“Everyone is fake newsing themselves into their own weird little rabbit hole.”
In 2007, a then mostly unknown Jon Hamm quietly starred in the new AMC series Mad Men. In the following years, the show would be recognized as one of the greatest and most influential series of televisions “golden age”. By the time the show ended in 2015, Hamm had won two Golden Globes and an Emmy for his performance as ad man Don Draper. Since the series finale, Hamm has become a prominent figure on the big screen. His latest film project is Brad Anderson’s Beirut, in which Hamm stars as former U.S. diplomat Mason Skiles. The Tony Gilroy-penned film follows Mason as he returns to the Middle East to negotiate the return of a colleague from the very men who killed his wife years earlier. Following the Beirut’s Sundance premiere, I met with Hamm to discuss modern depictions of Middle Eastern conflict and what it was like to revisit a 2012 episode of Mad Men six years later.
Your character in the film is very smooth-talking kind of guy. He seems to be able to talk his way into, or out of, any situation. You’ve played characters with that quality before, is that something you’re attracted to?
I think you’re basically talking about the hero. Essentially playing the lead, playing the hero. I think the interesting thing about this is that when we meet Mason first he is that kind of smooth-talking diplomat. He has a beautiful wife, beautiful house, beautiful wife, beautiful everything. That, of course, all goes away. I think what ends up happening to Mason is that cynicism takes hold and he loses track of what it is that he does, which is negotiate, make deals, get people in the room, compromise, talk. He loses sight of that and I think the latter half of the film is his process of getting that back together and reminding himself that problems aren’t retractable, there’s nothing that should be dismissed out of hand in a conflict. If you have conflict you have to resolve it and the best way to do that is to get in front of somebody and talk to them face to face. In our culture now, when everything is conducted through a screen or on a comment board, not in real time or real life, it’s easier to fall prey to that same cynicism again. No one’s listening; everyone is reading their own version of the truth. Everyone is fake newsing themselves into their own weird little rabbit hole; but it still holds true that when you get two people actually talking to one another face to face, generally without a camera on them, you can make a deal. I think we’re in our kind of process as a culture in the same place that Mason was in act two of this thing. I hope we’ll pull ourselves out in the same way and figure it out.
Tony Gilroy wrote the first draft of this script nearly thirty years ago. So much has changed since then, and the film seems timelier now than it could have been in the nineties. Do you know how the film changed over since its inception?
I think the funny thing is that it was Tony’s second script. Tony was Tony Gilroy, capital T, capital G back then. He wrote it on spec; right after his first feature which was The Cutting Edge. So he wasn’t exactly the guy you go to to write a highly-charged political thriller. “Oh, that guy who did the ice skating romantic comedy?” But the talent is still there. Tony’s amazing gift as a writer is that he’s writing things that are forceful, and energetic, and smart. But he wrote it in 1991, I was still in college, pre-internet. Pre-9/11, obviously. Pre-Clinton. So we were still kind of in that Reagan-era. The ’80s weren’t even cool to look back on then. Everyone wanted to forget about the ’80s! So, there was a lot of stuff back then when it was first kicking around that people just didn’t see the point of. Nevertheless, there was still a lot of buzz around it; people wanted to be in it. I don’t know if these names are true, but at some point, I think Johnny Depp was attached to it, Brad Pitt may have been attached to it at some point, John Frankenheimer was going to direct it. It just didn’t happen for whatever reason. I think that as time progresses and we start looking back on the ’80s as the proper past, as a period…look at like Stranger Things or something like that. Enough time has passed where that gives an interesting patina to this whole story. That was interesting to me. I remember living through the bombing in ’83 or ’82, whenever it was, I remember hearing the news about the civil war. I didn’t really know what was going on, I was a kid. As we went through this whole thing, learning about the history of that, and learning how they never really resolved their issues and learning where international, well-funded institutionalized terrorism is now, over the last thirty years, is where we’ve gotten. We took that exit ramp to sort of start that fire but we never really tended it or put it out. So, here we are thirty years later. I think if anything the story has gotten more resonant given the time that has passed.
The film is dealing with a climate in these countries that remains equally as fraught today.
It’s just as bad. Again, if you stop talking, that’s when you start fighting. I think that there is still a way to solve this. I think the will is there, I think people really want…look, what Mason knows that is important is that human beings are all the same. Different colors, different hairs, different fingernails, different eye color, different cultures, but we’re all the same. We want to go home at night to a safe place, put some food in your belly, you want somebody to love you, someone you can love back. We’re all the same. Nobody is born with hate in their heart. I think that’s what we see with Mason’s relationship with Kareem in the film. He’s trying to remind the players in there that they have to get back to that humanity and remember that none of us are here for very long. It’s an easier time if we spend it not fighting.
