Catching Up With Mad Men‘s Harry Hamlin

TV Features Mad Men

Season six of Mad Men brought about a lot of unforeseen changes to Sterling Cooper, but perhaps one of the most welcome of these was the addition of veteran actor Harry Hamlin (LA Law, Clash of the Titans, Shameless) to the cast. Hamlin joined the show as Jim Cutler, a partner at Cutler, Gleason and Chaough who has to adapt when the merger suddenly thrusts him into the same office as Don Draper. Paste caught up with Hamlin the day after the season seven premiere to talk about Mad Men, his personal connection to the show’s portrayal of speed and allergy season.

Paste: Hi Harry, how are you?
Harry Hamlin: Great, great. How are you doin’?

Paste: Good, thanks. Where am I catching you today?
Hamlin: You’re catching me in my home in California. Where are you?

Paste: I’m in Atlanta, actually.
Hamlin: Oh, are there storms in Atlanta?

Paste: Yeah, it’s a little rainy today, but it’s washing away all the pollen, so it’s good.
Hamlin: Do you have allergies?

Paste: Yeah, kind of.
Hamlin: Well, fortunately I don’t really have them, but I’ve heard that this could be the worst allergy season on record.

Paste: Wow. Yeah, it’s always really bad in Atlanta. There’s a tree pollen or something that just coats everything. It looks like green snow. But anyway, obviously the Mad Men premiere aired last night, and in it we get the sense that Jim is really sort of missing having Ted around.
Hamlin: Well, I think that I was closest to Ted of all the people in the new office. Ted and I were partners in the old office, and obviously we must have had fun of some kind. And I’m not sure what kind of fun that was, exactly. What do you suppose it was? Given what I said last night—did you see the episode last night?

Paste: I did, yeah. What’s interesting to me is that there obviously is some sort of connection between the two of them, and yet they’re very different people. So you do kind of wonder what sort of fun they had together because Ted is much more reserved and reined in than Jim.
Hamlin: I don’t know. I’m not exactly sure. I can’t go into the boundaries that I have in my life, my moral boundaries. I’m forbidden to discuss that. However, that being said, I think that Cutler probably has had a lot of fun outside the office.

Paste: He seems to be the one who has held onto this “us vs. them” mentality the most throughout the merger, especially last season. Why do you think that is?
Hamlin: Well, when it comes to business, Cutler is an absolute pragmatist, and the bottom line is his main event. He’s not sure that these people can deliver the kind of bottom line that he expects. I mean, you see his behavior. And I think that for him, for Cutler, as long as you bring that to the table in the office and as long as your work product is there, he doesn’t really care that much about what goes on outside, but if the work product isn’t there or there’s any kind of funky stuff going on at the office, I think he’s the first one to jump on whomever that might be that’s screwing up. So obviously there are some challenges with Don Draper and also Roger Sterling. They have issues. I think that’s why you see that.

Paste: How far along in the shooting schedule for this season are you? Are you guys still filming?
Hamlin: We have completed season—is it seven?

Paste: Well, they’re doing the split season.
Hamlin: Right. We’ve completed season 7A, and 7B is shooting now.

Paste: And what has it been like on set? Is there the feeling that things are all coming to an end, or has it not set in yet?
Hamlin: I don’t think anybody’s contemplating the end yet. We have our daily responsibilities. They don’t diminish or change in any way just because there’s an end date, so I think everybody’s focused on the work from day to day.

Paste: What was it like coming into the series so late in its run? Did that present any challenges?
Hamlin: Well, it was surprising to me to begin with because I didn’t think that Matt Weiner hired people with a profile—which he didn’t, really. I guess there was an article in the New York Times yesterday about that, about Matt starting to hire people with a profile. And so I was really surprised to have the opportunity and was delighted to have the opportunity. But I also knew that it wasn’t anywhere near my show. I’ve been very fortunate in my life and I’ve had shows that I headlined, and when you do that, you feel a responsibility to carry the show and set the tone on the set and just be present in a way that’s very different from when an actor is brought into a show like this as a guest star. So my philosophy has been since day one to keep a very low profile at work. Whatever I bring to the table is just the work. I have no responsibility beyond that to be connective tissue on set with the cast and the crew and the writers, which I have had many times in the past. And that’s a position that I don’t mind having, but it’s kind of refreshing in this case to be coming in, keeping quiet, keeping my head down, doing the work and then going home. So it’s a different experience from when there’s a responsibility for carrying the show.

