It’s early November, and Harry Hamlin is talking about anthrax. He’s part of The Hot Zone: Anthrax, the forthcoming National Geographic series, which starts November 28th and dramatizes the anthrax attacks that hit the East Coast shortly after 9/11. Calling from Beverly Hills, Hamlin recounts what it felt like back then to be frightened at the prospect of a deadly white substance suddenly appearing in your mail, leading to certain death.
“We were all freaked out by 9/11, and then on top of that comes this? It’s like, ‘Wait a minute, what’s happened to the world?’” Hamlin says. “The first thing that you think is, ‘This has got to be some terrorist from the outside, the Middle East.’ Then it turns out that’s not really the case — it was a more homegrown thing. I think I was even supposed to make a trip to the East Coast around that time, and of course everyone was skittish about flying in planes. I canceled the trip on the advice of an agent — that anthrax thing was hot and heavy.”
Hamlin was about to turn 50 in the fall of 2001 — now, 20 years later, his life would seem to be as good as it’s ever been. He’s been wed to fellow actor Lisa Rinna for nearly 25 years, their marriage representing his longest romantic relationship by far. (He’s been married twice before, as well as involved in a high-profile courtship with his Clash of the Titans costar Ursula Andress, the mother of his first child.) A younger generation may know him best from his appearances on Real Housewives or Dancing With the Stars, both alongside Rinna, but the former L.A. Law heartthrob has also earned acclaim in recent years for his roles on Mad Men (which landed him his sole Emmy nomination to date) and a funny one-off on Curb Your Enthusiasm as Larry David’s obnoxious new office neighbor. And in 2010, he published Full Frontal Nudity: The Making of an Accidental Actor, a very funny, very candid memoir that allowed Hamlin to reveal, among other things, the awkwardness of his childhood. (Sample line: “It was around the time we got Spot that I discovered I had a very, very small penis.”)
In our nearly hour-long conversation, Hamlin talked about his acting career, his difficult relationship with his parents and also his penis — the latter, admittedly, because I brought it up — but I sensed that what he really wanted to discuss was his environmental activism, especially TAE Technologies, a company he helped found in 1998 that’s dedicated to developing fusion power. Those who think of the Hamlin of the 1980s — the one People named its “Sexiest Man Alive” — may be surprised how serious he is about global warming but, honestly, that particular honor was something he didn’t especially love receiving back then. “It’s definitely not all that I am,” he tells me.
Early on in our phone call, Hamlin insisted, “I try to avoid anxiety at all costs,” but the more we talked, the more he got into the things that agitate him — the paparazzi, the future of the world, that one Coen brothers movie he wished he could have been in. But those moments were offset by expressions of gratitude for the life he has. “I take it day by day,” he says.
You play Tom Brokaw in this new NatGeo series. How did that come about?
I just got a call: “You have an offer to play Tom Brokaw in The Hot Zone.” I said, “Really? Is it possible to even play Tom Brokaw?” I said to my agents that I had to consider it, because it felt like I would be walking a tightrope without a net trying to do something like that. He’s someone I respect so much and he’s such an icon. I said, “Is it even possible to do this?” But I like doing things that are impossible, so I said yes.
His speaking style is so distinctive — is that daunting at all, or do you just focus on your own take?
It can’t really be anything but my own version of Tom Brokaw, because I’m not Tom Brokaw. I cannot become Tom Brokaw, but I can create an approximation, which I did. I mean, the dilemma that I had was, “Do I just play him? Do I just be me? Do I have to be the best Harry I can be, and then pretend to be Tom Brokaw? Do I try to find whatever cadence I can access and get as close to a Tom Brokaw approximation as possible?”
I went and I looked at Tony Hopkins when he did Nixon to try and figure out how he approached it — he basically found the essence of Nixon and a little bit of his vocal approximation, the way that he held his body and his head, the way he moved himself around. I decided to go that route — for about two months, I did a total immersion into Tom Brokaw. I listened to all of his books and watched as many of his broadcasts and speeches as possible, over and over again, to see if I could get there. His voice is much deeper than mine — that was the hardest part, to see if I could force my vocal range down to where his voice is.
It was a challenge, and I like a challenge, so I was happy to take that one but terrified about how it was going to turn out. And I still am terrified about how it’s going to turn out, because I haven’t seen it.
