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'Mad Men' Star Vincent Kartheiser: 'I Like This Season Most Of All, It's Really, Really Brilliant'

August 13th, 2009 10:31am EDT
Vincent KartheiserThe critically acclaimed and Emmy award winning series "Mad Men" is returning for its third season (Sunday, August 16 at 10 p.m. on AMC). Vincent Kartheiser, who plays the dastardly, at times, Pete Campbell -- who we last saw left alone on his office couch, rejected by Peggy Olsen (Elisabeth Moss) after being told that he not only had a child with her, but she had given the child away -- joins us to discuss the motivations behind Pete's actions and looks ahead to this upcoming third season.

Mike: I want your opinion on this. Why do I, in this weird way and I don't think I'm supposed to, kind of like Pete Campbell? I certainly don't hate him. I feel, as a normal human being, I'm supposed to hate him but I can't get myself to.

Vincent Kartheiser: I hear a lot of that; I hear that more than people saying they hate him. I hear more people saying that they like him and they feel kind of guilty about it. I think that's kind of normal for that character because he does represent our modern age more than any other character. And, so, it's kind of natural we see ourselves in it and at least sympathize with his position and dislike him, too, the way we kind of have self-hate for ourselves.

Mike: That's a good point. He really just could be an ass, but he has that real human side to him. Was that always part of the character description or is that something you feel you brought to the role?

Vincent Kartheiser: I feel [series creator] Matt [Weiner] is amazing at allowing the characters to grow how they are growing naturally in the story. And he also writes for his actors so he utilizes aspects of ourselves and says, "Wow, that's a really interesting thing." You know, the thing about him being an asshole is I think there's assholes like that in our real life. And if you've spent any time with them, like you do with Pete Campbell, with all of his moments and if you saw their whole back story... you might not think he's such a dick either.

Mike: I agree. But I don't think he's an asshole, he just has asshole moments...

Vincent Kartheiser: But even the asshole in your office, who always seems to be an asshole, it might just be his moments. If you take certain characters, I'm sure Ken [Cosgrove] or Paul [Kinsey] always think Pete's an asshole, he never really shows them another side. But because we get to follow him to his parents house and we get to follow him home and we get to see how he's treated be society we say, "Oh, well that makes more sense." And it's actually made me think more about people: When a BMW cuts me off while I'm trying to cross the street he gives me the finger and says, "I don't give a shit about you!" Now I kind of think, "You know, maybe that guy just got bitched out by his dad and never thought he was worth anything." You know what I mean? I think that's the bigger statement about the character is that he should allow us to look at our own life. People in our own life who kind of turn into the antagonist of our own story and realize that every character has these sides to them, you know?

Mike: Yes! And you mentioned how Matthew Weiner writes for the actor's abilities and what it brings to the character. For some reason this just popped in my head, but if Billy Zabka circa 1984 is playing Pete Campbell, he's going to be a completely different character than you playing him.

Vincent Kartheiser: Oh, absolutely! Absolutely! And that's a great thing about working with a guy like Matthew Weiner and working with all these writers: They really help us look amazing. They play to our fortes and they don't try to fit this mold that they have when they originally wrote the first story. There's certain aspects of that character that we have to remain true to, and we do, but there's other parts where you've been given this tool and you have to make this home, but you only have the tools you have. So, you can't try to turn a diamond-bit drill into a wood saw, that just doesn't happen. But, maybe you can find a way to use the diamond-bit dill. What he's really good at is using the utensils that have been granted to him.

Mad Men

(Left) Jon Hamm, (Right) Vincent Kartheiser © Rainbow Media Holdings LLC

Mike: I like how you mentioned that things didn't have to stay like they were in the first episode because Pete's changed so much. We really only saw his asshole moments in the first couple of episodes. I think he's got the most interesting character arc -- outside, possibly, of characters that change their name -- because he's a real human that has grown. Sometimes he makes good decisions.

Vincent Kartheiser: Yeah! And I'm so proud of him, actually, for making those steps to grow up. And that Matthew Weiner allows these characters to grow. I've made this analogy before, I don't know if I've ever done it in an interview: It's kind of like a musician who made their first album and the bands first album is really great. And then their second album is kind of a departure from that and lots of their loyal fans are like, "I don't know if I love that." The thing about Matthew is he's not afraid to change these characters. You might not turn on the TV and get the same Don Draper you got last week. That doesn't mean that Don Draper won't come back or that that Don Draper isn't in there, somewhere. But it resembles life in that way. These characters are going to change, they're going to grow. I'm proud of Pete Campbell for growing the small ways he has... But I'm sure it's not a complete 180.

