Vincent Kartheiser on Mad Men's Pete Campbell
Vincent Kartheiser is on a diet. It's been three months since AMC wrapped the fifth season of Mad Men, and he's since been occupied by press appearances and parties, the kind that take a martini or two to get through. He also had to put on 20 pounds during the last season of the show, so now he's back home in Minneapolis, trying to dry out and get back in shape.
Standing in the lanes of Bryant-Lake Bowl, he pulls his jeans a few inches away from his waist to prove how much weight he's already lost, exposing a pair of black briefs.
Eight pounds, he says, the product of strict discipline: exercising every morning, fasting during the day, "and then I fuck at night — for a few hours, if I can."
A devious grin stretches across his unshaven face, and he suddenly looks a lot like Pete Campbell, his character on the show.
"Don't print that," he says.
Six years ago, Kartheiser landed the role of a lifetime. Since its 2007 premiere, Mad Men has won a Peabody award, four Golden Globes, and 15 Emmys, including four for Best Outstanding Drama. The show's witty writing has earned widespread acclaim from critics; Rolling Stone recently called it the "most astonishing, revelatory drama of our time, in any medium or format." This past March, when the fifth season premiered, more than 3.5 million viewers tuned in.
When Mad Men opens, Pete Campbell is a young junior executive at a Madison Avenue advertising firm in 1960. We quickly learn he will say and do just about anything to climb the ladder, including blackmailing his boss.
As the storyline progresses, we find that the slippery frat boy is afflicted with self-loathing, and in the world of high-stakes advertising, utter moral vacancy can at times be useful. But no amount of nuance can make the character redeemable. In an early episode, he drunkenly sleeps with the new secretary on the night of his bachelor party. In a more recent plot line, he pimps out his longtime co-worker to a Jaguar executive. One of the show's most gratifying moments is when his colleague Lane Pryce socks him in the face during a staff meeting, leaving Pete with a bloody nose.
Put simply, Pete Campbell is pretty much the biggest douche bag on television.
"There's something about the character of Pete that makes you uncomfortable because the character is uncomfortable," says Christina Hendricks, who plays Joan Holloway on the show, in an email to City Pages. "He's always trying so hard to get approval, and that makes you want to not approve of him. Vincent does such a wonderful job of making you squirm and making you feel sorry for him and also making you realize how valuable he is."
Kartheiser plays the role so convincingly it's hard to picture his real personality any other way. But Kartheiser is not Pete Campbell. Though he lives in Los Angeles, he still considers himself a local boy. He regularly listens to 89.3 the Current, and is a fan of local bands like Poliça and Atmosphere. He travels to the Twin Cities every month or two, and is in the market to buy a house here.
"When he's around, we're just laughing," says his father, Jim Kartheiser. "You know, he's funny, he's a free spirit, and certainly Pete is not any of those things."
Kartheiser also swears that unlike Campbell, he's not a social climber.
"I'm not really ambitious at all, I would say," Kartheiser claims. "I want to do the roles I want to do, but I kind of believe that there's a path for me, and everyone in life. I don't try to fuck with God's plan as much as Pete Campbell does."
But Pete Campbell and Vincent Kartheiser are not completely distinct. And by the actor's own admission, it can at times be hard to discern where one ends and the other begins.
"I'm a beta male," he says. "I'm a slight dude. I don't love myself. I'm probably not as terrible as Pete Campbell is in some ways, but Pete Campbell's not as terrible as people think he is either."
Though today he stars on one of the most critically acclaimed shows on cable, Kartheiser had little exposure to television as a young boy growing up in the Twin Cities. His parents didn't even own a TV until he was 10 years old.
"We just made a very conscious decision that, if we had to compete with the television, it would be very difficult to get all the quality time in with each of the kids that we wanted," recalls Janet Kartheiser, Vince's mother. "It was a conscious decision to do more creative things."
If there's one facet that differentiates Kartheiser from Pete Campbell, it's his childhood. On the show, Pete is the product of a country-club couple who blow their kids' inheritance on caviar and lavish vacations. His father is particularly cold toward his son, unable to understand why anyone would choose a career in advertising.
When his dad dies in an American Airlines plane crash in the show's second season, Pete finds himself unable to cry, instead clutching the memory of the last time they were together: arguing about the differences between a French bulldog and Boston terrier. Ultimately, in his deviant Pete Campbell way, he tries to spin his father's death into an edge in the bidding war for American Airlines' advertising account.
Kartheiser's real parents couldn't be further from that. Janet was born and raised in south Minneapolis, in a neighborhood off Lake Nokomis. After high school, she attended college at St. Teresa in Winona, where she met Jim, a Chicago transplant who went to the nearby St. Mary's University.
The two married at 18 and after three years living in Chicago moved to Minneapolis. Jim worked as a salesman for a company that sold construction equipment, while Janet stayed home with the kids and eventually opened a nursery. In a span of nine years, the couple had six children. At 33, Vincent is the youngest.