Do you get anxious waiting to watch something you’re in?
I try to avoid anxiety at all costs. It is what it is — I can’t change it now. Whatever it is, it’s going to be — and I’ll have to accept that. So I’m not anxious about it. When I say I’m terrified, that’s a figure of speech, really. Anytime I do something that I know I can’t really do, I wouldn’t say it’s anxiety — it’s more curiosity. It’s like, “How badly did I mess that up?” We’ll find out.
That’s interesting to hear you don’t do anxiety. Is that something that gets easier to master over time?
Well, that’s a lifelong pursuit. That’s a much broader conversation, and it entails a lot of what some people would call “work” over many years to get to the place where, yeah, you’re not anxious about shit any more. That’s a different conversation. But, no, I don’t do anxiety.
The NatGeo series deals with the anthrax scare that happened after 9/11. People remember the attacks, but maybe not that second wave of terror so much.
I remember that we all went out and tried to get our doctors to prescribe Cipro for us, because that was the one antibiotic you could take that would supposedly work against anthrax. And then somebody came out — maybe it was Rumsfeld — and said, “Everybody should go out and get some duct tape, and duct tape up your windows.” Because a crop-duster could fly over your house and disperse anthrax over your house. So there was a run on duct tape. I remember that: Everyone was going out and getting gas masks and duct tape.
What was so ironic about the first [Hot Zone] series, the Ebola one, is that they finished it, and all of a sudden, [we] had a real pandemic. I’ve often wondered what the production team felt: “Should we release it? Should we not release it? Are people going to want to see on TV something that’s actually happening in their lives?”
Speaking of the pandemic, does it feel like things are getting a bit back to normal for you?
Yeah, it does. For the first year, I didn’t take an airplane or any public transportation or anything — I didn’t leave the house for the first year, essentially. I learned how to grow vegetables and made my own garden and was able to eat most of the stuff that I grew here — I didn’t want to go out. I mean, yeah, it was intense. I’ve traveled a lot on airplanes since March, which was when I first started traveling.
At the very beginning, when I flew over to Romania to do a project after [The Hot Zone], I’ll never forget that half of the plane was Japanese tourists, and they were in full hazmat suits. Full hazmat suits. I was like, “Okay, well, maybe I should be in a hazmat suit. What am I doing not being in a hazmat suit?” It was pretty shocking. But I think it is coming back to normal now, with the vaccinations. People have learned how to behave in a way that is much less at risk, so to speak. Maybe we’ll get a lot less flu and a lot fewer colds now because of it.
Has this time made you more reflective? Do you feel like you learned anything about yourself?
I think we all took a closer look. I know some couples that broke up. It brought us closer together and brought our family closer together, for sure — we were all under the same roof for a year. Certainly, there was more time for reflection. We’ve come out okay. I mean, one of my kids is struggling with something — an autoimmune thing that happened after the second vaccination — but I think that happens to a number of people who have autoimmune situations. It’s better to get the vaccine and suffer the consequences, a temporary setback, than it is to not get the vaccine.
Yeah, I saw your daughter Delilah’s post where she talked about what she’s gone through. How is she doing?
She’s holding up very well — she’s doing well. We’re searching around for different people who might know how to get to the bottom of exactly what it is that is going on. She’s not bedridden or anything like that, but she’s not 100-percent healthy, either.
I’m really proud of my kids. They’ve kind of followed in our footsteps, social media-wise — not in my footsteps, but in Lisa’s footsteps — in terms of being in the public eye and becoming influencers in one way or another. They’ve used their platform in a really beneficial way for people. They’ve come out and been very honest about the things that they’ve struggled with, and I know it’s helped a lot of people. I’m proud of Delilah for being honest about her journey right now.
Is that something that she talks to you about before posting? Does she ask for your advice?
No, they do it on their own, without any parental guidance whatsoever. I’m not sure what I would have said if she said, “Dad, here’s what I’m going to say.” I might have said, “Well, maybe you ought to think about that,” but the fact that she did it, I’m proud of her. Amelia did the same thing a couple of years ago. They’re their own people, they make their own decisions.
When they were little, did you and Lisa talk about the kind of people you wanted them to be in the world?
