Set at an advertising agency in the 1960s, when men ruled the boardroom and women kept picture-perfect homes, "Mad Men" was the brainchild of Matthew Weiner, who cut his teeth as a writer on "The Sopranos." Since its premiere in 2007, "Mad Men" has been a critical success, winning the 2007 Golden Globe and 2008 Emmy awards for drama. Perhaps more important, the show has become a water-cooler favorite, influencing a slew of fashion designers and warranting parody on such pop-culture mainstays as "The Simpsons" and "Saturday Night Live." Hamm became a breakthrough hit with his turn as Don Draper, the ethically dubious star of Sterling Cooper Advertising Agency. This year, he showed his comedy chops in an arc as Tina Fey's gorgeous but clueless boyfriend on "30 Rock." Both roles have earned Hamm 2009 Emmy nominations to add to his 2008 nom and 2007 Golden Globe win. Slattery, best known for memorable turns on two female-driven shows—"Sex and the City" and "Desperate Housewives"—makes a worthy foil to Hamm's Draper as Roger Sterling, the charming but flawed head of the agency. Slattery earned his second consecutive Emmy nomination in the supporting actor category.
Though Hamm and Slattery appear to be at the pinnacles of their careers, neither is an overnight sensation. Both have been in the business for two decades, enduring all the inherent struggles and disappointments of working actors. With candid honesty and with humor, they spoke with Back Stage about the low expectations for their hit show, their early breaks, and why it's an honor just being nominated.
Back Stage: What was the casting process like to get on "Mad Men"?
Jon Hamm: I auditioned a million times for it. It was cast out of New York, and I had never met the casting directors. When they came to L.A. looking for people, they didn't know who I was, so I had to pre-read and start at the very, very bottom of everybody's list.
John Slattery: You're still at the bottom of my list. I just want you to know that.
Hamm: That's very clear. But every audition was another person I had to meet, and it was nerve-racking and harrowing, because if any one of them goes bad, you're done. I was eventually flown out to New York to meet the AMC people and had even more auditions. It felt like it would never end.
Back Stage:Matthew Weiner has said he wanted you from the beginning.
Hamm: I met Matt on the third or fourth audition. But it was still hard; I mean, my agency wasn't even particularly supportive of me. My personal agent was doing everything she could, but it's a giant agency that probably had several clients up for it. Matt was with the same agency and had to call the president and say, "Can you do something to help this guy? He's a client of yours!"
Back Stage: John, I heard Matt tricked you by asking you to audition for Don Draper.
Slattery: It sounds crazy, but Matt, in fact, admitted it. I guess there wasn't that much of Roger in the pilot, so they asked me to come in and read for Draper. Looking the way I look, I get parts that are 65 and 70 years old, so to go for a 35-year-old man, well, I was excited. I did all my homework and went in and read, and they made me do it again. That's the part that I find most insulting: They gave me redirection. And then they said, "Here's the thing: We have that guy. We want you to read for this guy." So I was little less than enthused. Even up to shooting the pilot, I had a little residue of that resentment. Then I saw Jon and was like, "Oh, all right, I get it. That's the guy." And there still wasn't much of Roger in that first script, so I went, "Eh, it's an AMC pilot; they just show old movies." So I just decided to see what happened. And thank God it turned into this.
Hamm: A lot of people involved in the show didn't really realize how big this was going to be. AMC had no record of doing anything like this. But then I saw the people they were bringing in—not only the actors but the crew. It was the A-Team. And I thought, "This is so weird that all these incredible people and elements are coming together for this thing that nobody is ever going to see."
Back Stage: At what point did you realize the show had become so popular in the Zeitgeist?
Hamm: Well, we still don't get watched by a tremendous amount of people on a weekly basis. We're not "CSI" or "The Mentalist." Our cultural penetration is broader than the numbers would suggest, which is a strange thing. You get people who are incredibly excited about the show, and the next person has never heard of it.
Slattery: It's in the Zeitgeist more than it's in people's living rooms.
Back Stage: You've both logged many guest appearances on other shows. Is it harder to be a regular on a program or to come in for just a few days and create a character?
