The Truth About Vincent Kartheiser
Without trying to, Vincent Kartheiser has become a man of myth. Fueled by his engaging portrayal of the ambitious young ad executive Pete Campbell on AMC’s Mad Men—an awkward, arrogant, morally ambiguous career climber who’s despicable one moment and laudable the next—Kartheiser’s public image has become a galaxy of exaggerations, half-truths, and outright fabrications. It’s all but impossible to pin down the actor or his iconic character, as both are overflowing with the complexities and contradictions that make us human. But ask around and you’ll hear all kinds of things about Kartheiser the man: He lives a completely ascetic lifestyle. He has no furniture in his home. He doesn’t own a car. He walks or takes the bus all over Los Angeles. He’s a hardcore vegetarian and an outspoken activist for environmental causes. The myths expand exponentially, and he’s all but given up on dispelling them. Why bother, when they make people all the more determined to tease deeper meaning out of his work?
Kartheiser’s work is one truth I uncovered after spending an afternoon with him: He’s very, very serious about his acting. I can see it in his extremely nuanced portrayal of Campbell. There’s never a wink to the audience that says "I’m really nicer, and cuter, than all of this." He becomes Campbell, a breathing mass of pettiness, jealousy, sympathy, pain, and wisdom, all of which jockey for position at the forefront of his psyche.
It’s ridiculous to think, but as I approached his Los Angeles home on a mild winter day a few months ago, I half expected him to answer the door wearing an ill-fitting suit, greet me with an insincere half smile, and launch into a sales-infused spiel highlighting his best qualities and diminishing his worst. Instead, I found a friendly, animated, deeply sarcastic 34-year-old with just a hint of the dark edge he brings to his role as the most realistic character in Mad Men‘s award-winning ensemble cast. Hasn’t everybody worked with a Pete Campbell at some point in their careers? I could name mine here, but won’t. Take this moment to whisper the name of yours.
As for the ascetic lifestyle, it just isn’t true. His house is small but well furnished. He has no mirrors, but he does have a big-screen TV and a bed that rises to the ceiling on pulleys to make more floor space. A zippy little Volkswagen is parked in the driveway, his kitchen is well-stocked, and the dishwasher was recently run. Air travel notwithstanding, he probably consumes less than the average American, but is hardly an ashram-level renunciate of modern conveniences.
During a two-hour converstion that meandered between football (his Vikings were on TV) to the importance of stirring over shaking (gin gets bruised) to the secrets behind Mad Men (he’s pretty sure Sal Romano was gay) Kartheiser revealed himself as a deeply thoughtful yet lighthearted man, at once appreciative of his good fortune, yet never buying into the grand illusions of celebrity.
The following is a meandering yet enlightening chat with the actor, with cameos from a stylist, photographer, groomer, publicist, cat, and dog.
Do you cook?
I’ll buy $200 worth of groceries and then watch it all rot. [To stylist] Shoes! You’re a sweetheart, do you know that? It depends on the shoe. 8 to a 9 to a 9 1/2. I am a 9 in a lot of shoes. My feet have been shrinking. [To dog] Hey! My cat will fuck you up man. Everybody better start rooting for the Vikings, stat. Sweet titties!
You have a couple of indie movies in the can?
Yeah, I have a couple of indie films in the can. We’ll see if they ever get released. They’re very very different. One takes place in Antarctica. A film we shot without a script, on location. We shot every day, seven-day weeks, for 30 days. We would shoot from about the time we woke up, like 5 or 6am, until about 10 at night. Whenever we could get a shot, whenever something came up that we wanted to capture, we’d write a scene around it. We’d eat dinner together, then write, trying to figure out what we’d film the next day. The writer/director had a basic outline of what he wanted the story to be about, which was a married couple going on their pseudo-honeymoon slash work trip to Antarctica—just two people separating and then coming back together. It was really difficult. Two years ago we filmed it. It’s called Red Knot, which is the name of a bird that flies from the southern tip of South America to Antarctica and back just to find its mate.
