Jon Hamm wants you to know that he isn’t Don Draper.
“There are similarities,” Hamm says of himself and the ultramasculine 1960s ad exec he’s played on AMC’s Mad Men for the last seven years. “There are a lot of similarities. [But] I don’t want to be the Lothario who, like, gets all the ladies. I do that in my day job. That’s Don Draper. I don’t need to play that in a movie or a franchise. It’s much more satisfying to me when I have the opportunity in a feature to do something like J.B.—someone who actually has a heart.”
The J.B. that Hamm is referring to is sports agent J.B. Bernstein, and the feature he’s referring to is Million Dollar Arm. Out Friday from Disney, Million Dollar Arm is based on Bernstein’s real-life scheme to save his floundering agency by flying to India and staging an American Idol-style contest to find a pair of untrained locals who can hurl baseballs at major league speeds—Indians whom Bernstein can transform, after less than a year training in America, into professional pitchers, thereby creating a billion new baseball fans.
There are two crazy things worth noting about Million Dollar Arm. The first is that Bernstein’s plan actually worked: despite a disastrous initial tryout, the winning contestants, Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel, were eventually signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates. They wound up playing in the minors for a couple of years.
The second is the Million Dollar Arm is the first movie to feature Jon Hamm—a modern-day matinee idol if ever there was one—in a leading role. This month, Hamm told The Daily Beast what attracted him to Bernstein, why leaving Don Draper behind has been so difficult—and which TV show he’d like to star in with Bryan Cranston. Excerpts:
This is your first big starring role in a major motion picture. Why J.B. Bernstein? Why was this character right for you?
It’s interesting. I’m a big baseball fan, but I’d never heard this story. Which surprised me. I read the script and I was like, “Am I crazy?” I flipped back to the title page. “This is a true story? Wait a minute.” Then I Googled around a little bit and found out this had actually happened. “No way,” I thought. “There’s no way they turned these two kids who had never touched a baseball into professional-quality pitchers.” I played baseball my whole life. I know exactly how hard it is to do that. But this guy, J.B. Bernstein, had made it happen. Out of nothing. From idea to execution to success in, like, a year. What? That was what really got me.
These kinds of family movies can very easily be, like, the music swells and it’s over-earnest and sappy and sentimental. Million Dollar Arm doesn’t do that. It lets the actual emotion of the story breathe. Part of it is the incredible performances of Suraj and Madhur, playing the boys. But part of it is just the way you keep saying to yourself, “This actually happened. And this guy, J.B., actually did go through this transformation.”
I don’t think I ever auditioned for Dawson’s Creek…no one was going to believe that I was in high school. I did not look like a high school kid.
Were you more ready to play Bernstein at 43 than you would have been earlier in your life?
Sure. There’s an emotional maturity that you gain just by living, and I’m certainly more mature than I was when I was 25—as you’ve seen if you’ve been online recently. [Laughs] I certainly have way better hair now. But yeah, there is an understanding of both sides of this character arc—the part where J.B. is obsessed with deal-making and money, but also the back end of it, where he’s seeing his relationships for what they are and realizing what’s really important.
Bernstein is a slick, handsome wheeler and dealer, so everyone is going to be making the Don Draper comparison. But how is he different than the character you play on Mad Men?
Unlike Don Draper, J.B. has this epiphany. In the third act of the film he realizes that he fucked up. I was talking to him at lunch today, and he was like, “I fucked up their first major league tryout.” He said, “In the heat of the moment, that’s when I’m usually the best. But I watched that whole fiasco happen. I could have stopped it. I could’ve taken them back to where they warmed up, where they were throwing in the mid-90s, bam bam bam. I could have taken one scout in there at a time. But I didn’t. I froze. It was all on me.” And that was the moment he realized he couldn’t let these kids down. That’s a big moment in a human being’s life.
And that’s different than Don?
[Incredulously] Than Don? Yeah. Don has his own way of behaving in the world, and he’s in a particularly tricky spot right now. He’s got a lot of lessons to learn. I’m holding out hope for him—I think we all are. But he’s a very, very different animal. [Laughs]
You said you were a baseball fan. What’s your strongest baseball memory?
Winning the World Series. 1982. Downtown St. Louis. It was Game 7. We beat the Milwaukee Brewers. I was 11 years old—and I was [big smile]... My mother had passed away a year prior. I remember thinking, “I can’t believe I’m at the World Series. I can’t believe the Cardinals are in the World Series. I can’t believe that we won the World Series.” I was a little kid, and I was surrounded. You’re jostled around. You’re at nut-height compared to all the adults. And it was the most exhilarating experience I’ve ever had. I was like “THIS. IS. HAPPENING. WE WON!” [Makes cheering crowd noise.]
You’ve said before that you auditioned for shows “like Dawson’s Creek” when you first landed in Hollywood. But did you actually audition for Dawson’s Creek?
