Emmys 2012: 'Mad Men's' Vincent Kartheiser on the Still Redeemable Pete Campbell
The actor tells THR about his series' unusually spoiler-free environment, shrinking screen time with Elizabeth Moss and what his character was playing on his headphones during the season finale's closing montage.
It's never been easy for Pete Campbell. Despite more attention on the darker side of Vincent Kartheiser's Mad Men character (and his increasingly apparent mortality) during the series' recent run, it's still the same Pete who ended the sophomore season ominously holding a rifle.
Recent events -- an affair, that indecent proposal, mid-commute brawls, general obnoxiousness -- have only exaggerated what Karthaiser sees as Pete's inability to ever be satisfied. "The guy’s never been very thrilled with his life," he tells The Hollywood Reporter. "He’s missing a certain part of himself and he’s trying to find something to fill that, and he hasn’t learned how to fill that on his own."
And while Kartheiser knows nothing of where his story or his character's hairline will head in the future, he doesn't think Pete is beyond hope. He also has some reflections on how bad Pete's unseemly offer to Joan [Christina Hendricks] really was, what he was listening to in the finale's closing montage and how much he'll miss working with Elizabeth Moss if she really is out of the picture.
The Hollywood Reporter: There’s something of a respected secrecy -- with casting and storylines -- around Mad Men compared to most TV series. Does it make talking about the work easier for you?
Vincent Kartheiser: I think we respect our audience. We don’t really feel like we bring in our audience based on interviews or sensational guest stars or anything like that. We have really loyal followers and people are watching the show for the content and not necessarily for the gimmick. And not that I think that bringing a guest star is a gimmick, but I think it can be used by some shows to bring eyes to the show that haven’t been there before. We just realize how much speculation we would create if we say Julia Ormond was on the show, people are going to say, “Oh who does she play? Are she and Don [Jon Hamm] lovers?" And we really don’t know if we’re going to get that many more views from it because our viewership has to watch from the beginning to know what’s going on. That also makes it really free for our casting department and for Matthew [Weiner] and the director of every episode to really go out and find the best actor for the role -- whether it’s a celebrity or someone who’s never worked before.
THR: It seems refreshing considering how much speculation there is around television series today.
Kartheiser: Jon Hamm said something really interesting in an interview about a year ago, something like, "In this day and age where you find out things as soon as they happen. Gossip and news spreads so fast now and everything’s so immediate and there’s something about this show that doesn’t give you that. It makes you wait for it, and I think it’s a lot of great things in life are in the anticipation and the thrill of the expectancy of what it may be.
THR: There was a lot of attention on how dark things got with Pete this season. Do you even think this was the lowest he's been?
Kartheiser: I do think it’s the darkest. But I also appreciate that you have seen it through the five seasons. I talk to some people who are like, "Oh, Pete sounds so dark this season!" And I’m like, "Have you been watching? The guy’s never been very thrilled with his life." But I think what happened now is that he always had something in front of him. He was always like, “Maybe once I’m married that will bring me happiness.” Then he got married and wasn’t happy with that. The first and second season he thought, “Maybe if I get a promotion, I’ll be happy.” Then he got that in season four and now he’s like, he got the job, he got the success, he's got a family -- and I think the darkness that comes with that is different because there’s not something to look forward to. What is going to cure this sadness inside of him? What can pin his hopes on now? And he’s having to make a transition that’s very difficult, and it’s a very dark time for him.
THR: A lot of people have pointed to the offer to Joan as Pete's lowest point of the season. Was there a scene or an episode that seemed particularly desperate to you?
Kartheiser: Well, I don’t think he is beyond help. I think he’s human and I think we all go through periods -- our darkest hours in life where, if anyone else was to jump into our shoes, they’d be scared for us. There’s a lot of speculation about whether or not he's psychotic or has mental health problems, and I don’t really think it’s any of those things either. I think he’s not a complete person. He’s missing a certain part of himself and he’s trying to find something to fill that, and he hasn’t learned how to fill that on his own.
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THR: And what about the Joan episode?
Kartheiser: I do not think asking Joan to prostitute herself was the lowest point in the season and to be honest about it -- I realize how the audience could react -- but I don’t really think that weighs very heavy on Pete’s mind at all. There’s a lot of characters he probably wouldn’t have offered that to. You get the sense that she’s used her sexuality several times even in smaller ways to accomplish what she wanted. Now because he knows that about that person, he’s willing to bring it to her. He offers her 5 percent of the company and she says, “yes.” So is it his lowest moment or Joan’s lowest moment? I think that’s the question. The audience wants to pin that responsibility on Pete, but I don’t think he holds much responsibility for that. I think other things probably weigh heavy on him. I think there’s a lot of darker moments that actually come before asking Joan to take one for the team, if you will. And that’s a terrible way to put it.
THR: The arc with Alexis Bledel’s character took a really sad turn. Do you think that could be a turning point for Pete in the way he values the life he has?
Kartheiser: Yes, but I’m not saying it will be. And I really don’t know what happens next season. Matt hasn’t told me anything and none of the writers have spoken about it. But just watching the show as an audience member you get that sense -- and I think it was pivotal that she got her memory erased because it allowed him to say those things. He worries so much about what people perceive him as and in that moment he was a complete stranger who he would never see again -- he thinks. And it allows him says the truth about himself that I think he just realized -- and maybe just in that episode -- he just realizes that his pain. Now how many times do we have reflections on our life and learning experiences that don’t lead to actual concrete changes in our lives? Countless. But sometimes they do stick, and after the season that he had you would hope that some of this has not fallen on deaf ears.
THR: Peggy leaving the agency was a bit of a game changer for Mad Men. Are you nervous that there won't be any more Peggy-Pete moments down the line?
Kartheiser: I’m never nervous about the show because of Matt and the writing team and our producers. Matt, especially, has this amazing capacity to see a person for what they are, underneath all of the things they’ve put out there to the world. So he also has a great ability to write material for actors that have chemistry with other actors and to write scenes, plots and stories that are going in a place that can really show the forte of those artists. Now, that being said, I absolutely love acting with Elisabeth Moss. The only thing I love more than acting with Elisabeth Moss is watching Elisabeth Moss later on screen. She’s just so amazing, and we did have two good years of heavy lifting together and those were the seminal years of this show. We’re really proud and I love the work we did together, and I love her, on a personal note, as a human being. In those ways, yes I do hope somehow Pete Campbell gets some more scenes with her. I know whatever they come up with will be great.
THR: There was so much of a focus on music this season as sort of a touchstone for how the culture is changing in the '60s, and we last saw Pete with headphones on. Do you know what he was listening to?
Kartheiser: It was classical music, which is what Pete Campbell likes. That’s what he prefers. He listens to jazz a little too, but he’s old school. And the season ends with asking “Are you alone?” and it shows Peggy alone, it shows Roger Sterling alone, it shows my character alone. Success can be isolating. And the road to success can be isolating. So can watching dogs fucking in a motel parking lot.