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Interview

Emmy Nominations: Harry Hamlin on 'Mad Men'

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Emmy Nominations: Harry Hamlin on 'Mad Men'
Photo Source: Michael Yarish/AMC

Harry Hamlin "came millimeters" to not accepting the role of agency executive Jim Cutler on "Mad Men."

"When they originally called me up, they said it was just going to be for one day on the show," Hamlin says. "I loved the show, but I don’t normally work for one day on something. And they wouldn’t tell me who the character was or how I fit into the thing, and they wouldn’t give me any pages or show me the script. So it was a real leap of faith to do it."

Hamlin's wife Lisa Rinna asked him if he was doing anything that day and he wasn't so she encouraged him to take the job. Luckily he did because it led to a multi-episode arc and an Emmy nod.

"I was so thankful that I did do it," Hamlin says, "and that the wisdom of my wife prevailed."

You originally auditioned for a different role on "Mad Men." How did you get cast as Jim Cutler?
I met [show creator] Matt Weiner months before that for a different role. And normally, they don’t cast anybody in that show that has a profile. I talked to the casting directors last week, and they told me that they got me in under the radar. When they heard my name, they thought it was an interesting idea, but they knew that Matt would never see me because I’m known and so they didn’t tell him that I was coming in. [When] I walked in the door that was apparently the first time he knew that I was going to be the guy coming through the door. But I guess the casting directors were right. They knew something that none of us knew.

What was your audition like?
I happen to like auditioning. I really enjoy getting a chance to act. So every chance I get to read something, I relish the opportunity because it’s another chance to do what I do. A lot of people I guess don’t like to do it, but I do like to do it, oddly enough. I like to do it so much that a few years ago, I was auditioning for some things, and I wasn’t getting these parts and I guess some casting director called up my agent at the time and said, "You know, he’s far too comfortable." And the casting director suggested that I see a psychiatrist because I was far too at ease in the room going up for these parts. They thought it was some strange psychological dynamic that I was somehow under the spell. They thought I was crazy because I liked auditioning. But I do like it. And so when I went in to meet with Matt Weiner and the casting directors, I read this part once and then they asked me to do it again a different way and said, "Thank you very much," and I left.

And once you got cast as Jim Cutler, was that originally supposed to be a small part?
I think he was always intended to be a big part, but the way they laid it out to me was that it was a one-day gig, possibly more. I think maybe they were testing the waters to see that I did OK. I don’t know. I don’t know why they told me that. Every time I go to work on anything, I expect a pink slip in the mail. I didn’t get one this time. 

Was it difficult to prepare to play a character you knew very little about?
Oh, it was impossible. There’s no developing a character that you don’t know anything about. Each week, I would kind of rewrite my bio for him, and every week, I would discover new things about him because these new scripts would come in. I discovered for example that he had been in the Air Force, which was not something that had been given to me prior to starting the role. Then I discovered that I’d been married at one time. I say "my wife"; I don’t say "my ex-wife," so I still could be married. I don’t know. Nobody has told me. I don’t wear a wedding ring. The prop guy never gave me a wedding ring so I don’t know whether I’m divorced, still married, married but no living with my wife, widowed. I don't know.

What was it like working on that set with that group of actors?
I just felt honored to be there, and I just kind of stayed in the background and kept out of the way. My main objective was to stay out of the way when I was there because these guys have a very well-oiled machine, and you throw a new part into a well-oiled machine and it’s going to mess things up. My objective was to really be as under the radar as possible and not bump into the furniture.

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