Ari Herstand plays music for a living. And acts. And writes. He operates a blog about music and is authoring a book. The pursuit of multiple dreams is just one thing the 29-year-old, who grew up in Wisconsin, says he loves about living in West Hollywood.
He recently achieved a young actor’s dream with a guest role on the critically acclaimed AMC drama Mad Men, which airs its final episode on May 17. Herstand auditioned for the show’s creator Matthew Weiner, and appeared at the very end of last week’s hour, “Lost Horizon,” as a hitchhiking musician picked up by protagonist Don Draper.
Herstand spent his childhood in Shorewood near Milwaukee, before moving to Madison where he graduated from Memorial High. He headed for Minnesota as an adult, on his way to L.A. He spoke with Isthmus about his journey from Madtown to Mad Men.
How does it feel to be a part of the Mad Men TV legacy?
“When I went into the audition a year ago I’d actually never seen the show. I think that might have actually helped me a little bit. Everyone in the audition room had this nervous energy, and people were freaking out that it was their favorite show ever and that Matthew Weiner was in the audition room. I was like, ‘Who’s that?’ Obviously it is such an incredible show and I’m so honored to be a part of it, even if it’s just getting in at the last moment of the third-to-last episode.”
What did you do in the audition?
“I just sat down and had a conversation. We chatted about Madison and where I was from. The audition was cool and very relaxed. They gave me a piece of candy when I finished. I thought that meant that I passed.”
When your character encounters Don, he is somewhere in the Midwest. Do you think being a Midwesterner helped you in the audition?
“I definitely talked about being from the Midwest. It might’ve helped a little bit. This scene kind of symbolizes my life just a few years ago. I think it’s pretty cool; it fits with my journey from Wisconsin to the Twin Cities as a musician, even though I didn’t quite hitchhike there.”
Ari Herstand (left) on the set with Jon Hamm during the final season of AMC's "Mad Men."
What was it like working with Jon Hamm?
“He was so friendly and very welcoming. We spent six hours shooting this scene and between takes he taught me cribbage, which I never played before. It’s a very complicated game. He said he learned it on the job because it is one of those games that were pretty popular back then. We were the only two actors for the half-day we were shooting. Right when we wrapped the scene, he pulled out his phone and took a selfie of us. That was a full year ago and it was torture not being able to share it with anybody. Matt Weiner was very nice to all us day players, but he all but threatened our first-born child if any details got out. I was very careful not to tell anyone.”
Jon Hamm shoots a selfie with Ari Herstand.
Entertainment Weekly speculated that your character, a curly-haired musician heading to Minnesota, could actually be Bob Dylan. Is there any truth to it?
“I read the piece and I’m just going to have to say ‘no comment’ on that. I love that people are talking about this. One of the coolest parts of the show is that there’s such an avid fan base. There’s definitely a lot to read into. I’ll let the audience take what they will from this appearance. We’ll have a bit more revealed in the final episodes, I would imagine.”
Was last week your only appearance on the show?
“No comment. I really can’t. You’ll just have to tune in to see.”
You also had a guest role on Nickelodeon’s Sam & Cat. Let’s go from one Ari to another: On the set there, could you tell that Ariana Grande was going to become a big star?
“I didn’t shoot any scenes with Ariana, but in my one encounter with her we walked past each other on set and she said, ‘Nice hair.’ I had no idea who she was. We started shooting and I said, ‘Oh, that’s the girl who said I had nice hair. She’s on this show.’ Then I started to hear her everywhere on the radio. I had no idea when we shot it.”
What advice do you have for creative people looking to pursue acting or music?
“If you truly want to make a living with your art, you can, if you work hard enough. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s never going to happen because they don’t know what is inside of you and they don’t know what the possibilities are. I’m not a superstar by any means, but I’ve been able to make a living with my music and with my creative energies and with my art, and I’m happy. Don’t let anyone tell you it isn’t a viable career path.”