Jon Hamm On 'Beirut'

Apr 14, 2018
Originally published on April 17, 2018 4:29 am
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Jon Hamm plays a former diplomat named Mason Skiles in the new film "Beirut" - a city he never wanted to see again after his wife was killed in terrorist attack 10 years before in the early 1970s. He leaves the Foreign Service and drinks too much, but when a kidnapping occurs in Beirut, Mason Skiles is called back into service.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BEIRUT")

SHEA WHIGHAM: (As Gary Ruzak) You're an experienced negotiator. Negotiate.

JON HAMM: (As Mason Skiles) Come on. I'm here because some lunatic pulled my name out of a hat. Look, your kidnappers clearly want to make a deal. They got back fast. They're responsive. They're specific. You clearly have something that they want. So call their bluff, tell them I'm out. Let the downside of that ring in their ear for a little while. If they bite, great. You have your first concession.

SIMON: "Beirut" has been praised as an intelligent, political thriller that premiered at Sundance. Jon Hamm joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

HAMM: Well, thank you for having me.

SIMON: Why did you want to play this character?

HAMM: I found him to be a few things that I find compelling when I'm looking at roles, and one is intelligent, two is sort of dogged. Those are two things that I've looked at in my life that have helped me greatly. I'm not a person that gives up easily, and I appreciate the value of intelligence and the seeking of wisdom and understanding people.

SIMON: A lot of people will notice, too, this is a man - your character has also had to - well, had to fight against drink.

HAMM: Yeah, that's a way we get around, you know, explaining the way Mason's dealing with his pain - the pain of his loss of his wife and his family and his career. But we do see Mason kind of pull it together and do the right thing.

SIMON: He has a reunion with a man he once considered a kind of son, which I don't want to give too much away, but I wasn't expecting this.

HAMM: Yeah, no, it's a - narratively, the story - it's not based on any one true story. It's sort of an amalgam of experiences that when Tony Gilroy, the writer of the script, was researching this role, he had seen a lot of the people in the CIA or the Foreign Service had gone through some sort of version of being kidnapped or taken hostage in some way and used as pawns in this geopolitical theater.

There is a bit of a reunion in it. It's, from my money - from a narrative standpoint, it's a bit heartbreaking because you do realize that the human cost of these kind of political chess games is very real because, of course, as we know, as soon as everyone stops talking and throws their hands up in the air and says, this is intractable, that's when things start getting blown up.

SIMON: Speaking of (laughter) blowing things up, there's a scene in which you as Mason Skiles are talking to a group of students, as I recall it - American University. And your character explains that he became a negotiator because his parents had an unhappy marriage.

HAMM: I'm sure that's a lot of diplomats' backstory - is managing conflict from an early age. I was raised by a single mom, so I didn't have a lot of that in my life, but I could certainly recognize adults in my life, when there was friction. And you're a kid, you don't really know how to process that, so you do it as best you can. Usually you just, you know, you try to be funny and defuse the situation, which does work generally. At least it did for me.

SIMON: I've read over the years that you were once close to giving up acting.

HAMM: I think every actor that didn't make it by the time they were 20 has probably thought about that at a certain point. You know, success came for me in the form of "Mad Men" rather late. But I had been working fairly steadily since I was 29 years old, I guess about.

But you go through rough spots. And you go through jobs that you're maybe not so excited to punch the clock on. I was very realistic about the odds, but my kind of guiding thought was, like, well, why not me? I'm pretty good at this. Why not me?

SIMON: Recognizing that it eventually led somewhere, what was your worst job?

HAMM: Oh, I've had a million of them. I've been a busboy and a waiter and a dishwasher and every other thing in between. And I used to do landscaping in St. Louis in the summertime - in the heat - about 110-degree heat and 95-degree humidity, and just covered in fiberboard dust and sawdust and every other kind of gunk you can imagine. Take a 15-minute shower just to get all the gunk off of you.

SIMON: Did you once work as a set designer on a film?

HAMM: I did. It was a set designer for a series of sort of soft-core porny-type - porn-adjacent films, I guess you could say. I was the set dresser, which is the person who's in charge of sort of moving the furniture around so they can move the cameras in and move the cameras out and who is responsible for continuity and things like that.

SIMON: Did you work with Stormy Daniels?

HAMM: I did not. No, I can safely say that I did not.

SIMON: So may I ask, what do you think happened to Don Draper?

HAMM: I think he got up after he meditated, and he got in a car and on a plane the next day to New York City and came back and pitched that idea. I think Don's revelatory moment was that he's an ad man. Do I hope that he continued down the spiritual journey that he kind of went down the last few episodes of the show? Sure. I always rooted for Don. You know, Don was a very damaged soul, and I just think he needed a lot more help with accessing that part of him.

SIMON: Does it happen to you - someone calls you by his name on the street?

HAMM: Oh, all the time, which is honestly kind of adorable.

SIMON: (Laughter). So you don't say, no, I'm an actor.

HAMM: Oh, God, no. No, no, no. I usually don't have enough time to engage in any kind of conversation like that. But, look, it's a wonderful, wonderful honor to be known for something that you can be tremendously proud of. But I'm under no illusions that I owe my entire career or what my career's looking like now to the fact that I was able to be on a show that was that successful for that long. And, you know, I hold that up as something that I can say with genuine pride and say, yeah, I did that.

SIMON: Jon Hamm, who stars in the new film "Beirut" - out now. Thanks so much for being with us.

HAMM: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.