By John Crook
If you think Don Draper, the driven 1960s Manhattan ad executive at the center of Mad Men, is secretive to a fault, his real-life alter ego, Jon Hamm, knows how to play things pretty close to the vest himself.
The actor chooses his words carefully when talking about the two-hour Season 5 premiere of the Emmy-winning AMC series debuting Sunday, March 25. Like his boss, series creator and executive producer Matthew Weiner, Hamm is close to phobic about giving up any spoilers for the new episodes. He won’t even divulge whether Don and Megan (Jessica Paré), the secretary he proposed to in the Season 4 finale, are still together and starting a new life together as the new season opens.
“I just don’t want to give anything away,” Hamm says. “Sorry. But we certainly set that up at the end of last season. On the surface at least, Megan is very dissimilar to Betty [Don’s ex-wife, played by January Jones], and you could say that is Don trying to find a person in his life who represents positivity and promise rather than a person who feels stuck in the past and reminds him of how old he is.”
Hamm’s costar Elisabeth Moss, who plays Peggy, is equally as tight-lipped about the series’ return. “All I can say is that I’m very happy about this season — ecstatic, really. I’ve probably had more fun this season than any other season playing her, and I’m proud of where she is and where she’s gone. She has reached a really fun place to play — sorry, that’s all I can say; it’s so awful.”
Making it even harder to predict things is Weiner’s revelation that there has been a time jump since the end of Season 4. Hamm stops short of confirming that the jump is roughly equivalent to the almost year and a half since the end of last season, but hints that may actually be the case.
“We try to keep the show rooted in very real time because we’re not The Simpsons,” Hamm says. “Our characters move through time and get older, instead of living in a kind of nebulous, constant state of fourth grade. Additionally, we have children on the show, who very much age, because you can clearly see them have a growth spurt or something like that.”
That’s especially true of Kiernan Shipka, now 12, whose precocious and surprisingly complex performance as Don’s daughter, Sally, has landed her a frequent spot in the show’s opening credits, along with Hamm, John Slattery, Christina Hendricks and the other main stars. Look for her to play a key part in Season 5 as well, Hamm says.
“The funny thing about Kiernan and the character of Sally is that Kiernan has been on the show longer than she hasn’t been on the show in her life,” he explains. “It’s been amazing to watch that little girl grow up. She’s an incredibly talented young actress.”
“I think Sally is going through a lot of things in the world and rapidly becoming an adolescent in a time when becoming an adolescent was very confusing and oddly infused with a lot of freedom and power that wasn’t available in generations past, in the sense that a lot of the music and the marketing and advertising was starting to be geared toward younger people. Sally is right smack dab in the middle of that demographic.
“She’s also Don’s oldest child and certainly there is a dynamic between father and daughter, especially when Don has been as much of an absentee as he has been. That’s something that we try to explore.”
Hamm, 40, hadn’t even been born during the decade when Mad Men is set, but growing up with older siblings left him with what he calls “quasi-memories” of the ’60s. He’s up to speed on most of the events of that era, both cultural and political, but working on the set, where all magazines and other props are scrupulously faithful to the period, sometimes gets a little surreal.
“I remember picking up a New Yorker magazine from 1961 and there was a review of a show that just opened called How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying starring one Robert Morse [who plays Bertram Cooper on Mad Men],” he recalls. “I walked over to Bobby and said, ‘Do you remember this?’ and he said, ‘I do. It was a very nice review.’”
While Hamm has earned four Emmy award nominations as best actor for his intense work in the AMC series, he also has earned praise for his comedy work via three well-received hosting spots on Saturday Night Live, Emmy-nominated guest appearances as Tina Fey’s gorgeous but clueless boyfriend on 30 Rock, and a hilarious cameo as Kristen Wiig’s crass friend with benefits in the movie hit Bridesmaids.
Incredibly, the actor insists he isn’t really a funny guy.
“I just have the very good fortune to often stand next to funny people,” Hamm says. “I consider it a tremendous honor that they even ask me. When your day job is playing a guy as dark and as serious as Don Draper, it’s not a no-brainer for someone to go, ‘Hey, yeah, let’s get that guy to host SNL!’”