"We always said that he had to learn how to act and be dramatic to get attention at the end of that train," says Janet. "If you're the youngest, and your head's the lowest at the table, you've got to stand on that chair and get some attention."
Kartheiser's introduction to acting was at the Minneapolis Children's Theatre Company, watching his older sister audition for roles. When he was seven, Kartheiser tired of sitting in the audience with his dad, and tried out for a part of his own. But the director wanted a nine-year-old, and despite his dad's advice, young Kartheiser found himself unable to lie about his age. He didn't get the part, but nonetheless made an impression: The theater referred Kartheiser to the Guthrie a few weeks later, where he picked up the role of Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol.
From that point on, Kartheiser was hooked on the trade. "I always was an actor," he says. "I never really knew if I'd make money in it, but I was always very active in it."
He continued to get parts at the Guthrie and CTC, starring in productions of Pippi Longstocking and The Velveteen Rabbit. By age nine, when his parents moved to Apple Valley, he began picking up regular work recording radio spots for Minnesota-based companies like Dayton's, Target, and Best Buy. That eventually led to weekly appearances on Radio AAHS, a kids' station broadcasting from Minneapolis.
"Vinnie had a very unique voice when he was young," says Carol McCormick, Kartheiser's childhood agent at Moore Creative Talent, Inc. "We all noticed it right away. He was kind of an average Midwestern kid. You know, cute, but it was his voice."
His success as a child actor didn't exactly endear Kartheiser to his classmates. Kartheiser's description of his time at school in Apple Valley sounds like the formula for a '90s teen movie: a social hierarchy dominated by jocks, cheerleaders, and the cool teachers, where he was just a lowly drama dork.
"It's pretty much the shittiest thing in the world," says Kartheiser. "I grew up with a bunch of steroided-up hockey players and blond cheerleaders who thought they ruled the world, and I was a little nerd who wore stage makeup and clothes that his mother made for him."
In his early teens, Kartheiser began to find roles in the movie industry. In 1993, he played the role of Orphan Boy in an independent film called Untamed Heart, starring Marisa Tomei and Christian Slater. In the following years, he won parts in the popular kids' movies Little Big League, The Indian in the Cupboard, and Alaska.
But Kartheiser's growing success in Hollywood only antagonized his relationship with his school back home in Apple Valley. Unlike student athletes who traveled the state for sports tournaments, Kartheiser says, he was not allowed by his teachers to make up the work he missed while filming. In ninth grade, he dropped out in favor of a private tutor and correspondence school.
"I was getting all Fs," he says. "And I figured, 'Well, if I'm making three times what my teachers are making, they can go fuck themselves.'"
When Kartheiser was in his mid-20s, it might have looked like his childhood success was fading, his career destined to go the way of so many child actors'. When the movie well ran dry, he turned to television. He landed a role in Joss Whedon's Angel, a spinoff of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where he played Connor, the human offspring of the show's namesake. But the WB canceled the show in 2004, and regular work was hard to find.
"I would say things to him like, 'You know, son, you're going to have to get a real job and do this acting thing on the side,'" recalls his father.
In the summer of 2006, Kartheiser's parents traveled to Los Angeles to visit their son as he was preparing for an audition. The script was an early version of a Pete Campbell-Don Draper scene that would appear in the pilot episode of Mad Men: Pete walks into Don's office and gazes around the room, imagining all the ways in which he would redecorate. He meets Don's new, credulous young secretary, Peggy, and offers her the type of advice only Pete Campbell can dispense ("If you pull your waist in a little bit, you might look like a woman.").
As the two men exit the office, the wiser, wittier Don gives young Pete a thorough tongue-lashing that leaves him sullen, and tells viewers, in the show's infancy, that there is some order in the world of Mad Men. ("Keep it up and even if you do get my job, you'll never run this place. You'll die in that corner office, mid-level executive, with a little bit of hair, who women go home with out of a pity. You wanna know why? Because no one will like you.")
Sitting in a L.A. hotel room, Kartheiser and his dad rehearsed the lines over and over the weekend before he was scheduled to read for the part. "It was pretty relaxed, because it was at that point just another script," says Jim. "At that point, nobody had even heard of Mad Men."
Kartheiser nailed the audition and got the part. But he couldn't have known what the show would one day become. At the time, AMC (full name: American Movie Classics) was a little-known cable station. The channel launched in the 1980s, primarily broadcasting commercial-free black-and-white films. It was an unlikely venue for a hit television show — even one created by Matthew Weiner, who wrote for later seasons of The Sopranos.
The Mad Men pilot was filmed in late summer 2006, as Weiner was still wrapping up The Sopranos, and used the same New York City studio lot, as well as members of the HBO show's crew. The episode premiered more than a year later, about six weeks after they had begun filming the rest of the first season.
Pulling the show off was something of an endurance contest. During the first season, each 52-minute episode — roughly the equivalent of half a feature-length film — was shot in seven days (they now get eight). To finish on time, many crew members often worked 15-hour days (they still do).
