In the Driver’s Seat

With the silver screen at hand and a farewell to Mad-ness, Jon Hamm moves full speed ahead.

 

Jon Hamm takes his work very seriously. He does not, however, take himself very seriously. He could, of course—the “Mad Men” star is at the pinnacle of the TV world, and starting this month, he’ll be riding a string of acting successes to even loftier heights: movie stardom. With the leading role in Disney’s new baseball movie “Million Dollar Arm,” opening May 16, Hamm will connect with a whole new audience while saying goodbye to a familiar one when “Mad Men” wraps its final season. As Hamm transitions into a new phase of his career, the actor embraces the “weird double-edged sword” of Hollywood celebrity life—but only so far as it helps him continue to do the work he loves.

When ALIVE spoke with Hamm in 2008, the St. Louis native was just starting to catch the eye of paparazzi and fans alike. Fast-forward to 2014, and he’s so closely identified with Don Draper’s dark, sultry persona on “Mad Men” that he welcomes the feel-good role of sports agent J.B. Bernstein as an opportunity to do something completely different. Of course, it helps that Hamm was a skilled baseball player growing up and still follows the Cardinals religiously. “I’m a little bit long in the tooth, unfortunately, to play a baseball player in a movie, but I can certainly play his agent,” the 43-year-old quips.

 

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Joking aside, the perennial Emmy and Golden Globe nominee is anything but over the hill, and relishes the diversity in store for him post-“Mad Men.” But talking about the show’s conclusion after “the better part of 10 years’ work” is clearly emotional. “It’s been a large portion of my life, a big reason why my career has been successful,” he says. “I’ve met good friends and a lot of incredible actors and seen people do really good work. I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity. It’s bittersweet to see it end; it’s going to be a challenge to let it go.” He pauses. “But you have to let things go.”

THE BIG LEAGUES
It’s well publicized that the real-life Hamm is nothing like his TV character, but filming heavy stories on a daily basis does set a certain tone. He chose “Million Dollar Arm,” in part, because the script from writer Tom McCarthy‰ÛÓabout cricket players from India who win the chance to try out for a Major League team‰ÛÓpresented such a contrast. “He’s able to imbue these stories with a lot more heart than you’d generally find. My day job playing Don Draper, there’s not a lot of heart there,” Hamm says, laughing. “It’s a little darker than most.” He was also spurred by the chance to work with the producers of other sports movies inspired by actual events, notably [Mark Ciardi and Gordon Gray of ] “Miracle” and “The Rookie.” “It was an opportunity to work with some people whose work I respected. That’s been kind of something I’ve followed in my career.”

But what Hamm really wants to learn is where he stands with moviegoers. “That’s a big part of the opportunity ‰Û÷Million Dollar Arm’ presented me, to top-line a movie and see if there’s an audience out there that wants to see me do this,” he explains. Clearly the studio thinks there is‰ÛÓHamm’s image dominates the golden movie posters, even though his co-stars Suraj Sharma and Madhur Mittal have plenty of industry cred from “Life of Pi” and “Slumdog Millionaire,” respectively. Hamm’s savvy about the intangible factors that contribute to a movie’s success, from marketing to audience experience. He’s been in the game long enough not to get “wound up” over things he can’t control, and when it came to the actual filming, “I approached it the way I approach anything, which is to work as hard as I can on it and try to be good, try to be, you know, watchable,” he says with another deep laugh.

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Hamm’s high school football days at St. Louis’ John Burroughs School.

One of the most influential lessons Hamm took from school was an unshakable belief in his acting ability‰ÛÓand it sustained him for many dry years after he moved to LA at age 24. (His first meaty TV part came in 2000, and he didn’t land the “Mad Men” role until 2007.) It’s the same advice he says he would share now with students were he still teaching. “You’ve got to believe in yourself. It sounds like the cheesiest, tritest thing you can say, but it’s true. No one else really will until you do.”

Now, of course, it seems crazy not to believe in Hamm, whatever he decides to do next. He says he’s not entirely sure, but do the movie credits multiplying on his bio hint at a direction? “I honestly don’t know yet,” he says. “I don’t want to close off any avenues. I’d love to do it all.”