Paste: And you originally read for a different role, is that right?
Hamlin: I did. I read for a role called Swinger Boss, which was one of Don’s clients went out to dinner with Don and his wife and I’m not exactly sure what the client relationship was, but after dinner the client asked if they should all go back to his place, you know, for a little fun and games. Which is a very interesting part, I thought. I liked it a lot, and I did read for that, and I didn’t get it and I went “Oh, darn it. It would have been fun to be on Mad Men.” But I guess they had other thoughts for me after I went in.

Paste: And at what point did you find out you’d be getting the role of Jim Cutler?
Hamlin: Well, it was months later. They called me and offered me the role. I didn’t have to read for Cutler. And they wouldn’t tell me who he was. They wouldn’t give me any inkling as to who I was playing, and I found that very unusual. Usually I get a heads-up and I get a script. For someone who’s worked as long as I have, the kind of normal progression of events is that you get sent a script and you like it, you develop the character and go in. And I spend usually a lot of time developing a character. I do very thorough research. And this is a complete 180 from that because I didn’t even know the guy’s name. I didn’t know if he had kids, I didn’t know what role he had in the company or the world. The day before I got some pages sent to me, I knew what my lines were gonna be—I knew I was at a big party and I was sitting down and I was gonna say “That’s why we hired him,” so that led me to think that I had some position of power. But I didn’t know anything about who this guy was. They didn’t tell me. I was just a man, hired to play one day’s work on Mad Men.

Paste: That obviously must have forced you to change your usual approach and piece together who this guy was one script at a time.
Hamlin: Absolutely. Oh, it’s very different. I’m used to figuring out who the character is, writing a whole biography, having deep research to feel a period and an era and all that. I’ve written several biographies for him, but they change all the time. Every time I get a new script, I have to change it. I found out last season that I was in the Air Force when I have that one scene where I’m challenging Ginsberg and I said “I was in the Air Force. Were you?” and up until that point I had no idea I’d been in the military, I had no idea I was in the Air Force, possibly a pilot, probably in the Korean War. But all these things emerged in the course of a couple lines in a script that I had no idea was coming. So I had to recalibrate the whole character.

Paste: You mentioned you’ve written biographies of the character, so do you have a picture of Jim Cutler in your mind that hasn’t necessarily been addressed yet on the show but is just sort of how you see the character?
Hamlin: Well I find it better in this situation to keep what’s called a tabula rasa, which is a blank slate. I mean, every time I write a biography, I have to change it. So I know some things. I know some things about him up to now, but every week it changes. But it’s fun that way, actually. It’s exciting.

Paste: Let’s talk about “The Crash” from last season, where your character introduces everybody to speed. I read in an interview that you actually have a personal connection to that.
Hamlin: Yeah, I have a very close personal connection to that. That drug was distributed by Dr. Max Jacobson back in the ‘60s, and he was a German doctor who had come over I think before the war. According to some reports, he actually injected Hitler a few times with it, or it got to him somehow. But Max Jacobson, one of his clients was John Kennedy. So when the space program took off, when Kennedy came out and said “we want to land a man on the moon in the next decade,” Kennedy knew that this drug was so great, and he instructed—this is conjecture, I’m only speculating this—but I imagine it to be the case that he instructed everyone at the top who was involved in the space program to take this drug. Because my father was deeply involved in the space program and worked with Wernher von Braun, who was also German and also took this drug, and my father back in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s started to inject this drug on a daily basis. I guess the idea was that you’d increase your productivity and we’d get a man on the moon faster. Well, at the time, nobody knew that it had speed in it. At the time, it was just called “vitamin cell therapy” by Max Jacobson, and it was supposed to be this miracle thing, and my parents when they first tried it, I’ll never forget, they were like, “Oh my god, this stuff is great!” It was a horrible-looking needle that they had to shoot every day—they had these disposable syringes with a two-inch-long needle—and they had to inject themselves in the butt every day, and when my father would go away to Cape Canaveral to watch a launch or something, my brother and I were tasked with having to shoot my mother up because she was addicted to it too. It was very addictive. My parents were addicted to this for at least a decade until Jacobson was disbarred or whatever they do. There’s a book that was written about him called Dr. Feelgood that just came out last year, and it chronicles all of this stuff—Kennedy and the space program and all that. But yeah, I was intimately involved with this drug, and I went to Matt and I said—because I wrote a book that had come out a couple of years before I did the show—I asked him if he had read my book, because I think I mention in the book that I had to shoot my mother up and stuff. And he said no, he hadn’t. It was just a coincidence.

