Interview: 'Mad Men' star Vincent Kartheiser discusses a maturing Pete Campbell
Or has Don Draper's former adversary matured at all?
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By now, you've probably read Denise Martin's Vulture interview with a wonderfully animated Vincent Kartheiser, in which the "Mad Men" star shared his opinions on Twitter and bill-shredding, while also flicking paper footballs at his interrogator.
I had a different kind of interview with Kartheiser. In our conversation, the "Angel" veteran talks about Pete Campbell's development from Don Draper's dangerous wunderkind adversary to his current incarnation, a differently discontented man with a receding hairline, a double-chin and a growing realization that he's no longer the youngest man in the room.
Kartheiser talked about how his own maturation process hasn't always mirrored Pete's and he discussed a physical transformation that includes shaving back that hairline.
Throughout the interview, Kartheiser was tearing pieces of paper into one-inch-wide strips and the ripping sounds are frequently audible on my recording. It was only after hearing my colleague's story that I realized those strips were likely nascent paper footballs.
No projectiles were aimed in my direction. But I think it's an interesting interview anyway...
HitFix: Last season felt like a transitional year for Pete. He went from being the Young Guy in the Room, one everyone thought was a prodigy, to suddenly realizing that he wasn't that guy anymore, that he was actually just another guy in the room. Was that an interesting shift to get to play?
Vincent Kartheiser: Yes. And it was quite interesting because there was also that happening in my own life. My entire career, I've always been the youngest guy in the room. Or most of my career, having started acting at six. And also, when you would go into bars and talk to girls or things like that and I started realizing part-way through the season that I would be in a bar talking to a girl and they're like, "Ha-ha. This is really creepy" and looking at the younger guys and I'd be like, "Oh wow. I'm like this old, creepy man to her." And I started noticing when I would go to different places work-wise for auditions or to different sets or to interviews or events, I'm just another thirtysomething actor. You're a known entity at that point. They're no longer looking to you and wondering what *can* you do, but more what *have* you done.
And for Pete Campbell, he has done some things. But I think it doesn't feel like enough. He's not so satisfied with being that guy. I'm OK with it. He's not so satisfied. That's what the whole thing with that young girl in his driver's ed school thing was about, it's about needing to be with youth. And then he also has this need to be the Boss Man and those are two conflicting ideas. By the end of last season, I think he's kinda resigned himself to the older generation.
HitFix: Pete comes that realization after getting the snot kicked out of him a couple times. I hope your transition was smoother.
Vincent Kartheiser: Hard to say.
HitFix: Do you think Pete feels like he's achieved things? He's had some little wins, but maybe hasn't had that big win that he felt he deserved or expected.
Vincent Kartheiser: I think he considered becoming a partner a big win, but you're right. He's a malcontent. I don't think anything will ever seem like a big win, even when it is a big win and I think that's just his personality, you know? It will never be enough.
HitFix: One thing that always used to be interesting about Pete is that people would disregard everything he said, but you often got the feeling that he was the Modern Man, that history would prove him out. Do you feel like that's still the case?
Vincent Kartheiser: I think in lots of business ways, he still is that guy. He still is able to see the bigger picture and he's able to see what's going on, what's really going on, in the world and how that's really going to affect the agency. I just don't know if he's part of it as much. I think he used to be part of that generation and trying to tell the older folk and now he's kinda one of the older guys going like, "I still see what's going on... but I'm seeing it from the other side of the window, looking from the outside in."
HitFix: Are Trudy and the baby a positive or are they keeping him from being on the inside again?
Vincent Kartheiser: It's age.
HitFix: But in last season's finale, he balks at the idea of the swimming pool and says "That's so permanent."
Vincent Kartheiser: But that makes Connecticut so permanent and that's the real thing he doesn't like. It's not necessarily the wife and the baby. He chose that. In the pilot, he chose the wife and they tried to have babies for the last few years and I think that was always part of Trudy's plan, so he knew that was part of the deal of getting married. I think it's Connecticut and the pool makes Connecticut permanent.
HitFix: But even in the sense that he chose Trudy's permanence, he also chose to have an extended affair last season.
Vincent Kartheiser: Right. But Trudy was still there, wasn't she?
HitFix: Is that affair something that lingers with him in the storyline? Or just in his head?
Vincent Kartheiser: [Long pause. And a knowing grin.] That's hard to say.
HitFix: Surely you can answer the "in his head" part if not the "in the storyline" part?
Vincent Kartheiser: Well no, because that would be saying that it doesn't happen in real life. And who knows that it doesn't, right?
HitFix: Talk about the physical transformation that you have to undergo each season in order to be Pete.
Vincent Kartheiser: I didn't do it so much this year. Last year I gained like 25 pounds. This year I did not. I was unable to put it on fast enough and then once the season started, we were just like, "Whatever." So Pete's a little thinner this year. I was doing a play up until the month before I went out, so I was just on-stage four hours a night and an hour-and-a-half on each side of that just doesn't allow enough time for ice cream consumption.
HitFix: That's your secret?
Vincent Kartheiser: That was the secret, bro. Ice cream and pizza. Dairy products. And then I was just sweating a lot on-stage under the hot lights just shedding pounds. But I still get shaved [points to his scalp]. And before the take, right as they say "Rolling," there's a tightening [He adjusts his posture] and you just kinda make the chin a little more double and make the frown a little more permanent, the eyes a little more cynical. Although not much more cynical. They've gotten a little cynical all on their own.
