Jon Hamm and Lizzy Caplan on Tough Auditions and Uncomfortable Costumes

Jon Hamm and Lizzy Caplain in
Hamm: Dan MacMedan; Caplain: Maarten de Boer - Contour by Getty Images

“It’s really exciting that we are the people that are getting nominated for awards, and I still feel like everybody’s 20 years old and figuring everything out,” says “Masters of Sex” star Lizzy Caplan, of her partner for her Variety conversation, “Mad Men” star Jon Hamm. The two have been friends for years — dating back to a WB pilot from which Hamm got fired, that she teasingly promises to never let him forget.

Variety: Congratulations to you both on your Emmy nominations.
Hamm: It’s very, very nice to be considered in the sort of second to last season of the show, and the consistency has been really cool. It’s always nice to have your name mentioned in the group of people I’ve been mentioned with. I don’t take it for granted, and I really do appreciate it. Especially given that this show has been on as long as it has.

Caplan: I’m kind of still surprised that I’m on a drama show to begin with. It’s completely exciting and it was very, very unexpected. I was all prepped and ready to be indignant at being snubbed, so now I’m trying to adjust to the other side of it.

Variety: What would have happened if Don Draper and Virginia Johnson ever met?
Caplan: I don’t think they would have sex with each other.

Hamm: Why not?

Caplan: I just don’t think so. There are some similarities between the two characters, and I’m a huge “Mad Men” fan. One of the things I like so much about Virginia is she can feel like a combination of all three of the female characters in “Mad Men,” which is very exciting for me.

Hamm: It’s interesting when people throw out, “What if these two fictional characters would meet?” It’s a strange alchemy. The same thing would happen if any sort of intelligent, ambitious people would meet. They would talk, maybe have dinner and maybe be friends. It’s interesting that Lizzy’s show takes place in a similar time period to “Mad Men,” and yet it does feel very, very different. It will be interesting to see, as “Masters of Sex” moves forward, how the changing times affect their day to day. Changing lifestyle and culture really shifted everybody’s world view.

Variety: What have you learned from your characters, if anything?
Hamm: Don’s certainly not a role model, and he’s certainly not someone to go to to learn how to be appropriate in either professional or personal situations. I don’t think I’ve really learned anything from him other than a cautionary tale on how not to be. But mostly it’s been a whole lot of fun to play the journey of this guy.

Caplan: It’s easy to talk about my show and Virginia Johnson and how far we’ve come. We can look back at the ’50s and ’60s and can sigh with relief that we don’t have to deal with the things that women back then had to deal with. If anything, I think “Masters of Sex” points out how much further we have to go and how the similarities are equally as, if not more, striking than the differences. Yes, I’m very glad I’m not a woman trying to be independent and forge her own path in the Midwest in the ’50s because that required such bravery. I don’t know if I possess that bravery, but I’m very well-aware that it ain’t necessarily a cakewalk being a woman in 2014 trying to keep up with all the boys.

Variety: What about these roles appealed to you?
Hamm: I read the pilot and I was flabbergasted. I’d never read a pilot like that, and I’d never read a story like that. And it was such a rich beginning of what could, I thought, have potential to be an incredible journey, and it’s given me opportunities to grow and progress the right way. Matthew (Weiner) is a very talented writer and he has crafted an amazing story. I imagine Lizzy’s experience is a little different trying to play an actual historical person. But it’s about the opportunities for us as actors, because we’re not necessarily on the top of everyone’s list. It’s always interesting when you get a role, and you think, “It’s nice that I’m auditioning for this, but they’ll probably give it to the person who looks and sounds like me but is 10 times more famous.” And I think what’s remarkable is the fact that our offers came from the people who made the show and wanted us rather than just famous people.

Caplan: Yeah, I agree with that. After many, many years of playing a certain type of girl and being presented with specific types of opportunities, I definitely was feeling that being a scrappy underdog was a bit of a badge of honor. I don’t know how much of that was a survival mechanism or if I really was just fully content playing this sarcastic chick in tiny comedies that were swiftly cancelled. But I had a similar experience reading the script. I just knew when reading the pilot it was a part that I thought, like Jon, I would never get, but it was worth going after because it was a character that was unlike any I had read before. When that chance presents itself, it’s completely exhilarating.

