As the star of “Mad Men,” Jon Hamm has been asked dozens of times about that drama’s depictions of shifts in American culture and the greater meaning of advertising. These days, he is content to talk about such things as comic books (he praises “Elektra” and “100 Bullets”), the beard he has grown since wrapping up filming on that AMC series and some of his pet projects – like a second cycle of “A Young Doctor’s Notebook,” which has aired in the United Kingdom and will start on cable’s Ovation Tuesday night.
Hamm says he is quite taken with the series, based on a collection of short stories by Russian playwright Mikhail Bulgakov, which centers on the memoirs of a young doctor’s life in 20th century Russia. Daniel Radcliffe also stars. “It’s not a show that appeals to an incredibly wide swath,” he notes, openly realizing the series won’t have the broad viewership of, say, “The Big Bang Theory,” but he likes the series, calling it “a dark, funny, beautiful little thing.”
He has “Mad Men” in his rear-view mirror and is looking at the road ahead. “My interests are weirdly eclectic,” he says. “Mostly, I’m still in the world [where] people need to want me to be in their weird projects, and some people don’t want me to be in their weird projects, because they’re stuck thinking I’m Don Draper. I was fortunate enough to have cast myself in ‘A Young Doctor’s Notebook,’ but it’s a tricky landscape out there. A lot of people want to do the good stuff, and so you hope that you’re on the right lists.”
Below, in a lightly edited interview, Hamm talks about how he got involved with a series based on somewhat obscure source material and his view of the increasingly complex television landscape:
Variety: Talk about the source material for this project, which is not the most obvious in the world. How did it come to your attention?
Hamm: It’s an interesting story, honestly. I was working in the UK with my friend, David Cross, on his “The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret.” I found myself with a lot of free time over there, and struck up a conversation with one of the producers on the show who had shepherded that into existence, wrangled the writers and David into making that show. That show is very funny and I was pleased when they asked me to be a part of it. In discussing it with the producers, they said, ‘If you ever want to come over here and work on something…’ Yes, of course, I love working in the UK. Since I’ve gone to London the first time when I was 20 years old, I’ve had a sort of love affair with London. It’s a beautiful city and the people are very nice. The countryside is obviously gorgeous, so sure.’ Thinking that’s the end of that conversation. Nothing more will come of it. Then I got a sort of packet in the mail [from the producer]:…‘Here’s a movie we are thinking about. Here’s a book that we are thinking about.’ I thought, ‘OK, wow, this is acuallyy turning into something. I looked at the movie and I didn’t think it really translated, and then I started reading this collection of short stories. It’s set in a really interesting time frame. Not since “Dr. Zhivago” have we really been around in that time frame in a really interesting way … it’s a collection of short stories so by nature, it’s episodic, so that could be interesting. And knowing British television, this could be a fun, little one-off thing that we could do for not a lot of money – mostly on set. You don’t have to go on location, which when you’re doing a period thing makes it very expensive. It could be dark and weird and macabre and funny… and like a little curio, a little interesting thing, so I sparked to it.
Variety: How did Daniel Radcliffe join the production?
Hamm: My contribution was like, “Wouldn’t Daniel Radcliffe be great for this?” I had been to BAFTA the night before. He said he likes my show and I said I like his work – maybe we can get together and talk about it. As it turns out he’s a massive Mikhail Bulgakov fan and he loves the guy…I’m like, “So I guess we’re doing this.” … He’s such a nice person and a lovely actor to work with and he’s just such a hardworking guy. He was doing a play on the West End when we were doing the second season…so we were literally just wrapping and we’ve been up since 6 o’clock in the morning and you’re gong to go do a play? He’s a perpetual motion machine.
Variety: This is the second season. Can there be more?
Hamm: When you base a television show on a very small book of short stories, you tend to run out of source material very quickly. So obviously the first series we called “The Young Doctor’s Notebook.” And this series we called “The Young Doctor’s Notebook and Other Stories,” because we ran out of “Young Doctor’s Notebooks.” So we had to sort of crib some of his other writing. I don’t think there will be a third series, but the interesting thing about making television in the UK is that they don’t require there to be 100 episodes for it to be made. It can be four or eight or even 12, or just six, and so that’s it. I think this may be the final time we see it, but I would do it again if there was another version of it.
Variety: Some of your best known work has been stuff that is crafted, at least initially, for a smaller audience and has found a home on cable. Do you think a day is coming when broadcast might embrace more of this sort of content?
Hamm: It’s been such a long time since I’ve worked on broadcast television, but I know they are making interesting choices, if you look at something like “The Good Wife” of if you look at something like “Hannibal.” There are interesting shows that are being put on. They are trying. The world may be overtaking the sort of broadcast model at this point. There are so many other ways to consume televised entertainment. It’s Netflix. It’s Amazon. Xbox. All of these people are producing video content – at varying levels of quality, of course, but it is what it is. That’s not even taking into account the FunnyorDies of the world or the YouTubes of the world. I feel like the broadcast thing, while it is still a huge portion of the viewing audience’s main way to receive content, the portion has been shrinking by degrees year by year. I’m not a media studies major and I’m not a network executive. I just know that as a consumer I’m seeing that shift. And honestly, we were at the thin end of the wedge, the spear, so to speak, but AMC was one of the first non-HBO entities to have kind of a big splash in the culture and in the conversation. Now there are 15 more AMCs.