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Harry Hamlin got very little information from Matthew Weiner when he first landed the role of Jim Cutler on Mad Men. And it turns out the character, which earned Hamlin an Emmy nomination for guest actor in 2013, has its origins in an old Saturday Night Live skit.
On the eve of Mad Men‘s midseason finale, Hamlin spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about the inspiration, finding his own take on the off-kilter SC&P partner and why he won’t be taking Cutler’s glasses — though he does reveal a very colorful past with props.
He also relives the blaze of glory that took out his villainous Veronica Mars character, something that recently resurfaced when creator Rob Thomas publicly credited him with saving the first-season storyline.
Do you and Jim Cutler wear the same glasses?
When I went in to first meet Matt, I went in to read for another role. I debated on whether or not to wear my glasses, because I can’t see the pages if I don’t wear them. Usually I memorize them so that I can pretend that I don’t wear glasses. But on that day, the lighting was so bad in the room that I just didn’t know the words well enough, so I just bit the bullet. He ended up really liking that look, and so he put glasses into my character. The kind of glasses that I wear in life are similar to the ones I wear on the show.
Are you going to keep them when the show is over?
I’m going to let them have them. They can have my glasses. There’s only one thing I ever wanted when I did a movie, and that was the sword from Clash of the Titans.
And you didn’t get it?
Well, I pissed off the producer so much because I refused to do a worldwide tour for the show, and he never talked to me again. Not only did he not talk to me again, but he hoarded the sword and kept it.
Does he still have it?
He died, and I don’t know where the sword is. According to him, he lost millions of dollars because I wouldn’t do the tour. It’s just one of those things. He wanted to do the tour in South Africa, in Johannesburg, and I was involved in an antiapartheid group at the time, so I said, “I can’t do it.” And he said, “What’s apartheid? You’re full of shit.”
Have you ever taken anything from a project?
Nothing that I haven’t put in. Well, actually, I took a briefcase from L.A. Law. They gave me my briefcase at the end of the show. I ended up trading it for my, what do you call it, domain? HarryHamlin.com. Someone was sitting on that over in Greece, a squatter. I couldn’t get HarryHamlin.com. I couldn’t get it for 15 years, and I finally found the guy who was sitting on it. He was a fan, and he said, “Give me something, and I’ll give you the thing back.” And I gave him the briefcase. I sent it over to him in Greece, and he gave it to me. So I have HarryHamlin.com.
Did Matthew Weiner give you any notes when you took the role?
I had to come up with the character in that moment that first day, sitting at the table, based upon the four or five words that I had to say that first episode. And I had to figure out who this guy was with no prompting whatsoever from the producers. The next table read, I went up to Matt Weiner, and I said, “Matt, help me out here. Who is this guy? What is he all about?” And he said, “All I can tell you is that he is continental.” Then he turned around and walked away. And so I thought, “I have this great hook; I’m continental. I’m going to figure out what that means.” So I sat down to find out exactly what a continental guy is like, and after going through every resource that I had, I found that there was absolutely no way you could tie the word “continental” as an adjective to a human being. There is no continental human being. There is a continental shelf, there is continental varietal wine, there are continental exiting fees and politics, but there is no continental guy, so I was at a loss there. And then I went back, and I think at the next table read, I told Matt. I said, “That wasn’t much of a help, because the word ‘continental’ doesn’t apply to people.” And he said, “Didn’t you ever see Chris Walken on Saturday Night Live? Mr. Continental.” I still don’t really know. By then, I had come up with a character based upon my own assumptions, and I went with that.
Without Ted, Cutler is playing off of a lot of different characters this season. What’s been the most fun?
Well, I think John Slattery and I have had some sparring moments. I mean, John and I have a great time with those little scenes. I’ve, up to this point, been more or less connective tissue in the piece, but the moments I get to spar with John, those are my most fun. We’ve had some good ones.
Do you think Cutler really has it out for Don?
He sees the flaws in people, and he will either eliminate people based on their flaws or exploit their flaws to his benefit. I think it’s up to the audience to answer that question. I assume Cutler is a bottom-line guy.
Rob Thomas recently credited you with saving the first season of Veronica Mars by passing on a move to film your reveal as the killer in the finale.
I got emails about that, and now that I think back on it, yeah, there was a film I was offered in Hawaii. I think it was in Hawaii, and in order to do the finale, I had to blow off the movie. I remember that, but I don’t remember what movie it was, because I immediately said no. It would have paid me a lot more money, though, than Veronica Mars. I do recall that. The way I died on Veronica Mars was so delicious, I just couldn’t pass it up.
When you returned in the second season?
When I read the script, I read that I got a blow job. Then I stood up and lit a big Cuban cigar, and I poured out some really expensive brandy into a sifter. I put my legs up on a table and watched myself do a Steve McQueen on a motorcycle over a fence in one of his old movies. It was all too perfect. And then to have somebody come up and blow my brains out at that very moment, I thought, “I cannot pass that moment up.”
How did you digest the whole Kickstarter thing?
To this day, as many people come up to me for that show as come up for anything else, and I’m always surprised by that. They come up to me and go, “Oh, I’m such a big fan,” and I think they are going to say Clash of the Titans or Mad Men or L.A. Law or something, but it comes out “Veronica Mars.” And I go, “Oh, you’re one of those guys. All right.” That happens on a weekly basis.
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