Everyone's favorite weasel

Vincent Kartheiser explains why he loves playing Pete, Don Draper's bitter foil on "Mad Men"

Published August 13, 2009 10:17AM (EDT)

Vincent Kartheiser in "Mad Men."
Vincent Kartheiser in "Mad Men."

Pete Campbell is the perfect foil for Don Draper on "Mad Men." Where Don (Jon Hamm) is relaxed and self-assured, Pete is flinchy and second-guessing. Where Don greets the world with a poker face, Pete is utterly transparent. Where Don is an endless maze of secrets and lies, Pete can't keep a secret to save his life. When he lies, everyone knows it -- and chuckles in his face about it, too.

Still, after witnessing how Don's charisma wins him big promotions, a (mostly) docile wife and a steady stream of pretty girls on the side, all of which he accepts with only the occasional guilty downward glance, Pete's relative inability to hide his emotions starts to look almost charming. Almost -- when he's not throwing tantrums and lying and saying nasty things to Peggy or his wife or his colleagues, that is. But to hear Vincent Kartheiser, who plays Pete, tell it, we're all just as weak and pathetic as Pete on our bad days.

And just as Pete is barely able to hide his emotions, Kartheiser was barely able to hide his love and loyalty to Pete when we spoke to him over the phone recently. What else would you expect from the actor who played a teen junkie in Larry Clark's "Another Day in Paradise," and then transformed himself into the vulnerable half-vampire son of Angel in "Angel"? Something dark within this boy with the pretty, innocent face made him right for these disturbing characters.

While "Angel" fans may have been shocked by Kartheiser's transformation from corrupt brooder to strait-laced breeder, Kartheiser says he recognized himself in Pete from the first time he read the script. In our talk, he often rallied to defend the character who's quickly grown into our favorite villain on TV.

This season Pete is being put in a position that could really bring out the worst in him. Will he surprise us by rising above it all? It's pretty tough to predict how Pete is going to react to anything.

I agree, I agree. I think that this season you'll continue to be surprised. I don't know how much I can give away. I loved reading the first episode, and seeing that there was this immediate conflict and this immediate situation that Pete was going to have to deal with. It's nice because no matter how it plays out, it's something that's always there in the back of every scene. It gives me a little something to hang onto, a little handle. I'm trying to win this job. That's a constant weight. I understand how that is, like most people do. There's a chance for promotion and a chance to get fired. It weighs on you. It comes into everything. It affects your sex life, you know?

Is it challenging to play a character who doesn't have a lot of success in hiding his emotions?

Well, I don't have a lot of success in hiding my emotions. I guess sometimes I do. Maybe I'm just overacting! Maybe Matthew [Weiner] is consistently picking the smallest choice I do in the editing room, and it's still too fucking big! Who knows? It's a thing with Pete where he doesn't really notice the things he says before they come out of his mouth, and I think the same is true for his emotional reactions and his facial.

It's interesting to watch Pete interact with more sophisticated characters because, for someone with his wealthy upbringing, he always seems like the biggest rube in any room. I love the parallel scenes in the premiere where he and Ken Cosgrove are told the same news, but they react in entirely different ways.

I think that Ken Cosgrove comes from a place of positivity. He comes from probably a much more realistic and healthy point of view on life which is, you know, "Hey, if I get this promotion, great, if I don't get this promotion, fine. Isn't this great? Everything is working out perfectly!" Pete Campbell is the exact opposite of that. He kind of expects the worst to happen. But then you look at their lives and where they come from, and it seems to me like Pete has always had the worst happen. I mean, he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, and ever since then, things have been going wrong. When your life gives you those rotten eggs -- you know when he says "Why can't I get anything good all at once?" -- when life does that to you, over and over, isn't it smarter to expect that again? I think he's constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop.

But he's such a baby, isn't he? It's a pretty immature response.

Well, it is babyish and it is whiny. Here's an example of Pete not being able to pretend he's the mature adult that we all pretend we are. It's a feeling that we can all relate to. Because we all get good things and then they come with a "but" or an ultimatum. Or you get the promotion but not the raise, or you get the raise and not the promotion. Once again, Ken is happy. He looks at it and says, "Hey, I got a free cupcake!" And Pete Campbell says, "I wanted the dozen cupcakes."

Has playing Pete made you feel healthier about yourself by comparison? It sounds like you have a real affection for him.

I've always known this character. You know, sometimes you get really lucky in your life, and that's what Pete Campbell is for me, for so many reasons. Mostly, it's a character that really sang to me. Right away, I knew this guy. He's a fleshed-out character written with a point of view. It's been a blessing to play him. And being able to work with people like Matthew Weiner, someone who is that funny and has that many great ideas on a consistent basis? That's something that's made my life healthier. And that's made me more confident, I think. I hope!

Is Weiner a perfectionist?

