Vincent Kartheiser

MrPorter, Jul 2012

The Mad Men actor on why he has more in common with his TV character, Pete Campbell, than you might imagine.


Photograph by Kurt Iswarienko

Also at Mr Porter

A couple of years ago, in 2010, Mr Vincent Kartheiser, who plays Pete Campbell on Mad Men, was telling interviewers about his somewhat eccentric, minimalist lifestyle. He didn’t want children for environmental reasons, he said and he had given away most of his possessions. He travelled by bus because he didn’t own a car, and at one point, he didn’t even own a toilet (he used his neighbor’s).

“Yeah, not any more,” he says, with a shrug. “I own a car. I won’t tell you which kind, but it’s below $25,000, and it’s a manual. I’m changing my own gears buddy!”

We’re at a table outside Starbucks on a busy intersection on Sunset Boulevard, a strangely exposed and public place to meet, particularly for the star of a huge TV show. But Mr Kartheiser doesn’t view himself as a star. And he doesn’t behave like one either. Certainly, to turn so firmly against materialism is rare in any celebrity, let alone one who plays an executive at a Madison Avenue advertising agency, one of the engines of consumerism.

“I know. But I’m just a regular dude now.”

The minimalism thing is over?

“Until it comes back, yeah,” he says. “I’m an extremist– I go through weird phases which I fully believe in at the time. Then of course, six months later I have to backstep.” He puts on a voice. “Gee sorry folks, I don’t believe in that stuff much anymore…”

He sounds like a character out of Looney Tunes.

“Well I am kind of looney tunes, this one.” He points at himself. “But see, everyone changes – if you don’t change between 26 and 33, then you haven’t been trying. It’s just most of us don’t give interviews about it. So my big lesson is to just not talk about it in interviews. And that’s hard for me, because I tend to be an open book. It’s like going against my nature.”

This is certainly true. We’re only a few minutes in, and already he might be one of the most frank and revealing people – let alone celebrities – that I’ve ever met. He has a bright, animated way about him, a shade louder than most perhaps. He doesn’t just respond to questions, but gives the truest answer he can, and if that means exposing his own vulnerabilities in the process, then so be it. It may be what makes him such a compelling actor, this ability to not only access instantly the kind of thoughts and emotions that many of us might classify “innermost”, but then express them articulately and without reservation to strangers.

For instance, when I ask him what he has in common with Pete Campbell, he doesn’t flinch: “A whole lot!” It’s not the most obvious answer, given that Campbell has been described as preppy, oily, insecure, scheming and ruthless. But Kartheiser doesn’t care.

“He’s perpetually unsatisfied, and that’s a trait I share,” he says. “Peter is a little man, and so am I. Little physically, but also in the game. Remember, a lot of our similarities come down to the creator, Matthew Weiner, knowing his actors. He writes to people’s strengths. So he might look at me and say, ‘oh Vinny has an inferiority complex’. Well Pete has one too!”

There’s a kind of symbiosis between characters and cast and how the two evolve. Certainly Don Draper’s strength and stature is mirrored by Hamm on set, just as Pete Campbell’s insecurity is reflected in Mr Kartheiser.

“Don’t get me wrong, I get along terribly well with the cast,” he says. “I don’t think they hate me as much as they hate Pete Campbell, but maybe I worry that they do. So I share that with Pete.”

That’s a very frank admission.

“And Pete Campbell is very frank! He says things that are socially awkward but fucking true, and I do that a lot. I’m saying these things to you now and I know I’ll get calls from cast members saying, ‘dude, do you think I hate you? Stop telling people that. I might hate you if you say that again.’”

The clearest parallel between the two men is more profound. Mr Kartheiser was 26 when he joined the cast of Mad Men, just as Campbell was when he joined Sterling Cooper. And over the last seven years, both men have matured, made money and achieved great success in their careers, an experience that has changed them in unexpected ways. While Campbell went from junior executive to partner, a position he once craved but now finds unfulfilling, Mr Kartheiser rose from relatively obscurity to starring in one of the most acclaimed shows on television. But his disillusion is the same.

“It’s like Oscar Wilde says: there’s two great tragedies in life,” he says. “One is not getting what you want, and the other is getting it.”

There’s no question that Mr Kartheiser has got what he always wanted. He started acting at the age of six, in local theater in Minneapolis, and found success as a regular on the TV series Angel for a few years. But Mad Men was different. He knew instantly that it was a special project – he’s likened it to a Russian novel in its complexity and subtext, and he has only the highest praise for Weiner and Jon Hamm, the people who grapple with what the show means.

And like Pete Campbell, success isn’t as he imagined it as a younger man. “Teenagers have a much clearer perspective of who they are than when they’re 30, you know?” he says. “A teenager can say, “I really believe in animals, and I want to be a veterinarian and you should pursue your dreams …’ But most people, when they grow up, they’re like, ‘fuck animals. And fuck your dreams! My dreams got shit on, so will yours!’ They stop being the pure colors they once were and turn into these stomped out shadows of who they thought they would be.”

What sort of a person did you think you would become?

“I thought I’d be an adult!” He looks outraged, as though he’s been robbed. “I remember looking at 30 year olds and thinking, ‘He smells like an adult, the things he does are adult’. But now I realize that they’re just teenagers who got older. You might do adult things like shave your face and pay your taxes, but you have a lot of the same insecurities, a lot of the same social awkwardness.”

We both notice the irony that he said that last part awkwardly. But I don’t want to mention it. It might be awkward.

“I think in America we just look at people’s careers and assume they’re happy,” he continues. “So it can be difficult to then get rid of the idea that professional success will complete me.”

These days, Kartheiser isn’t even pursuing success in the conventional sense. He avoids late night talk shows, and the interview circuit. He doesn’t chase big movie roles preferring instead to make tiny, experimental independent films. This summer, he’s doing a small play in San Diego, before Mad Men gears up again in the Fall for season six.

“Eventually,” he says, “you start coming to terms with the fact that maybe we’re not meant to feel complete at all.” And with that, he gets up to leave. The interview doesn’t feel complete. But that’s probably just as well.