Harry Hamlin bucked the Hollywood stud stereotype in his younger days when he played lawyer Michael Kuzak on L.A. Law, and was named People magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive” in 1987. Today the actor says he’s glad to get back to the character work he enjoyed early in his career. His latest characters include Jim Cutler, senior partner at the Sterling Cooper & Partners ad agency on Mad Men, and Warren Rush, a doctor who has a complex and contentious relationship with his son Will (played by British actor Tom Ellis) in USA’s medical-renegade drama Rush.
Will Rush is a drug- and adrenaline-addicted surgeon cast out of his professional life. In this week’s episode, “Learning to Fly,” he returns to ask a favor of his father, whom he blames, in part, for his downfall.
Hamlin talked to me about the show, Mad Men‘s Matt Weiner as Shakespeare, and reluctantly riding the wave of media scrutiny.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY COMMUNITY: Let’s talk about Warren Rush, how you were introduced to the character and what your perspective is on him.
HARRY HAMLIN: I was watching Ray Donovan a lot and there’s kind of a similar thing here between the father and the son. I love the relationship that Jon Voight has in Ray Donovan; though the character is very different and the relationship is very different, it’s very interesting to explore that … This relationship is complicated; I love my son, but he’s definitely the prodigal son. That’s a very interesting thing to work on as well, emotionally and psychologically: the notion of the errant son, who shines brighter than his father and yet, at the same time, the father loves the son and wants to make amends. They can’t quite do it and there’s always tension—I love that.
Will Rush had characterized his downfall as his having been “screwed over” by his father. It’s something that obviously has to play out in the show, but can you say anything about that—would Warren Rush think of what happened between them in those terms, or is it a matter of perspective?
It’s always a matter of perspective in any relationship; there are always two sides to any story. Usually each side thinks they’re right … You’ll see how the relationship plays out, and you’ll see how it will reveal itself in the end that there’s a gray area in all relationships. There’s never really a right and a wrong; there is an agreement to disagree—put it that way.
It’s possible for someone to have a sort of criminal outlook on things; someone who knows that they’re in the wrong and actually admits it.
That’s true. And that does happen in life and in drama, and you never know, that could happen in this, too. You have to wait and see.
I don’t know if they showed you my interview with [Rush executive producer] Jonathan Levine, but we were kind of geeking out a little bit—maybe just a little bit—about your career and how much we admire your work.
Aw, well, that’s such a sweet thing to say. When anybody geeks out in that manner, I’m always very pleased, of course. So geek away.
Are you working with Jonathan directly—is he directing any of your episodes?
No, not that I know of. I’m going to Vancouver tonight to shoot [on Thursday]. I just got the script about an hour ago. Usually it changes considerably in that 24-hour period between when I get it and when I’m actually on the set.
Both Jonathan and Tom Ellis, whom I also spoke to, mentioned that Jonathan likes to leave room for actors to improvise—that would change the dialogue, yes?
We get to the set and we do discuss it, and sometimes there are changes that take place right there and then, because maybe there are too many words, or maybe we’ve been redundant or maybe somebody comes up with a better way to say it, so that does happen. Some improvisation does take place as well.
It’s completely and utterly different from Mad Men, which was so specific and precise that every period and comma and dash and apostrophe had to be included. There was absolutely no room to change any word; you couldn’t change an “and” to a “but,” a “this” to a “that,” or anything. It was completely and utterly carved in stone. This is almost 180-degrees different from that in that there is a lot of encouragement to add your own voice, and to improvise and to come up with what may be a better way to say the words. Which is a good thing, I think, at least in terms of this show. I don’t think it would have worked for Mad Men, because I think Matt Weiner had a very, very specific idea of how he wanted the music of his piece to sound, and changing one note could change the whole piece—if you get the metaphor there … This show has merits equal to Mad Men, but in a different direction; it’s a different way of approaching the material—and I like them both. I have a tendency to use four-letter words when I improvise, though, so that can get little dicey for network television.
I wondered, as an actor being presented with those two scenarios, which one you would appreciate more, but I guess it just depends on the actor. If you’re a smart person, like yourself—
Oh, you go too far. That’s a supposition on your part—there’s no proof to that. [Laughs.] But I think what you’re getting at is that the experience is different for each show. Curb Your Enthusiasm, for example, which I had a great deal of fun doing—I was only working on it for a short time, but—it was completely and utterly improvised. No script at all for that. You just kind of go in and they say, “Well, you know, you’re this guy, we don’t know who he is exactly, we don’t know what his name is, but you’re going to get into a fight with Larry about some cupboards, so figure that out.” And that’s how they do it, and it’s completely without the script. Mad Men is totally with script—absolutely and totally scripted—and this one is kind of in between.
I was going to ask if you thought it had to do with youth and a renegade spirit, but then the Curb Your Enthusiasm example is perfect; it’s not a matter of age or experience—it’s just attitude.
