From George Clooney to Jennifer Aniston: How actors cope after blockbuster television roles

As Mad Men finishes, Sarah Hughes looks at what's next for the big names
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The Independent Culture

On Wednesday 20 May UK TV audiences will say goodbye to Don Draper for the final time as advertising drama Mad Men comes to an end after eight years and seven seasons. For Jon Hamm, the actor who plays Draper, and who more than any other cast member is indelibly associated with this much-lauded show, the question looms: "What next?" Is typecasting inevitable, with years spent playing a variation on a sharp-suited theme, or can Hamm say goodbye to dashing, deceitful Don and forge a different path?

Early signs are mixed. In a recent interview with GQ magazine Hamm admitted he'd turned to Bryan Cranston for advice. Cranston, 18 months on from his own exit after six years playing the equally iconic Walter White in Breaking Bad, reportedly told Hamm that "[It's] hard, man. It's hard to let go. It'll hit you a couple of different ways at different times" – advice that at least explains why Cranston returned as White in a Super Bowl advert for insurance company Esurance this February.

The interview also touched on Hamm's very real fears about his future. "The one constant thing I've had in my career is now removed. And that's an eye-opener," he admitted. "Are people still going to take me seriously? Am I just going to do romantic comedies for the rest of my life? What's next? And I don't know, you know. I wish I was smug enough to have had a grand plan."

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He's right to be concerned. For every Will Smith or Jennifer Aniston, who successfully cast off their characters, there's a Sarah Michelle Gellar, forever Buffy despite numerous attempts to break free.

Hamm will hope his future career path pans out more like George Clooney's. Once, like Hamm, a television star intrinsically linked with one role (ER's charming yet troubled paediatrician Doug Ross), Clooney seemingly went from small-screen star to the Hollywood A-list in one smooth leap, becoming one of a handful of actors to translate television fame into global success.

It wasn't quite as easy as he made it look, of course: few remember now but Gorgeous George came very close to derailing that movie career with a couple of poor choices, most notably the big-budget flop Batman and Robin.

"I was like fuck yeah, baby, I'm Batman, I was thrilled," Clooney admitted in a rare interview with Esquire magazine last year but the film was box-office poison and movie executives began to question if the former Dr Doug Ross was more than the sum of his chiselled jaw. Clooney turned it around with two contrasting performances, ruggedly heroic in A Perfect Storm and exuding old-school charm in O Brother ,Where Art Thou?, the film that suggested he could be his generation's Cary Grant. His advice for how to deal with life after a break-out role is simple: "Nobody wants to hear anybody complain so I don't do it," he said in 2011 at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado. "I don't believe in it but I'll admit [everything] did become very different and more complicated [after fame]."

It's easy to imagine the likeable Hamm, who has frequently downplayed his abilities, most recently telling GQ that "being an actor is actually pretty easy, if you can memorise lines", saying something similar, and yet his ascension to Clooney-esque heights is by no means assured. His choices during Mad Men have been a quirky mix of small-scale independent movies and knowing cameos in other shows. He showed in Bridesmaids and Friends With Kids that he plays cads well but failed to make a real impression as an FBI agent in The Town. He was unsettling in Black Mirror and gleefully over the top in TV's Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, but the sense is of a man trying slightly too hard to prove he can do more than look great in a suit.

And for all his Draper-esque swagger and relaxed charm in interviews, Hamm is clearly more emotionally vulnerable than he appears. When the news broke that he'd recently spent 30 days in an American rehab centre undergoing treatment for alcoholism it was hard not to think of the late James Gandolfini, another great star of the small screen who spent most of his post-television career trying to lay Tony Soprano to rest.

"I never think about him, ever," Gandolfini told The New York Times in 2010, adding that post-The Sopranos he was "much more comfortable doing smaller things". Yet in 2012, a year before his sadly early death at 51, he admitted to Associated Press that the part had haunted him, adding that he didn't "regain myself as an actor" until performing God of Carnage on Broadway in 2009, two years after The Sopranos came to an end.

Theatre is often a welcome staging post for an actor desperate to shrug off a role. Matt Smith's first post-Doctor Who role was as smooth serial killer Patrick Bateman in a musical version of American Psycho, while his fellow Doctor, the classically trained David Tennant, has appeared in both Much Ado About Nothing and Richard II since leaving the sonic screwdriver behind.

"I just want to establish that I can do other things, and that I'm not afraid to do very, very different things from Harry," said a 17-year-old Daniel Radcliffe explaining why he'd chosen to appear on stage in a revival of Peter Shaffer's famously disturbing Equus. It was a policy that worked for Radcliffe, who has since given acclaimed stage performances in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and The Cripple of Inishmaan, in addition to building a respectable post-Potter career on both big and small screen.

Radcliffe's most memorable television appearance came in A Young Doctor's Notebook alongside Hamm, and part of the joy of this adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov's stories is seeing these two actors, both indelibly associated with one particular role, cast off the shackles and have fun. In a 2013 interview to promote that show, Hamm touched again on his career concerns. "It's hard to turn down quality work because for the majority of my career it wasn't like that," he admitted. "Ideally, if you keep doing things a different way, people look at you a different way and you don't get pigeonholed."

Yet there are benefits to embracing typecasting. "I think there was a time immediately during and post Dawson's Creek when I took myself too seriously," former teen star James Van Der Beek admitted two years ago. "I needed time to duck away and disappear, figure things out and grow up a bit."

Van Der Beek rebuilt his career by celebrating his inner Dawson, posting internet memes of the character's infamous crying face and playing a bitter version of himself in short-lived 2012 sitcom Don't Trust The B**** in Apartment 23.

Fellow alum Joshua Jackson is equally happy to celebrate the show that gave him his break, even filming a comedy sketch for website Funny or Die in 2010 in honour of his character, Pacey Witter. "The concept was, you know, actors are always trying to run away from characters they've had in their past," Jackson said. "What I wanted to do in the video was the exact opposite."

It's certainly the case that our current climate, heavy in pop-culture references and loaded with irony, offers actors a chance to connect with fans by sending up their past even as they embrace it. Thus Matt LeBlanc traduces his "nice guy" reputation in Friends by playing a self-obsessed, talentless version of himself in Episodes, and fellow Friends alumni Lisa Kudrow dissects life after sitcom stardom in The Comeback. "I take it as a compliment that people think of me as Jack Bauer," said Kiefer Sutherland last year in an interview with Variety. "It's not something I try to escape, why should I?" Matt Smith agreed: "If people want to typecast me, they can," he said soon after signing up to play the Doctor. "I can sit… and not really give a damn… this is unlike any job I'll ever have."

There is also, for a lucky few actors, a third way – a sustained television career in which you play more than one iconic role. This has been the case for Peter Capaldi, both Malcolm Tucker and Doctor Who; Julia Louis Dreyfus, recently hailed as America's finest comic actress for a television career that runs from Seinfeld to Veep; Cranston, who was the harassed dad in Malcolm in the Middle before he became Walt White; and also for Clooney's co-star Julianna Margulies, who went from ER to The Good Wife with a short-lived movie career in between. It's a tricky career path to pull off – get it wrong and you end up like David Caruso, more famous for quitting NYPD Blue and failing to build a movie career than for his subsequent role in CSI: Miami – but if any one has both the style and substance to reinvent himself on the small screen it's Hamm.