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This story first appeared in the June 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
A big part of drama is creating a tone — and in the scope of Mad Men, with the passage of time and the smallness of the interactions, we have tried to re-create what we think feels like reality. Sure, it’s heightened a little bit. Don Draper has a more interesting life than we do, but he doesn’t have a gun, and he’s not solving crimes. I love those types of stories, but we are operating in a universe that, despite the period, should be more familiar to people in everyday life, and along with that comes an acting style that is based on reserve, politeness, shyness and deception.
That tone is very challenging, especially for Jon Hamm, who has had to portray that without a lot of dialogue. He’s had to be completely reactive and private about a lot of his feelings because he’s a man leading a double life. But it’s true of all of these actors. They’re not given a lot of confrontation, but they know how to create it. They’re not allowed to swear, but they know how to curse. They’re not allowed to get naked, but they know how to create the feelings of sexuality. There are very few exclamation points in our scripts, and characters rarely get to raise their voices. The kind of acting they’re doing is unusual and not necessarily in style right now, but it is very difficult to do, and their consistency over 92 hours is a testament to their ability — because they can do the other thing.
The ending of Mad Men was designed to have some unusual emotional confrontations. Jon, in particular, has to unpeel layers of intimacy, as we saw Don become more emotionally vulnerable and more of a person without the mask of success as his protection. It was particularly challenging because Jon spent the last eight weeks of the show with people with whom he had never worked before — though, in a way, I knew as a director that would add to his vulnerability. You’re constantly seeing him almost shy, trying on these different personalities, and we didn’t have to talk about that at all. Jon always knows the restraint required when his character interacts with strangers. Even with no lines in scenes, you’re getting a sense that there’s a massive crisis going on inside.
To me, that’s the most interesting thing of all — when it’s unspoken, when there is a transformation happening inside. The way that the show is, people don’t get to say what they’re feeling except under extremely dire circumstances. Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) explodes and tells Stan about her baby, but she’s actually just trying to win an argument. And Stan (Jay R. Ferguson) never says, “Oh, I get it, we’re talking about you.” He just goes with the moment, and it’s unspoken that they share this very private, life-altering confession. It’s all performance — it’s not mentioned in the script. There are just words like “OK”; so it becomes, how do you do “OK” in a way that tells the audience that the character has understood something huge?
We always write a bit more to help with transitions from one mood to another — because the show can leap pretty quickly. But this cast doesn’t need a lot of help turning corners. So when Jon goes from a complete breakdown on the phone with Elisabeth to the real emotional climax of the story in group therapy, I was telling him in that conversation with Peggy: “I want the audience to think that you’re lost and that you’re going to kill yourself, but I don’t want you to completely emotionally release because I need to feel the real catharsis when you hug this stranger.” But that might be said walking to the set, and that’s all.
I can be pretty specific about the physical activity, but Jon is the one who physically folded over in that phone call. We just moved the camera to capture whatever he chose to do. You can write it, but you can’t make it happen.
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