More than 500 days ago, a man fell out of the sky.
Since the opening credits for "Mad Men" aired for the first time on July 19, 2007, the imagery of the solitary businessman tumbling downward has become familiar to fans of the critically acclaimed AMC drama, even though the show has been away for a long time. The man's downward trajectory reflected the difficult life of handsome ad man Don Draper, whose slick facade almost completely unraveled over the course of the show's first four seasons. And the sparse, haunting imagery of the show's opening credits were a stylized distillation of the show's oft-copied mid-century aesthetic.
I recently sat down in a New York restaurant to talk to Jon Hamm about playing Don Draper on "Mad Men," which finally returns after an almost year-and-a-half break on March 25. Though we talked about a whole range of "Mad Men"-related subjects, one of the things on Hamm's mind was that falling man.
Prior to our conversation on that rainy Manhattan day, a few media outlets had stirred up a bit of controversy about the "Mad Men" "falling man" promotional posters that had sprung up in New York on bus shelters and buildings in recent weeks. Some relatives of 9/11 victims said the poster of was too evocative of the tragic events of that day (though others said they weren't bothered by the posters).
In the first part of a two-part Hamm interview that will appear on HuffPost TV, Hamm also discussed what it was like to direct the Season 5 premiere of "Mad Men;" the making of "Friends with Kids," a new film directed by his longtime girlfriend, Jennifer Westfeldt; Don's complicated relationship with his protege, Peggy, and many other things.
But first, we discussed the promotional posters for the long-awaited fifth season of the show. One of them features Don looking at an unclothed female mannequin, and the other one is an isolated image of the falling businessman, who, as Hamm pointed out, has been an iconic part of the "Mad Men" visual vocabulary for five years.
This interview has been edited and slightly condensed.
You know, the posters advertising the show have been springing up all over. What do you think of them?
Which one, the [falling man] teaser or the [mannequin] poster?
Well, both of them, if you have different thoughts.
I thought the teaser was great. People got up in arms, apparently because of 9/11, but I didn’t understand that. That image has been in our show since the beginning, so I don’t understand why all the sudden now people are focusing on it. I think it did exactly what it needed to do, which was remind people about the show in a very graphic, beautiful, iconic kind of way.
I think the image on the [mannequin] poster this season is the same thing. I think it’s supposed to be evocative. It’s supposed to be something that makes you think, first of all, about our show and remember what our show is about, and second of all, it’s an image that makes you go, "What does that mean?" You look at it twice, instead of just [seeing] a bunch of faces on a poster.
The best movie posters are ones that draw you in, and you're like, "Oh. What is that? What’s going on?" Without being completely obtuse and completely like weird for weird’s sake.
Do you worry about the times between seasons in terms of people’s awareness of the show?
Sure, but first of all, it’s completely out of my control, and second of all, it’s not unprecedented in the world of television. There have been these longer-than-normal hiatuses and we’ve never ascribed to any sort of regular network schedule, so the weirder thing for us as a cast and as a show is debuting in the spring rather than the summer. We’ve never done that. We’ve only ever come out in the summer while we were shooting, so in many ways, we have this kind of instant feedback of having the show air while we’re shooting it, so we can get a little boost. "Oh my God, it’s back on the air." People are excited.
This year, we finished the whole season [before it aired]. We didn’t have a press conference or anything. The first time we talked about the show was [at a Los Angeles press event in January], which was well after we had finished shooting, and it was like, "All right, people are excited." It was like doing a radio show or something, where you didn’t know if people were watching or paying attention, because they kind of weren’t. We were just making a show.
So yeah, in that sense, we worried about it, but it was like, "Well, we didn’t choose for it to be off a long time." That decision was made at the network and studio level, and it was a premeditated decision on their part. They wanted to shift the schedule so they could put “Breaking Bad” in the summer and ["Mad Men"] in the spring and launch more shows. [It was] a totally calculated move that networks do, which is fine. And then we got a chance to go back and make our show, which was fun.
