While Harry Hamlin is perhaps best known for playing Jim Cutler on AMC’s Mad Men, his acting resume also features acclaimed performances in Clash of the Titans and several TV series, including L.A. Law, Veronica Mars, and Shameless. His talent is matched by his intellect: Hamlin graduated from Yale in 1974 with a degree in psychology. Liv Lansdale got the chance to chat with Hamlin about Mad Men, making history, and staying in school.
Which Mad Men actor is the most different in real life?
They’re all great actors. On television, because it’s a bit different from acting on the stage or even in feature films where you have a lot of time to prepare a character, oftentimes we play a role on television that’s closer to our own personalities. But I would say that [John] Slattery probably is the most different.
What about you? Do you find yourself typecast in a certain way?
If you do something well once, then people immediately think of you for that same thing. A lot of people say I played a coat-and-tie lawyer quite well a quarter of a century ago, so I got a lot of offers to play lawyers with coats and ties. I turned them down. It took a long time before someone accepted me as a white supremacist or a gay pedophile.
Think your current Mad Men role might fall into that category? You’ve described him as an enigma.
I don’t know. Jim Cutler is a quirky guy. But he’s responsible. He takes business seriously and is a real pragmatist, and probably a visionary. I don’t know where it’s going to go.
Do the writers adjust the material in accordance with your performance? What are your conversations with them like?
There’s a moat between the writers and the actors. We meet for a table read once a week, and that’s the only time we really interact. We’ve never discussed what’s going to happen with Jim Cutler.
Originally I was only going to be working for one day; I’m not sure they knew exactly where Cutler was going to go either. But whatever I bring to their words, they see and take it in whatever direction occurs to them.
And what about the flip side? I imagine you read a lot of scripts. What makes for an appealing script?
I can tell by page 8 or 9 if I’ll like it. If I like the whole script and the character has something a little off, like in Shameless, I’ll be thrilled. I didn’t know who Jim Cutler was, but I’ve managed to make him a bit off. That may not have been their intention.
Do you have an ideal writer?
I always go back to Shakespeare. I try to do at least one if not two of his plays a decade. I’m working on Richard III right now—I’ve always wanted to play him. Hopefully in the next few years I’ll be able to do that onstage. I like Aaron Sorkin a lot, too.
I loved your first line on the season premiere of Mad Men (to someone just back from vacation): “Hello there, why aren’t you brown?” Do you have a favorite line you’ve ever delivered?
The great comedy writer Larry Gelbartwrote a show called M*A*S*H—he wrote my first movie. My first day ever on film, I had to say a line to my girlfriend. I’d been seeing a nightclub singer. The girlfriend accused my character of having an affair with this woman, so I grabbed her and said, “You crazy monkey! Don’t you know the minute I met you I lost all interest in women!” That was a long time ago.
Speaking of a long time ago, I enjoyed your Outfest interview, where you talk about how you didn’t know the movie Making Love (1982) was going to make history. Do you think any of your recent projects could also be historically significant?
Not the same way. That movie changed so many lives. People still come up to me on a weekly basis about it. One man had left his wife and kids, then reconnected with his son and showed him that movie to explain what happened.
There are few projects one gets to do in life that have that much of an impact. That one did. Mad Men may not change anyone’s life, but it made television literary, and could be historical from that perspective.
What’s the most interesting feedback you’ve received for your role as a gay pedophile on Shameless?
People who watch Shameless are rabid for the show. It takes a certain kind of consciousness to accept a show like Shameless in the first place, because it’s so tweaked.
Is there a role you regret not taking?
No. I’ve declined a lot of roles. My motivation in this business was never to be a movie star. Having been around this business as long as I have, once you become a huge commercial entity it’s very hard to pick and choose what you do. The more famous, rich, and powerful one gets as an actor, the harder it is to do the really interesting work that requires one to step outside of the box.
Having tended to equate stardom with acting ability, I’m curious—how do you tell when you’ve succeeded?
One develops one’s own personal radar as time goes by. I continue to go to class, experimenting with material every week. I also take advice from very intelligent people.
In one interview you said that before L.A. Law, you were averse to television. As an insider, what changes have you observed in the film industry over the course of your career? Which changes are you the most excited about?
When I got started, the first film I did was in black and white. It didn’t have to be, but they were still making black-and-white films, and this was a spoof of a black-and-white film and we shot in black and white. All the technical things were the same that had gone on—same cameras being used, etc.—for 40 or 50 years. There was no video. The entire landscape of the business, technically speaking, has changed. Films are shot on digital and edited on a Mac in someone’s bedroom.
But also the stories being told—because the cost of filmmaking has gone up so much—are in big studios, and for an international audience. So they’re doing big comic-book stories and old archetypal mythological stories or Biblical stories—things that cross borders. Little stories like the ones that occur in Mad Men could never be done on film because there’s too much character development and they’re too regional.
Television is taking more chances than film would dare to do today. Look at these safe films like Captain America and the Pirates of the Caribbean and Transformers franchises. Studios are not making great dramas anymore.
Do you have advice for aspiring actors in college?
Sure. I was in school for seven years before I got a paycheck, and I think back on that and go, “Well, I’m still here. I started onstage 40 years ago.” Staying in school, studying acting, getting a good, solid foundation prepares one for a long career. If one wants to become a movie star—which, by the way, requires extreme ambition and real dedication—it takes practice. I always encourage starting out to start with the basics. Work on craft. Find a troop, stay in class, respect other people, and one thing will lead to another until you find a paying job. That’s what happened for me, anyway.