Features

Into the Light

After seven seasons as the hard-drinking, hard-driving Don Draper, Jon Hamm is embracing the post–Mad Men life.

Shawna Malcom

Filed away on Jon Hamm’s iPhone is a photo he took of the very last page of the series-finale script of Mad Men — a single sheet of paper that presumably holds the closely guarded secret of how, after seven celebrated seasons, one of television’s best dramas permanently fades to black. And over a late breakfast one Thursday morning, the actor suddenly decides to share it.

“It’s trippy,” he promises, taking a break from his sausage and eggs to find the image. More like completely spoiler-free: Hamm’s shot is so tightly focused that it reveals just three words — End of series .

So much for getting the TV scoop of the year.

Hamm laughs. But it’s clear as he sits in a booth at a favorite café in his Los Feliz neighborhood on L.A.’s east side, that those four little syllables made a big emotional impact when he first read them on Mad Men’s Los Angeles set last summer.

After all, he’s spent the better part of the past decade playing Don Draper, the sharp-suited, charismatic advertising genius and wounded antihero at the heart of AMC’s ‘60s-set period drama.

“You’re looking at this thing where, if you were in a movie, it would have this weird light shining on it,” says Hamm, who’s dressed down in a sweatshirt, khakis and a well-worn St. Louis Blues cap and sporting the decidedly un-Draper-esque beard he tends to favor in his downtime.

“It’s like, wow, this is really the end. That’s a bummer.”

Break out the Canadian Club whiskey and prepare to drown your sorrows, loyal viewers: Mad Men’s last call begins April 5. A mere seven episodes remain to answer a multitude of questions.

Can the hard-drinking, chain-smoking, serial-cheating Draper be saved? What fates await Roger (John Slattery), Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), Pete (Vincent Kartheiser), Joan (Christina Hendricks) and the rest of the Sterling Cooper & Partners gang? Will the self-loathing Don finally find the fulfillment that’s eluded him? Or is he doomed to discover there’s nothing to cushion his title-sequence fall?

Photo teasers aside, Hamm’s not about to disclose anything about the advertising drama’s final campaign.

“He’s better at keeping a secret than I am!” Matthew Weiner, the drama’s notoriously spoiler-averse creator–executive producer, reports approvingly.

That’s partly why the actor — whose finely tuned, seven-time Emmy-nominated performance has kept fans invested in Draper, even in his most unsympathetic moments — was one of the few people Weiner entrusted with his plans early on.

Hamm (who also has three Emmy noms as a Mad Men producer) remembers the showrunner mentioning the “kernel of an idea for this final image that he wanted to get to” as far back as between seasons four and five — around the same time Weiner secured a deal that would allow him to conclude the series after season seven (which was later split into two installments, for airing in 2014 and 2015). Says Hamm: “I was like, ‘Okay, now you just have to get there.’”

Weiner had the big picture figured out by the time he and his leading man met for their last annual start-of-the-season steak and martini lunch at L.A.’s Pacific Dining Car. “I went over everything I had, and it was scary for me,” Weiner says, “because you’re saying ‘This is the [final] season. What do you think?’”

What did Hamm think? “Of course, I liked it,” he says, polishing off his eggs. “It’s my show. But I love everything about my show. I can’t look at it in an objective way.

“I just hope people are affected by it,” he adds, “and I hope it works as intended.”

Work finished for Hamm last July 3, when he filmed one final scene as his iconic character. “It was the last shot of the last evening,” Hamm says. “That’s what sent us home.

Though not without a bittersweet wrap celebration. “After Jon’s last shot, there were probably 350 people on stage,” recalls Weiner, who directed the final two episodes. “We had champagne, and he and I both [spoke]. Yearbooks had been made for all of the cast and crew, so people were signing the yearbooks and hugging and taking pictures.

“There were a lot of thank yous and a lot of ‘I can’t believe this happened,’” he continues. “It was emotional and completely surreal because it was something we’d been anticipating — the mood of finishing the show had been hanging over all of us for months as the final scripts were coming in — and then, here we were at the moment.”

Hamm cops to shedding a few tears that night. “Oh, yeah,” he says. “Everyone did. It was really lovely. But Lizzie [Moss] and I were a little more sanguine about it than others, I think. We were like, ‘We’re not dead!’” He laughs. “We all have each other’s phone numbers. We’re not never going to see each other again.”