"You put that in context," says Kartheiser. "Usually, even the lowest-budget film will take four to six weeks to shoot double that. So you're shooting in no time at all. You just have to be on point with very little notice, very little rehearsal, very little time with the script."
More than 900,000 viewers tuned in to the first episode, a record for AMC. By the the second season's premiere, viewership more than doubled to two million.
AMC reinvented itself with Mad Men. The show continued to amass an audience, along with awards and critical acclaim, and paved the way for future AMC hits like Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead.
As his fame grew, Kartheiser developed a reputation for his eccentricities. He lives in a tiny, one-room house in Los Angeles that contains no mirrors — part of a conscious effort to avoid his reflection. NBC once hailed Kartheiser as a "Green Warrior" on a special about eco-friendly celebrities. In the interview, he said he was a vegetarian and that he would never have kids, both of which he called "green choices." He now eats meat and seems undecided on procreation.
"Since I've known him he's been a vegetarian and then not a vegetarian," says Christina Hendricks, who met her husband through Kartheiser. "He didn't have a car for over a year and wanted to take the bus and be more eco-conscious, and now he has a car. I think he's very conscious of trying to contribute in his own way and he's experimenting with how best to do that."
Kartheiser chalks the inconsistencies up to a series of "strange phases," and nothing more. "You say something when you're 23, and you're still answering questions about it when you're 40. You know what I mean?"
As the show turned into the hit it is today, Kartheiser found himself being recognized in public. Perhaps unfortunately, most identify him with his weaselly role.
"They're not wrong to do that," says Kartheiser. "I'm not totally opposite to that role. There's elements of me in that role. I'm not delusional enough to believe that I don't have some of the problems that Pete Campbell has."
On an April morning at Bryant-Lake Bowl, no one pays much attention as Kartheiser strolls in the front door and finds a secluded table in the back of the bar. He doesn't order a drink — part of his detox routine. Not to mention it's 11 a.m. If he were drinking, though, it would probably be something Pete Campbell would order.
"You get to a certain age where you don't want the mixer anymore," he says. "It's just, like, added liquid that you're putting into your system. It's like, 'Give me a gin on ice with an olive in it, or a glass of Scotch, or something.'"
Kartheiser has been in Minneapolis for the past week, and it might be the last time he'll make it out here for months. Now that Mad Men is on a break from filming, Kartheiser is temporarily venturing away from television. This month, he begins filming an independent movie in New York City tentatively titled Beach Pillows. After that, it's off to San Jose, where he will star in a play called The Death of a Novel.
He talks only vaguely about what he will do beyond that. Throughout the latest season of Mad Men, the internet has been abuzz with speculation that Pete Campbell is going to die. It didn't happen this season, and Kartheiser certainly isn't going to give anything away — "It's all top secret," he says — but the warning signs seem to be there. In one episode, he laments to Don Draper, "I have nothing." It's enough to suggest that Don's warning in the pilot episode could come true: Maybe Pete Campbell is destined to die alone.
Even if Pete Campbell does die, Kartheiser has no plans to search for another career path, although the lifestyle of this one can at times be exhausting.
"I don't know where my next job's coming from," says Kartheiser. "I don't know where my next dollar is coming from. And that adds a level of stress that I wish sometimes I didn't have. But my favorite thing to do is be other people. So I feel blessed, and I try not to take it for granted — but it's hard."
Though Mad Men has been credited with bringing back the style of the early '60s, the actor says the subject of fashion is always far from his mind.
"I mean, fuck, dude, I haven't bought my own shirt for like six years," he says.
Asked about the one he's got on — a button-down with a pink flowered pattern that would make for good hotel wallpaper — he offers a devious grin.
"This is my ex-girlfriend's dad's," he says. "He was a big womanizer, and, uh, I have luck in this shirt. The ladies like this shirt. I think it's still got some of his pheromones in it."
Toward the end of our interview, a makeup specialist named Amber arrives to prepare Kartheiser for his photo shoot. She combs his hair back to expose a spot that's recently been shaved, which he explains was done to make it appear that Pete Campbell was balding.
"Do that," says Kartheiser, as Amber massages product into his hair. He closes his eyes and leans back in mock ecstasy. "Oh god."
Kartheiser reaches for a pair of sunglasses and tries to steal a glimpse of himself in the reflection. "Do I look like Justin Bieber right now?" he asks. "Because I feel kind of like I look like Justin Bieber."
Amber tries to offer a mirror, but Kartheiser dismisses her with a wave. "I don't look at mirrors," he says. "I learned a long time ago, I hate what those things look like when I look at them."
After Amber is done, Kartheiser takes a deep breath. "Oooooooooh I need an enema," he says as he exhales.
"Your hair is simple," says Amber.
"You're simple," Kartheiser playfully shoots back. "Simple minded!"
Just then, he turns to the reporter and confirms that there are no more questions. He leans forward to extend his hand with a friendly smile and says, "Go fuck yourself."
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