Don't hate on him and his wonky eye
The Q&A: Mad Man
Vincent Kartheiser has been a working actor since the tender age of 14, appearing in such films and television shows as Alaska, Another Day in Paradise, and Angel. Now 28, the still boyish Minnesota native has at last landed his first truly adult role on AMC’s acclaimed drama Mad Men. Kartheiser plays Pete Campbell, one of the youngest employees at New York’s top advertising firm Sterling Cooper. Introduced as an opportunistic jerk, viewers have quickly come to see that there’s more to Pete than meets the eye. For starters, he’s the offspring of a prominent Manhattan family and his dalliance in a tradesman’s job like advertising has cost him the respect of his father. Driven by a desperate need for approval, Pete keeps attempting to assert himself at work only to be belittled at every turn. The role has allowed Kartheiser to do some of the best work of his career and he’s well aware of his good fortune. The Scanner spoke with the actor about how he got the gig, his controversial stint on Angel and which hero he would have been had we landed a role on Heroes.
The Scanner: How did the role come to you? Was this a script you actively pursued or was it more of an accident?
Vincent Kartheiser: I auditioned for a few pilots that year, Jericho, Heroes and Mad Men. In general, I don’t audition for an incredible amount of projects. I’ve been doing this for about 20 years and at a certain point you start to realize what you’re going to get hired for. But Mad Men was one of those pilots where I read it and after I was done I wanted to read it again. There was this swagger about the script that was different from so much I had read in the last few years. I knew it was something I could do. After that it was pretty normal: I went in and auditioned. I guess this story isn’t as interesting as I wanted it to be! [Laughs]
The Scanner: In the pilot, Pete seemed to be one of those classic Type-A assholes that are always looking out for number one. But in subsequent episodes, we’ve learned things about his background that, while not excusing for his behavior do help explain it. Were you always aware of Pete’s backstory and are you kept in the loop as to where the character is going?
Kartheiser: I have no idea where the show or Pete is going. And I think that keeps us all on our toes. These characters all have so many layers and so many sides. Right now, I don’t know what’s happening to Pete in Episode 13. We find out a couple days before we start shooting where our character is going to be. Matthew [Weiner, the show’s creator] does give you hints. He’ll call you at 9pm and say, “Here’s the new script; I want you to keep this and this in mind and oh by the way, this might happen down the road for you.” It allows you to play the moment as honestly as you can, so it actually helps. Sometimes we want to have the arc and want to know more than our character does, but I think this takes pressure off.
The Scanner: One of the things I love about the series is that it both recreates that era and comments on it at the same time. It’s a lot like the Todd Haynes movie Far From Heaven in that way.
Kartheiser: As much as it’s about that era, I think it’s actually about this era. We like to think that the ‘50s and ‘60s are further away from us than they are. We are the children of this generation so the apple doesn’t fall that far. We’re still playing out a lot of the same issues: the advertising snowball that was built in that era has become this globalized juggernaut. I look at my 10-year-old nieces and they’re completely oblivious to the fact that every second of every day they’re being sold something. We like to think we’ve come so far and changed so much, racism is gone, chauvinism is gone and they’re not! Women are still objectified in 90% of the conversations I have with men. And I’m not saying I’m any better.
The Scanner: The writers do a fantastic job depicting the gender politics of that era. Do the scripts ever spark any discussion on set?
Kartheiser: Yeah, there are a lot of women on set who look at their characters’ lives and say, “Why did we ever burn our bras? Things were kinda nice.” I think it’s easy to look back on the grass is greener thing, but I think the gender roles were more defined [back then] and t made certain things simpler in life. I see a lot of young women nowadays caught and conflicted by these overwhelming pressures and expectations placed on them by their mothers and their fathers. And with guys, men are more like women and women are more like men everyday. I just had a conversation with a friend today. He called me and wanted me to know that last night I was a little aggressive with him and he felt he needed to talk about his feelings. And it’s like Jesus Christ dude! You weight 210 pounds and spend all day long in the gym. Are you really this much of a pussy? And it’s true, we are. [Laughs]
The Scanner: You confessed that you checked out the message boards early on in the show’s run. Were you reading what people thought about Pete? He can be a love-him-or-hate-him kind of guy.
Kartheiser: I don’t read too much about my character and I’ve actually slowed down on the boards. I just wanted to see what kind of people were watching the show. I never did that with Angel or anything—I think it’s because I really like this project and want people to see it.