HitFix: Is the shave on your head different? I'm a little transfixed by it.
Vincent Kartheiser: Yeah, it's a little bit... [He pantomimes stepping back a couple centimeters in his hairline.] It's a little bit. It's hard to say. We push it back, but we go slow.
HitFix: When did you first do the shaving?
Vincent Kartheiser: We started with the shaving last season and we started right off the top. It's fun. It adds an extra 30 minutes to my makeup and hair, but that's OK. It's worth it, because it's a fun little character thing. It's not big. It's a small thing. But it's just enjoyable to look in the mirror and see a slightly different guy.
HitFix: What was the first impression when you had that look in the mirror?
Vincent Kartheiser: I thought, "There's more of my forehead."
HitFix: More of your forehead to love?
Vincent Kartheiser: I never loved any of my forehead, but... Yeah. It's funny, because people ask me about this. I just had an interview and the girl's like, "Are you ashamed to go out?" And I'm like, "No! Why would I be ashamed?" I have friends who are losing their hair and they're like, "Dude. Don't shave your hair. Dude. Don't do it." But I don't really care. I'm just not one of those guys who cares if I lose my hair.
HitFix: I'd think it might be reassuring for you. At some point, you and Pete were the same age, but now he's gone off in his own middle-aged direction and you need artificial help to get there.
Vincent Kartheiser: I feel older than Pete.
Vincent Kartheiser: Because I've been working a lot longer than he has. And Pete's immature in some ways. Pete's such a petulant boy. And I am too, in some ways, but I'm just not *as* immature as Pete is. I don't make as big of stupid mistakes as he does. He has this need to go out and have affairs and prostitutes. That all seems very young to me. Last season he hires this woman to have sex with him and it's something I've never done and it just seems like such a young man's thing, or a really old man's thing, but it just seems like an immature act to me. Maybe I'm not older than Pete. Maybe I just feel a little more enlightened than Pete.
HitFix: Is Pete becoming more enlightened, do you think? Is he learning anything as the hairline recedes?
Vincent Kartheiser: [Long pause. And a knowing grin.] I couldn't say.
HitFix: So this is a season-of-learning for Pete?
Vincent Kartheiser: Could be.
HitFix: In the beginning, there was the sense that Pete was almost a villain, that he was an adversarial character...
Vincent Kartheiser: Yes!
HitFix: But I don't feel like he has been that for a season or two. How do you think he's changed in that respect?
Vincent Kartheiser: Well, the story's about Don Draper, so it's how he relates to Don Draper. Now if the story was about Roger Sterling, then Pete would be more of an adversary. If we were following the story of Roger Sterling, Pete would be his biggest competition now and the audience would be like, "Now he's a villain! What's the deal?" But it's not. It's about Don Draper. So in the beginning, Don Draper's wary of him and Pete Campbell says, "I'm gonna have your job someday." And then, at some point, he threw his best at Don Draper. He blackmailed him and it didn't work. He sold him out and it didn't work. He told him, "I can come up with better ideas than you" and he couldn't. And Don Draper won. And instead of saying, "Well, you won, but I'm going to keep fighting," Pete did the very smart thing of saying, "You won. I'm done fighting you. I'm gonna back you up and I'm gonna support you. I'm gonna cover your ass every chance that I get." And since that transition, because we follow the story of Don Draper, he's no longer an adversary. And that's that.
HitFix: How do you think he's looking at Don as we're starting the season?
Vincent Kartheiser: I think he respects him because he has value and charm and he does something to the clients that Pete cannot and he gives Pete something to sell. And in that way, he's a commodity. It's almost like an agent would look at a client, they're a commodity. As a person? He's dangerous. He's unpredictable.
HitFix: That's almost a resigned way of looking at Don, as a commodity rather than idolizing him or even hating him, which both seem more active.
Vincent Kartheiser: OK.
HitFix: In the premiere, he's almost treating Don as a child.
Vincent Kartheiser: OK. Just like an agent treats a client.
HitFix: Do all agents treat their clients that way?
Vincent Kartheiser: They want to, because that's the power structure works best for them.
HitFix: Do all people who have agents want to be treated like that?
Vincent Kartheiser: No. No. And that's not how it always works. But that's oftentimes how they try to work it. The analogy of agent/client does not fit perfectly with this. I was just using that in passing. I wouldn't say he treats him like a child. It's just that he needs Don so that he can sell and he needs Don to do work by a certain date so he can give it to their clients. Oftentimes that's chasing him around trying to get him to work, trying to get him to work. If you do that long enough, it's going to have an effect on that idolization of the person. Before, Don Draper used to kinda boss Pete around more. And that relationship is always changing and Pete still looks up to him. But he knows so much about him now and he's seen so many of his flaws.
HitFix: And knows so many of secrets.
Vincent Kartheiser: Yeah. And he just knows that the man is not perfect. But he knows he has to sell him as perfect.
HitFix: Do you think that Pete could, under some circumstance, ever be a threat to Don again?
Vincent Kartheiser: No. I think Pete has said, "I am a Beta Male, you are the Alpha. Let me follow you. This pack only gets food if we follow the Alpha. I'll follow you. But. We have to go hunting. Wake up."
"Mad Men" returns to AMC on Sunday, April 7.
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