Still, even Moss wasn’t about to leave the set without a few souvenirs. “I pillaged!” she reports. Among her spoils: “I got a ring I’ve worn in every episode and the red thermos Peggy carries every time she leaves a job.”

Weiner called dibs on the oft-used bar from Roger Sterling’s office. He remembers saying to Hamm, “’People are gonna start taking things. Would you like Don’s chair?’ And he just sort of looked at me like, ‘People are doing that? Why?’”

Weiner gave him the chair anyway.

His coffee freshly refilled, Hamm tries to explain his desire to leave empty-handed. “I didn’t really want any of that stuff,” he says with a shrug. “It’s just not for me.”

The actor isn’t big on holding on to things, and not just where Mad Men’s concerned. Just before Christmas, he was preparing to move into a newly renovated apartment in New York with Jennifer Westfeldt, his actress-filmmaker girlfriend of 17 years, and while he wasn’t exactly looking forward to the packing process, he was eager to reach the streamlined result.

“It feels great to get rid of stuff in that closet you never open,” he says, “to just throw it all out.”

It’s not that Hamm’s unsentimental (“he may pretend, but he’s an extremely sentimental person,” Weiner says). The actor just seems to prefer focusing on the future, rather than dwelling on the trappings of the past.

It’s a trait the St. Louis, Missouri, native attributes to the fact that, as he puts it, “I grew up so weird.”

His parents divorced when he was two, after which Hamm lived with his mother, Debbie, a secretary, and visited his businessman father, Dan, every other weekend. When he was 10, his mother died of abdominal cancer and Hamm moved in full-time with his dad, a charming raconteur and sleek-suited drinker who’d inherited — and ultimately lost — the family’s trucking company.

In previous interviews, Hamm has said that his portrayal of the enigmatic Draper was rooted in Dan Hamm. Even so, he says today that father and son were close, “especially after Mom died.” His dad could always be counted on to be in the stands at high-school football games, cheering on his linebacker son.

His father, who suffered from diabetes, died when Hamm was 20, prompting him to drop out of the University of Texas and return to St. Louis, unsure of what to do next. “I was very nomadic for a long time,” he says, adding that he alternately crashed with friends and his half-sisters (from his father’s first marriage) and always traveled light. “I basically only had stuff I could fit in my car.”

It’s not like there were a lot of childhood mementos to leave behind. “Part of losing my mom so early was, there was no tender of that garden,” Hamm says. “And then losing my dad as well, I was just like, ‘Well, that’s all gone.’”

Even now, when his sisters or aunts occasionally send him photos of his parents, Hamm’s not exactly sure what to do with them:

“Never having had an adult conversation with my mother, and only sparingly having had them with my father, there are these massive gaps of knowledge. So you look at the picture and you’re like, ‘Oh, that looks nice. I wonder what that was all about.’ There are more questions than answers.”

After losing his father, the young Hamm sunk into a depression, but with the help of a therapist and his own Midwestern fortitude, he was able to pick himself up and enroll in the University of Missouri–Columbia, where he embraced its theater program. To pay his $125-a-month rent, he worked at an afterschool daycare, a gig that fit into his class-during-the day, play-rehearsals-at-night schedule. He turned out to be a natural.

“I’d totally been a daycare kid,” he says. “I said to the lady who was hiring me, ‘There’s always ladies [leading daycare], but there’s never any dudes. And sometimes the boys want to roughhouse, you know? I’m like a human jungle gym, and they can climb all over me.’ I loved it.”

After graduation, he returned to John Burroughs School, his esteemed private alma mater, which had first nurtured his love for the arts. There he taught eighth-grade theater as well as a high-school improv class. One of his students was Ellie Kemper, who would go on to costar in The Office and appear with Hamm in the 2011 box-office smash Bridesmaids .

After a year, Hamm opted to leave teaching to try a professional acting career. In 1995, with $150 in his wallet, he hopped into his Toyota Corolla and headed for L.A.

Staying first with an aunt and uncle, then with other young actors he befriended — including Paul Rudd, whom he’d met through actress Sarah Clarke (24), Hamm’s high-school prom date — he waited tables, tended bar and even appeared as a contestant on a dating show. (He didn’t get the girl.) He also landed an agent, though after three straight years of failing to book a single role, the agent dropped him. To make ends meet, he took a job as the set dresser on a soft-core porn film.

But even at that low point, Hamm says he never seriously considered giving up. When he left St. Louis, he’d given himself five years to make it in L.A. — “till the ripe old age of 30,” he cracks — and he still had time. He figured he just needed to keep putting one foot in front of the other, and that was a skill he’d mastered out of necessity years earlier.