I don’t think I ever auditioned for Dawson’s Creek. First of all, they shot that in North Carolina. But also no one was going to believe that I was in high school. I did not look like a high school kid.
Which parts did you lose out on because you looked older than your age?
I just remember one audition I had. They brought me in to play the thirtysomething father of a teenager. I was 26. I was like, “What? A dad?” And I looked over and Peter Gallagher [who is 15 years older than Hamm] was sitting there. I was like, “He looks like somebody’s dad. I’m 26! What’s happening here? This is bananas.”
Do you remember which show it was?
I don’t. I do remember auditioning for The O.C., though. And not getting it. It did not happen.
I have no idea. Some guest star.
Did you think at the time, “I’m going to wait this out. Eventually the roles will catch up to me”?
I gave myself until I was 30. I came out here when I was 24, 25. I wasn’t going to be out here indefinitely. I thought, “That’s enough time. That’s enough time for the market to either accept me or reject me. That’s a large enough sample size.” And I turned 30 on a movie, which was great. I made it under the wire.
You haven’t had an easy life. Your parents split up when you were 2. Your mother died when you were 10. Your father died when you were 20. Do you think of yourself like Don—a man with a difficult past who’s had to reinvent himself?
I mean, look. We all have sad stories. Mine just happens to be a little more colorful. And yeah, there are similarities. There are a lot of similarities. But I don’t ever think of myself in any comparative way to Don Draper. It’s just a wonderful part that I’ve been able to play for a long time. I’ve enjoyed it. It’s been the singular experience of my acting career, and it’s coming to an end. It’s going to be hard to say goodbye.
How are you preparing?
I talked to Bryan Cranston about it. I talked to Tina Fey about it. Both of them played iconic characters on TV and they had to say goodbye to them.
Did they give you any advice?
They’re like, “It sucks. It’s hard.” And I was like, “I know, I know.” And they’re like, “Yeah... no, you don’t. But you’re going to find out.”
I recently saw some footage of the last day on the Breaking Bad set. There was lots of hugging and crying. Make sure you come equipped with Kleenex.
It’s inevitable. Fortunately, we got the chance to write our ending. I’m glad I don’t have to write it. I’m glad that’s someone else’s job. But it’s inevitable. You can’t wish it away. You can’t push it off indefinitely. You have to be like, “Like the beginning, everything has an end.” You have to accept that. I’m turning very Zen. [Laughs]
Obviously, starring on Mad Men has helped your career in so many ways. But how has it made it harder?
The one thing you don’t want to fall into is any kind of pigeonholing or typecasting. That’s for audiences to decide, though. Your responsibility as an actor is to make people forget about the other guy.
But it’s also up to you in choosing your projects. I don’t want to be the Lothario who, like, gets all the ladies. I do that in my day job. That’s Don Draper. I don’t need to play that in a movie or a franchise. It’s much more satisfying to me when I have the opportunity in a feature to do something like J.B.—someone who actually has a heart.
So that was part of the attraction to Million Dollar Arm—that it was uplifting in a way Mad Men isn’t? That J.B. isn’t Don?
Don is such a rich, iconic role. Do you think it’s going to be hard for you to leave him behind? For audiences to see you as anyone else?
I just know I’m immediately identifiable as that guy. It’s been a long time, and a lot people have seen the show. The success of the show has engendered that. Which is great! But it’s easy to conflate the two. People already think that I’m like Don Draper. I’m not. I don’t know what to tell you. But yeah: it’s incumbent on me to lessen that as time goes on.
Is this season of Mad Men going to take Don somewhere he hasn’t been before? Are we going to learn anything new about him?
I hope so. It’s very strange because we have this bifurcated final season. It’s hard for me to think of it as two seasons, or in any other way besides the way we normally do it, which is as one long season. I hope that we do see Don someplace else—someplace new. In the sense of, like, I hope he finds peace and balance in his life. I hope he finds a way to wrestle this demon away. Here’s hoping.
Speaking of: have you found out how Mad Men ends?
I don’t know how it ends, actually. It hasn’t been written yet. We’re shooting the last seven episodes now, and we are very, very early in the process. Hopefully it will be satisfying. That’s all I can hope for.
Would you do another multi-season dramatic television show?
I wouldn’t mind doing it, depending on the project. There are so many amazing stories out there now. It’s like…
…the movie-TV hierarchy is being reversed—or at least balancing out.
I think balancing out is a better way to say it. There used to be this divide. Definitely. A Grand Canyon between TV stars and movie stars.
Now you see Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson doing True Detective.
Exactly. It’s honestly about the project. It’s about the work. Those boys don’t need to do TV. They’re doing it because they really, really responded to the material. And it was wonderful—really cool to watch.
So we’ll see you on True Detective next season.
True Detective Season 2. Me and Bryan Cranston.