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Why Mr Hamm likes cheese

After the success of 'Mad Men', Jon Hamm started going truly wild, taking on roles in 'The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt', 'Baby Driver' and 'Good Omens' that couldn't be further from Don Draper

Jon Hamm as Don Draper in ‘Mad Men’.
Jon Hamm as Don Draper in ‘Mad Men’.

A decade before Mad Men came along, Jon Hamm showed up on the second episode of the surreal workplace comedy Ally McBeal. That 1997 gig was his first acting appearance, where he was credited—somehow both unflatteringly and flatteringly at the same time—as “gorgeous guy in bar". Hamm’s is, arguably, a kind of otherworldly handsomeness that is impossible to overlook, and nearly cost him the part of protagonist Don Draper in Mad Men (Netflix), until creator Matthew Weiner decided to take the character, a troubled, womanizing advertising executive with a weird past, and cast an actor who could make him, despite all his flaws, appear like “the perfect male".

Hamm appears decidedly less perfect in the latest episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm (Hotstar)—season 10, episode 8—where he plays a version of himself shadowing Curb protagonist Larry David in order to play a sitcom writer modelled on David. Hamm, whom everyone calls by his full name while he keeps asking them to pretend he isn’t around, soaks up David and soon emerges as an unlikely, stunning clone. Hamm is fantastic, despite being warned by one of David’s best friends about playing such an unlikeable character: “You’re a great actor, but this could be the end."

I am always fascinated by “great" actors who recklessly take on absurdly nutty roles, and when I met Hamm in London last summer to talk about Good Omens (Amazon Prime)—where he plays the Archangel Gabriel as an oblivious, tracksuit-loving buffoon—I had to ask how a man who has won every possible television award for his serious dramatic work on Mad Men now loves to cut loose and play the fool.

“I got famous because I played a brooding, serious guy," says Hamm. “So for a lot of people, that is how they see you. The first impression is the way the world sees you." Don Draper in Mad Men is one of television’s most compelling protagonists, a chain-smoking creative who makes sexism look sexy, but after seven seasons of smouldering, Hamm was eager to embrace something lighter. “I have been very fortunate to have two early adopters of my ability to be funny on screen: (30 Rock creator) Tina Fey and (Saturday Night Live producer) Lorne Michaels. They were tremendously kind in inviting me to the other side of the aisle, so to speak."

Hamm leapt at the chance, acing the Saturday Night Live episode he hosted and burning it up on 30 Rock, where he plays a recurring character so handsome that the world gives him preferential treatment. Comedy, he says, has always been the home he wanted. “I used to rent out comedy records from the library. I just loved George Carlin and Bob Newhart and Richard Pryor…. All the way to Robin Williams and Eddie Murphy, the great comics of the 1980s. And to now, most of my friends are comics. It’s just what I love." Hamm is an unsubtle funnyman: arch, over the top and, most importantly, fearless. “I love laughter, and I love how comedians look at the world from a totally different angle—and try to make you laugh, but also make you think about it."

The seas parted, and Jon Hamm started going truly wild: He played an obnoxious jerk in Bridesmaids (Amazon Prime), a personal servant in The Increasingly Poor Decisions Of Todd Margaret, a kidnapping cult leader in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix), a vacuum cleaner salesman in Bad Times At The El Royale (Hotstar), and a former Wall Street guy who still robs banks, only now at gunpoint, in Baby Driver. On Zach Galifianakis’ mock interview film Between Two Ferns: The Movie (Netflix), Hamm is described as a “hot idiot". I bet he would wear that on a shirt.

It’s hard to cut Hamm off when he’s talking about comedians—he has watched Tim Robinson’s sketch show I Think You Should Leave (Netflix) twice, and he references Monty Python frequently in conversation—but I wonder if it is the emotional toll of playing a tormented character like Draper for years, or the remarkable craftsmanship of Mad Men has spoilt him as a performer, leaving him unwilling to dip his toes into television drama again.

“Part of that is conscious," he admits. “It’s about saying I am not going to play the same guy over and over and over again, cause it’s boring. And yes, also, the fact that I got to do that at such a high level, Mad Men and Don Draper. Why would I want to do like the shitty, B-minus version of that, y’know?"

Why argue? With nothing left to prove as a dramatic actor, this hero is going full-throttle goofy. Hamm is comedically bendy enough for shows as distant as 30 Rock and Curb Your Enthusiasm, and when he’s on song, brings to mind the inspired comic lunacy of early Coen Brothers films, as well as Looney Tunes villains. “If you don’t like what’s being said," Don Draper once said, “change the conversation." Like that iconic character, Jon Hamm is an impostor—and he’s changing our minds.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.


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