Mad Men’s Vincent Kartheiser: “The words kind of do the work for me”

From Vanity Fair: Bruce Handy: I’m curious what your discussions were like with [series creator] Matt Weiner about Pete, when you first signed on. In the pilot, it feels like Pete’s going to be the villain of the series, the young snake-y executive. And probably on a lot of TV


From Vanity Fair:

Bruce Handy: I’m curious what your discussions were like with [series creator] Matt Weiner about Pete, when you first signed on. In the pilot, it feels like Pete’s going to be the villain of the series, the young snake-y executive. And probably on a lot of TV shows that’s what he would have been. But he’s become much more complicated and interesting than that.

Vincent Kartheiser: I think one of the things Matt [Weiner, the show’s creator] really wanted with Pete was someone who didn’t villainize him from the inside out. Take the pilot, that scene with Peggy, where Pete’s kind of dressing her down—he really thinks he’s being helpful and actually we had to do that scene quite a few times just to get that tone right for me. It was something that Matt and [director] Alan Taylor kept trying to finesse with me, to get to that point where it is rude but it’s really said from this helpful place. But I’m constantly reminding myself with Pete Campbell that the words kind of do the work for me. I don’t have to add any sort of emphasis to it—it’s there. I was reading quotes by Marlon Brando the other day, because I’m a dork, and he has one where he’s talking about his character in On the Waterfront and he says it’s virtually actor-proof. Roles like that show how much of the acting the audience actually does, because the character is so well written that it sings to the audience and the audience fills in the blanks with their own emotion and their own life. And that really sung to me about this project, because the characters are written with such humanism. So even though, like you say, Pete comes from this place of being a villain, that’s something Matt carefully writes away from.

It’s funny that you say it’s actor-proof because of the writing. I would have thought that because so much of the show is subtextual—because there are so many silences—you would be working a lot harder filling things in with your performance than you would on something like C.S.I., where it’s rat-a-tat-tat.

Yeah, maybe. I really enjoy this so much that it’s hard for me to see it as a chore. I mean, there have definitely been scenes where it’s like, O.K., how do we finesse this very kind of crucial scene to just the right point? But this group is really amazing and really, really talented and supportive, and as an actor, as a small piece of this huge painting, I feel like this is … it really isn’t that much work. Like that scene with Peggy in the ending of Season Two [where Peggy tells Pete she gave his baby away after he declares his love for her], after doing two years of work on those characters, that scene plays itself for us. We wanted to make sure the camera was great and we took a long time to set it up and set the tone, but we just shot it out. I mean, me and Elisabeth [Moss], we’ve been building these characters for two years, you know. It’s there. It’s written in. Our characters want to do that. We want to go there. The audience is ready for that. Storytelling is the important thing.

That’s a wrenching scene. I never would have thought that would be one you could just “shoot out.”

Well, I get to work with Elisabeth Moss too, so that’s easy. (Laughs) She’s phenomenal, and that’s a big part of it. It’s also been such a joy to work with these directors. Not only are Matthew Weiner and all the writers so invested in the characters but all the directors come like weeks beforehand and they’re so in love with this show, and really, it’s an opportunity for us to kind of do art in our medium and it doesn’t happen a lot. (Laughs) I think it’s almost like a novel. It’s like a 700-page novel.

You can engage with it.

