Don Draper is losing his voice.
Well, not Don Draper, Jon Hamm, who plays the beleaguered, enigmatic adman on AMC’s “Mad Men.” And he’s not precisely losing his voice; he’s just raspy after several hours of voice-overs for Mercedes-Benz commercials this morning. But as the now four-time Emmy nominee relaxes against the leather-esque couches of the SoHo Grand Hotel’s Club Room, cadging extra water and fidgeting with the buttons on his slate-gray dress shirt, there’s definitely a catch in his authoritative, familiar tone.
“I’ve literally been talking for the last five hours,” he says.
Still, it’s easier to imagine Jon — or even Don — with a hitch in his voice than doing what costar Elisabeth Moss calls “a mean Valley Girl accent.” She’s heard it: While filming the episode both have submitted to TV academy voters (Moss has a nomination this year as well), “The Suitcase,” the pair broke a lot of pent-up tension by firing off SoCal accents.
“I’m crying and she’s going through craziness and we’re screaming at each other,” recalls Hamm. “Then cameras would stop rolling and we’d launch into this ridiculous spoiled Valley Girl routine. It was funny to us — probably not as funny to the crew members who were forced to listen.”
The thing is, the entire fourth season of the Emmy-winning series could use a little levity. This was heavy stuff: Creator Matt Weiner spent virtually every episode letting the ceiling fall in on Don Draper, who had spent the previous three seasons letting his oh-so-perfect 1960s life slip away. The fourth season found Draper in a rooming house, divorced, journaling and swimming, then bedding nearly every skirt in his vicinity.
“It was a satisfying thing to see [Don] down this season,” Weiner says. “The story line necessitated [Hamm] being more emotional and showing more muscles in his acting. To look at that character, someone who is reserved and a presence on camera even without dialogue, to have an excuse to let go of that reserve and be adrift was satisfying.”
Fortunately, Weiner spent his frequent-flier miles well five years ago when he sent Hamm out to New York to meet the AMC suits who were skeptical about casting him. They were sold the moment they met him. Weiner and his casting agents knew what they were doing in choosing Hamm for the role — he’s the real-life version of Weiner’s vision: a square-jawed, heroic type with just enough darkness behind his eyes to make him unreadable. Hamm pulled off one of the toughest demands on an actor: making audiences like his character, even against their better judgment.
“Jon gets a lot of comparisons to old movie stars like Gary Cooper,” Moss says. “They’re correct, but not because of the way he looks. To me, what makes him similar to those movie stars is you don’t know if they were going to hit you or kiss you or start crying. In ‘The Suitcase,’ when he breaks down and cries … it was so personal and raw it was almost uncomfortable for me. To see a man who seems to have it all break down like that is so powerful.”
That uncoiling of power through vulnerability may be what finally sells Hamm to Emmy voters. For the last three years, he’s been judged worthy of a nomination but not a win. This year, the prize may be his to lose, as his biggest competition, network-mate and three-time winner Bryan Cranston, is not eligible this year for “Breaking Bad.” His fellow competitors are a mixed bag, including the habitually ignored Hugh Laurie (“House”), the sentimental exiting Kyle Chandler (“Friday Night Lights”), “Dexter’s” talented but equally ignored Michael C. Hall and first-time nominee Timothy Olyphant (“Justified”). Newcomer and Golden Globe winner Steve Buscemi (“Boardwalk Empire”), though, represents very tough competition.
Hamm isn’t going to toot his own horn but acknowledges that the race is different this year. “The short answer to whether there’s an advantage because [Cranston] isn’t there is ‘Yes.’ Simply because he’s not there. So someone else has to win…. But if you’re doing what we do just to win awards, you’re focused on the wrong thing.”
So what does Hamm focus on? Well, in addition to a powerhouse fourth season of “Mad Men,” he’s spent his free time in the last few years showing off his funny bone on “Saturday Night Live,” “30 Rock” and this year’s “Bridesmaids.” In theory, that shouldn’t affect his chances, but in reality, Hamm is more of a man for all seasons — and has two “30 Rock” guest actor nominations to prove it.
Not that he’ll admit to actually being funny. “I’m the worst joke-teller on the planet,” he says with a grin. “I forget the punch line. [‘Mad Men’ costar] John Slattery can tell a joke. I put too many words in — whatever that gene is, I don’t have it. Mine is more of a dry wit — which is probably short for ‘totally not funny.’”
Still, while Hamm loves “30 Rock” as a TV show, he knows it was also a canny move: He’s played a lot of authority and upstanding citizen roles. Pigeonholing post-"Mad Men” was going to be inevitable if he hadn’t taken action.
“It was about not wanting to be the guy in the suit and the fedora,” he says. “After ‘Mad Men’ happened, there was a very short time before I got 15 scripts where you’re playing the guy in the hat and the suit. There wasn’t some grand plan, but it was mainly about trying to be contemporary.”
With the series contractually wrapping up after Season 7, keeping his options open is perhaps the real prize Hamm seeks. The former drama teacher and late-blooming star spent years in the trenches (he estimates he’s done “100 to 150" TV episodes over the years) and has grown into his leading man status. For Weiner, this is a major asset on set: “He’s no prima donna,” he says. “There’s no ‘Don’t look at Mr. Hamm’ on the set. This stardom happened after a long struggle, and he’s not vindictive. A lot of people would be.”
In any case, the last thing Hamm intends — Emmy or no — is to take another job in the service industry. “I’ve worked in restaurants longer than I’ve done anything else,” he says. “It’s a good, honest living. But I’m lucky: I set off on a path 20 years ago to do this, knowing the likely outcome was failure, or at least a middling existence. Anybody who tells you they deserve anything in this career is delusional. I wake up every day and wonder, ‘What did I do in a past life to have all this craziness happen to me?’”
He thinks about it a moment, finishes his water and grins. The rasp is gone and there’s no Don Draper in him at all: “Maybe I saved a dog from a burning building. Maybe that’s it.”