You can’t make your kids — we’re not little Dr. Frankensteins. But there’s one phrase that I have repeated over and over again [to them], and it may have stuck: “What other people think of you is none of your business.” When they do come out and make these pretty bold statements, they’re not thinking about the blowback they’re going to get — they’re thinking about what they’re saying and why they’re saying it.
I firmly believe that: What other people think about you is none of our business. If you spend too much time worrying about what the world is saying about you — what your critics are saying — you’re going to be hemmed into a life inside of a cave. I don’t look at social media, so I don’t know what people say about me, and I don’t give a shit one way or the other. But when you’re young and at that age, it’s really hard to do that, because the mirror that’s out there… When we were kids, our mirror was what our parents mirrored back to us and what our siblings mirrored back to us and what our close friends mirrored back to us in school. Now, these kids have millions of people mirroring back to them and having a say about what they’re saying and how they look and what they’re wearing and how thin they are, how fat they are.
It’s like, holy shit, I don’t know if I would have made it through that life — that would have been a gauntlet I wouldn’t have been able to get through, probably. These kids, they have to be tough and resilient to get through that.
You chose a profession where you have to be pretty tough and resilient.
Trying to become an actor, you’re facing the most rejection that anybody could ever [face]. That and being in politics. I’ve always said that if you’re in the public eye, whether you’re an actor or a politician, there’s going to be 50 percent of the people who appreciate you, and 50 percent of the people who don’t. That’s just the nature of the beast — if you’re lucky, 50 percent.
Your parents weren’t in the arts, so where did acting come from?
Everybody has this idea at some point in their life they’re going to be an actor. I don’t think a human being on the planet Earth has not gone, “Oh, I’ll be actor.” A tiny, tiny fraction of people end up doing it. I didn’t start out to be an actor — I went to college to be an architect and just got waylaid and then ended up having to take acting classes. Then I got good at it, I guess, because they kept putting me in more and more plays, the acting department, and so I kept doing it. But my parents, they thought it was just a passing thing — they said that it was a dead-end street and they weren’t going to support me. They changed their tune when I started supporting them a few years after that. But yeah, I got lucky with that life — really lucky.
In your memoir, you mention your relationship with both your parents wasn’t easy. They had both died long before you put out Full Frontal Nudity: Did writing the book change how you felt about them?
I’ve always had a great reverence for my dad, who was not around that much because he was working in the rocket business. But he was a really smart guy on many levels, and my mother was a little different. I don’t know, it’s a good question — I didn’t really think about it. It was certainly cathartic to write a book like that, and I tried to be as honest as I could. I’ll go back and read the book — it’s been 10 years.
That image from the book of you hearing that your mom has died and you’re sorta smiling while washing the dishes…
I was whistling. I was shocked that I had just heard this news when I’m washing the dishes and sort of absentmindedly whistling. I don’t think that I was going, “Oh, the Wicked Witch is dead” — that’s not what was happening. It was just, whatever was going on in a subterranean level in my subconscious allowed me at that moment, after hearing this news, to actually kind of break into song, even though unrelated.
I have over the years thought a lot about that relationship with my mother, as I think most sons do as they grow older. She had her own issues, and I’ve tried to have as much compassion around trying to understand those issues as I can now. I think when I was younger, I didn’t spend quite so much time thinking about compassion — a little bit more time in resentment. But that didn’t have anything to do with writing the book — that’s just, as I’ve grown older, I’ve thought a lot more about father, mother and son relationships.
In the book, you talk about your father being pragmatic, almost valuing logic over emotions. As an actor, you’re always processing emotions, and yet you didn’t get much of that from him.
He was a rocket scientist, and to be a rocket scientist you had to be a pragmatist. I have great reverence for him — he designed a rocket engine using nothing but a slide rule and an adding machine, before they even had pocket calculators. I have to have a great deal of respect for that.
I don’t know if I mentioned in the book that he was [in the] John Birch Society. John Birch Society was a very racist and very bigoted anticommunist branch of the Republican Party. Wasn’t until I got beaten up by a camp counselor, who straightened me out, that I realized that I was being brought up by someone who had views that were antithetical to my own.
Why was this counselor beating you up?