Mike: It seems like, lately, his bad decisions come more from peer pressure more than anything else. I don't know if you agree with that. Like the "Chip N' Dip" episode: He seemed to like the Chip N' Dip at first until everyone made fun of him. Or, just the peer pressure with having to succeed at all costs.

Vincent Kartheiser: Well, yeah, I think you're right. I think it is peer pressure but I think it's also you adapt. If you don't adapt, you die. A man's worth is really judged by his ability to adapt. And often times ego gets in the way of adaption. We say, "We're not going to change for anyone," and I think that's hard for Pete, too. The first two seasons he's constantly sticking his feet in his mouth and constantly doing things he shouldn't do. Then, finally, at the end of the second season, he kind of realizes he has to adapt. He needs to figure out who's going to survive this merger and he makes the right bet with Don Draper, but it's based on really being aware of his surroundings and being able to let go of his ego and just know what he has to do to survive.


Mike: As we enter the third season, what's Pete's mood? Last we saw him he was on his office couch tearing up then sitting in his chair with his rifle. What's his mood going into this new season?

Vincent Kartheiser: Well, I can't say much. What I can say is that he's a fighter and he's a whiner and he's a cry-baby. This season we start off pretty quickly with the plot development and the conflict...

Mike: And he knows he's a father now.

Vincent Kartheiser: Yeah, he knows he's a father now and he's had some time to deal with the rejection from Peggy Olsen. He's had some time to lace his boot straps up and we'll see if he actually does adapt. We'll see if he really can overcome that punch to the gut he took.

Mike: What's the mood at Sterling Cooper in general? You know, Season two of "Mad Men" was really "The Empire Strikes Back" of television seasons. It didn't end well for a lot of the characters.

Vincent Kartheiser: Right. Sterling Cooper has been going through this merger, this transition. So, there's been a lot of emotions that have taken place since you saw them last. I can't tell you how much, but a lot. In a lot of ways some of those emotions are still being settled. This season... I actually like this season the most of all seasons so far. I think it's really, really brilliant and it's shocking that Matthew can continue to bring new stories and keep everyone on our set completely mesmerized by this story and surprised, daily, by what's coming out of his head.

Mike: AMC has done a really good job of promoting the show for season three. I live in New York and I can't walk down the street without seeing that ad with Jon Hamm on it half submerged in water so I think this is going to change: "Mad Men" is such a great show but sometimes I'll be out and I'm talking about the show and I'll get interrupted with someone saying, "I have no idea what you're talking about." I just assume everyone watches it. It's a problem because when I have friends that don't watch it I hold it against them. I start questioning their television viewing habits.

Vincent Kartheiser: (Laughing) Well, it might change. But, you need to give allowance for your friends because people have become accustomed to waiting a few years and then watching the DVDs. And I get that. Waiting every week for the next show to come on can be difficult for some people; some people don't like to view things that way. We live in this time where most people have jobs. If not one, they have two. They have Tivo and stuff but there's something great about sitting down with the DVD and I understand that. I like to watch stuff on TV when it comes out. I watch "South Park" and "The Simpsons" the night it comes out...

Mike: There's a strange sense of community about that. You feel like you're watching it with millions of other people.

Vincent Kartheiser: Yeah! I like that feeling. It's like in New York when you're sitting down to a play; everywhere across that city there are hundreds of curtains opening up that moment. I like that feeling but people like to sit down and watch one episode after another and I also understand that. So, you have to give some allowance, give them a few years to catch up.

Mike: What was your original audition like? Is it one of those stories where you go in dressed up like what you think Pete should look like?

Vincent Kartheiser: I did, yeah. It's hard to go in and not do that. You can't go in with jeans and a tee-shirt for this character; I couldn't. No one in the lobby was in jeans and a tee-shirts, everyone was in suits and ties and everyone looked the part.

Mike: I've noticed when you're not playing Pete you have a longer haircut. Did you cut your hair for the audition? Or is Pete's haircut one of those deceptively long haircuts that just looks short?

Vincent Kartheiser: No, no. They keep it real short. I had it long but I just combed it back. I had two auditions and it was such a great experience to get that work and just have such a handle on it right away. Matthew and Alan [Taylor] were in there and they both understood what I was trying to do; Matthew gave me some great notes. When I walked out of the audition I was like, "I just got that. That's mine." I looked around the lobby at the other guys about to go in and I wanted to apologize to them and be like, "You guys are wasting your time because I am Pete Campbell! You can't have that shit, that's me." (laughs)

Mike: As we approach the mid 60's on the show, is the fashion changing at all?