For depth of emotion, it will be hard to match the seven seasons of “Mad Men.” Hamm has his own take on its appeal: “We don’t shy away from heavy topics. People are thinking about it, not just having it on in the background.” Though he plays a character described variously as dark, dismal and a “morose crumbling alcoholic,” Hamm’s view is steadfastly positive. “I can’t tell people what to think about the show‰ÛÓyou either love it or you don’t. And I love it. Love it. And I hope other people do too.”

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Hamm stars in Disney’s “Million Dollar Arm,” opening May 16.

ROLE PLAY
Crossing genres comes naturally to Hamm, and it’s one of the reasons the National Association of Theatre Owners honored him with its Award of Excellence in Acting during CinemaCon, the kick-off convention for this year’s summer movie season. It adds to an already glittering award repertoire, including a 2007 Golden Globe for “Mad Men.” Hamm’s early stage, TV and movie experiences ranged from recurring roles in shows like “Providence” and “The Unit” to the 2001 film “Kissing Jessica Stein,” which starred and was co-written by his partner since 1997, Jennifer Westfeldt. More recently, he produced and acted in her 2011 film “Friends with Kids.”

“I don’t find myself drawn to one genre over another,” says Hamm, whose next film projects include a Southern drama based on William Faulkner’s novel “The Sound and the Fury” and “The Minions,” a “Despicable Me” sequel. “I like anything that’s good,” Hamm continues. “Fortunately, I grew up in a household and in an educational environment that enabled me to find a lot of things interesting. I was encouraged to seek out different things‰Û_[like] musicals, older plays and a bunch of stuff in between. Those are the things that I feel comfortable doing in my career, so hopefully I get to do a lot of them. Except musicals. Nobody wants to hear me sing, trust me!”

Hamm grew up all over St. Louis‰ÛÓfrom Florissant to Creve Coeur to Normandy‰ÛÓand graduated from John Burroughs School in Ladue. He lived with his mother until he was 10, when she died of cancer. Then he moved in with his father, whose own untimely death when Hamm was 20 left the actor to rely on friends, extended relatives and the surrogate family of his college theater department. After earning a degree at Mizzou, he came back to live in Valley Park, University City and Clayton and to teach at his high school alma mater. “I look at my time at Burroughs with incredible fondness,” he says. “I’m really glad I got to do it. Some of my kids went on to have pretty good careers, and that’s really cool. I’m thrilled that Ellie Kemper, for example, has done so well.”

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Hamm’s high school football days at St. Louis’ John Burroughs School.

One of the most influential lessons Hamm took from school was an unshakable belief in his acting ability‰ÛÓand it sustained him for many dry years after he moved to LA at age 24. (His first meaty TV part came in 2000, and he didn’t land the “Mad Men” role until 2007.) It’s the same advice he says he would share now with students were he still teaching. “You’ve got to believe in yourself. It sounds like the cheesiest, tritest thing you can say, but it’s true. No one else really will until you do.”

Now, of course, it seems crazy not to believe in Hamm, whatever he decides to do next. He says he’s not entirely sure, but do the movie credits multiplying on his bio hint at a direction? “I honestly don’t know yet,” he says. “I don’t want to close off any avenues. I’d love to do it all.”

For depth of emotion, it will be hard to match the seven seasons of “Mad Men.” Hamm has his own take on its appeal: “We don’t shy away from heavy topics. People are thinking about it, not just having it on in the background.” Though he plays a character described variously as dark, dismal and a “morose crumbling alcoholic,” Hamm’s view is steadfastly positive. “I can’t tell people what to think about the show‰ÛÓyou either love it or you don’t. And I love it. Love it. And I hope other people do too.”

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Hamm gives STL’s own Imo’s Pizza some love on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” in 2013.

CELEBRITYDOM
What Hamm doesn’t love so much is the public eye attached to the breakout success of “Mad Men.” The years spent watching those at the top of the show biz scene seem to have given Hamm an innate understanding of how to craft a public image under which he could have a private self‰ÛÓeven while mastering the bestdressed, sexiest man-of-the-year persona. The occasional overzealous comment about his male anatomy aside, Hamm has learned “to take the good with the bad. That’s the way it goes,” he says. “I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity that I’ve had, and I certainly can’t pooh-pooh that, because it’s been a pretty fun ride so far‰Û_It’s an interesting life, and it’s kind of hard to explain to people who don’t have it. It’s strange when people think they know you simply because of what they read on a website. A lot of friends in St. Louis know me better than most out here.”