Did Tony, Brad, and yourself ever discuss the current conflicts in the Middle East?
I saw some review that said that I’m no Jared Kushner [laughs]. I think it’s hubris to go in and say that anybody can come in and solve it all with one fell swoop. I think that’s the mistake that some people make, that there’s an easy solution. It’s not easy. You’re talking about thousands of years of history and religions and faith, things that are so hard to pin down. It’s not easy, but it is doable. I don’t know if you saw this play called Oslo…
I did! Amazing.
Brilliant piece of writing, brilliant direction by Bartlett Sher, great performances. It’s a similar thing, I got to meet [Terje Rød-Larsen], the Norwegian guy that it’s based on. I was fascinated. I said, “What is your life?” He said, “I talk to people. I just talk to people.” He’s talked to Putin, he’s talked to Assad, he’s talked to every world leader there is. He said, “Right here it’s always easy. It’s when the door closes that you have to pick up the phone that it becomes difficult.” I think it’s doable. I’m an eternal optimist. I’ve had my fair share of hardship in my life but I never want to go too far down that hole. I believe in the human condition, I believe in the human spirit. I think that we all, really, at the end of the day want the same things. If we can help each other get them, great. We live in a crazy country right now. Our political reality is a warped and weird as I’ve ever seen it. I do know that whether you’re from the rightest red state or the bluest blue state you all want the same things. You just want to get there by a different road. Our job as people in the middle, negotiators, is to find the solution that helps the most.
I was definitely thinking of Oslo after watching Beirut.
It’s a cool play. The guy that wrote it went to my college. He went to Missou, smart guy. It’s a case study in a lot of ways. It’s making something dramatic out of something that’s kind of not. Two people sitting in a room negotiating. Not necessarily the most High Wire Act – which is what this script used to be called – of storytelling. When you can introduce people to the real stakes of what’s going on and what’s happening – and they have such amazing actors in that as well – it’s a pretty cool thing.
Both Oslo and Beirut ultimately suggest that solutions come from conversation.
Yeah, face to face. A big part of what Oslo said is, and we said it in the film too, “Get me in a room. I need to be in front of that guy. I need to see his face.” Phone calls aren’t going to do it. Letters, telex, whatever, not going to do it. You need to get in a room with these people, because then you’re two human beings connecting, talking. We see it in the film when Mason goes to Israel and talks to the Israeli Government. The guy lies to his face and he knows he’s being lied to. He gets in the room the Arab contingent, he knows the PLO guy. That’s when work gets done. You can bluster and bluff, and tweet stupid shit, but if you really want to get it done, you get in a room.
Since we have to wrap up, I’m going to go a bit off topic. You know, there are so few actors that get to work on a piece – I’m talking about Mad Men, I don’t know why I need some dramatic buildup – I mean, something that is so culturally significant and something that is so important to people. Now that it’s been a few years since you’ve returned to playing Don Draper, how do you look back on that experience?
I’m very proud of everything we did on Mad Men. It was an interesting thing to look back on it. Especially to see where TV is going now because it was the beginning of something different. It was the end of something familiar and the beginning of something different. It was right at the beginning of the smartphone era, the social media era, the recap era, all these things were happening at the same time. It wasn’t just us, there was also Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, other shows, I’m not just naming AMC shows, those were the first to come to mind. We’re part of this cultural upswell. You see it now in the shows that are resonating with people, whether it’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Stranger Things, or The Crown, these high-quality incredibly rich, dense, well-made things. This is going to sound super narcissistic, but I was flipping through channels and an episode of Mad Men happened to be on.
Do you remember which episode it was?
It was called Lady Lazarus, from season five. I hadn’t seen it since it aired. It’s the episode where Megan wants to quit. They’re pitching Cool Whip and Megan wants to quit and become an actress. That’s a whole drama. There’s a really funny scene with me and Lizzie [Moss] where she has to fill in for Megan.
Just taste it!
Just taste it! Just eat it! “Don’t you think I should just taste it?” It was so…it was just [laughs]. Mad Men does not get recognized for being as funny as it is sometimes, but there are some really funny parts in it. The episode ends with Don dropping the needle on “Tomorrow Never Knows” from the Beatles album [Revolver]. He plays through it and them picks up the needle thinking, “I don’t get this shit,” and then he goes right to bed. I was like, wow, that’s a good hour of television. I texted [Creator Matt Weiner] saying, “Buddy, I don’t know if you’ve seen this in a while but I just watched it back again. It holds up. It’s really good. Congratulations.” So I am aware that that kind of stuff doesn’t come around very often and how lucky I was to go through that whole experience. That’s the reason I have a career for the most part and I’m very proud of it and very happy that I got to be a part of it.
Beirut is now playing.