Interview: ‘Mad Men’ star Vincent Kartheiser on Pete Campbell’s ill-fated optimism

04.03.15 4 years ago

In the early stages of “Mad Men,” it sometimes seemed like Pete Campbell was on the brink of being the show's villain.

But, at the same time, there was also the prevailing theory that Pete Campbell could turn out to be the show's most forward-looking character, the man of the future to Don Draper's man of the past.

As “Mad Men” begins the seven-episode march to its series finale, we don't really view Pete as Don or Peggy's nemesis anymore. In fact, one of last year's best episodes, “The Strategy,” climaxed with a surprisingly positive dinner meeting with the three characters. 

But we also don't look at Pete as a potential visionary anymore. Pete's efforts to reinvent himself found the character in Los Angeles last half-season and although he initially took to his new surroundings, it became clear that California was not the place Pete Campbell ought to be.

In anticipation of this final “Mad Men” mini season, I sat down with Vincent Kartheiser two weeks ago to discuss The State of Pete Campbell and which parts of the character have evolved and which aspects of his personality remains the same. 

Months after leaving Pete Campbell behind, Kartheiser looks younger and more relaxed than the high-strung Pete, he of the razor-imposed receding hairline. As of now, he says that he hasn't found the right follow-up project.

What's he looking for?

Kartheiser explains, “I read the script and if I like it I try to find something that I can add to the telling of the story, something that makes my perspective and my performance valuable and important and if I can come up with that then I”ll work and if not then I”ll be a janitor.”

Click through for my full Q&A in anticipation of Sunday's (April 5) “Mad Men” return…

HitFix: This is pretty much introspection and looking back for you. Is this your dream, looking back on “Mad Men” or is this your absolute nightmare to have to think back over all of this?

Vincent Kartheiser: No, I love looking back on it but it”s a difficult thing to put into words, you know. People ask questions and it”s very difficult to put into words what the experience was and what it means because it”s mostly based on emotions, not thoughts.

HitFix: Have those things crystallized for you since shooting wrapped or have you stepped away from it?

Vincent Kartheiser: No, I don”t think they have crystallized but I don”t think it”s because I”ve stepped away. It”s just that things take a while to process. It”s like years down the line it”ll kind of make sense as to what it meant in the big scheme of my existence. Right now it”s still pretty, I mean I know things changed in my life but the true impact of the thing, I don”t think I”ll realize for another 10 years or so.

HitFix: What was the morning after the production wrap for you like?

Vincent Kartheiser: [Chuckles.] Just like every other morning, you know. I think it takes a whole to hit. And in a lot of senses I don”t think it”s still hit because every year you have a hiatus. You have four or five, six months off so we”re used to taking four, five, six months off. Only now, around this time of year, would we be going back so now we”re starting to realize like, “Oh, this is when we”re usually going back to work, you know.”

HitFix: So you”re getting that itch to shave back your hairline and all of that?

Vincent Kartheiser: Yeah, that among other itches. 

HitFix: Okay, so let”s talk a bit about Pete. One of the show”s themes has always been the “Can people change?” question and the answer very frequently has been, “Not really, no.” And last season Pete made one of his biggest attempted changes with the move to California. What did that attempt at a Pete Campbell overhaul – what do you think that did for the character and how did you approach the New Pete and sort of Ill-Fated New Pete?

Vincent Kartheiser: Well how did I approach it. You know I approached it the same as I always did that Pete is, he was optimistic from the beginning. From the beginning of the show he would look at things and say, “Okay, we can do this and I can do this” and “I can succeed here.” And then it was only after life would kick him in the teeth for a season that he would fall back away from it. So this was another opportunity for him to revamp himself, reinvent himself. And he went for it full-bore. He was away from the wife, away from the kid and there was nothing to keep him from becoming a new man except for the fact that you can”t really do that and the experiences of your life are still in there. And it was sad because when he did recreate his life, when he did leave his wife and his friends and everything he knew about the world which New York City really represented to him, it was a fresh start but when that failed he was left with nothing. He didn”t have an identity in California. It was such a fabricated identity, such a kind of slapped together thing that there was no genuine realness there for him. There”s no memories. There”s no family. There”s nothing. So it was kind of this very bleak place that had left him when things went wrong. You know when things went wrong in New York he still had his old haunts, his old buddies. He still had a sense of identity. And in California when things failed, he had nothing.

