Talk to anyone who knows him, and they will all tell you one thing: Jon Hamm is not Don Draper.
Though he shot to fame as the tortured antihero at the center of AMC’s “Mad Men,” he gravitates to comic roles to show off his lighter side, stealing scenes in “Bridesmaids” and popping up on “Saturday Night Live.”
But the pressure of life in the spotlight may have taken its toll. In late February, he quietly checked himself into the Silver Hill Hospital in Connecticut for treatment of alcohol abuse. The news broke less than two weeks before the April 5 premiere of “Mad Men’s” final season, in the midst of promotional duties for the show. Hamm’s representatives issued this statement: “With the support of his longtime partner Jennifer Westfeldt, Jon Hamm recently completed treatment for his struggle with alcohol addiction. They have asked for privacy and sensitivity going forward.”
In an interview with Variety that took place in early February, Hamm referenced his drinking in a conversation that covered multiple topics, including the blurred lines between him and his famous character. “People ask, ‘What’s the difference between you and Don?’ Look, I drink, I get drunk. I’m not immune to that,” he says.
Embodying the character for eight years was a challenge, he admits. “Playing this guy does not come without its own difficulties,” he says. “It’s not fun to live in this guy’s headspace year after year. And (showrunner) Matt (Weiner) will tell you, the darkness in Don has not abated, it’s gotten worse year after year. It’s relentless. And it can be hard on you as a person. I love coming to work; I love the people I work with. But it’s been rough.”
He found it difficult to escape, at least professionally. After the first season, all the scripts he was offered began to look the same. “They were a guy in a hat, a guy with a cigarette, a guy in a suit, a hard-boiled detective — dark, brooding, alcoholic womanizers,” he says. “I do that eight months out of the year. That’s not all I can do.”
So Hamm doesn’t see himself as a dark, brooding, alcoholic womanizer? “Not as far as I know,” he quips. “I think I’m a pretty regular person thrust into incredibly irregular circumstances. It’s weird to get super-famous, super-fast. It’s really hard. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not the hardest thing in the world. It’s not performing heart surgery or breaking big rocks into little rocks. (But) it takes a lot out of you emotionally.”
Given all the accolades showered on Matthew Weiner’s series, it’s amazing to think no one from the cast has ever won an Emmy — most of all Hamm, on whose shoulders the show rests. In fact, he’s been nominated 13 times — both as actor and producer, as well as guest spots on “30 Rock” — yet never taken home the gold.
Not that he is feeling sorry for himself. “The minute you start crying about not winning awards, it seems a little weird,” he admits. “I’m in a very good group of people who haven’t won. I’ll live.”
Need proof that he’s good-natured about it? In 2013, he and pal Amy Poehler took matters into their own hands.
“Jon and I are topnotch losers,” says Poehler. “We decided to embrace the idea and turn it into something fun.” Called “Emmy Party: Losers Lounge,” their invite specified “No Emmys Allowed,” with a rider that a winner could get in only by making a donation to the Worldwide Orphans Foundation. The party raised more than $30,000 for the charity; Hamm doesn’t rule out doing it again. “I don’t see it being an annual thing, but never say never.”
The ribbing between Hamm and Poehler over their mutual losses has continued. “I texted her at the SAG Awards recently,” he reveals. “I told her, ‘Your dress looks really pretty … for a loser.’ ”
Still, it’s hard not to feel Hamm has gotten a bit of a raw deal. Take the one time he did win a major award: the Golden Globe for best actor in a drama, back in the show’s first season. It happened to be the year of the writers’ strike — and the ceremony was cancelled. “I always joke I have the same amount of Golden Globes as Madonna and Pia Zadora,” he quips.
But in the game of Hollywood, few have won bigger. After the proverbial years as a struggling actor, just missing out on roles like the one that went to Bradley Cooper on “Alias,” he was plucked from relative obscurity to star in a new series on a basic cable network not known for original programming. That show became a critical smash and a pop culture milestone. Soon Hamm and Co. were gracing the covers of magazines, inspiring fashion lines and getting parodied on “The Simpsons.” He became a bona fide star, using his newfound fame to land plum roles in films like “The Town” and last year’s “Million Dollar Arm.”
Many pundits have speculated that the reason Hamm hasn’t received Emmy recognition is that he is too good at playing his role, that he embodies the character too seamlessly.
“It’s a compliment, but they are not the same person,” says Weiner, the man behind “Mad Men.” “Jon is an intelligent, informed person with a great sense of humor. You can actually see a physical change when he becomes Don — his hairline moving, his eyes hanging, his ears dropping. I watch him a lot in editing, and there’s a morphing that takes place. He is his own special effect.”
Paul Feig, who directed Hamm in the show’s first season before snaring him for a cameo as a loutish lover in 2011’s “Bridesmaids,” was initially wary of working with the actor. “I was sent the pilot and I remember thinking, ‘That’s the most humorless man I’ve ever seen in my entire life,’ ” says Feig with a laugh. “I wasn’t sure I could get through the week with someone who didn’t have a single humorous bone in his body.”
A short time later, Feig was being shown around the set by Weiner when, he recalls, “This surfer guy comes up to me and (starts) making all these jokes and voices. After he ran off, I asked Matt who it was. He goes, ‘That’s Jon Hamm.’ I literally did not recognize him.”
A self-proclaimed comedy nerd, Hamm has always been more of a comic, a character-actor trapped in a leading man’s bone structure. In his early years in L.A., he would visit the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre where he got to know up-and-comers like Patton Oswalt and Paul F. Tompkins. “If you glance at his IMDb page, you’ll see that of all the roles he’s done over the years, the vast majority of them have been comedic,” says David Wain, who co-wrote and directed “Wet Hot American Summer.” While he won’t reveal whom Hamm will portray in the series, he allows, “Jon plays a mysterious figure who upset the balance of order at our summer camp. I’d like to tell you more, but it would compromise national security.”