It’s the approach to the material. In the case of Curb, there is no material; it’s whatever you happen to come up with. There’s kind of a broad notion of what they want to achieve on Curb, but then it just becomes its own beast. This is kind of controlled chaos—put it that way—and it’s very creative. For me, as an actor, when you’re working with Matt Weiner, it’s like doing Shakespeare, in that every word in Shakespeare was a word that he conceived and had a meaning. There’s a reason why Shakespeare wrote every single word that he wrote. Matt Weiner is the same way: There’s a reason why he writes every single word. And so the challenge in Shakespeare and the challenge in something like Mad Men is to fit our persona into the music of the writer and somehow justify what the writer is trying to say even though I might—or my character that I’ve created might have a different way of expressing himself than the words on the page … In the case of Rush, … I can come up with my own way of expressing those things and see if the writer thinks they’re as good as the way he came up with them. Sometimes they are, sometimes they aren’t.
What are your obligations to Mad Men over the next year or so?
Mad Men has finished shooting, and I am completely and utterly sworn to secrecy when it comes to Mad Men. I am going to be going to the Emmys—I can tell you that—which is in two weeks or three weeks, so that’s an obligation that I can reveal.
You’ve worked so closely with the transition of special effects—starting at Clash of the Titans and Ray Harryhausen. Having seen that transition, do you prefer a certain type of technology or the technological approach to fantastical elements?
I was in Clash of the Titans, and it was stop-motion animation, classic Ray Harryhausen. I haven’t really done any major special effects stuff since then—obviously a long time. When we did Clash of the Titans, I was disappointed that Ray didn’t integrate some of the new computer-generated animation that John Dykstra had already done in Star Wars. They were pretty well along with it in 1979, when we did Clash of the Titans. Of course, it’s nothing like it is today, but there was computer-generated animation, and there were companies that were doing it. Ray could have put some of it in if he had wanted to, but then he had a specific way that he did his animation. When I found out that he wasn’t going to do anything computer-generated, that he was going to only use the equipment that he used for Jason and the Argonauts and 7th Voyage of Sinbad—and we used the exact same equipment, the same cameras, everything—I was disappointed.
Then, like five years ago, they came out with a new Clash of the Titans—which I don’t know if you saw or not—I did. I went to the opening out at Mann’s Chinese [Theatre], I met Sam Worthington, and I talked to the director and saw the movie. I was really looking forward to it, because I had hoped we had used some of those kind of really fascinating and also true-to-life special effects that were available even back in 1980/1979. Then I saw Clash of the Titans last year for its thirtieth anniversary—or the year before—so after I’d seen the second one, I saw Clash of the Titans again on the big screen, the one that I did, and there was something about the stop-motion animation that was creepy—it was somehow creepier than the new stuff that is so good and so perfect. It just made me think: Well, maybe Ray was on to something when he decided not to go there and to use the old method, because there’s something about the stop-motion stuff that, I’m sure for young kids, might be a little bit more creepy than the perfectly enhanced monsters that they have today with the computer-generated stuff.
As someone who’s been through the “Hollywood Hunk” scenario, do you have any advice for young actors who maybe want to distinguish themselves as more serious actors?
I’m not in a position to give any advice. I can say that I was very fortunate the early part of my career, from the first thing that I did at maybe age 27 to, like, 35, I was able to do a lot of great stuff and somehow escape the Hollywood Hunk thing. I did a lot of really wonderful projects that required actors and characters—I did a lot of character work in those first few years. Then, lo and behold, television—when I did L.A. Law—that has a whole different way of presenting the people on the shows. It’s such a mass-market thing and there’s so much press around it. People try to write and find so many words to say about the people—they glom onto one thing and that becomes the thing. Yeah, I became kind of the L.A. Law hunk—Corbin [Bernsen] and I both did. It was like, “What? That’s not what I got into this business for, that’s not why I do this.” And it was disturbing, I have to say. Looking back on it now, I go, “Well, I should’ve ridden that wave standing up straight,” and I kind of resisted it. I kind of went, “Wow. What are they doing? That’s not who I am. That’s not why I trained as an actor. That’s not why I do what I do.” But there’s no avoiding it really, because the press has its own point of view, and once you do something that’s that visible, they’re going to take it and run with it however they want to … Now I don’t pay attention to all that stuff. I’m just happy to be working. I’m happy to still be in the game. In those days, I guess I just wanted a little bit more out of it, but then again, that’s youthful exuberance, isn’t it?
Doesn’t it start with the material, though—what the director asks you to do, what the story asks you to do? If you’re cast as the romantic lead in a thing, you can’t expect to avoid the press that comes along with that, right?
No, it’s true. I think I was a little spoiled early on in my career, because though I was the lead, I was not the “romantic lead.” I was really lucky to play some really great parts early on. I played Studs Lonigan in the great James Farrell novel and that was a character piece. There’s nothing romantic about that character. And before that, I did Movie Movie with Larry Gelbart—there’s nothing romantic about that. I was just lucky in the early part—I did a bunch of stuff that was like that, character work. Then L.A. Law happened, and the character work kind of went the other way. Now it gets to come back, you know? When you reach a certain age, people want to see characters again, so—I’m happy to do that.
Well, thank you so much for bringing your lovely characters to us. I’m looking forward to being introduced to Warren Rush.
Rush, rated TV-14, airs Thursdays at 9/8C on USA.