The passions Hamm doesn’t mind sharing with the public include his love of the Blues and Cardinals. He managed to make one of the 2013 World Series games‰ÛÓ”which was fun, but less fun than it would have been if they’d won!” He describes himself as a hockey die-hard. Speaking just days after the American team’s penalty shot victory over Russia in the Sochi Olympics, Hamm praised the Blues right winger who scored the winning goal: “No one was prouder than me to watch T.J. Oshie do what he did in the Olympics.”

And then there was the memorable interview on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” in September 2013, where Hamm shoveled Imo’s pizza into his mouth faster than the late-night host could ask which he liked better, Kimmel’s homemade pizza or the “square beyond compare.”

The lighthearted, comedic side of Hamm‰ÛÓthe side that freely admits to growing up on a TV diet of Monty Python and “Fawlty Towers”‰ÛÓ probably helps a good deal when it comes to dealing with celebrity life. And there are certainly perks, as he’d be the first to admit. Travel, for example. “You know, one of the best ways to go to a foreign country is to have somebody else pay for it,” he joked, when talking about his time in India to film “Million Dollar Arm.” “India was incredible‰ÛÓthere’s an example of working in a place that’s completely different. Totally different everything. And I’d never been there, so it was certainly an eye opener.”

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Hamm with longtime partner Jennifer Westfeldt at the 65th annual Primetime Emmy Awards in September 2013, where he was nominated for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series for his role on “Mad Men.”

Britain, on the other hand, is “different enough yet familiar enough to be interesting. I loveworking over there.” He can’t fly under the radar there either, though; “Mad Men,” after all, airs from Spain to Singapore. But Hamm’s age and maturity give him an edge when it comes to dealing with it. “I can’t imagine being Shia LeBoeuf or Lindsay Lohan or any of these kids who found success so young, because there’s so much out there that’s false in every way, shape and form. You have to have a pretty good bullshit detector, and very few young people have that. Also very few old people,” he says wryly. “I’m certainly not saying I’m better than most, but age does help.

“Everyone likes to have smoke blown up their ass,” Hamm continues. “It takes a lot to see through it all and understand what the real stuff is.” That said, the “real stuff” can be pretty ephemeral too, as it involves being in the right place at the right time. Hamm makes no bones about his big break: “It’s a lot of waiting around and working hard until the right thing comes along, honestly. You’ll hear ‰Û÷no’ a lot in this career, and you’ve got to get past it until somebody finally says ‰Û÷yes’‰ÛÓand I got really lucky.”

For a long time, Hamm lived in the shadow of his partner’s success. Westfeldt’s thriving career on stage in New York, in films (both writing and acting) and on TV eclipsed Hamm’s until “Mad Men” came along. Like any couple, Hamm says, they talk about work decisions and things they may do together‰ÛÓ”that’s just part of being in a relationship.” The difference, of course, is that when his shooting schedule took him to India, Westfeldt was working in New York. Over the winter, though, Hamm had time to catch up with her as she prepared for an off-Broadway production of Steven Soderbergh’s “The Library,” which opened April 15. Combining work with pleasure, the duo planned to spend plenty of time “seeing things playing,” according to Hamm, who was on hiatus from filming for a few weeks. “There’s a lot of theater that we’re hopefully going to be able to do while we’re there‰Û_We have a couple of friends doing shows, and we’re going to try to see as many as we can.”

The pride in others’ accomplishments extends to Westfeldt, especially. “She’s got her own stuff going on, which is fantastic. I’m impressed and inspired by her,” says Hamm, whom Westfeldt cast in a play before they started going out in the late ’90s. “She’s a very talented and motivated person. She’s been successful in a lot more arenas than I have, from Broadway to off-Broadway.”

And while he’s got time, does he have plans to visit St. Louis? Maybe. But, he adds, “My oldest sister is a grandma‰ÛÓmy niece has a son‰ÛÓand I would love to see him. Hopefully [I’ll get there] during baseball season!”

 

Photo credit: Cover and Inside Photos by Peggy Sirota/Trunk Archive

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