The Scanner: Speaking of Angel, you played a fairly divisive character on that series as well—Angel’s sullen offspring Connor. Were you aware of the strong feelings that character generated?
Kartheiser: I knew people were reacting really strongly to Connor, but I didn’t know why because I didn’t know the show’s history. To me, the character lost its thrill about four episodes in. From there on out I felt like I was doing the same scene over and over and over. Every week I’d show up and have a scene with Cordelia, then Angel would show up and I’d have some sort of conflict with him. There’d be a couple of fight scenes where I’d fight with them even though I didn’t want to and then I would sulk and leave. That to me was every episode. Ultimately, they wrote him into a corner. There was nowhere for him to go. I think the majority of the fans really hated Conner and really hated me and getting me off the show was the highest priority. And I don’t blame them.
The Scanner: What’s been the biggest difference between making Angel and Mad Men?
Kartheiser: There was a real sense on Angel that people were just doing a job. The grips, the DP, even the directors would kind of just show up, do their job and go home. On Mad Men, people really love the show and it means something to them. Every DP we’ve had has worked their ass off, we see directors we won’t be working with for two weeks walking around the set setting up shots and all of the actors come in prepared. People really care about this project. Not to say we didn’t care about Angel, but there was a sense we could do no wrong. We had our audience and regardless of what we did, we were going to keep that audience. On Mad Men we also have Matthew Weiner on set all the time whereas Joss [Whedon] was hardly ever on Angel. I think Joss was doing Firefly at that point and was in love with his next project. I had a friend who filmed a few episodes in the first season of Angel and said everyone was invested and there was crazy energy, so maybe I just came into it late. I let them know right off the bat that some of the choices they were making [about Conner] were wrong. I showed up to play that character and I had a lot of ideas. And they didn’t like any of those ideas. That’s okay, I’m in the business of having my ideas rejected. But after about 7 or 8 episodes of coming in with ideas and realizing it just didn’t matter, I became really complacent and jaded and angry at the project. I felt like it wasn’t a collaboration, that the people I was working with didn’t care to take risks. Some actors were able to find risks in there. If you look at Amy Acker, she just did an incredible job; she came onto that show with a developed character and stayed with it. She took a big risk and succeeded and I admired that.
The Scanner: Was it in part because of your experience on Angel that you chose Mad Men over another sci-fi series like Heroes or Jericho?
Kartheiser: That was more with Heroes because I don’t know if Jericho is that sci-fi. I was never a fan of Buffy, I’ll say it straight out. I was never a fan of Angel. I always found it hard to say Joss’ words. And that’s not a knock on Joss. I just don’t think I ever understood the show and my performance suffered because of that. They did the right thing by removing me. Then Spike came in the next year and he gave the show the shot in the arm it needed. That’s what they hired me for and I failed. So I didn’t blame that at all for wanting to try something new. I think it was a relief for me and for them.
The Scanner: Getting back to Mad Men, what would you like viewers who maybe haven’t tuned in yet to know about the show?
Kartheiser: That it’s enjoyable. I think that’s something we should press more: people’s perceptions of it is that they’ve heard so much about it and they want it to be a heavy handed statement on life. But I think it’s light-hearted. It’s a story about men and women and what it is to be human, what it is to fall asleep every night in a society where its all about what you’re doing next, what have you accomplished. It’s about that pain every person feels when you lay down and you realize that even if you’re married with five kids you and your struggle is unique to you and that can’t be cured by a new iPod or a fancy car.
The Scanner: Before I let you go, I’ve gotta ask: which part did you audition for on Heroes?
Kartheiser: I auditioned for the junkie painter character [Isaac]. God that show is a hit, huh?
The Scanner: It is, but it’s just as well you didn’t land the part. Isaac was killed off halfway through the season.
Kartheiser: Oh, he did? Hey, I love getting killed halfway through the season! When I booked Angel, I did the last 2 episodes of the first year and then I wasn’t in the first four episodes of the next season. I still got to go to Vegas with the rest of the cast and sat a poker table losing money. It was like, “It doesn’t even matter, I’m getting paid to be here. This is the greatest gig of my life!” [Laughs] Actually, this is the greatest gig of my life, truly. Whatever happens, I’m so blessed to be in the position to be on this show. It’s the best thing I’ve ever been a part of and I’ve been a part of a lot of things.
I love this guy so much! Am I the only one who watches Mad Men around these parts? That show is awesome.