Jon Hamm: I’m not Don Draper

March 24 2012: Amy Raphael meets the 41-year-old actor and finds he has all the looks but none of the attitude of his Mad Men character. Plus, are you cool at 40? Take our test

Jon Hamm is six minutes late. I pace up and down a Soho hotel corridor. I keep thinking of Tina Fey, who cast him as her boyfriend in the comedy series 30 Rock and who once said, “His beauty burns so bright that I had to put a pinhole in a paper plate and look at him like you would an eclipse.” I assume he is late because he was at the Baftas the previous night, presenting an award and telling a deadpan fart joke. I pace some more. I remind myself that Hamm is not Donald Draper. It’s the bad adman, the king of Mad Men, we’ve all fallen for. Not the actor.

At 10.07am, I am led to the interview room. There is Hamm, 41, on the sofa, in plaid shirt, brown jacket, jeans. He half stands up and offers a strong, dry handshake. I ask how he’s doing. “Very well, thank you,” he says, gulping black coffee. His hair isn’t tamed by product; his eyes are slightly bloodshot. There is stubble. I say, “You look slightly…” Then I stop. Telling Hamm that he looks rather rough probably isn’t such a great idea. He offers a dazzling smile and helps me out. “Amazing?”

One of the first times he turned up on the Mad Men set, the writers (the core group of whom are, unusually, women) thought Hamm was the delivery boy, because when he’s hanging out in Los Angeles, he favours a beaten-up St Louis Cardinals baseball cap and, whenever possible, shorts. He also has the same problem that stunning-looking women often face; he has a good brain and wants to be taken seriously. The more we talk, the less I notice his looks.

We discuss the phenomenal success of Mad Men – “The show has a cultural impact that is undeniable. I don’t think any of us saw it coming” – and the nostalgia it inspires.

Hamm, 41, pours himself more coffee. “I definitely think part of the fascination with the show is people thinking, ‘Wasn’t it awesome then?’ But then you look back and think, ‘Really?’ Not if you’re weren’t white, wealthy and male. It was as challenging to be around then as it is now. Life is hard. Sometimes, it’s a bummer.” He shrugs.

Until the end of season four, Don Draper is, at heart, melancholic. Anything might happen in season five, of course, but it’s hard to imagine him stumbling across beatitude, to see him without the weight of the world on his shoulders. Is Hamm himself any good at happiness? That smile again. “I think so. Happiness is fleeting. It’s ephemeral. It’s changeable, moveable. But I think that ultimately it is achievable. Otherwise what the f*** are we doing? When you’re a kid you don’t get it. Happiness is PlayStation and a pair of t**s and jerking off. I mean, who gives a s***?” He frowns. “I’ve lived a long enough life… I understand how valuable it is to be happy.”

Hamm has, perhaps, learnt to be happy the hard way. Born in St Louis, Missouri, his father, Dan, was a businessman and his mother, Deborah, a secretary. They divorced when their son was 2. He lived with his mother and saw his father, whose business fell into decline when St Louis ceased to be a trading gateway, at weekends. When Jon was 10, his mother died of cancer. He moved in with his father and paternal grandmother and got on with life. His grandmother died and then, when Hamm was 20, his father died, too. Mad Men creator and writer Matthew Weiner has said that after auditioning Hamm for the first time, he turned to the casting agent and remarked, “That man was not raised by his parents.”

It was, I suggest, a devastating observation. Hamm sits in silence for a moment. I notice that his nails have either been bitten or cut incredibly short. “I guess so. But Matt tends to speak in hyperbolic terms. We’re all raised by our parents, however long we have them. I happened to have my mother for 10 years of my life and my father for 20. So I was raised by my parents. But I was also raised by the collective community. I think that’s true for most people. I don’t feel there’s anybody in the universe who grows up with two individuals who are the sole interpreters of their life existence.”

A waiter brings in a plate of smoked salmon, cream cheese and bagels. Hamm lifts off the silver dome and puts the plate to one side. “People often say, ‘Wow, your childhood was hard.’ But I had a lovely childhood. I had good friends. I played kickball [a version of baseball], soccer… I just had fun. The better question is possibly, ‘Would I have loved to have had my mother for longer than ten years?’ Absolutely.”