I must have said some horribly racist, bigoted thing at camp one day, and a camp counselor took me behind a tent and slapped me around and told me what the world was really like. I’ve always wanted to find that guy to thank him for straightening me out — it was a camp in Lake Winnipesaukee in western New Hampshire. But, yeah, that guy straightened me right out, which was good, and he kept straightening me out all summer until I finally realized, “Yeah, you know, you’re right.” I was very fortunate to have that happen. I don’t think that’s in the book.
It can be unsettling to hear that our parents harbored views like that.
We heard stuff about how great McCarthy was around the dinner table when I was a kid. So that’ll give you the thumbnail sketch right there.
I watched your TED Talk, which is about your environmental activism, but you start by jokingly referencing that you were once People’s “Sexiest Man Alive.” What is your relationship like to being named that? How did it feel at the time?
I think that was the third year of it, and the first two years that it had happened, it didn’t get a very good reception — I don’t think it left a good taste in anybody’s mouth. Now when it comes out, people have fun with it — they roll with it, you’re part of a club, blah blah blah. In those days, it was a little bit different.
I was in Australia when the cover broke. They had asked me — they had actually pleaded with me — to do a cover story for People magazine. I hadn’t done any press in the first year of L.A. Law. I told Steven Bochco, “I’m not going to do any press. I’m going to concentrate on the work, but don’t ask me to do any press.” He came to me and he basically begged me to do three things: US magazine, People magazine and talk to Tom Shales at The Washington Post. I said, “I told you that I’m not going to do any press.” He said, “But why?” I said, “Well, I have my own reasons for that.” But then the head of the studio called up and said, “You got to please do this.” And so I did [People], and they told me it was going to be a cover story on L.A. Law, and then it wasn’t.
I was jogging down the street in Sydney, and I saw this big sign on the side of the road, in chalk. It said, “Sexiest Man Down Under.” I remember going, “What does that mean?” Then I looked up and saw this window, and there was my picture, blown up 10 times in this window. I was mortified. There’s a big time change between Australia and the U.S., and I had to call a friend of mine in Boston and tell him that I knew nothing about it — and to please still be my friend.
How did you deal with it afterward?
I was on this world press tour for L.A. Law, so I was gone for six weeks traveling around Europe and Asia. By the time I got back to the U.S., it had been off the shelf for weeks, so it wasn’t like I had to confront it head-on in the United States when it came out. But now, I find it funny.
Even in the memoir, you talk about the fact that, when you were a kid, you understood that people thought you were good-looking.
My mother had this phrase — she said, “You have sex appeal.” This is when I’m, like, five, she’s saying that. I didn’t know what that meant, to a young boy. No idea what that meant. It always seemed odd. I always wanted her to shut up when she [said that]. It was like, “Mom, shut up, come on.”
You’ve never not been good-looking — is there a secret to maintaining your looks?
I think it’s the one thing I can credit my mother and father with — they gave me good genes, that’s all I can say. I have to thank them for that because I certainly don’t do anything extraordinary to stay Dorian Gray-ish. I think sleep is a big deal for me — I get a lot of sleep — and I don’t eat any processed food. I have never eaten any processed food, but I did smoke for many years. I have a young wife who keeps me young.
You’ve talked about the fact that your and Lisa’s marriage works because you’re both good listeners. But is it also reaching a certain maturity that made it work?
I don’t think so. We live and always have lived our relationship moment to moment, so without expectation. Another little aphorism that I say from time to time is that expectations are resentments waiting to happen. What we try to do is just live moment to moment, without expecting anything to happen tonight or tomorrow or the next week. We do plan trips and stuff like that, but I don’t have any expectations from Lisa, and she doesn’t have any from me, really. She likes me to keep my hair cut, she likes me to be clean, but that’s about the only expectation she has.
In 1982, you were in Making Love, which was a landmark as one of the first studio movies focused on a gay love story. The gay character you played, Bart, was he based on anyone you knew?
I didn’t base it on anybody in particular. I deconstructed the script and did my script interpretation, and I came up with the character that way. At the time, most people were closeted, and if they weren’t, it was a very small scene that was going on. I didn’t have any gay friends, I don’t think, at the time.
I had been offered a lot of really stupid movies that year, and this movie came along. It was offered to every movie star in Hollywood, and everybody turned it down. I went, “Wait a minute, there’s something to this that is so different and so on-the-edge that I have to do this.” I like doing stuff that I don’t think I can pull off — I don’t know why, I think it’s hubris on my part that I have that chip in me.