Variety: How have these roles changed your careers?
Hamm: Profoundly. Mostly, it’s an opportunity to be seen doing what you do. I was working off of, in my case, the better part of 20-some-odd years. As an actor, you can’t really go into a room and act by yourself, like you could if you wanted to paint or do any other kind of performing art. It’s heavily dependent on other people picking you. Lizzy and I did a pilot together a hundred years ago. It was in 1914, wasn’t it, Lizzy? And nobody saw it. And then all of a sudden, however many years later, here we are, sawing on about being nominated for an Emmy. You never know which one is going to change your career.

Caplan: I’ve done so many pilots that seemed exciting at the time and ended up going nowhere. But, after so many years of almost picks, or “could have gotten that job,” or “did the job and then nobody saw it, and it didn’t work out the way it was supposed to,” when given an opportunity that feels bigger, I certainly felt urged to not blow it. But the opportunity does not come around very often. I felt ready to tackle it for the first time in my career. I think I probably in the past said I was ready for certain things, but looking back now, in hindsight I was not ready. It required 15 years of being told “no,” but seeing myself in a different light and being at odds, that when a potentially very golden opportunity came around, I just knew I was going to do whatever possible not to blow it.

Variety: Do you prefer drama or comedy, or do you like being able to move between the two?
Hamm: I don’t necessarily prefer one over the other. I like working on stuff with people I like and people whose work I respect and somehow inspires me. It could be funny people or not funny people. I think we’re also living in a crazy age where the line between “comedy” and “drama” is so blurred. The old paradigms just don’t hold anymore. “Nurse Jackie” can be as dark as “Mad Men,” and yet because it’s only a half-hour long, it’s called a comedy. “Girls” can be very funny, but it can be very dark. Our show can be very funny and very dark at other times too, but I don’t think you’d necessarily call it a comedy. So it’s fun to have both of those options. And it also helps with people that don’t see you in any one way. In my case I’m some sort of brooding, dour dick who just never lightens up. Anyone that knows me personally, Lizzy included, knows that’s very far away from who I actually am, which is kind of goofy and funny and weird and outgoing.

Caplan: I think it’s a dream of any actor or actress, it certainly has been my dream, to be able to move seamlessly between comedy and drama, and between television and film. I used to see it as, and I think a lot of people did, that the pinnacle of success as an actress would be to be in dramatic films, and now that’s no longer the case. Being able to move between genres is really the absolute goal. If you wanted to do the same thing every day, then the profession of acting seems like an odd choice. The whole point is to be as many people, convincingly, as you can. It is an exciting time to be on television, the content is so unbelievably rich, richer than most films. The roles for women in film versus television — they just pale in comparison.

Variety: As you look back over the last season, is there a moment you’re proudest of?
Hamm: It was a strange season for Don Draper. He starts out in exile, and then comes back and tries to wrestle back some sort of semblance of power and leadership. There’s an interesting arc. I think it was episode four, where I come back to the office. It was very awkward to shoot and very awkward I think to watch, because it felt like the first day of school when you don’t know anybody, and yet this guy built the school basically. Mostly what I loved best was at the end when we lost Bert Cooper, and he literally shuffled off this mortal coil in Don’s mind. It was a beautiful moment, and very emotional for Don and very emotional for me. I’m glad I had a front row seat for it.

Caplan: I can safely say that the whole season is something that I’m very proud of, mainly because I’m not accustomed to being simpatico with all the people that I’m working with, and then having it go out into the world and having the audience understand it in the exact way that it was meant to be understood. I’m not sure that’s ever really happened in my career before. I was fully prepared for people to not understand what we were trying to say, to not see our show as a feminist show, to see it rather as a show about sex with a ton of nudity, and when the truth of the matter is that’s not at all what our show is about. It’s easy to see the relationship between Bill and Virginia as an affair. And, objectively, it is an affair — he’s a married man and they are sleeping with each other. But at no point have I felt that the audience hasn’t seen the bigger picture in that regard. There’s a scene that sticks out to me in the first season where Bill and Virginia are sitting in their robes in the hospital after they’ve conducted “research” with each other. They are watching this footage of the vaginal canal, and in that moment it feels like two people on a date at a drive-in movie. There’s such sweetness in that scene, and also he smiles at her, which is such a rarity for his character to smile at anybody, period. But if you were to just take two steps back, and really take a look at what it is you’re watching, if you were Bill Master’s wife, it’s not such a sweet scene. But the feeling of that scene, I think, really came across crystal clearly, and that’s just amazing.

