Working at a string of restaurants to make ends meet, Hamm made a promise to himself. “I gave myself five years,” he says. “I was, like, ‘If I’m not actively working by the time I’m 30, then the market has spoken.’ ”
The market spoke in three, when he landed the Providence gig and officially became a working actor. He was 29. Bit parts led to bit parts — one of which, in a movie written by and starring Westfeldt called Kissing Jessica Stein, led to their now decade-long romance.
In 2006, Hamm was handed a script for a new TV drama set in the 1960s advertising world. The series, called Mad Men, was created by Matthew Weiner, once a writer for The Sopranos, and AMC — the network formerly known as American Movie Classics — was rebranding itself around the show. Naturally, the network wanted a big name to build their flagship scripted drama around; Weiner didn’t. He was firm on the fact that his antiheroic protagonist — a mysterious, smooth-talking, philandering Madison Avenue ad executive named Don Draper — would be better if he were played by someone the audience didn’t already know.
Though it took seven auditions, Hamm eventually beat out more than 80 other actors for the role. But getting the job was the easy part. Hamm admits to wearing more on his frame that first season than the stylish slim-cut suits preferred by his character; he had on his shoulders the fate of a series — and of a network, to boot.
As history has shown, Hamm handled it with panache. Mad Men, currently in its fourth season, has won back-to-back Emmy's and three Golden Globe awards for best drama series. Hamm won a Globe for his acting the year the writers’ strike quashed a live awards show. (“That’s the best way to win one of those things, as far as I know,” he says of not having to give an acceptance speech.) Critics don’t just universally praise the show; they coo over it like mothers over newborn babies. And much has been made about Hamm’s ability to make such a dubious character relatable — even enviable.
“I think people are uncomfortable liking [Don] because maybe they identify with him a little too closely,” Hamm says. “Because, as we’re finding out day by day, everybody’s had those issues at some point in their life — whether it’s fidelity or job dissatisfaction or any of that. And that’s what we explore.”
It’s grim stuff, to be sure. So when Hamm was tapped to host Saturday Night Live in 2008 and killed it (with skits like “Jon Hamm’s John Ham,” a line of edible bathroom products), people were surprised — everyone except those who know him well. The self-described “comedy nerd” — who as a kid used to go to the library to check out albums by Bob Newhart, Bill Cosby, Steve Martin and George Carlin — counts Sarah Silverman, Jimmy Kimmel, “Sports Guy” Bill Simmons, 30 Rock’s Jack McBrayer and longtime buddy Paul Rudd among his friends.
Just as bit part once led to bit part, today, big parts lead to big parts. And rather than trudging through endless streams of auditions, now the work comes to him, like his recurring guest spot on 30 Rock or his role in this month’s Boston-cops-and-robbers heist flick, The Town, co-starring and directed by Ben Affleck.
“That’s kind of been the weirdest thing — this situation where people call you and ask you if you want to do things rather than your having to go beg to do them,” he says, bewildered. “I much prefer this method of finding employment.”