I always like to take on projects that seem impossible — which is probably why I took on the fusion energy project 30 years ago. I’ve been shepherding that now for 30 years. But yeah, there was a reason why those actors turned that part down, and that’s because they knew it was going to hurt their career. It didn’t help my career at all — I had to transition to television after that. But that was fine. I still am very proud of the movie. It’s the 40th anniversary, right?
Yeah, next year.
I called up Scott Berg a couple months ago, who was the co-writer. I said, “We got to do something for the 40th anniversary of this.” Not too many people [would] credit all the strides that have been made in the movement to a movie like Making Love, but I think it did still move the needle a little bit back then. It would be good to pay tribute to that.
When I was watching Making Love clips on YouTube, I was struck by the comments — so many people talked about how much that movie meant to them, how much it changed their life. Do people tell you this?
Every week. Not a week goes by that someone doesn’t come up to me. If I’m in the market or the hardware store — or taking a hike somewhere or in an airport — every week. And it’s been like that since the movie was made. I know that it had an effect on a lot of people. And I talk to them about it — if I’m in a situation where I can, I will.
Like you said, environmentalism has been important to you for a long time. There can be a stigma around famous people talking about their causes — is it getting easier to sell people on the severity of global warming?
It’s getting much easier to get people to listen. The whole climate conversation has changed since this new administration and since we’ve had the fires and the floods and the storms and all that. It’s a perfect storm right now in favor of coming out for climate-change mitigation or environmental consciousness. I mean, a company just raised $500 million for another way to approach fusion. My company’s raised a billion dollars so far.
We’re going to do this, we’re going to pull this off, and we’re going to change the way people get their electricity. It’s either going to happen through my company or some other company that’s found another way to get to fusion. But scientists have known since the beginning of the nuclear age that fusion would be the way that we would electrify ourselves — it’s just really hard to do. The approach that I’ve taken is the cleanest approach, has no radioactivity, and doesn’t produce anything but helium nuclei, so it produces helium. Of course, I’m hoping that our approach is the one that works out, because I’ve spent most of my life shepherding it, but anybody who comes up with a solution for this, I will support.
Is it troubling that this may not happen in your lifetime? Real change still feels like it’s further down the road. Is that fair to say?
No, it’s not fair to say. It’s not further down the road. We’ve proved our principle — all we have to do is scale up now. It’s only a matter of time and money for us. We know we can do it. That’s why Google is our partner, and that’s why the former head of General Electric is helping to run the company right now, and the former Secretary of Energy is running the company. It’s not a joke: We’re going to do it. And in the meantime, we’ve diversified in the company — we’re not just doing fusion now. We’ve reduced our investment risk by 50 percent by coming out with a new division, called Power Management, where we are developing an entirely new platform for electric vehicles, trains, buses, trucks, cars, even airplanes. An entirely new battery regime — entirely new charging regime — that reduces charging for a Tesla down to under 20 minutes for a full battery charge. We’ve come up with some intellectual property that’s going to blow people’s minds over the next year.
When I think about your acting career in the last 10, 15 years — things like Mad Men and Shameless — it seems like you’re really picking your spots. Obviously, you have your family, you have the environmental side — do you find at this stage that acting is something that you still care about, but you’re not chasing after things?
Well, I’m not chasing — I’ve actually never chased after projects to be in. I only chased after one project in my life, and that was Raising Arizona, years and years ago. I wanted desperately to do that movie with the Coen brothers, and they wouldn’t even see me. I think that’s because my very first Broadway play I ever did was starring opposite Frances McDormand in Clifford Odets’ Awake and Sing!, and of course Frances went on to marry one of the Coen brothers, and they had obviously seen me in action on the stage, and maybe they didn’t like what I did. I don’t know, but they wouldn’t see me for Raising Arizona. I was always very disappointed in that. I felt a very special connection with that character. Anyway, that’s water under the bridge.
In terms of thinking about your masculinity, does that change over time in terms of how you feel about yourself as a man?
I’ve never thought about my masculinity for one second of my life.
