PLAID CHATS WITH THE CHARISMATIC AND ASSUREDLY NOT CREEPY MAD MAN ABOUT PLAYS, PETE CAMPBELL AND LIFE… WITH AND WITHOUT TELEVISION
Story by Adam Steel
Photo by Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC.com
When talking to Vincent Kartheiser, one of the stars of AMC’s cultural and critical juggernaut Mad Men, you get the sense that behind the mild-mannered persona and eternally-boyish vocal delivery, lies a decidedly un-Hollywood actor of fierce intelligence and quiet humility. (Not to mention a seasoned veteran.) Once a staple of Tiger Beat Magazine, given his early roles as raffish, boy-next-door types (Google for yourself), the 33-year-old Minnesota native has since managed to carve out an impressive body of work that has only just begun to highlight the talent of a supremely professional and somewhat private artist.
With new stage and screen works on the horizon, Kartheiser reflects on his love for the theater, the craft, and his on-screen wife in a remarkably candid conversation from Los Angeles.
I understand that you are doing some theater work during your Mad Men hiatus (having recently wrapped its fifth season). Tell me a bit about The Death of the Novel.
It’s a play by Jonathan Marc Feldman, a New York playwright who’s been writing in Los Angeles for the last twenty years. The story is about a man who wrote a novel in his teens that went on to become a bestseller. Later, he becomes apathetic towards what it means to be a cultural phenomenon. He develops this agoraphobic personality—he’s experienced a lot of tragedy in his life—and resigns himself to his Tribeca apartment and to the two people that he knows, controlling every element of the dual relationships, keeping them as shallow as he wants them to be. It’s really about dealing with pain and hurting.
I love the writing and I love the voice of the character—he’s just like Pete Campbell [Kartheiser’s character in Mad Men] in that I immediately had thoughts about how I wanted to play him. His mannerisms, his voice, his outlook on life: I had a definite perspective from the moment I first read the script.
Do you often approach your characters in that manner?
Oh yes. It’s always fun when you have that…to add something to a project and you’re not just giving the director and the writer what they want, but you’re able to bring out a dual perspective that they maybe haven’t thought of, you know? It makes you feel like you are really working on something.
Have you done much theater in the past?
Yes, I was trained in theater when I was a young person in Minneapolis. The Guthrie Theater, the Children’s Theater Company—I used to do two or three main stage plays a year and I did three national tours when I was young. Then I did a little bit of theater in my twenties in New York, though I was much more focused on pursuing television and film, which lasted right up into my thirties. Of course now, I want to get back to it. I miss it. It’s such a rewarding experience for an actor.
Is it true that you were raised without television?
Yeah, we got our first set when I was eleven. It was great, though. We didn’t have television but we had season tickets to the theater each year. I have older sisters and they were all in orchestra, so I would see them in symphonies and philharmonics; my sister Colette was an actress, and I would watch her perform in local plays. We all still had many artistic influences.
Plus, without the television in the house, it encouraged us to use our own imaginations. Instead of having stories told to you, you start to make stories up and play imaginary games. I credit a lot of my love for acting to those early years with my brothers and sisters, creating characters and really just playing with one another.
I also understand that you are working on a new feature. Tell me about Beach Pillows.
It’s great. It’s an independent feature, we are doing it on a super-low budget. No trailers. None of the fancy stuff. We’ve got a great cinematographer, a great first-time writer/director and we’re all moving really fast. We shoot about nine pages a day, very quick. It’s about two guys living in Long Island, one of them—the character that I play—lives very much in the moment, almost as an adolescent, which he really believes that life is all about. The other character, played by Geoffrey Arend (500 Days of Summer, Garden State, Daria), he wants a little bit more out of life, it’s unfulfilling to him and it has left him in a place of deep depression, and there’s this tremendous push and pull between the two characters. It’s about their individual transitions into manhood and taking the roads that they each need to take.
Do you have any idea when we can expect the picture?
I don’t. Probably next summer or fall. It all depends on whether or not we get into festivals, and secure distribution, you know? All that stuff. So many ‘what ifs.’
