Just before this past year’s Emmy Awards, I had a chance to chat with first-time nominee Harry Hamlin about his turn as Jim Cutler in Mad Men.  Also known for films such as Clash of the Titans and his long stint on L.A. Law, he has had quite a storied and prolific career and still maintains a rather busy filmography.  We talked a bit about Mad Men, changes in television, and his fruitful leaps into reality television

JASON HOWARD:  How did the role of Jim Cutler come about for you?

HARRY HAMLIN:  It’s a little complicated, but I first met Matt Weiner last fall for another role.  The role was called Swinger Boss.  I went in and met him and read for that role, which was kind of an interesting role, I thought.  I like to do things that are a little off-center and Swinger Boss is definitely a little off-center.  It was a scene where Jon Hamm’s boss and his wife invite him back to their apartment for a little fun.  So that was that character.

I asked the casting directors how it was that I got Jim Cutler and they told me that because Matt Weiner is not accustomed to seeing people for Mad Men that have any kind of a public profile, they had to spirit me into the room to see him for Swinger Boss by not telling him that I was coming.  They put somebody else’s name down on the list.  So, I walked through the door and Matt didn’t know it was going to be me, which was kind of calculated on their part.  I think the casting directors, when they saw my name had been submitted, told me they thought it was an interesting idea, but they’d never get it past Matt Weiner.

But, they got me into the room and I read for it.  I remember that Matt looked a little surprised when I came into the room.  I couldn’t quite figure out what his expression was.  I didn’t know whether he was just surprised, or if he didn’t like what he saw.   Anyway, I didn’t get the part.  Or, at least, my agent called me and told me that I didn’t get it.  But, the casting director later told me that, in fact, I DID get the part of Swinger Boss, but that Matt said, “wait a minute, I have another idea for him later.”  So, two months later or so, I got a call and I was offered the role of Jim Cutler.  But, I was not told who he was or what I would be saying or doing on the show.  I was just told that I was being offered a role on Mad Men and I was only guaranteed one day’s work.  At that point, I said I don’t work that way.  I don’t do guess stars for one day.  I’ve been doing this far too long to do one day on shows.  But, my wife said, “come on, it’s Mad Men.  You love that show.”  I said, “Sure I do, but I don’t like to just work for one day.”  And she said, “well what are you doing next Thursday?”.  I said nothing, so she told me to just go in, have some fun, and meet everybody.  So, it grew after that, obviously.

JH:  Speaking to what you said about not knowing much about the role, now that you’ve become part of the whole Mad Men universe, how privy are you to how your character is going to fit in to the future of the show?

HH:  Not at all.  I know nothing.  I learn tidbits about the character from reading the scripts.  For example, I learned that he had been in the Air Force when I read that in a script.  I learned that he, at one point, had a wife when he said, “my wife’s breasts were cupped.”  These are things that just appear in the scripts.  So, I don’t really know Jim Cutler.  To this day, I don’t know who he is.

JH:  With a role like Jim, along with recent roles in Curb Your Enthusiasm and Shameless, you’ve gotten to play against the good guy type that you’ve been more known for.  Is that something that you seek out in a role?

HH:  Like I said, I like to do things that are at right angles to what might be considered normal.  That kind of stuff attracts me.  I’m not sure why.  I’ve always liked that.  Although, I don’t go actively looking for that.  I think I just got really lucky that those roles came along.  And, I really enjoyed playing them.  So, I took them.

JH:  How did you find out about the Emmy nomination?

HH:  I was asleep when the phone rang in the kitchen.  I heard it and woke up and ran in there at about 8:00.  I think someone had tried to call me earlier, but I slept through it.

JH:  With your history in television, do you find that the industry today is more geared towards getting those nominations?  It seems that there is a lot more campaigning than there has ever been.

HH:  I couldn’t really say.  I haven’t really followed the Emmy thing at all over the years.  I don’t now how it works.  I think television is better today than it was twenty years ago.  Certainly cable television is better.

JH:  There’s not that stigma that there used to be for someone from the film world to also try their hand at television.

HH:  Well there certainly was back when I was doing it in the 80’s.  There was a definite stigma then.  I had come from feature films.  I read this script called L.A. Law and it was the best thing I had ever read.  So, I took the plunge and did it.  That was the first TV series I had ever done of any kind.  And, once I did that, I said “what’s happening out there in the movie world?”  They all told me that door had closed once I did TV.  There was a definite stigma at that time.

JH:  Your wife, Lisa, and yourself have not shied away from reality television.  My wife and I agree that Lisa is probably the most likeable contestant in the history of Celebrity Apprentice.  Do you find that doing reality shows such as that, along with Dancing With the Stars and Harry Loves Lisa, while still continuing to be working actors serves as a bit of a palette cleanser, allowing you to remain in the public eye without having to portray a character?

HH:  That’s an interesting analogy – a palette cleanser.  I hadn’t thought of it that way.  We’re both very creative people and we just can’t stop.  We’re always putting things together – writing books or creating one thing or another. We came up with this idea for Harry Loves Lisa.  It was supposed to be I Love Lisa.  That’s what we sold.  The concept was based on a half hour of comedy about a domestically challenged wife with a husband who works in the business.  We had seen a show like that before and that’s what we wanted to replicate.  Then, the network got a little antsy about that and wouldn’t allow us to call it I Love Lisa.  They wanted to change the format as well.  We ended up only doing six episodes because it just wasn’t what we had intended to do.

As far as doing the other reality stuff, I did Dancing With the Stars mainly because I wanted to see if I could walk out on the stage that first night without barfing.  It’s such an interesting challenge on so many levels, that show, because there’s nothing fake about it.  You’re out there basically in the Emperor’s new clothes.  I had seen Lisa go through it, how she had risen to the challenge, and how that affected her psychology.  It affected her spiritually.  It was a quantum leap for her confidence and knowing herself.  It takes you to the absolute limits of your abilities.  Also, mentally, in terms of your ability to prepare yourself to walk out into the lion’s den of live television, there’s no telling what’s going to happen.  Those two things combined were just something that I wanted to go through.  I wanted to challenge myself.

I’ve said it before, but I had to fire my agent to do it.  He said that doing a reality show like Dancing With the Stars was stupid and cheesy and I’d ruin my career if I did it.  I just decided that I didn’t care – I wanted to do it.  And, it was worth it.  It was the right decision.  It really was a life changing experience for me.

JH:  What do you have coming up that our readers should keep an eye out for?  Will you be continuing on Mad Men?

HH:  You know, I don’t know about Mad Men yet.  They don’t start up until late October and they usually don’t come back to guest stars until the end.  I don’t really even know where the show is going.  I think these kind of shows have a tendency to skip years or end up in prequels.  God knows where it’s going.  I may or may not be involved with it.

My book is being re-released by Simon and Schuster with a new cover on it.  That’s one thing that’s coming up.  It’s called Full Frontal Nudity.  It came out two years ago and did very well.  Aside from that, I’m still an actor on the block.

Interview by Lead Writer and Film Critic, Jason Howard