HitFix: How much do you think that was a reflection on Pete and his changes and how much do you think it was a reflection on California as a concept. Because it felt a lot last season like California was kind of being used as a construct, because as you say all those things about Pete not having anything under the surface in Los Angeles, any realness, it felt as if maybe the show was saying that about L.A. and the West Coast.

Vincent Kartheiser: I don”t know if that”s what they were saying. I don”t think so, though. And I think that”s a very intelligent point of view and it”s wonderful that that”s something that you can read into it. And maybe they did intend that. I would venture to say they didn”t only because most of them live here. And when we wanted to shoot the show in New York most of them were like, “No, we want to be in L.A.” But I think back then for a lot of people from New York, it must have felt that way and it still does to a lot of people from New York. So because the show has a New York point of view it makes sense that it would kind of have some of those feelings.

HitFix: You said that whenever Pete gets optimistic life kicks him in the face. And I”m wondering about the difference between life kicking Pete in the face and Pete sort of getting down on his knees and putting his face over life”s foot.

Vincent Kartheiser: Well that”s interesting. I don”t ever think Pete”s really done that. It might seem that way, but Pete”s always tried to succeed. He”s always tried to be a success. He”s always worked hard at it. But he just has one of those kind of attitudes and one of those personalities that I just think most of the time no one really wants him around. And I think for the job that he”s in that”s – I think he”s good with the clients in that way but I think with his peers, he could never quite get a foothold and could never quite be a leader.

HitFix: Has your opinion of Pete is actually good at shifted over the years? Do you have a different vision of what Pete”s successes or failures as a person are?

Vincent Kartheiser: Absolutely. Yeah. And I think Pete does too. I think Pete was always trying to be something that he wasn”t for the first few seasons. And then once he kind of settled in to what he was good at I think he realized that it was kind of a, you know, it”s like you realize you”re good at something and it”s not that, maybe that important thing to be good at, but you”re good at it. So at a certain point you start developing pride about this thing. And you have to justify it against other people”s judgments and your own judgments. And so I think he”s good at schmoozing and buying dinners and things like that. And he does put in time into the work and he does, at least the last couple of seasons, he does know how to put his foot down and say this is what needs to be done now. And he”s loyal, you know. He wasn”t always loyal. In the beginning he was very disloyal but he really learned to protect the people that he knew would keep him safe in the business and he didn”t hedge his bets. He bet on Don Draper.

HitFix: Which for a while looked like it was a good move and then for a while it looked like it was a very bad move.

Vincent Kartheiser: Right, but he never backed off of it.

HitFix: So as we go into the second half of the season would you say it looks like a good move or bad move where he”s positioned himself next to Don?

Vincent Kartheiser: You know I think it”s always been a good move. And even though it”s probably hurt him in some situations I think that for someone like Pete who doesn”t have a lot of friends and doesn”t have a lot of people fighting in his corner, he picked a dog that could fight and he”s backed him up and now he”s kind of solidified, maybe not friendship, but at least a mutual implied destruction that neither of them can really separate themselves from the other person because they both know too much and have too much invested. And, you know, I mean I guess when it”s coming into this season it probably doesn”t look like the greatest thing. Don Draper seems a little bit aimless but maybe Pete can wrangle it. We”ll see.

HitFix: In the first half of the season, the penultimate episode “The Strategy” had the great closing scene with Don and with Peggy and with Pete. And it was interesting to reflect on the Peggy-Pete relationship and the journey that that had taken. How do you reflect on where those two characters are, because they”ve had an awful lot of antagonism at times, for very logical reasons, but they almost seemed to be coming to some sort of rapprochement I guess?