Hamm: It's a lot harder to come in to something that's up and running and everybody knows each other. It's like being the new guy at school; you feel like a jerk, and you're stepping on everybody's toes. It's hard enough to be good on camera anyway, but the nerves that come with doing that make it incredibly hard. I've seen guest stars come in here, and they're a bundle of nerves, and you just want to tell them, "Look, we got a lot of film. Take your time. It's okay."
Slattery: It really is hard to come in to a show. I went through a casting process with the producers for this episode because I'm interested in directing at some point, and I thought they were so generous with people. Matt Weiner is a huge fan of actors and respects the process. Somebody would come in and be nervous, and Matt would give them specific notes to get settled. The person would leave the room, and they'd say, "They could be the person, but they couldn't seem to calm down. Speaking from experience, if they can't calm down in this room, how do you think they're going to be when they sit down on the set with Hamm?"
Hamm: I've only been involved with a few casting things on the other side of the camera, and it really is about putting yourself in the best place to be creative. When you walk in the room, they might think, "That's exactly what I was thinking of. Please let them be able to string two words together and not fall over the furniture."
Slattery: And be able to make an adjustment. You might have done it the right way the first time; they just want to be able to see you can make changes. If you can make an adjustment and fit the part, chances are you're going to be the guy.
Hamm: If you can get out of your own way. And it feels personal, but it's not. You are a person walking into this thing, saying, "This is what I can do." And when they say no, it feels like, "We don't like you." That's rarely, if ever, the case. I don't think I've ever been involved in a casting session where they said, "Yeah, I don't fucking like that guy." Unless you come in and you're unprepared and wasting their time.
Slattery: Right, if you're slowing them down, they don't want to spend 10 minutes with you—
Hamm: Much less be with you at the end of a 15-hour day. So if you get something you're interested in, I can't imagine not putting the time in and preparing. It can be frustrating on the day of shooting when people have three or four lines and they still don't know them. It will be one of my five scenes today where I have 90 percent of the lines, and you have one thing, and I'm waiting on your cue. That's the worst. It comes down to doing your homework. At the end of the day, you're a professional; this is supposed to be your job. So the idea of coming in and not being excited is foreign to me. I've been on every kind of show on the planet; I've been on the "CSIs" and cop shows and lawyer shows, and I love them all. It's fun to do this.
Slattery: Right. If you don't want to be there, don't go. I know you have to pay the bills. I've done jobs for the money because I have bills to pay. Not every job is ideal. But it doesn't do anybody any good if you look down your nose at it.
Hamm: You're better off not going than going in with attitude. And there might be a generational aspect; Matt talked about trying to cast the younger roles and how some young actors are all attitude and come in and sort of mumble everything and try to be a neutral presence. Which is great on "Gossip Girl." But it's not this show.
Back Stage: Do you remember your worst audition?
Slattery: [Groaning] There's been so many.
Hamm: I had one I thought was good that was bad. It was a very famous casting director, and the audition was a favor some fancy agent or manager got me in for. I did my thing and thought it was actually pretty good. I felt great and was out the door. I got a call from my agent, who said, "What did you do? She hated you. She said you were the most cocky, arrogant idiot she had ever seen." It was a disconnect that is completely baffling to me and remains so to this day. So you really never know.
Slattery: I had a callback for a Sylvester Stallone movie, to play his brother. They liked me but thought I looked too Irish and wanted me to dye my hair black. It was summertime in New York, and I noticed guys digging a trench outside the building. So I go inside to do this, and I put on the gloves, and it was like tar I was putting in my hair. And then you have to wear this little plastic bonnet that you tie under your chin. When I went to rinse it out, the pipes made this horrible sound, and no water came out. I realized the guys outside had turned the water off. So I open the window and said, "Hey, guys, when can I have the water back on?" They looked at me in my bonnet and gloves and said, "Thursday, Alice!"
Hamm: The wrong group for sympathy.
Slattery: I was flat broke, so I stole some laundry quarters from my sister and bought some bottles of water at the store and poured them over me in the tub. I buttoned up a long-sleeve shirt to hide my skin and go to this thing, and I literally have black dripping down my head. I go to this audition and I'm playing this cracked-out guy, and the casting director is playing a gangster who's going to kill me. I sort of had an out-of-body experience; I saw myself on my knees with black stuff dripping down my head and her screaming at me while I say, "No, Charlie, no!" It was like I left my body and went to the ceiling and saw myself and thought, "What the fuck are you doing with your life?" Needless to say, I did not get the part.