Hamm’s big comedic break came when he was asked by Lorne Michaels to host “Saturday Night Live” in 2008. Viewers were awed by his comic timing and self-deprecating humor — one sketch involved him selling Jon Hamm’s John Ham — on the toilet. He has gone on to host twice more, and has made a number of guest appearances, such as popping up in Kristen Wiig’s final episode as Italian singer “Johnny Prosciutto” to whisk away Wiig’s small-handed singer Dooneese.
The same week he was hosting, “SNL” alum Tina Fey was looking for a new love interest for her character on “30 Rock.” “We were all fans of Jon from ‘Mad Men,’ but we had no way of knowing if he was funny,” Fey recalls. “I called Lorne and asked how he did. He got high marks all around.” Fey cast Hamm as Drew, a seemingly perfect doctor who turns out to be a perfect moron. “We kept making the character weirder, because Jon was so great at selling weird jokes and doing physical comedy,” she says. “By the end, Drew had two hooks for hands that kept getting stuck in paintings.”
Fey summoned Hamm again for her new Netflix comedy “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” When she needed a goofy cult leader/wedding DJ with a bad ponytail and dreams of stardom, she knew just whom to call.
Sitting in a nondescript diner in Hollywood on a Sunday morning, Hamm complains of being tired — he was up until 1 a.m. wrapping an arc on the Netflix comedy “Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp.” He’s as ridiculously good-looking in person as he is onscreen, but sporting a scruffy face and a baseball cap, he somehow manages to go unnoticed. In fact, he prides himself on being, well, just another guy. Scrolling through his phone, you won’t find anything more incriminating than pictures of his dog, Cora. “I mean, come on!” he says like a proud father at a particularly adorable shot of her. Continuing to swipe, he says, “Here’s Bradley Cooper and me on the set of ‘Wet Hot.’ There’s a photo of my septic line for some reason. Incriminating stuff.”
Since wrapping “Mad Men,” Hamm has relocated to New York City with Westfeldt. He’s been enjoying the downtime after spending seven years on a series. “It’s been about connecting with my family, reclaiming myself from a character that’s defined me for so long, finding a baseline again, and working from that foundation to go back out again,” he says.
In April, he’ll start shooting a new comedy from Greg Mottola with Zach Galifianakis called “Keeping Up With the Joneses,” a project that sounds about as far from the world of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce as one can get.
“Don Draper has been incredibly fulfilling to me as an actor, as an artist,” he says. “But to do it again and again doesn’t appeal to me.”
But he does worry about being taken seriously again. “I’m afraid I’ve spent my good acting capital doing silly, nonsensical things,” he confides. “I hope I’ll get another chance to play a part as deep and varied and emotional and real as Don was.”
Figuring out what to do next, he explains, is the challenge. “It’s hard to pick roles, honestly,” Hamm says. “There’s a certain strata of the Hollywood atmosphere that I’m decidedly not in — it’s Bradley Cooper, Pitt, Affleck, Clooney, Damon. I’m not a proven box office draw, I haven’t won an Oscar. I’m a guy from a TV show a lot of people like.”
He describes it as a form of calculus, looking at what’s available vs. what he’s actually interested in. “I feel like a very capable actor, but I’m also looking for the thing that will make me feel fulfilled and challenged. If there’s a role I want, and they say, ‘Matt Damon’s interested,’ it’s totally legitimate. I would cast Matt Damon over me, too!”
Which is one of the reasons he and Westfeldt have formed a production company, Points West, which he says has several projects percolating. “She’s the smartest and most talented person I know, and I happen to live with her,” Hamm says. The first film under their banner was 2011’s “Friends With Kids,” written and directed by Westfeldt, and featuring Hamm’s “Bridesmaids” co-stars Wiig, Chris O’Dowd and Maya Rudolph.
Hamm also got a lot of attention for his role on the hit BBC sci-fi show “Black Mirror,” which dealt with the dangers of technology and the Internet — a topic he has strong feelings about. “You want to know what’s wrong with you, just Google yourself,” he says. “The most hateful, horrible things will come up. It’s anonymous, with no accountability. And it all kind of hides under the rubric of free speech.”
He points to the rumors that trail him and his relationship. “Jen and I aren’t married, and that’s something people seize on all the time,” he says. “They ask, ‘When are you having kids?’ I said it to Tina once, ‘Are you going to have another kid?’ and she said, ‘When is that OK to ask?’ And she’s right. It’s such a personal question and so horribly presumptive. It’s (like) asking, ‘When are you and your husband going to f— again?’ ” Hamm stops himself for a moment and laughs. “I know, the more I talk about the Internet, the more I sound like an old man standing on his lawn shaking his fist.”
Hamm is now gainfully unemployed until he leaves to shoot “Joneses” in Atlanta next month. But first, he will have to get through a lengthy promotional tour for the final season of “Mad Men,” a job in and of itself — and one that will likely culminate in a return trip to this year’s Emmy Awards, his last shot to win for the role of Don Draper.
Even Bryan Cranston, who defeated him four times in the Emmy race, contends Hamm had the tougher role. “He had to create his portrait under a lot more constraint, a far greater task to achieve than I was blessed to have. And man, did he achieve it!” Cranston says via email. “Painting with a skilled hand, he created an iconic character, on a legendary show, that will be remembered long after both of our careers are over.”
As for what Hamm should do next, it’s Weiner who puts it best. “Hopefully, anything he wants,” says the man who created the role. “He’s definitely earned it.”