That tenacity paid off when he landed a steady role as a firefighter on NBC’s Providence and another as the lone male cop on a force full of women on Lifetime’s The Division . Still, he was hungry for something meatier, and he found it in Weiner’s Mad Men pilot script.

From the first read, he felt compelled to play Don — the gifted and complicated creative director at a Manhattan ad firm — who, not unlike Hamm himself, had hustled hard to succeed in a hyper-competitive business.

And Weiner — who, as the legend goes, remarked after Hamm’s initial audition, “That man was not raised by his parents” — was convinced he’d found the actor to embody the orphaned Draper, whose prostitute mother died in childbirth and whose drunken dad was fatally kicked by a horse.

Still, execs at AMC, then a basic-cable network known for classic-film reruns, believed their first original drama stood a better shot of succeeding with an established star.

“And I get it as a business decision,” Hamm says. “But I think my relative anonymity wound up being helpful. You wanted Don to be someone you could project all this stuff onto, and at the beginning, I think part of why the character resonated with people was because it wasn’t Rob Lowe or somebody recognizable.”

But with his classic good looks and that easy confidence of leading men from an earlier era, Hamm shot to stardom following the show’s summer 2007 premiere.

“You’re never really prepared because it’s so weird,” Hamm says of the sudden, white-hot glare of fame. “But you can choose how you want to be affected by it. There are people in this industry whose sole product is celebrity, and that’s become a legitimate way in this culture to make money. But there’s another way, too, which is working hard.”

Hamm chose the latter route, taking advantage of opportunities that allowed him to stretch beyond the Draper persona on the big screen — the Ben Affleck-directed The Town and, more recently, Disney’s Million Dollar Arm — as well as show off his considerable comedic talents (Saturday Night Live and a recurring role on 30 Rock as Tina Fey’s dim-witted pediatrician boyfriend, a role that earned him another three Emmy nods).

He also scored a prominent ad campaign — for several years he’s been the voice of Mercedes-Benz in the carmaker’s radio and television commercials.

But Hamm’s commitment to the show that put him on the pop-culture map didn’t waver, say his closest colleagues, even as his schedule became increasingly packed. “He’d be in almost every scene,” Weiner says, “and he always showed up on time and prepared — especially in success, when [bad behavior] is tolerated more.”

Adds Moss: “That affected all of the actors in that we knew that was the standard. If he’d acted another way, we would’ve thought maybe that was okay. But when somebody who has [the majority] of the lines in the scene is saying them perfectly, you’d better say your two lines perfectly as well.”

Hamm’s humble Midwestern streak becomes evident when he hears any praise. “I understand that without my involvement, the show may or may not have been more successful,” he finally says. “But I know it’s been exactly this successful with my contribution, and I’m very proud of that.”

While being in Don’s dark headspace for 14 hours a day wasn’t always easy, “it was a pleasure to play that guy for as long as I did,” he says. “I loved getting those scripts, reading those stories and going to work. Man, I had a good time.

“But,” he adds, “I also had no problem walking away.”

The first thing Hamm did after the show wrapped? Take a much-needed vacation with Westfeldt. “We went to Martha’s Vineyard for two weeks, rented this beautiful house and just chilled,” he says. “I actually read a book. I forgot how much I love reading!”

Jokes aside, Hamm is taking his post–Mad Men career seriously. He’ll recur on Netflix’s Wet Hot American Summer prequel this summer and has a role in July’s animated Minions film, but at press time he was still pondering his next major move.

“I don’t have a good answer for what’s next,” he says. “I wish I did. There’re a lot of possibilities, but you only have so much time and you want to fill it with good projects that hopefully help, rather than hinder, getting the next one.”

Moss believes her good friend has just begun to show Hollywood what he can do.

“Maybe somebody else could’ve slicked their hair back and put on a great suit,” she says, “but the more complex parts of Don Draper are all Jon, and that’s what made that character interesting for seven seasons. He’s extraordinary at playing a person with duality — strength but also weakness — and I think if he’s given the opportunity to really break out and play a complex dramatic character, he’s going to f--king kill it.”

Whatever the future holds, Hamm is, as always, eager to keep moving toward it. “It’s the beginning of a new journey, and that’s very exciting and nervous-making and everything else,” he says, before hopping into his Mercedes, parked at a meter outside. “But mostly it’s opportunity. It’s like, let’s go .”