Vincent Kartheiser: Yeah, I think very quickly after things went south with them they mended ways. Her character”s the one that has goals and Pete Campbell doesn”t really play into them that much. She doesn”t really work on any of his accounts. He doesn”t try to stop her from being successful. He backs her up. And he”s kind of a non-entity to her in the workplace. But they share moments of deep intimacy and they”ve shown each other their hearts. And their hearts don”t change and so they”ve seen each other”s wounds and I think that it”s created a really significant unspoken bond and trust. Even though they”ve hurt each other, they know each other. And in that world where everything”s kind of a secret, I think it”s a powerful friendship.

HitFix: You laughed earlier when I mentioned the hair-shaving and things. The schlubbishness of Pete, how it has progressed? How has it shifted from your point of view and what did the process of looking at the mirror at the start of each season do to lock you back into Pete Campbell?

Vincent Kartheiser: Yeah it always helps to look there and see a well-groomed character and we had a great team that fought hard to keep the character”s look changing but staying consistent with where he would go so that it didn”t go too crazy. I probably had the craziest of all changes. Every season was great. That locked me in but more than that the words locked me in, the script. And you”d come back and you”d go, “Man, I don”t know if I know this guy anymore.” And then he was waiting for you right there in the first episode.

HitFix: So having had all of those years of having been able to look at that first script and lock back in, how does the “Mad Men” experience make you look at other scripts?

Vincent Kartheiser: Oh I try not to compare, you know. It”s a dangerous game to compare anything really, to compare people, jobs, anything. I try to take each thing as its own experience and its own project. 

HitFix: Well I know you *try* but there still has to be something involuntary to some degree if you”ve worked on a show that people say is one of the best written shows ever blah, blah, blah. You know only one or two shows can be that.

Vincent Kartheiser: Well that”s some people”s opinion. Some people don”t like it at all. They think it”s rubbish. They think it”s terribly written. They think it”s terribly acted. There”s a lot of opinions and I try to separate myself from the opinions of my work. It”s something you have to do as an actor. I started in stage 30 years ago and, you know, if you read the reviews you”ll never work, you”ll just change jobs. So if you believe them when they”re bad or when they”re good you have to believe them when they”re bad. So I don”t really take any credit. I think the way I approach it is not so much what other people say about the writing, but I mean I enjoyed the writing on this show and for years reading those scripts. So that”s the thing that I try not to compare it to, my experience with the script. And that”s easier to do because it”s a totally different story than other scripts that I read. And the way it”s going to be shot and the vision of the world, the theory, the themes of the story are going to be completely different. And that”s much easier not to compare. If you put it into the broader terms of like those kind of quantifiers like “the best show written” or “one of the best shows written,” then it”s really hard not to compare because you”re already comparing just by saying “one of the best,” that”s a comparison. So I try to just remove all the comparisons and just look at it like you would a book. Like you don”t finish, you known “Huckleberry Finn” and then start another book and go, “Ah, man, this is not as good as 'Huckleberry Finn.'” It”s a different story. So, you know, it might be a murder mystery. It”s going to be a very different story or a romance story. So they”re all very different and they have their pluses and their negatives.

HitFix: How talked about not better or worse, but different. How has looking for different work impacted what you”ve been looking for since this ended? What are the different muscles you”re looking to flex?

Vincent Kartheiser: You know I read what”s out there, because that”s what is available. And so you read what”s out there and if it sings, it sings. I have no prospects right now. I”m not signed on to do anything else. Some things I really liked out there and I fought for them and it hasn”t worked out. And other things just haven”t spoken to me so the process is the exact same as it was 10, 15 years ago for me. I read the script and if I like it I try to find something that I can add to the telling of the story, something that makes my perspective and my performance valuable and important and if I can come up with that then I”ll work and if not then I”ll be a janitor.

“Mad Men” returns to AMC on Sunday, April 5.

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