I ask if he was angry about losing her. “I’m sure at some point… I’m sure if you had a different job and we were having a different conversation, then we could talk about that in depth. About anger and life choices and all that other stuff. But not here, not now. I’m sure the basic answer is yes, at some level. I loved my mum and she was a tremendous influence on my life. She was very keen on my attending a particular high school in St Louis, a liberal arts school. She instilled a desire to learn. I felt an obligation to achieve from a very young age.”

Hamm was a curious child who was a good all-rounder. “I tried hard. I paid attention. I’m a great believer in the power of educators to change someone’s life. It’s the greatest thing we have on this planet and we should support and value it. Over the past four or five years, we’ve started to look down on achievement in education. Oh man. It started with George Bush and it continued with Sarah Palin. This idea that you don’t actually need to go to school…”

It seems kind of backwards, I say. His eyes flash. “Kind of backwards? It’s the dictionary definition of backwards.” He is on a roll now. “We’re in the middle of this ridiculous Republican primary in the States. It’s just ri-dic-u-lous!” He is almost shouting. “There is a man [Newt Gingrich] who says we are going to colonise the Moon. With no trace of irony.” He pauses and laughs. “Am I making any sense?”

Hamm directs an episode of the new Mad Men series, but is diffident about his directing skills, saying it’s only TV, not film. He was, he says, lucky enough to watch Ben Affleck direct himself in The Town (in which Hamm played an FBI agent), and his own long-term girlfriend, Jennifer Westfeldt, do the same in their forthcoming film, Friends with Kids. “Watching Ben and Jen, I thought, ‘OK, it’s difficult to direct and act at the same time, but it’s possible.’ I’m not here to change the game; I just want to service the show that I love. I can’t speak for anyone else on the show, but I had a wonderful time.”

I say he obviously can’t give away any story lines from season five (Weiner is notoriously protective of his material), but Hamm jumps in. “I can! Would you like me to? So. It’s on the Moon. There are a lot of Muppets this year. Ice skating, too. It’s a little different.”

I wonder what he’s like on set, given that Draper is in nearly every scene and that filming demands 14 hours on, 12 hours (thanks to union rules) off. Is he ever grouchy? He stretches. “What do you think? Do you think I’m laid-back?” After less than an hour it’s a tough call, but I tell him I’d say yes. “I think you’re right. But I’m not going to sit here and say I’ve never been grumpy on set.”

After five seasons, Hamm knows how to slip into character, how to put aside his own liberal, egalitarian, feminist attitude to life and become Don Draper.

“Matt is a wonderful writer and he’s created an incredible character, an indelible character. I’m very happy to do another two seasons of Mad Men.” He pushes his fringe off his forehead. “I am significantly different to Don. I am not this brooding, sad, angry guy. I’m not this person I play on television.”

Don is a serial philanderer; Jon has been with Westfeldt, a writer, director and actress, since 1998. By the time they met he had graduated in English from the University of Missouri, escaped St Louis and spent three long years with the William Morris Agency being offered absolutely no acting jobs. He ended up dressing soft-porn film sets. Westfeldt, whom he’d met through a mutual friend, invited him to New York to appear in a play and they’ve been together ever since.

Friends with Kids, in which he co-stars, is about two best friends who watch their pals procreating and decide to have a child together. Westfeldt wrote the script when she noticed how she and Hamm were one of the few couples in their social circle yet to have children. “People often ask us about not having kids. It can be tough sometimes. I didn’t realise it was a kind of imperative. Having children is a huge, huge decision. It’s utterly life-changing. It’s a decision Jen and I have talked about a lot but we haven’t pulled the trigger, so to speak.”

Hamm is also often asked why they aren’t married. “I always say, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ Jen is a talented woman. And a beautiful woman. Most importantly, she’s a deep thinker… We’ve been together for 14 years. Longer than almost all of our friends have been married.”