I don’t think of myself as a man. I never have thought of myself as a man. I suppose I am a man — I guess that goes without saying — but that’s not something I think about at all. I guess I think of myself more as a boy than a man. I don’t think about masculinity at all. I mean, I do pretty masculine things — I’m a mountain climber, so I climb tall mountains all by myself, camp out at 11,000 feet alone, so I suppose that’s a masculine thing to do. But I’ve never thought of it that way.
One of the things I found especially moving in your book was you talking about being a little kid and being convinced that your penis was small. I think a lot of boys have that moment where they think, “I’m not going to measure up. I’m not going to be enough of a man.”
I remember being naked with my father in a shower or something. It was actually at the YMCA — I didn’t have a bathing suit, and he said, “But, son, it’s the YMCA. We swim naked here.” He takes off his clothes, and I looked down at my little thing — I’m like four years old, and it’s the size of a pencil — and I look at his, and he’s got a man-sized dick, right? I was really embarrassed at that moment. I think after doing Equus and getting on stage in front of people, I got over that penis stuff. I didn’t lose any friends, and I got my first magazine cover out of that.
You studied psychology at Yale?
Yeah, they wouldn’t let me have a degree in just drama. You had to have a double degree. So I chose psychology as my second degree.
How much does that still help you in everyday life?
I keep a copy of the DSM-5 within arm’s reach wherever I am — it has been extremely helpful. I never stopped studying psychology — I still study it, I still read psychology all the time. I was studying Jungian psychology at the time — that’s what I got my degree in — which had a lot to do with mythology and the collective unconscious, as in archetypes and things like that. Once you have that in your brain, you can identify traits in people, and you can pretty easily figure out who’s got what personality disorder — which is very helpful for my wife, because her shows deal with nothing but personality disorders. I can then deconstruct an issue that she’s going through on her show, do a postmortem on it and say, “Okay, this is what you got to do with this. This is how you deal with that.” I’m fortunate enough to have some insight into that.
Some people may just know you from Real Housewives. Does anyone ever come up to you to give you advice based on what they see on the show? Do they treat you like you’re a character that they have opinions about?
It’s just like when I was on L.A. Law — I had the same kind of notoriety then, and people were always very respectful. I’ve never had anybody not be respectful. The paparazzi, now they’re suing people — they’re suing us for $1.2 million because we posted a picture of ourselves on our Instagram. That’s what they’re doing now. “Oh, I see a nice picture of myself in the Daily Mail. Let me post it on my Instagram.” Whack! Sued for a million dollars, for copyright infringement. That’s the new thing.
I looked at the New York Times bestseller list yesterday, and what’s No. 1? The book about Real Housewives, just about the franchise. I don’t know if you’ve heard of this book or not, but it’s a book that’s just interviews with the Real Housewives, and it’s No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list. So that’s got to tell you something about who the audience is for this show, right? I mean, it’s crazy.
You’ve said you don’t watch reality television.
I have never seen anything but this show. That’s it.
So what are you watching instead?
Well, to be honest with you, I consume news. There’s only two conversations that need to be had in the world today — one is climate change, and the other is the inevitable clash between authoritarianism and democracy. Those two things are front and center, and will be front and center for the remainder of my lifetime.
How do you feel about that?
I’m pessimistic. In terms of climate change, look, what I’m doing is the silver bullet to climate change. If we do this, there will be no more carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere ever again, but we’re 50 years too late. Even if we get it done within this decade, we’re still 50 years too late. I’m not at all optimistic about how we’re going to deal with climate change. The IPCC came out three years ago and said the world had 11 years to become carbon neutral, and that was three years ago — clearly that’s not going to happen.
As far as authoritarianism versus democracy, China has the upper hand in every way imaginable. So, I don’t know. It’s going to be very interesting to see how this plays out, but if our political system allows us to spend the amount of money that needs to be spent in order to remain viable in a world dominated by China, then we might have a chance. But if our political system squashes any chance of our being “competitive” with China, then we’re screwed.
[Pauses, laughs] You asked, and I answered.
You turned 70 right before Halloween. How does it feel?
It just feels surreal. You go through life never realizing that you’re actually going to hit that milestone, and then you do. You go, “Okay, well, I’m lucky to be vertical when I want to be and horizontal when I want to be at this age.” I still feel fine. I still feel like a kid. But the fact of the matter is, there’s a lot less coming up than there has been behind me. You know, you kind of take it in stride.