'Mad Men' Season 6: Jon Hamm and Jessica Pare balance the light and dark

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In their still-young marriage, will Don and Megan Draper be glad or mad?

That's among the burning questions for "Mad Men" to answer as the much-praised and -honored AMC drama series starts its sixth season Sunday, April 7, with a two-hour premiere written by executive producer Matthew Weiner. As the previous round ended, with the show's highest-rated season finale yet, 1960s advertising man Don ( Jon Hamm) was conflicted about former secretary and copywriter Megan ( Jessica Pare) having left their New York firm Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce to pursue an acting career.

"It's always sort of a ramp-up," Hamm tells Zap2it of getting back into working on "Mad Men," the Emmy winner for outstanding drama series each of its first four seasons. "You're sort of shocked even before it airs, at least with the past couple of seasons, and you're in this bubble for a while. Then all of a sudden, it's coming out, and you're getting more excited, and this season is no exception. We've been off the air for a while, and we're thrilled to be here again."

That also goes for Pare, who had one of last year's most memorable television scenes with Megan's suggestive rendering of the song "Zou Bisou Bisou" at a birthday party for Don. "It's an actor's dream," she says of being a "Mad Men" cast member. "The writing is so incredible, and the cast is obviously amazing. I think it's the best cast on TV, though I admit to being a little bit biased. And the era is really good for both women and men, just great for hair and makeup and costumes."

jon-hamm-jessica-pare-mad-men-325.jpgAmong other "Mad Men" characters dealing with new chapters in their lives: Don's also-remarried ex-wife, Betty ( January Jones), still adjusting to her own domestic situation, especially in regard to daughter Sally ( Kiernan Shipka); Joan Harris ( Christina Hendricks), now a partner in the firm, who's been orchestrating the physical expansion of the business; and Peggy Olson ( Elisabeth Moss), who also left SCDP and now works for a rival agency.

Also: Pete Campbell ( Vincent Kartheiser), coping with the heartbreaking outcome of his extramarital affair; self-involved Roger Sterling ( John Slattery), who had been having a secret affair with Megan's mother; and Bertram "Bert" Cooper ( Robert Morse), who watches his firm move on after the suicide of financially troubled Lane Pryce (former series co-star Jared Harris).

The immediate relevance to Don of the various women in his life is "a significant theme of the season," Hamm confirms. "We investigate how all of those roles are changing, not only in Don's world but in the world at large. Peggy's finding her way with her new aspect, as is Joan in managing the expectations and pitfalls that come from her former and ongoing relationships with Don. And Megan has a new role, and I think it's all dramatically rich, fertile ground."

Pare considers Megan "very light in a landscape of pretty dark characters. Whether you want to call it a certain naivete or a youthfulness, she doesn't have the same cynicism or sardonic outlook that the other characters have."

Megan also "absolutely" allows Pare to exorcise some situations she's gone through herself as an actress.

"There's a scene we shot last year that was very simple," Pare recalls. "She goes into the [audition] room, and they ask her to turn around in a circle -- and it was kind of demeaning. That was like my 14 or 15 years of throwing it at the wall three times a week, in front of people who couldn't really care less. There was something cathartic about shooting that scene, for sure."

The makers of "Mad Men" famously like to be tight-lipped about what's coming up on the show, but photos released several months ago indicate Megan and Don make a trek to Hawaii.

"It's hard to extrapolate anything from a still photograph," Hamm notes, "and we live in a world where everybody and their dog has a camera. People don't know what that means, because they have no context to put it in. I think they'll be pleasantly surprised when they see how it fits in."

A "Mad Men" producer as well, Hamm also directs the second new episode. "It's definitely a learning process," he says after having also guided one of last season's stories, "and it's exciting for me to have a completely different perspective on all of these other characters. It's also a kind of detachment, and since I'm obviously in a lot of the scenes as well, I have to walk that line.

"I was not only able to watch Ben Affleck do that on 'The Town' (in which Hamm co-starred), but also Jen (Jennifer Westfeldt, Hamm's actress-writer-director girlfriend), and Slattery a few times on the show. It's been a tremendous challenge, and also a way for me to learn more about the show and about myself as a person. It's very fulfilling."

As "Mad Men" also is for Pare. "It's nice to be able to go into meetings now where people have seen work that I've done," she says, "or at least have heard about it. It's actually surprising how many meetings I have where people say, 'Oh, we hear you're on that show. Never seen it.' What's great, though, is that the material I get to read -- and read for -- is so much more interesting than before."

Early visuals for the new "Mad Men" season show Don Draper remains every bit the fashion plate he's been since the start of the series ... a mantle that has carried over to Hamm, who wears it with some bemusement.

"I try to dress like an adult," he says. "I've been fortunate enough to be dressed by some very, very talented people, and I don't think I have the eye or the style sense that my character on the show has.

"Whether it's Giorgio Armani or Tom Ford or Ferragamo, the people who are incredibly kind in letting me wear their clothes, it's a rare thing to get this amazing opportunity to look sharp. And honestly, it feels good!"
Photo/Video credit: AMC
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