Then Hamm’s publicist calls time. We are startled – we’ve barely got started. He apologises. “I get crazy off-piste. I just simply talk. Oh, no! I feel s***. Ask me one more question before you go.” OK. In your high-school year book, what were you voted “most likely to”? His face darkens. “Most likely to stay in St Louis. Which I found so insulting. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, you couldn’t have gotten it more wrong. I am outta here no matter what.’”

I leave Hamm smearing cream cheese on a bagel in a rather vigorous fashion. But we speak a few weeks later on the phone – circumventing publicists, he phones me directly from his Los Angeles home. It’s 9.30am his time and he’s just walked his dog.

We talk about how Mad Men will draw to a close after its seventh season. Yes, he knows the ending. No, he won’t tell me. He is, of course, aware he will for ever be associated with Don Draper, but points out that roles in The Town and Bridesmaids show that he isn’t a one-trick pony. He will be sad when Mad Men finishes; he loves talking to Weiner about story lines and has become particularly close to John Slattery, who plays Roger Sterling, and Elisabeth Moss (Peggy Olson).

I ask about appearances on Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock. He is surprisingly funny on both shows, but again he deflects attention, now from his acting skills. “It all comes down to the writing. I’m not funny. I’ve been fortunate enough to stand next to really funny people… Kristen [Wiig, an SNL regular with whom he acted in Bridesmaids] is an incredibly talented comedian. The first time I presented SNL I was thinking, ‘I. Am. Out. Of. My. Depth.’ But I tried hard and it turned out OK.”

Hamm is also, it turns out, a devoted Anglophile. “I am fascinated by you witty f***ing Brits, whether it’s Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie or Ricky Gervais. I remember watching The Day Today. God. Chris Morris! This is the most intensely funny motherf***er I’ve ever seen in my life. And Steve Coogan! Steve is a truly funny person. And dark and twisted and sad.” I think he’s going to pause, but on he goes. “I had not seen this man Rob Brydon until I watched him with Steve in The Trip. Now I want to see a lot more of him.”

Then he should watch the very dark cult series Human Remains and Marion and Geoff, in which Brydon plays the saddest man in the world, a minicab driver whose wife has left him. “I love Marion and Geoff already! I’m on board. The saddest man ever driving a taxi. I love it.”

Hamm, banging around the kitchen as he makes coffee, seems in no rush to get off the phone. He is, I decide, as regular a guy as is possible given the global success of Mad Men. We talk about the possibility of him doing a play in London at some point and then, bizarrely, the weather. “Is it c***py over there? Believe it or not, it’s a gorgeous day here.” When he finally gets off the phone, I am left thinking of Hamm in his shorts and baseball cap, hanging out with his beloved dog, taking the day slowly. And I forget all about Don Draper.

Season five of Mad Men is on Sky Atlantic from March 27. Friends with Kids is released on June 29

Take the test: are you cool at 40?

Jon Hamm’s Don Draper has raised the bar on middle-aged cool. So, how do you measure up? By Polly Vernon

1 You know it’s practically pop cultural heresy, but you are currently of the opinion that:

a) Channel 4/Obama favourite Homeland isn’t as good as everyone says it is. Honestly, it’s a touch formulaic. And don’t even get you started on the improbable casting of Damian Lewis’s child-bride wife…
b) E4’s Skins has been on a downwards trajectory ever since series three. It’s all about Fresh Meat these days.
c) One Born Every Minute is gratuitous! It makes you feel really rather queasy at times.

2 Your sunglasses can be best described as:

a) Persol’s foldaway Steve McQueens, with the tortoiseshell frame and the mirror lens. They make your heart sing every time you slip them into their custom-designed hand-finished leather pouchlet.
b) Zany, super-bright crazy shades, which have a whiff of the Lolita heart-shape about them.
c) Lost or broken, somewhere, somehow… You really must try to get another free pair off the cover of a magazine at some point. (Do they still do that sort of thing? The magazines?)

3 How do you feel about Twitter?

a) You are entirely bored by it. Online photo community Instagram is infinitely superior: it’s outward-looking; it encourages the evolution of one’s aesthetic; it strikes you as less needy than Twitter… (You post very, very sparingly, of course; only if an image truly warrants the sharing.)
b) Brilliant! You’ve hit the 850 follower mark; you’re updating ten times a day minimum; you’re using it to drive traffic to your blog, and (if you say it yourself) your usage of hashtagging is inspired…
c) Is that the one Stephen Fry likes? Or is that The Facebook?