Was it one of those "absence makes the heart grow fonder" things?
Well, there’s obviously two sides of that equation -- "Absence makes the heart grow fonder" or, "Out of sight, out of mind." Aphorisms only get you so far. I was able to make “Friends with Kids," which was exciting and a significant portion of our life for Jen and I. So it was nice to have a break, be able to go make that movie and then also have time to do nothing. I did a play reading and a little thing on ["The Increasingly Poor Decisions of] Todd Margaret" and just some weird little fun things that weren’t crazy, stressful or anything.
Was that kind of nice to have that rest? Because the last five years have been kind of a rocket ship.
That was great in a lot of ways. Everybody, from the cast and crew to the writers, was excited to come back. When we got back, it was like, "Holy shit! First day of school!" And it was, "I missed you, I haven’t seen you in so long. What have you been up to?" The fact that I was directing the first one we shot -- people were like "I can’t believe you’re directing. This is hilarious! We’re so excited for you and proud of you," and all this other stuff. It was really a very collegial and familial atmosphere and I think we all missed each other genuinely. We’re a very tight cast. We hang out a lot.
There's already a lot of speculation on the new season, just based on the episode titles that are floating around out there.
I love it. We live in a world where all information is so instant and global and defined, even though often, it’s defined incorrectly. It used to be that if you wanted a fact about something, you could look in an encyclopedia and you could find the facts. Now, if you want to find out about something, you go to Wikipedia and you find some of the facts and some very strange material that’s been added. So we do live in a world now where all information is sort of subjective, but it’s all instantly obtainable.
What makes our show kind of fun for people is that we don’t spoil it. We don’t pre-release it and we don’t let it [get out there early]. I mean, we give it to critics and to people who obviously have to write about it, but as a cast, we’re not teasing it, we’re not setting it up. It’s like, "Watch the show or don’t, but you’re going to watch it in the order it’s presented." That’s the way I want to experience drama. I hate going to a play and having it overhyped to me and so I sit there and I'm like, "This isn’t that good."
I cover my eyes for movie trailers because they give away everything.
And actually I don’t read a lot of the film critics that I like and respect until after I've seen the movie, because they’re way worse than TV critics about giving key parts of the story away.
That’s the reason I like your writing, and that’s the reason I like Alan Sepinwall and Tim Goodman and a lot of these guys, because I enjoy our show and I love watching it. I watch it and then I go read what you guys say about [each episode], and I think, "Oh my God. A) I'm thrilled that they got that, that they understood that nuance that we built into the show on purpose, and B) I just like an intelligent discussion about something I find creatively fulfilling."
Things got so dark for Don in Season 4, which was my favorite season, by the way. There's still some element of danger to the double-identity thing, but it seemed to me that there has been some kind of integration between Dick Whitman and Don Draper. Am I misreading that?
I don't think you're misreading it. Matt and I talked about this. We have these long lunches before the season starts where we sit and we talk about theme in very general terms. We talk about character. We talk about, "Where is Don? What do you think is going on?" I think I remember saying to him, "You know that point in your life where you hit a certain age when you realize like the shit you cared about when you were young doesn’t matter?" This stupid shit that you held onto, whether Mary Jane likes you -- whatever it was. It's just, this stupid shit doesn’t matter anymore. It’s Danny Glover in “Lethal Weapon” -- "I'm too old for this shit."
There is a moment I think in any adult’s life where they’re just like, "Who cares?" Like, "I've got to get up and go. I don’t have time for this." When Betty found out [about the Dick Whitman identity] and people know and the world kind of knows, Don is like, "Let it go." Then Anna dies and that’s his last connection to it. There is a very real idea of being found out by the military and those attendant issues, not only personally, but also for the business. But at a certain point, I think Don is like, "This has been around my neck for so long. I'm literally too old for this. I cannot worry about it anymore."