Now, of course, we have to talk about Mad Men.
Ultimately, I wanted to avoid the question that I’m sure you’ve been asked 500,000 times, which is: how different are you from Pete Campbell? But in my research, I became fascinated by how adversely this character seems to have affected your personal life. I believe it was an episode of Inside the Actor’s Studio where you said that a lot of women have difficulty separating you from ‘creepy Campbell.’
(Laughs). Can you blame them? I’m not the most normal guy in the world, and no actor is. No artist is. It’s a strange kind of life. You put on makeup and pretend to be other people for a living. You can’t really call yourself ‘down-to-earth.’
I say a lot of things that people think are creepy, sure. Are they sane or insane for thinking that I am creepy because Pete is creepy? Who knows? It hasn’t really had an adverse affect on my personal life because for the most part, people are intelligent. When they get to know me, they are going to come up with their own impression. Sometimes it’s better; sometimes it’s worse that it was before.
There are aspects of Pete Campbell that I can relate with; I think there are aspects of Pete Campbell that we could all relate with if we just looked a little closer at ourselves. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: Most of us think we’re Don Draper, and most of us are actually Pete Campbell.
Do you have a specific source of inspiration for Campbell?
When I began, I was using a little bit of my grandfather with some of the lines simply because he was a part of that era, although in reality, my grandfather was the complete opposite of Pete Campbell, he was just the most noble and outstanding man you could ever meet, he was modest and talented, and I don’t know that Pete is any of those things.
That’s a testament to the acting. I feel like less-daring actors would shy away from a character like Pete.
For sure. I just think it’s wild watching this character grow out of me. As an actor, you begin in one place and end up in another; as the character grows, you grow and change with it. The great thing about television is that you almost always shoot episodes in sequence—each year, every episode of Mad Men is in order, so as the character changes and as you change the character, they are happening simultaneously and in the natural order of time. It’s a very organic process. And it’s still kind of new to me. I’ve never been involved in a project for five years.
Can you speak a little about [Mad Men creator] Matt Weiner and his relationship with actors? I know that the show doesn’t rely too heavily on rehearsals, so is there much room for collaboration as an actor, or is it fairly by-the-book?
Sure. There is always collaboration. When it comes to the writing of the script, I, personally, am pretty hands-off with that. Matt always has great ideas and I wouldn’t want to overstep my place by thinking that I have a better idea of the story he is trying to tell. He’s done a damn good job so far and I don’t try to mess with that. However, he is always open to any questions and ideas that we have. Oftentimes what happens is we’ll read—usually at the table-read—and he’ll be able to tell if we, the actors, really get it, you know? Just hearing the words out loud from the actors and seeing if it is coming across the way he that he wrote it. That is usually the best input that we can give him: our performance at the table-read lets him know if we’re doing it right.
Plaid is a style publication, first and foremost, so I have to ask about the costuming in the series. I know that Janie Bryant [show costumer] and her team are influenced by the magazines and catalogues of the ’50s and ’60s, among other sources. Does the cast have any sort of input into the style of the show’s wardrobe?
Sort of. Questions of fit and comfort are always important. If something doesn’t fit right, it’s not going to look right on camera. I think that the females may have a little more input than the men. I personally love almost everything that Janie picks out, and Matthew [Weiner] is really hands-on with a lot of it, too. With wardrobe, my input is usually: ‘that’s great!’ (Laughs).
Pete and Trudy [played by Alison Brie] are a very interesting couple who share some pretty powerful scenes. As much as I have enjoyed seeing her pop up on Mad Men these last few seasons, I also love watching Alison on Community.
What is it like working with Alison Brie?
She’s a doll. So talented. She really gets into the material, she gets the work—trained actress, completely professional. She’s not afraid of anything. This last season had her looking quite dowdy, they stuffed her in a bathrobe for most of her scenes, but she was happy to do it. She’s fearless and funny. Always prepared. I love her.
When do you guys get back to shooting?
I believe we are going back in October.
I can’t wait!
See Vincent in The Death of The Novel from August 30th to September 23rd in New York City.