4 Your idea of a fab night incorporates:

a) Charming levels of tipsiness acquired via a bottle or two of fine wine (which you pretend you know little about, because Knowing About Wine is gauche these days), high-grade tapas and a fancy flatbread (carbs are cool again).
b) Roflcopter (this year’s legal high, although it probably won’t be legal for much longer, eh? Eh? If you get my meaning…), consumed in a pop-up dive bar hidden away behind an ostensibly basic kebab shop, in the company of a gang of unruly mates (whom you only just met, through some mates of your mate).
c) Scott & Bailey, sausage and mash.

5 How are you wearing your jackets currently?

a) “Shoulder robe” style, for that is how all the French fashion eds are doing it. Those of you who are a little unsure: the shoulder robe involves draping your jacket – or your blazer, elegant cardie, etc – around your shoulders, having resisted the urge to pop your arms through its sleeves. It’s terribly chic.
b) In the form of oversized studded biker jackets, or ironic Varsity baseball jackets, the voluminous bulk of which balances the silhouette on your superskinny bejeaned lower half.
c) It’s a little chilly for jackets, no? You thought we were still in the anorak zone. Are we not? Oh dear…

6 You have recently discovered the music of:

a) The Black Keys. A bit late in the day, you know, but you’re on it now…
b) Azealia Banks… “I was in the 212, on the uptown A,” etc. (You’re so over Lana Del Rey.)
c) That Adele’s got a lovely voice, hasn’t she?

7 Which of the following keeps you awake at night?

a) The latest download on your Kindle. You said you’d never get one; that it was the beginning of the end of civilization wrought in microchip and sold on Amazon… Oh, but now! Now, you adore it!
b) The last of the Roflcopter.
c) Fear of your own prostate.

8 Which of the following is your all time favourite Carol(e)?

a) Bouquet.
b) Um… You’ve got a fave Cheryl – does that count?
c) How can one possibly choose between the three greats: Middleton, Vorderman and Kirkwood? How?

9 How are your summer plans shaping up?

a) Forward planning’s a bit vulgar. You’ll probably Mr & Mrs Smith it somewhere lastminute dot com; or how about the Île de Noirmoutier? (You’ve heard it’s the new Ischia.)
b) Your Coachella “look” is planned, your Secret Garden yurt reserved; all that remains is to refine your Bestival fancy dress concept.
c) A week in a B&B in either the Lakes (as showcased in Rory McGrath’s primetime ITV1 show) or Cornwall (ditto, Caroline Quentin).

10 When someone asks you how old you are, you tend to:

a) Lie up. There’s such elegance in middle age, assuming you do it well.
b) Change the subject sharpish.
c) Monologue for at least 15 minutes while struggling to remember. Which is probably a consequence of ageing, so that might tell you everything you need to know without you actually having to commit to an age. (Is it… 4…2? 44?)

11 Emoticons are:

a) Common.
b) A vibrant and legitimate addition to the lexicon. Language evolves, get with the program, Nana ;-] (that’s a smugface, FYI).
c) Is this about The Twitter again? It is, isn’t it?

12 When all else fails, what can you rely on to calm you down?

a) The Archers.
b) Xanax.
c) A lovely bath.

MOSTLY As

Hearty congrats to you! You are cool in exactly the right way for a fortysomething. You are age-appropriate cool, you are Don Draper cool – just without the serial infidelities, low-level alcoholism and fraudulent past. Presumably. If you have them too, good luck to you, and respect for persisting with the elegant façade.

MOSTLY Bs

No, no… You are too cool, which makes you not actually that cool at all. You are mutton dressed as hipster; you’re trying much too hard – and it’s all a little unseemly. Tone it down.

MOSTLY Cs

Yes, and you’re not cool at all. Which is fine. You presumably don’t care. No one this uncool could possibly care. Could they? Yet you should know that your cool-aversion might mean you’re missing out on some things. Might I humbly suggest you start with an inaugural boxed set of Mad Men?