Harry Hamlin and Elisabeth Moss on Mad Men
Michael Yarish/AMC

Mad Men and Shameless actor HARRY HAMLIN draws upon real-life experience to perfect his TV roles.

Life is grand for Harry Hamlin. The veteran television star landed his first Emmy nomination last year for his edgy role as Jim Cutler on the popular Mad Men. He has a cameo in the forthcoming Jessica Biel movie Shiva and May. He recently returned on the fourth season of Shameless. And the first season of the 1980s TV series that made him a star, L.A. Law, has resurfaced via DVD. It’s the year of Harry.

In particular, Mad Men returns this month, and Cutler — a hard-nosed ad exec — is a man Hamlin is still trying to figure out for himself. It’s a challenge he relishes. “I don’t know whether he’s dark or light,” the actor says. “I have no clue how he is going to turn out.” But no matter how prickly the characters he plays can get, Hamlin tries to search for something endearing about them. “I always try to find a soft side, because everybody’s got a soft side.”

Due to a family connection to the ad business, Hamlin brings some personal experiences to this ’60s period piece. “My eldest brother was a classic mad man, and I saw him go through the whole thing,” he recalls. “He’s no longer with us — he died when he was 74 — but he behaved in exactly the same way that Don Draper behaves. You could take the two of them and put them next to each other, and they’d be almost identical.”

Despite the very adult worlds that Hamlin depicts in his varying television roles — Cutler being no exception — the actor actually summons his inner child to aid him in his portrayals.

“I’ve studied a lot of acting approaches, and I’ve studied more than I probably should have,” he admits. “But I go back to when I was 8 or 9 years old in the backyard and playing a soldier and trying to approximate what would it be like to be on the battlefield. I had a fantasy world where I pretended that I was these people. To me, that’s the greatest acting right there. … All these techniques that people learn today can really confuse the situation. All you really need to do is go back and remember what it was like to pretend. That’s what I end up doing.”