Variety: Both of your shows have strong showrunners at the helm. What is your relationship like with them?
Hamm: I don’t have very much input; some of the other people on the show might but I don’t. And I don’t really necessarily seek it out. If I’m asked, if Matt comes to me and asks me something, I’ll engage and have a conversation about it. But I don’t flip the switch and go, “You shouldn’t do this, you shouldn’t do that.” I feel like, A, it’s not necessarily my job, but B, there’s already a lot of voices in his head, so to speak, and adding to that cacophony is probably not for the best. So I haven’t had much input into where the story’s going. And for the most part, that has paid off for me.

Caplan: Michelle Ashford, Michael Sheen and I — it’s extremely collaborative between the three of us, and also some of the other writers. We do Michelle’s vision, first and foremost, but we have very, very loud voices. I really like working that way, and it’s certainly not contentious; if anything, it’s been a very lovely experience, all of us figuring out certain things together. Michelle is the captain of the ship, without question, but this is not a story she cooked up in her head. This is something that really happened. We get to play with the gray area and there’s a lot of wiggle room because we don’t have all of the facts. The source material for our show is one book, and that book has over a hundred hours of interviews with Virginia but no interviews with Bill. We’re not sticking to the historical facts partly because we don’t have all of them, but partly because it’s a television show. There’s no expectation for us to do direct impersonations of these people. So it’s a strange thing where we’re all serving this bigger story that’s a true story, but we have all a bigger say in how that story is told. I can’t imagine making this show any other way.

Variety: Jon, how hard is it for you to say goodbye to Don Draper?
Hamm: Not very hard, honestly. It’s been eight years of my life, and a pretty consistent eight years in that it’s been, when we’re not shooting the show, we’re promoting the show or doing some other sort of ancillary project involved with the show. If you wanted to do the same thing over and over and over again, being an actor is the weirdest choice. And so it will be nice to move on, and in a way that I hope is satisfying to the viewers and the fans. It’s obviously hard to say goodbye to the people who I’ve become friends with over the last eight years, cast and crew. We’ll all go get drinks and see each other and hang out still. I’m sad to see the regular employment go; the hardest part is probably going to be being unemployed again. All good things end; there’s never been a book that hasn’t had an ending. So I’m happy that at least we get to go out on our own terms.

Variety: Lizzy, how much research did you do into the real Virginia Johnson?
Caplan: They were fiercely private people for good reasons. Even though we have this book, and Virginia sat down and told her story, it’s the story of an eightysomething-year-old woman who had a very interesting and not particularly easy life, and so her point of her view I think is tinged with a little bitterness and anger. I don’t 100% believe her take on everything that’s in the book. I wanted to meet her. She passed away between the pilot and shooting the first season, and she was very uninterested in being involved with the show. But because she always was very attracted to the spotlight and to fame, I really thought that if the show ended up working, that she would come around, whether it would be a phone call or getting to be best friends, which is what I was holding out hope for.

Variety: Given that you’re both doing period pieces, how important are the clothes and the setting in helping you get into character?
Hamm: It’s way different for girls in period films. The sheer amount of undergarments they have to manage and deal with is significantly different than it is for boys. Obviously, putting on a suit and getting dressed up and being very formal in your approach towards work clothes is very helpful for me. But as in most things, the girls have it way worse.

Caplan: Yeah, the undergarments are a pain in the ass, certainly, but I’ve grown to really love them. It helps me leave who I am out in the world at the door, and step into this other world that I live in these days. In other roles, I’ve weighed in very heavily on things that I want my characters to wear, and a lot of times echoed my own personal style. Playing this part, the opposite is true. I don’t want to feel myself at all in the clothes I wear. And it also is very helpful that our costume designer is so passionate and such a genius, and it’s difficult not to be swept up in her excitement. It’s such a departure from how I look every day. It’s unbelievably exciting as an actress to look in the mirror and see someone who doesn’t resemble you when you’re out in the real world.

Variety: Jon, any advice for Lizzy about Emmy night?
Hamm: Here’s a real piece of advice that Tiny Fey did not give me, but I heard her say at one point: Bring tennis shoes or Chucks for the afterparties. Wear your shoes that are crazy uncomfortable for the pictures. And then as soon as the show is over and you’re exhausted, put your comfy shoes on, ’cause it’s way more fun that way.

Caplan: That’s a good piece of advice considering I usually just walk about barefoot.

Hamm: Don’t walk around barefoot, ’cause there’s shards of Emmys all over the place.

Caplan: Oh, really? That’s what it’s like?

Hamm: They’re made of glass. You should know that.

Caplan: I have so much to learn.