Paste: Wow. That’s a crazy coincidence. So how did all of that personal experience affect your performance in that episode?
Hamlin: Well, I wanted to—the color of the stuff that they came up with was a little off, and I went to the propping manager and I said, “You know, that color in the syringe is a little off. It wasn’t that color. It was more brown.” But I think that they ended up not changing the color. They only had a few minutes, and they didn’t have the time to change it.

Paste: Well, switching gears a little bit, you were nominated for an Emmy for your work on the show. What was that like? Where were you when you found out you’d been nominated?
Hamlin: Well, that was completely unexpected for me. I didn’t even know there was a guest star category like that. I don’t think there was back when I was doing LA Law. But to be nominated for an Emmy, it’s a thrill, obviously, and also I think it’s like anything else: you go, “What?!? I don’t deserve that! I didn’t do anything special,” you know? That was my first reaction to it. You know, it’s not like Hamlet, put it that way. But anyway, I got a call. I had gotten a call apparently at about 5:30 or 6 in the morning, and I slept right through it. And I got this other call a while later, and this one I answered. Still in bed. [laughs]

Paste: I know you’re not allowed to discuss anything that happens in this final season, but what do you personally hope to see Jim Cutler doing in the end? If you had your own way, where would you envision him winding up?
Hamlin: My ideal for Jim Cutler? I just watched the last episode of House of Cards last night, and I think Jim Cutler would slip into politics gracefully and somehow become a key player in Washington. But unfortunately this is somewhat historical, so I couldn’t actually run for president of the United States or become president.

Paste: I know you’ve got a couple movies in the works as well. What can you tell me about those?
Hamlin: Shiva and May is a really interesting little indie. It’s kind of a buddy picture, sort of like Thelma and Louise I guess, and it’s Jessica Biel, who’s a wonderful, wonderful actress, and I play a crazy guy in that. It’s a crazy little cameo that was really fun. But I don’t want to let too many cats out of the bag as far as that goes. It’ll be different, put it that way. It’ll be very different. And then I’ve got another one called The Fourth Noble Truth, which actually won the Sonoma International Film Festival last week, won the audience award for Best American Feature. Then I’ve got another one that I just finished last week in New York that’s called The Erotic Fire of the Unattainable. And it’s not X-rated. [laughs] It happens to sound X-rated, but it’s not. It’s another indie that’s pretty female-centric like the other one, Shiva and May. But a very interesting young Brazilian director [Emilia Ferreira] came up with a way to approach this idea. It was actually a book that was written by a woman in New York. It’s about a young woman who’s an artist struggling to find out the meaning in life.

Paste: Beyond those projects, what’s next for you post-Mad Men?
Hamlin: You know, I’m reading a lot of scripts, and I haven’t found anything that I really love yet. I’ve always been that way though. I have to really resonate with something before I commit to it, and I just haven’t found the right thing to resonate with yet, so I imagine it’ll come along because they always do. When I ask to work and to find the right thing, it always seems to come along. But I took about 10 years off raising my kids and didn’t really want to work that much, and that worked out great too.

Paste: When do you really know, once you’ve read a script, that “oh, this really does resonate with me”? Do you get a certain feeling?
Hamlin: It’s hard to say what that is. I always know what it is when I read it. I can always tell instantly when I don’t want to do something, and I’ve read scripts that I thought were horrible that ended up being gigantic hits. So in terms of the popular zeitgeist, I’m not always correct about that. But on the other hand, in terms of what I want to do, the kind of picture I want to be in or the kind of role I want to play, I know exactly what it is when I read it. Usually they’re people who have issues, who have an arc, a journey of some kind. I’m not big on procedural things, and I’m not big on being connective tissue, so I’m happy on a show like Mad Men because it’s so unusual to go in and have it be simply a leap of faith. Because I didn’t have any clue about this character. This is really about being involved with a show that I love.

Paste: Well, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me, Harry.
Hamlin: Thank you. Stay dry in Atlanta. I was watching the news, and it looks like you guys are about to get pounded there.

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