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Mad Men’s Harry Hamlin on Jim Cutler’s Power Play, Bad Breath, and His Family’s Drug Use

The marriage between Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and Cutler Gleason and Chaough is already headed for trouble thanks to Jim Cutler, who in the last two episodes of Mad Men has proven himself to be far wilier than his new business partners and a real shit-stirrer (see: drugs in the office, promoting Bob Benson). Harry Hamlin knew nothing about the character when he signed on, but he soon after read in a script that Peggy describes him as "Roger with bad breath." "I imagine the first day I met Matthew Weiner I had horrible halitosis," he said. The former L.A. Law star has since discovered other happier coincidences. He spoke with Vulture about his real-life experience with those energy injections, the upcoming power struggle within the firm, and why he won’t ever again venture into online message boards.

Tell me everything about the foot race with Stan.
Well, that’s interesting. That concoction that was being used in the show was actually part of my life growing up. The injection? It was Dr. Max Jacobson who used to prescribe that particular concoction. My dad was in the space program and he used to take that drug. When Kennedy said he needed to get a man on the moon in ten years, he basically said to all the government agencies involved with that, "You gotta get everybody on this drug." NASA basically forced my father to get on this drug. He loved it so much that he gave it to my mother and other friends and sort of spread the word. We were in Pasadena at the time. I was very familiar with that concoction growing up.

So the footrace and the tap dancing didn’t seem that strange to you.
Well, there’s a little bit of license being taken with the show. People didn’t get quite that wacky. It gave people a little boost of energy and you became addicted to it. My parents were addicted to it. It was methamphetamine … Methedrine, not methamphetamine, or I suppose it’s the same thing. When I got the script it was like, How strange is this? I grew up with this drug! I even had to inject my mother. When my father would go to Cape Canaveral on business trips, I had to learn to make the injections and I used to use a grapefruit to figure out how to shoot up. It’s very similar to human skin, having to penetrate a grapefruit. I had to learn on a grapefruit [laughs]. Yeah, when I saw it in the script I was like, This is too weird.

Was it fun to film?
Yeah, yeah! We did the footrace in one take. No accidents. It was really fun to run around the office like that.

In Sunday’s episode, Jim yells at Bob: “Why are you always down here? Go upstairs!” Which is pretty much what we’re all thinking. Was Bob showing up a running joke on set by that point?
Well, at the time, Jim was getting completely insulted by Ginsberg, and it didn’t bother him at all! It only bothered him that Bob was in the wrong place [laughs]. It didn’t bother me at all that, really, Ginsberg was saying all these horribly insulting things to me, but I really got pissed off when Bob shows up in the story room when he’s supposed to be upstairs.

While you were filming did you have any theories about who Bob Benson is? Or what he really wanted?
I can’t talk about it. I’m sworn to secrecy. I know a lot but you’d have to pay me a lot of money to talk. I’d have to go into witness protection after.

Fair enough! I think he’s merely a J. Pierrepont–type, but there are plenty of other ideas online.
I don’t read message boards or go into that secondary world of television. One time, years ago, I dabbled in that for one night. One night I went on a message board and looked at what people were saying and thought, Never again.

What were you reading?
I had never even heard of message boards before. I didn’t know there was this other world out there online of people talking about TV. When I did L.A. Law that didn’t exist, and then I took ten years off to raise my kids and build some companies and do other things. When I came back, this whole technological revolution had occurred and I didn’t know there was this other life for television shows that was happening in the moment. There’s a kind of fungal life going on around these shows out there in cyberspace, and most of it is baloney … But what was I reading specifically? It was like six years ago. I don’t think it was about me, but I just saw how negative it was, how people have these horrible opinions about other people. I’ve never gone back!

In any case, Jim has just recruited Bob to his side. Good move?
Bob is a pawn he needed in the moment. Was Jim really going to see Bob? Or was he thinking of who might fit the bill when Bob happened to walk in? I’m standing there when he comes in. Maybe I was about to have a piece of gum and he interrupted me.

There’s not a lot we know about your character yet, but he does seem to be staging a bit of a revolution within the firm.
There isn’t a character bible out there where they’ve figured out these people start to finish. In the next iteration, he will be whomever he needs to be in that moment. That’s very much like human nature. We change and shift with the wind. From what I know of Jim so far, he’s somewhat narcissistic and a control freak. He’s feeling his oats as a power monger, wanting to gain control of the company, and doing it while the others are out of town, which I think shows a lot about who he is. There’s going to be an inevitable power struggle.

I read one of the Weiner's requirements is that Jim have glasses. Any particular reason why?
Well, I wear glasses similar to Jim's and I think when he saw me with them it sealed the deal. He takes a lot of his cues for characters from what he sees in person.

The bad breath?
[Laughs.] I imagine the first day I met Matthew Weiner I had horrible halitosis.

You’ve said you didn’t want to play another gay pedophile like you did on Shameless, but what did you think about Jim spying on Stan and his late partner’s daughter having sex?
I loved that! I said nothing about not wanting to be perverse. I had actually met Matt months before for another role, which I didn’t get, but they called me with another part. They couldn’t tell me anything about it. “Is there a script?” There’s no script. “Pages?” No pages. “How big is the part?” One day. “And you won’t tell me who it is or what I’m playing?” Right. And I thought, well, it’s Mad Men, and I’m not doing anything next Thursday. So the one thing I said was, “I’ll do it as long as — and this is where I draw the line — he’s not a gay pedophile.” So as far as Stan and Wendy? I was pleased to know that Jim’s perverse in some way. That I will take.

Photo: Michael Yarish/AMC