Jon Hamm mines Russian lit in darkly comic 'Young Doctor's Notebook'

Jon Hamm mines Russian lit in darkly comic 'Young Doctor's Notebook'
Jon Hamm costars in "A Young Doctor's Notebook," for which he is also a producer. His costar is Daniel Radcliffe. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

In the Ovation series "A Young Doctor's Notebook," Jon Hamm and Daniel Radcliffe star as young and old versions of the same character, an unnamed physician assigned to a tiny hospital in a remote village in revolutionary Russia. Think "Northern Exposure" meets "Dr. Zhivago."

Adapted from a collection of semiautobiographical stories by Mikhail Bulgakov, it's a surprisingly low-profile, offbeat project for two actors known for iconic roles, but there are plenty of reasons to watch other than the chance to see Harry Potter and Don Draper on screen together.


Though it's a period piece with a literary pedigree, as is "Mad Men," the darkly comic and surreal "A Young Doctor's Notebook" is also in keeping with the quirky material Hamm has gravitated toward outside of that groundbreaking AMC series — shows including "Archer," "Childrens Hospital" and the IFC comedy "The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret," with which it shares a producer and several writers. 

Sporting an impressive beard, Hamm explained his attraction to "A Young Doctor's Notebook," his taste for British comedy and his post-"Mad Men" plans over a cup of black coffee recently in New York City.

You're attached to this project as both an executive producer and an actor. How'd you get involved?

People get a strange idea when they see the words "executive producer," because it doesn't actually mean you did anything. That's the producer. [Laughs] My good friend and producer Clelia Mountford had said, "If you ever come across something you want to produce, let me know." And I said the same. And for whatever reason, we happened to be talking about Russian literature one day and she sent me this book and I was like, "Well, this is interesting." This is a book of short stories, and by its nature, that seems to be very episodic. I knew how British television works [the series originated on the British network Sky Arts], which is it doesn't need 22 episodes or this vast order. I envisioned it as kind of a little one-off miniseries.

I always wanted to work in the U.K. I've been an Anglophile for quite some time and it was a chance to work with some talented people. And I kind of had the idea, "What about Dan Radcliffe?" This is back when we just had the source material, we didn't really have a script and I would just produce it, maybe not even be in it. Then we had the idea of getting these two sides of the character in the same scene.

So you were already a fan of Russian literature?

I was an English major, so I read Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn and Bulgakov. Other than Chekhov, there's not a lot of stuff that gets produced from the Russian writers over here. So it seemed like a fairly fertile ground to be plowed. Other than "The Master and Margarita," not a lot of people know a lot of Bulgakov's work. He's a really fantastic writer.

How did you decide to cast Daniel Radcliffe?

I'd only met him once in passing at an awards show, but I'd seen him on "Saturday Night Live," and I knew he'd done "Equus" and "How to Succeed [in Business Without Really Trying]" on Broadway, and I thought, I bet he could say yes to this. It wasn't the world's craziest idea. It wasn't like I was going to go to Tom Cruise and say, "Would you do this?" Little did I know that he's a huge fan of Mikhail Bulgakov. He spent his 20th birthday going to visit the guy's house in Russia. It speaks to Dan's character. He's a curious individual, and I mean that in the best possible way. He seeks things out and wants to learn about them. This is a young man who, as a kid from the age of 13 to 20, didn't have to do anything other than show up on set and point his wand and say fake Latin. He had a very -- no pun intended -- charmed life. So to have the wherewithal to actually seek out this knowledge, these experiences, and to grow as an actor and human being is a tremendous compliment not only to him but to the people he has chosen to surround himself with. He is just a lovely, lovely, lovely guy. There are plenty of cautionary tales about child stars, but Dan is not one of them.

The series has an unusual tone.  

I don't know if this show would have gotten made in the U.S. You look at British shows like "Black Mirror" or "A Touch of Cloth," it's just a weirder sensibility there. I'm glad we got to make it over there because it was received in the spirit it was made. It wasn't required to fit into some other box; it was just allowed to be this little weird curiosity.

You called yourself an Anglophile. Are there specific aspects of British culture you're into?

I just have been watching British TV for a long, long time. Growing up, you could only get BBC imports on PBS. This was before there was cable and Internet. I would watch things like "Blackadder" and "The Goodies" and "Monty Python." There was a really good adaptation of "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," and "Doctor Who," there were all of these cool shows that were just different from what was on American TV. This was before you could really videotape things; you had to really want to watch it, and I really did. 

Are you still a "Doctor Who" fan?


I kind of like the old, crappy, lo-fi, DIY version of it, where the Daleks looked like they were literally made out of cardboard.

Is there any possibility for a third season? 

The reason we called it "A Young Doctor's Notebook and Other Stories" is because we ran out of the "Young Doctor's Notebook" to adapt. So there could be another iteration of it. I'm not sure if the same two characters would work. Part of what made it appealing is we were working from this very specific source material, so we were able to have one foot grounded in this certain sense of reality. If it goes further, it would probably have to be a real stretch of an adaptation. We would be jumping off from a pretty precarious point. So I don't know.

Now that you're done on "Mad Men," are you looking to do more producing?

We'll see. I'm not getting any younger, so my ability to be relevant in a culture that is completely driven by what 14-year-olds want to watch is waning rapidly. I have hopes that I'll continue working.

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