, but I was pleasantly surprised when Hamm actually backed up his claim:
The ones that really turned my head, and I pulled them off newsstands when I was in grade school and junior high, what really started turning my head were the ones I think started turning a lot of people’s heads: the Frank Miller stuff with “Elektra: Assassin” and “Dark Knight,” Bill Sienkiewicz and all of his crazy artwork that really elevated the genre. Those are the kinds of lessons I think they’re starting to translate into the films now. They’re saying, “Okay, it’s not just straight-forward action. It’s not just straight-forward good guys and bad guys and boobs up to here and crazy capes and super-powers and stuff, it’s the characters and how they’re portrayed, how they’re brought to life with some kind of artistry and elegance that can really elevate them.”
Perhaps he’ll get the opportunity he’s been waiting for sooner than later since comic book movies show few signs of slowing down. Are there any roles you think he’d be perfect for? Let us know in the comments below! Fans of Hamm will get their first chance to see him in action when Keeping Up with the Joneses opens on October 21st.