Since we're talking about Season 4, I've got to bring up "The Suitcase." It’s now probably been like two years for you since you made it, but at the time, did you know how special that episode was?
I did. I really loved that script. There have been a couple scripts that Matt has written [like that]. One is the pilot. One is an episode called "5G."
I loved "5G."
That was a first season episode that Matt wrote in a weekend.
I'll never forget Don walking down that hotel hallway, and not knowing what he was going to do.
Yeah, you didn't know if he was going to murder someone. It was scary. It’s a really weird one-off scary thing. That was written out of sequence. It was written to put in between two [other episodes due to] a network note. They were like, "We need to know more about this guy, give us a little taste." Matt wrote it in a weekend and it was a beautiful episode of television. We found out about Adam and all that stuff. We were like "Wait, what? This guy is who?"
And that double identity became a lynchpin of the whole show.
I remember reading it. Matt had kind of written it hurriedly, I read it and I was like, "Dude, you did this in a weekend? Unbelievable!" "The Suitcase" is like that. First of all, I love Elisabeth [Moss, who plays Peggy]. She is a wonderful, wonderful actor and a wonderful person to work with. It came at a time when I was completely fucking exhausted. We had shot [much of "Mad Men's" season] and I had shot “Bridesmaids” and I had shot pickups on “The Town” and all this crazy stuff was happening.
And also, the character had gone through so much stuff that season, by that point. I was like, "Fuck, Matt, you’re killing me! What other degrading [things] do you want to do with this guy?" [Laughs.] It at least ended the downward spiral, where Don is having to deal with all of this shit that he doesn’t want to deal with. He sort of unwittingly or consciously co-opts Peggy into his madness and they share a crazy night and it’s completely asexual. It’s completely platonic. It’s two friends, who maybe aren’t capable of helping one another, trying to help one another in whatever way they can.
But there is a baseline level of trust there.
And love. It was a lovely script and it was, I think, in many ways, it was payoff of four years of these people being in each other’s worlds. The first episode of the show, the pilot, is Peggy’s first day at work. [By "The Suitcase,"] she’s finally like, "Okay, enough." And Don is not going to like shrink away from a fight.
He wanted to fight.
Yeah, he did. He was spoiling for it.
It’s like what I love about that episode, and the show, is that there are so many levels to it. On one level, he’s really right. They pay her to work.
He was very right!
But at the same time, he wanted to just mess with her because he felt awful.
He feels bad. I mean, I'm sure you’ve had this experience, as a working woman in the world, of your superior putting their shit on your shoulders and blaming you for something you had nothing to do with. Because either they fucked up or they’re pissed off about something, you get the full blast. I've certainly had that. I've worked in enough restaurants where the chef's going through a divorce or something, where I'm like, "All right, I'm just serving the salad. Come on now."
And then ["The Suitcase"] resolved itself in such a lovely way, with so many echoes of the pilot. With her hand on his -- [it's this] connection that has been earned over many years. It's that sense that Peggy has earned her spot at the table and proven it over and over and over again. She’s earned her friendship with Don, and Don is not friends with a lot of people. He's friends with Roger, but there is a lot of judgment on how Roger lives his life that Don does not agree with. I think there is a baseline of respect for Peggy that Don doesn’t have for a lot of people.
She understands him on some basic level.
When, I thought about, it was not that they’re the same person, because they’re not, but they have a lot of similar qualities. One of the big ones is ambition. They both want to be something other than what they are, what they were born into.
And they know they can do it.
And they know they can do it. When you grow up, whether you grow up in [a little town in] Pennsylvania or in Brooklyn, you look at the big city and you think, "That’s where I want to be."
But it’s hard.
It’s hard, but it’s doable.
Check out Part 2 of this interview, which will be posted tomorrow, in which Hamm talks about directing "Mad Men," Season 4's pivotal episode, Don and Joan, Don and Megan, "The Wire" and where his career may take him.