Vincent Kartheiser: Oh, I don't know. That's so much bigger than me. One thing they do that's really interesting on this show is that Burt Cooper is still wearing fashion from the 40's. Matthew told this to me: People generally stay with the style they wore in college or right after college. And he's right. I mean, I still wear stuff from when I was 16 years old; I'm still kind of a grunger.

Mike: (Laughs) I'm wearing a Matthew Sweet tee-shirt from, like, 1996 as we speak.

Vincent Kartheiser: Exactly! Like the leather coat you got in 1988. Every once in awhile you'll get a girlfriend or something and she'll dress you up in new outfits and you're like, "Wow, style has really changed. I had no idea." Pete Campbell is the most modern in the first couple of seasons when It comes to wardrobe but I wouldn't be surprised if he started getting stuck in that era while other people moved on.

Mike: I'm not an expert on fashion but I could see Pete not being a huge fan of late 60's style.

Vincent Kartheiser: Well, I can't see any of them being a big fan of that. These are all guys who voted for Nixon. The hippie movement was counter-culture, it wasn't culture. While most people think of the 60's as hippies, most people were still greasers. So, I wouldn't be surprised if most people in the office didn't jump on that bandwagon.

Mike: Is Jon Hamm a pretty fun guy to be around on set? From the side we've seen on "30 Rock" and "SNL" I almost assume he has to be.

Vincent Kartheiser: Yeah. He's really fun but more than that, he sets the tone for the rest of the actors. It's a tone of levity but he's there to work. Every take: Jon Hamm is on. I mean, I lose focus a lot more than he does. I guess that's the way it should be but he sets the tone and it's the most important thing for the rest of the cast that we have someone like that who can be our leader and our focus compass, if you will. But, yeah, he hangs out outside the trailers, tells jokes and is a really great guy. Matthew wasn't lying when he said, "this couldn't happen to a nicer guy." [...] Of course Jon is completely different than Don Draper. Don Draper, for all of his smoothness and coolness is kind of a bastard, and Jon Hamm's really not. He's a loyal and really cool, stand-up guy.

Mike: I picked out a few questions from readers if you want to do those.

Vincent Kartheiser: Sure.

Mike: (From Liz in Columbia, MO) How did you research for this role?

Vincent Kartheiser: Liz, I read a couple of books on advertising by Ogilvy. I watched a lot of movies from the late 50's and early 60's. And other than that I kept myself pretty open and free. There's a little voice work I put in but mostly I just allowed myself to be an empty canvas for Matthew and the writers and the directors to paint upon.

Mike: (From Ellen in New York City) I saw "The Indian in the Cupboard" at the movie theater, what's your favorite memory from that film?

Vincent Kartheiser: Oh my gosh... Getting to work with Lindsay Crouse, Richard Jenkins, Frank Oz. There was a scene where me and Richard Jenkins and a bunch of the other actors are around the dinner table -- and I only had like three scenes in the movie -- and we were rehearsing and I improvised something in the rehearsal and the crew all cracked up. So, Frank Oz came over and said, "OK, do that. Do that in the scene." And then I did it in the scene and it didn't work and Frank Oz came over to me and said, "Never trust crew laughter." And that stuck with me so that's probably my greatest moment, you should never trust crew laughter.

Mike: (From Deepti in India) Why do you think Pete resents Don so much when he clearly admires him in some way?

Vincent Kartheiser: Well, I think he resents him because he doesn't understand what's so different between him and Don. When I say that I mean: Don doesn't accept him. He wants Don to put his arm around him and say, "Hey buddy, how are you doing?" He doesn't understand why they're not friends so he resents him for that. Then he resents him because Pete has ideas, too. He can do what Don can do. Why doesn't anyone recognize Pete the way they recognize Don? I think he also just resents him because he's everything Pete also wishes he could be. Don is just innately tall and handsome, women fall at his feet. Pete has to kind of manipulate women and use his power to get women. You can't change that in life. You're either born a lady killer and a man who closed the account or you're born a man who women laugh at and whose account you're nervous them handling. And Pete's the latter and I don't think he understands why. He doesn't understand it's just a cruel trick that nature's played on him.

Mike: That's a great last line to end on, "a cruel trick that nature's played on him."

Vincent Kartheiser: Hey, Vincent Kartheiser has the same cruel trick that nature played on him... so, I can relate.

Mike Ryan
"Mike's Pulse" is a column written by transplanted Midwesterner and current New Yorker Mike Ryan. For any compliments or complaints -- preferably the former -- you may contact Mike directly at miker@starpulse.com
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