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'Mad Men': Vincent Kartheiser on Pete's Need for a Nemesis, Hairline Maintenance

The actor tells THR about his mostly solitary season, continuing to hate an offscreen Bob Benson and the benefit of other characters never taking him seriously: "It's allowed for the audience to be able to laugh at him instead of loathe him."

Vincent Kartheiser Mad Men - P 2014
AMC
Vincent Kartheiser

The California sun seemed to be doing Pete Campbell some good at the start of Mad Men's seventh season, but his high-octane ennui has returned in full effect. The perpetually frustrated clients' man, played by Vincent Kartheiser, now spends most of his time on the neglected end of conference calls and sparring with a realtor girlfriend (Jessy Schram).

Kartheiser spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about how filming the final season is shaping up, as his character veers more and more into humor. He also talked about the art of making his faux receding hairline, butting heads with an offscreen Bob Benson (James Wolk) and how he'd still like to see more of Pete and Trudy (Alison Brie) before it all ends.

Pete is spending a lot of season seven essentially speaking to himself. Do you need to play off other actors for that sort of thing?

It all depends on the scene. Sometimes it really helps to have nobody to play off of. Matt [Weiner] and the writers are so good that they kind of know what the character is going through and what's going to help facilitate and express his emotional journey best. I think that juxtaposition between Pete really wanting to start fresh and being optimistic and wanting to kind of make a new name for himself and conquer new frontiers, and Ted just being tired and over it -- I think it plays really well.

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And Bob Benson, Pete's current nemesis, now exists entirely offscreen.

That storyline last year was fun, and it was a fresh breath of air for us. It's nice to kind of still have. I like that there's this guy out there somewhere that Pete judges himself against and measures himself against and wants to destroy. That was Ken Cosgrove for the first four seasons.

Ken Cosgrove's gay lover didn't throw Pete's mom off of a cruise ship.

For Pete, it almost doesn't matter. The same amount of hate is leveled at Ken Cosgrove, for just being himself, as there is for Bob Benson because they're both in his way. Bob might be a little more creepy, and I think there is a little bit more of a friendship with Ken … but if you think back to seasons two, three and four, there were scenes where it would be literally written on the page, "Pete stares at Ken like he wants to kill him." That was the stage direction I was being given. I think Pete's one of those guys who needs someone to be against. He can't just be like, "We're all just doing our thing." He needs there to be a competition. He needs someone to be the bad guy, and it's never going to be him. Bob was perfect for that.

Did you ever think Pete would be content in L.A.?

I guess I never considered him thriving. I never would consider that would be something that would happen to Peter Campbell, but I never really gave it too much thought. I kind of go into it naively with my faith open and my heart ready to do whatever they decide is best for Pete.

You've been obligated to stay in L.A. for the last seven years. Do you want to stay when the show's over?

That's hard to say, but I will say it's hard to live anywhere other than L.A. or New York being in the film and television industry. You make due with what you have to in those cities. They both have pros and cons, and I have a pretty good life in Los Angeles. I have some really good friends, several of whom I met on this show, and if this is where I am in a year, it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world, but I could also see myself making a change.

Ted shot Pete down when he asked him about starting their own business. Do you think Don and Pete could successfully partner up?

Yeah, they're both very good at their jobs, and they're not trying to get the other guy's job anymore. For a while, Pete thought he would be a creative guy. He doesn't want that anymore. Don really wants nothing to do with accounts. He doesn't want to deal with anyone he doesn't have to. I think it would work out great. They would both respect each others' space. Lots of times the best of partnerships in business in my understanding are people who don't necessarily get along that well because there's not any personal love lost. It would work out much better than Ted Chaough and Pete, I think, only because those two don't seem to respect each others' work.

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He turned the corner a long time ago, but did Pete ever feel like an antagonist to you?

Well, he was always the protagonist of my story. Even though I was set up as the antagonist for the first season or two, it really wasn't that way if you read the scripts. Maybe it turned that way in editing, but there were episodes that were fully focused just on Pete. We did get to meet his terrible family and his beautiful wife and all these other things. It wasn't easy for me ever to see him as just as a pivot point for Don Draper or just a cad in the office. There's always something a little bit sad and tragic about that character, so he's kind of always been that to me. It's nice that the audience likes him now because it makes my life easier. He took himself very seriously when he was on the rise. Now that he's reached where he is, he takes himself seriously, but nobody else does. It's allowed for the audience to be able to laugh at him instead of loathe him.

There seemed to be some sad closure to Pete and Trudy's final exchange last season. Do you want more from them, or would you be satisfied if that was the end?

I don't want to be satisfied by that. I can't tell you what will or won't happen, but I would be satisfied with that. I think because of Allison's schedule and whenever we end the season, we're like, "Better tie up nice and neat for Allison!" She's very in demand, and she has a lot of other things going on, and we're very happy for her. In the reality of the thing, we hire good actors and other people are going to want them, too.

What is your daily hairline maintenance like on set these days?

Let's say I've been working that week previously, so there's just a little bit of stubble. Theraesa Rivers, who is my wonderful hair person, takes a straight razor to my head, and she cuts close to my scalp, terrifying everyone around us, but we're used to it by now. Then she styles it, and then I go over to makeup where Ronald Pipes tries very hard to cover a five o'clock shadow. You have to apply several different colors of makeup; it has to be covered really well. I'm in makeup for around an hour. It's a lot longer. When I first started on this show, I was in hair and makeup for just 15 minutes.

Do people still assume you have a real receding hairline?

Many people still believe, when they see my hair outside show, that it's plugs. That's OK though. I don't think there's anything wrong with being bald. Lots of people in my family lose their hair, so I might have to come to terms with that.