Interview: ‘Mad Men’ co-star Vincent Kartheiser

Senior Television Writer
03.23.12 27 Comments

I published my spoiler-free review of the “Mad Men” season premiere yesterday. Earlier this week, I got a chance to interview creator Matthew Weiner and co-star John Slattery about the events of the premiere, and those interviews should run sometime Monday morning. But I decided that, given the appetite for “Mad Men” info after 17 long months between episodes, I should conduct at least one interview in a way that it could be safely published before the premiere. And our lucky winner was Vincent Kartheiser, aka Pete Campbell (of the Dyckman-Campbells).

After the jump, Kartheiser and I talk about Pete’s evolution from corporate weasel to unsung hero of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, about how Pete feels these days about Peggy, and also about how the rest of the cast hung him out to dry when Jon Hamm directed an episode this season. Enjoy, and I’ll see you all here on Sunday night to discuss the premiere.

I spoke with John Slattery earlier today, and he said that when Hamm directed his episode, everyone was going to punk him. And then you were on set and mouthed your dialogue without saying anything to confuse him, and nobody else followed your lead.

Yeah, I went first, and I pranked him, and I left set, and everyone else chickened out. I was the only who was an asshole. That’s the way it goes, you know? It’s real kind of them. I started leading the charge, and the army didn’t follow me.

I’m sorry.

It’s okay. Everyone’s good friends on the show, so no harm.

How do you feel Pete has evolved from the guy we meet in the pilot to the guy he is by the end of last season?

The guy we meet in the pilot really doesn’t understand why he has the job he has. He feels that he’s a direct competitor with Don Draper, and he should be coming up with concepts for ads, and he should be the man standing and speaking at the table, and all eyes should be on him. He should be the creative director of the company. Through the first season, there’s that conflict of him trying to prove himself as something that doesn’t fit, and battling it out with Don Draper until he’s forced until a submissive role.

And then we have a couple of seasons of him trying to fit that submissive role and having insecurities about it, and battling it out with Ken Cosgrove, and his insecurity in his relationship with his wife, and trying to have conquests at the office, trying to find his place at the firm. I’d say around the end of season 3, when he decides, “Screw these guys: I know where I belong now, I have a firm set of clients, I’m going to go out on my own.” That stance, that idea that he could take the clients and leave gives him a certain amount of power and strength. So when they come to him and give him the partnership, it kind of secures his feelings of, you know, security. It confirms that he is valued, and he is needed. He finally gets a little of the acknowledgment that he didn’t know how to find in the first couple of seasons.

Through season 4, he’s slowly taking on more accounts, he’s going out there, beating the pavement, finding clients to come in, albeit not huge clients. He’s finding people to come into this new firm, and he’s taken on a role at the agency that’s more important. He knows where he sits now, not only in his relationship with his wife, but at the agency. He’s no longer in competition with Don, and he’s put Ken Cosgrove in an appropriate slot underneath him. He knows what his ambitions should be. I think it’s an important thing for every man in his life to know where he fits. It can be very confusing for a man and a company if there are several people fighting for the alpha role. Imagine a troupe of soldiers not following the general. It’s a good thing through season 4 that he realizes that he is a beta male – an alpha in his position, but beta within the company.

Where we leave him at the end of season 4, him and Don have a very complex relationship, where he’s bailed Don out and don’s bailed him out, and it’s gone back and forth a couple of times. They both have a real investment in this firm. He finds strength in having a comrade like Don, someone he envies and tries to model himself after.

It seemed to me that with Don drinking too much and Roger losing Lucky Strike, Pete was the guy carrying the agency last season. Would you agree?

Yes, I would. Like I said, he’s the one who’s bringing in any money at all, any growth to the company. That’s absolutely his position.

But it’s interesting that when we meet Pete, we’re supposed to dislike him because he’s the enemy of the show’s hero, and then we get to season 4 and our hero is screwing up left and right, and suddenly Pete is the one doing the heroic things.

Right. As is the way. I find that in life, we fill the role that is there to be filled. I found through my 20s, if I would live with a really put-together sane guy as my roommate, I would be off the wall and crazy and have crazy ideas and stay up late, and if I had a crazy roommate, I would become sensible. If you walk into a room and there’s 3 people fighting with each other, chances are you aren’t going to be yelling, too. We kind of take on whatever role is there for us. In a perfect world, if things are going as they should, as one character falls or one person slips, someone else will step up and take the reins.

Where do you see Pete and Peggy’s relationship at this point? There are times when they interact at work like nothing’s ever happened between them, and then other times – like when he sees Peggy and Trudy talking in “The Suitcase” – where he’s terrified that this secret they share could come out.

I think it’s in the back of his mind. It doesn’t come up very often. There was a moment in season 4 where Peggy goes to his office to congratulate him for his wife being pregnant. When she says congratulations, he immediately thinks she’s talking about an account. This shows, to me, exactly where that falls in his mind. It’s not on the forefront of his mind. He doesn’t equate Peggy immediately with that instance, that circumstance. First and foremost, they work together. If you think of 9 hours a day, 5 days a week, 52 weeks a year, they are together. The baby thing has just kind of drifted into the back. The fact that they once had a relationship has faded into the back, as is the case with real life. It becomes old news, pretty quickly, especially when you’re dealing with other things: work, accounts, things like that.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at

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