I don't know. Aren't we all perfectionists at some level? I don't even know what that means. I can say that he's a man that knows what he wants, and he knows this story. He's a storyteller. Is he detail-oriented? Does he micromanage? Those things are so much less important than [the fact that] he loves this story and he knows what's going to make it work. It's not about it being Matthew's way, it's about being the right way for this story.

You're saying it's not personal or egoistic, it's in pursuit of a higher goal.

I was just saying that people from the outside might look at it and think, "Oh my gosh, he's micromanaging," or "He must be a perfectionist." Maybe because we all give him so much credit. But we just know that he deserves it! And the story really matters to him. So we see him as this white knight of this story, and we are going to follow him into the battle. He's our general.

Does being immersed in that 1960s world make you feel nostalgic about the era? Do you get in your car at the end of the day and think, "Oh, these impoverished, alienated modern times we live in!"?

Well, I take the bus. And that makes me feel less alienated. Part of what was happening in the '60s was people were starting to get into their cars and drive to the suburbs. I think it's part of the separation and the loss of community. Back in the '50s and '60s, that's when these ideas were being sold to you, the great American dream. It kind of came true, and it's pretty alienating. It is nice to be able to look back on that time and say, "Gosh, things were more visceral," and all of that, but people in the '60s were looking back on the '20s. Humans have a love affair with nostalgia.

Where do you live in L.A. that you can take the bus to work?

Hollywood. But honestly, you can live anywhere and take the bus.

How do people react to you on the bus?

I don't get recognized that much.

Really? That's surprising.

No, sometimes I do. Usually it's in a high-society kind of place where a lot of urban professionals are kicking it. Other than that, I still live a pretty cool life, man. I'm still able to kind of sit down at a diner and talk to a couple of newlyweds and hear their story and not have to talk about filmmaking all the time. One of the things I've always felt is bad about celebrities is they have to surround themselves with [other celebrities] because they get so sick of talking about themselves. So, I feel really blessed that I don't have to put on a disguise or anything to go out and listen to a drunk guy tell me his sad night. It has its advantages.

What distinguishes Pete from the rest of the mixed-up denizens of Sterling Cooper?

I think Pete's really honest, and there's something to be said for that, on this show. He's honest even when it works against him. He can't help himself. He has to say the blatant thing. He's like that guy who meets someone and says, "Oh wow, you have a mole on your nose!" I like people like that. They're not ashamed to go up to a guy and be like, "Hey, how'd you lose your arms?" Like, "Come on, everyone else is wondering, I had to ask!" But then, the guy without the arms is probably so sick of answering that question!

The trouble with Pete is that he's honest but he's also incredibly insecure. When he does try to lie, it's so obvious.

He's no Don Draper. Like you said, he's the biggest rube in the room. And he's the biggest buffoon in the room.

He's almost an outcast in that office, at this point.

They treat him like an outcast, but in a weird way, he's the leader. I mean, if you go back and watch the scenes, in a strange way, he's got a bravery. Because he wants more. Ken will take whatever comes. Paul is kind of in his own world. Harry is moving forward but he has these other motives, like family and necessity, and he's really an ego-driven wannabe alpha male. Pete is the beta. He's waiting to rip someone's heart out. So that makes him ambitious and it makes him a leader among his group. I think all of those things make him this incredibly awesome character, and one I can relate with in a lot of ways.

Are Pete and Trudy made to torture each other?

I can't say. And I wouldn't want to presume to say, because whatever Matthew has in store is better than anything I could make up.

You don't want to presume to know what's good for Pete.

No, and Matthew doesn't want us to. So I'm going to leave that open and see where it goes. He'll tell me what I need to know when I need to know it. It's kind of nice. I just sit here until he comes to me and gives me the little info I need.

It's almost like you're living Pete's life yourself, because you don't really know where he's headed.

That's what's great about TV. You're not stuck in that hour and a half, I-know-where-this-ends  story arc. You're doing something that's going to change next week and it mimics life in a strange way. In that way it's very different than stage and film. You don't have that very rounded character-plot relationship. The character moves through this ultra-changing world, mimicking life a lot more.

Matthew Weiner has said Pete's always right about advertising. What allows him to understand advertising so well?

He really cares about his work. For all that Don Draper does, most of it is off the cuff. Don's just so talented and smooth and such a natural leader, people want to be on his side. But he's not always burning the midnight oil. Pete really does care about the work and believes that the [marketing] studies do matter. He sees little things, like Elvis not wearing a hat. He's more connected to the world and he's intelligent and he's good at his job. That's one of the reasons he's so frustrated, is that people don't see that.

Does Weiner talk to you about the cultural context of the era?

Sometimes, if he thinks it serves the moment. The thing about cultural context is that we really don't know the cultural context until 20 years, 30 years later. So, right now you and I are not sitting here being affected by this war that's going on and the atrocities that are probably being committed as we talk about cars or giggle about whatever. We're not aware of the cultural ramifications of this time period. If you were to do a movie about the early 21st century in 40 years and you had characters all walking around talking about the war constantly, that would be fucking bullshit. [Laughing] And you can quote me on that!

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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