Leading men in Emmy contention

Jon Hamm is the first to admit that he wasn’t the logical choice to tease out the dark side of Don Draper, the secretive, cool-to-coldhearted lead of AMC’s “Mad Men.”

“It was hard for me,” Hamm says. “Don, in a lot of ways, can be kind of mean, and that’s not my go-to thing. I play a lot of nice guys and have for most of my career. He’s kind of mean to a purpose, but it was a little tough, and Matt (executive producer Matthew Weiner) was kind of constantly on top of me to be meaner.”

Hamm recalls having just finished running through a scene with co-star Elisabeth Moss when he got the reminder to be sterner.

“You look at Elisabeth, and she looks about 9 years old,” Hamm says. “It’s like kicking a puppy.”

Part of the adjustment for Hamm was coming out of a world of more conventional shows in which the character has to be, as he says, “likable, likable, likable.” But by his own admission, he wasn’t the type to question direction, and so he made a go of it — ultimately providing the signature performance for what many believe was the top frosh drama of the 2007-08 TV season.

The experience has made Hamm a known quantity — at least among the show’s devoted following — and adds another contrast to Hamm’s pre-”Men” persona.

“I think one of the odd things I brought to the role — it sounds silly to talk about it — but a lot of people don’t know me, and the sense of unknown and the sense of ‘who is this guy’ really informs my character,” he says. “People don’t have a really ready-made set of predispositions or pre-anything. They just have, ‘Maybe I’ve seen him in something else, but I don’t know what this guy represents.’ And I think that’s kind of a big deal.”

Favorite scene: “When Don tries to bribe his brother into leaving New York. I give him the $5,000 and say, ‘You’ve gotta go, we’re done here.’ One, it’s a great scene, and two, Jay Paulson, the actor who played my brother, was so good in it and so heartbreaking and such a pleasure to be in that scene with. It was really, really good.”

What you like most about your character: “It seems to be contrary to what I just said (about his meanness), but what I do like is his sort of perverse sense of justice. It comes out in the episode when Roger hits on my wife, and I kind of get him back and make him sort of apologize in that weird ‘We’re white guys, we don’t apologize in that way (because) we’re Waspy, nonemotional people.’ … I think Don has good intentions for the most part; he just sometimes doesn’t have them in time.”

TV guilty pleasure: “I watch ‘American Idol,’ (and) sometimes I watch ‘Project Runway,’ but I don’t feel good about it,” Hamm says, laughing. “No, it is what it is — it’s one of those things (that makes me) glad they invented TiVo. I haven’t watched either one of those shows without fast-forwarding through it.”

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