Back Stage: I hesitate to use the term big break, but what did you consider a turning point in your career?
Hamm: Up until very recently, the job I had held the longest was waiter or bartender. So I think when I quit waiting tables, which was around 1999, 2000, I really felt like I'd made it. I'd been on "Providence" for a year and a half and done some other things and finally felt comfortable—
Back Stage: Wait, you were on "Providence" and still waiting tables?
Hamm: Sure. You don't know how long that's going to last, and it's not a ton of money, so I kept the job. Then I booked a movie called "We Were Soldiers." I had five lines in it, but I was around a lot, so I got paid for the whole thing, which was great. I was, like, 182 on the call sheet, but it was super fun and I met a lot of cool people on it who are still my friends to this day. And it was an incredible learning experience. I learned how to behave on a set and how not to behave on a set. Everyone needs that first time to fuck up and stand in the wrong place and see how people act and how you don't want to be thought of. I turned 30 on that, and right after that I felt I had a little traction going. And then I was cast in "The Division" in my first series-regular gig for three seasons.
Slattery:You still doing that waiter job, just in case?
Hamm: Just Saturdays and Sundays. It's good money!
Slattery: And you get your shift meal.
Hamm: Getting the first job is amazing. But getting the job where you realize it's not a fluke and you can do this on a level where people want you, it's a great feeling.
Slattery: I remember standing on Eighth Avenue on a pay phone and told by an agent I got a job in an Off-Broadway play. It was a Terrence McNally play called "The Lisbon Traviata" with Nathan Lane. It wasn't a big part, but it meant a lot.
Back Stage: Who did you play?
Slattery: I was the naked guy. And as soon as I hung up, I was like, "Yes, I own this town! No, wait! I have to be naked!" But it was a great time. I was actually thinking about that today and about how it's harder now for struggling actors to live. I used to live in New York and spend $300 a month on rent. I figured I could sell blood for $300 a month. But now I don't know how you do it. It's an expensive city, both Los Angeles and New York.
Hamm: It is tough. People say actors are overpaid, and I remember having a conversation with a friend of mine who's a teacher. She was not-so-subtly hinting I was grossly overpaid as an actor. I said, "I didn't hear you making this argument when I was making zero dollars. I was still an actor then." Everybody forgets that when we're successful is subsidizing the years when we weren't. I was flat broke. I had no money. I was living off of laundry change. I drove a car where the driver's seat was held up by a 2-by-4. It didn't have a roof; which is great in L.A. for 10 months out of the year but not so much the other two.
Slattery: Ninety percent of the actors are not overpaid; they're underpaid. Either they can't get a job or the jobs they get they don't get paid much to do. There are actors out there doing plays all over the world, and they don't know if, when it ends, they're going to get another job. At least the guy doing the dry cleaning knows he'll have a job from day to day. A lot of actors have to stretch their money, and they have children and school bills and doctor bills. To live in the real world and work in the theatrical world is a tricky proposition sometimes.
Back Stage: You're both nominated for Emmy Awards the second year in a row. Jon, you won the Golden Globe in 2007, when the show wasn't broadcast. Was it frustrating you didn't get to give your speech, or were you relieved?
Hamm: I was a little grateful, honestly. The prospect of getting up in front of people and having to give a speech where you'll inevitably leave somebody out or say something wrong is terrifying to me. We've both been nominated a couple times, and we've been to a few of these, and it's a mind-fuck, man. You're sitting there; you've got a camera 2 inches from your face—
Slattery: Then you lose.
Hamm: It's a no-win situation, literally.
Slattery: Unless you win. Then it's a win situation.
Hamm: It's a horrible cliché, but it's tremendously nice to be nominated and recognized in that sense.
Slattery: You really are glad to be there. I took my parents last year, which was fun. And this group of people—this cast and crew and writers and staff—we all know it's not usually this special. It's a good time to have a job at all, and to have this one is incredibly fortuitous.