From high school teacher to waiter to award-winning actor, Jon Hamm has earned his way into the spotlight. He helped to make AMC's "Mad Men" a must-watch series as the dapper mid-century modern Don Draper. He's also shown audiences he can do serious and silly with equal aplomb, having been featured on NBC's "30 Rock" as Tina Fey's boyfriend and "Saturday Night Live." The 41-year-old is just getting started. He is currently starring in "Friends With Kids," which was written and directed by Jennifer Westfeldt, his girlfriend of 15 years.
Life wasn't always so charmed. He was very young when his parents divorced. He lived with his mother until she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He moved in with his father, who passed away when the actor was still in college. The two-hour premiere of "Mad Men" season five is Sunday at 9 p.m.
What was it about acting that kept you coming back?
I was very fortunate to have excellent teachers throughout my whole life. An acting teacher in high school and an acting teacher in college were very supportive. At a certain point in my life, after I graduated from college and was kind of looking for the next thing, I realized that acting was the only thing that I had ever really done that I had good feedback on [laughing]. I was a pretty good waiter/ bartender. Other than that, it was like, "Well, OK, let's try to give this a shot at least."
I taught school for a year after I graduated. I had been asked to come back and teach for another year. I thought about it for a little while and thought, "Well, you only really get one shot at this [acting], and I'd really like it to be now." Your returns diminish significantly the older you get in this business. I thought if I don't do it now I will probably regret it. At the ripe old age of 25, I decided to go to Los Angeles and see what happens.
Did you find there is an element of acting in teaching?
Oh sure, and I happened to have been teaching acting. You are essentially standing up in front of people and trying to get them to listen to you. You don't have good writers, unfortunately [laughing]. You know, there's certainly an element of performance to it. Most of it is just trying to convince 13-year-olds to pay attention to you. That's hard enough.
Where did you see yourself when you first got into the business -- leading man, comic actor or all-purpose performer?
You know, I don't know. It was a very strange time when I came out to Los Angeles because it was sort of in the height of the "Dawson's Creek"/CW era of really, really youth-oriented television. I was 25 years old, but I never really played my age or younger. I always sort of had this carriage of an older person, for whatever reason. I can't really give you a good reason why.
I just could never convincingly play a teenager, which was basically all the parts that were being offered at that point. It was hard for me to kind of break in. I didn't really hit my stride until I got a few years under my belt. Once I hit 30 the mood changed, and things started happening for 30-year-olds rather than for 18-year-olds.
But did you see yourself as a leading man?
Yes and no. I kind of played those parts in college and plays and what not. I certainly look a certain way, so that's a box that can be ticked. But I don't know. I just wanted to play cool parts, and I lucked into a really cool one with "Mad Men."
So after playing Don Draper, is there anything about him that has infiltrated your personality?
No, I don't think so. I mean, he's not the greatest role model. If you're gonna base your life on someone's behavior, I don't think this is your guy. But I do find him a fascinating character, a fascinating creature. Matt [Weiner] has a very good handle on this character and knows how to write it and tells some pretty great stories. I'm happy to be a part of that.
When you finally have to put that character to bed, will there be anything about it you'll miss?
Yeah, it's a great job. I love the people that I work with, and I've made some lifelong friends on the show. It will be sad when it comes to an end. It's sad when we end the season. We miss each other. We genuinely like spending time with one another, and that isn't always the case. We all started this show as kind of nobodies, you know? It was an experience we all lived together, and I think being forged in that crucible made us very, very close -- very close friends.
Did being good-looking work against you in any way, such as not being taken seriously as an actor?
I guess. I can't really speak for other people. I don't know if that's a real thing or not. I don't necessarily think of myself like the handsome guy. That's reserved for Brad Pitt and Ryan Reynolds and those guys. But it's certainly nice when people say nice things about you, don't get me wrong. I guess I never really thought of myself that way. I just wanted to be a regular person and try to portray parts as varied as I could.
Speaking of that, when you did "30 Rock" and "Saturday Night Live" you really showcased a whole new side of your talent and it was funny.
Well, thank you, first of all. I love doing that stuff. It's a really fun opportunity to get to work with people who I consider to be truly gifted, whether it's Tina Fey or Kristen Wiig or Bill Hader.
Part of my desire -- as the show has given me a certain amount of notoriety -- is to work with people who I find inspiring or challenging and exciting in some way, shape or form. The fact that I've been able to go on "30 Rock" or Saturday Night Live" or "Bridesmaids" or whatever and get to work with those people has been such a cool opportunity that you would not think would come about from playing a sort of somber, moody guy on basic cable. Hopefully, it's the beginning of a career, not the end of one [laughing].
Are you OK with the fame side of it?
It's a weird experience to go through something like this, especially when it happens so fast. It seemed like "Mad Men" sort of hit overnight and was this crazy sensation. We won the Golden Globe and I won the Golden Globe, and we won the Emmy and all this stuff happened, and you think, "Oh my God this is a crazy swirl." I live a pretty stable life. I mean, I have a relationship and a house and a dog, and it's kind of like, well, now we are living a life that has this weirdness in it. It is a strange shift.
You also had to deal with the loss of your mother and then your dad when you were still young. How did that temper you?
It's hard to say because there is nothing in my world to compare it to -- It just was what it was. Especially in retrospect, and when people hear about it they think, "Oh my God, that's so sad," and it is in many ways. I wish I could share this success with my mother and father. I think they'd be incredibly proud. I'd be happy to have them around to see it and to be proud. But it wasn't in the cards.
I was incredibly fortunate to have a group of friends whose families kind of rallied around to help me and help steer me in the right direction. As well as some pretty excellent teachers to lean on.
That was part of why I wanted to go back to my high school and teach. I wasn't in the position to build a library, but I was definitely in the position to give of my time and experience. I was thrilled they wanted me and paid me [laughing]. I really loved it, and since the success of the show I've endowed a scholarship at the high school in my mother's name. Education is such a huge part of creating worthwhile individuals. When you get a leg up early it really, really helps.