You can engage. Like Mad Men can set up Season Two with three or four slow episodes, like the beginning of a Russian novel, you know? (Laughs) Like here are your (pretentious voice) “char-act-ers,” and then the payoff can come years down the line. You can have a payoff in The Sopranos four years after it began. And you just see Tony Soprano building toward that idea and that’s a huge payoff for the audience that, in the camera world—the film and TV world—we haven’t had. And once again, there is no kind of black or white with any of these characters. People are all motivated by hundreds of different things, most of them subconscious. Is Pete in love with Peggy? How in love with her is he? Why is he in love with her? Is it really just his ego? I mean, how many times have you been in love with a woman until she loves you back? And then you realize it had nothing to do with her. Or a woman cheats on you and you hate her for decades and then you realize, it’s just my ego. I just couldn’t handle that she like wanted someone else—it had nothing to even do with this woman. And I think that’s the kind of grey area that these characters get to live in and that we get to portray—you say these long moments of silence. But really it’s easier to play a complex character. It’s easier to play a good character. It’s easier to do Shakespeare than Spelling, and I know that sounds crazy, because the challenge of Shakespeare is living up to Shakespeare, living up to that word, not failing, you know, where with Aaron Spelling it’s like, just try to look good. (Laughs) Or maybe don’t use Spelling there, that’s bad … No you can. He’s dead.

Can you tell me a little bit about working with Jon Hamm, as an actor.

He’s a good leader, you know. It’s hard being number one of a big cast like this and you have to set a tone for everyone. You have to establish something that everyone can kind of work off. If you set a tone of respect and professionalism and all of these great things, everyone else will fall in line—they have to. And with Jon there’s none of the bullshit that sometimes comes with it. But as an actor, as someone during the scenes, he’s very, very giving and he’s helpful too. It goes back to how everyone works differently, and Jon definitely works differently than me. I work differently than everyone on the set—I’m kind of goofy, and I’ve worked with some people who tease on that or whatever, but Jon just doesn’t. He just lets everyone do their thing and it works. For an actor, it’s important to feel comfortable and he’s in a position to help us feel comfortable and he’s carrying this baby. I love the scenes that I have with Jon, where it’s just me and Jon—and not just because it’s Jon, but also because it’s Pete and Don. The scenes between them take on this really sub-textual tension, which just naturally happens on the set. Like we’ll do our group scene and then everyone else [in the cast] will leave and it will just be me and Jon, and the set just kind of quiets down a little. The same when it’s Don and January [Jones]. They schedule their scene on different days [from the scenes in the Sterling Cooper office] because they’re on a different stage [for the Draper home]. It’s a very different tone when it’s a Draper day and when it’s an office day. The office days are very bustling: girl extras running everywhere with hair and gabbing and talking, and all the guys smoking and playing chess, and me jumping up down doing my vocal exercises. And then with the Drapers, it’s just Betty, sitting with her dog, and it’s very quiet and a very different tone, but it’s beautiful, man.

You haven’t really had any scenes with January, but what are your impressions of her as an actress?

I think she’s awful. (Laughs) No, I was really impressed with the second season of her work. It’s really great shit. And to think how fast we shoot this. I mean, we get two, three takes and she has page after page after page, and so does Jon. They just work their asses off. But, you know, I feel really blessed. I don’t have that much shit but I always get this really juicy shit. (Laughs) So I just get to slide in and do like—it’s like Joe Pesci in Goodfellas or something. I just slide in and nail out a few scenes. It’s fun, but it’s like three hours’ of work a day. It’s not like the fifteen that January Jones does.

You’ve been acting steadily since you were a kid.

Since I was six .

Did you know then that this is the career you wanted?

Yeah, I chose it. And when I was a kid being an actor was not cool. I’m thirty now and when I was a kid in the 80s that wasn’t a cool thing to be. Now I see with my niece that acting is like the thing. I don’t know if it’s because of the Disney Club or whatever, but all the boys are actors and in dance and stuff and I’m like, Wow, I got beat up every day because I was in ballet and I was an actor and that was, you know, “gay,” or whatever. But I always loved it as a kid and it’s something I’ve always done. There’s no right path and there’s no right way. Everyone does this differently. I’ve worked with actors before where I was like, this is not working, and then I’ve seen their work on the screen and I’ve been like, Wow, that was a really great performance. Because there are a lot of elements with film. It’s not like stage. It’s not a kind of performance art anymore; it’s a highly tuned kind of collaboration—a symphony. I take credit for all of it. (Laughs) No, but, it’s a goofy thing to act.

Leave a Reply

Scroll to Top