The other one is Beach Pillows, which is a film about two young men who have kind of been stuck in high school mode, not figuring out what their lives are about. One guy’s completely fine with that, in fact loves it, and lives moment to moment. The other guy’s reaching the end of his rope and thinking about a move towards adulthood. It’s about that transition, late twenties. You either become a man or you’re playing Xbox. Not that you can’t do both, but I did give away my Xbox a few years ago. It’s a cool story, we just finished filming that this summer. We’ll see if it ever comes out. They both got rejected by Sundance. [Whispers] That’s okay, I hate that place. [Louder] I really love Sundance, it’s a great place where writers and artists can show their work and hopefully get a distributor. [Whispers] It’s a shit hole. I love Park City, but that week is so full of stuff I’m not interested in. Parties and schmoozing and getting each other’s numbers, and hey man let’s make a film together next year.
But somehow you get people to make films with you.
Well I act. I’m actually one of those guys who does worse when I schmooze, because I tend to repel people. People are like, "I’m never going to work with him." Whereas if I just don’t go to a party, they think, "Well maybe he’s normal." After they’ve already paid me, they’re like, "Holy shit. I hired him. What was I thinking?" So I stay away from par-tays.
You have two movies that are awaiting distribution.
That’s right. And I just did a play, which was fun, in San Jose. And I’m back on my show [Mad Men]. And I’m thinking of doing a movie this summer in Minnesota. And that’s it, man. That’s my life.
Tell me about the play.
It was difficult. It was about an agoraphobic writer who doesn’t leave his apartment the entire play. And it took place in my apartment and I was the writer. It was almost three hours long, and it was just lots of words. But it was fun, and I learned a lot about comedy, and about myself, and I loved it. I want to do a play every year now. I hadn’t done a play for five years or something. It was at the San Jose Repertoire. The middle of nowhere. You’re looking for material to work with here?
No, I wrote down a few random questions this morning as I was sitting in my hotel room realizing that I should have prepared more for this interview.
Which is weird because I wrote down a few random answers yesterday.
Have you seen your Wikipedia entry? Is it accurate? Did you go to UCLA and study history?
No, I don’t know how people get things right on there. I’ve tried to fix it so many times.
Maybe in the eyes of Wikipedia you’re not a reliable source of information on yourself.
In all honesty, in the eyes of me I’m not. I’m such a liar. [Football on the TV] God I hate Dallas. Um, yeah. None of that stuff is true, and I’ve tried to fix it, but they won’t …
You really didn’t go to UCLA and study history?
Now I can’t ask you about your favorite era of history, and what you like about it.
I don’t even like history. I don’t even believe in history.
So where did you go to school?
I dropped out of high school.
You’re from Minnesota. Is that much true?
This is going to be a lot of fun.
Are you being sarcastic? Is that sarcastic?
I’m not sure anymore.
Ha ha! I should be interviewing you. You’re much more interesting than me. Yeah, I’m from Minnesota. Dropped out of high school.
You’ve done well for a high school dropout.
Actually lots of high school dropouts do quite well. It’s quite surprising the amount of people who didn’t go to college, either left straight from high school or left high school early and just found something they decided they’d pursue, and got involved in it.
But who knows what they want or who they are in high school? I guess you are one of the few people who had some focus. I was a late bloomer.
I guess some people know and some people don’t. When you know, then you begin. I was lucky I knew when I was eight years old.
Why would people think you went to UCLA to study history? It’s such a specifically random piece of information.
It really is, and it’s been out there since I was 18. I think the people at UCLA started it, the history department. They need celebrities. Let’s get someone that no one knows so they don’t question it.
Did you kick off this whole vampire movie trend with Angel? Should Robert Pattinson be thanking you for his career?
Or blaming me.
You primed the pump for his success.
Yeah but I doubt he wants that anymore. I think he hates his success now.
He’s probably bored with it, bored with vampire stuff.
There’s an old saying; there is no failure like success, which I think is really true. Yeah, I kicked off the vampire thing. Now there’s another vampire show. Vampire Diaries or something? [Singing] It started with a whisper …
My background is Latvian. What is your ethnic background.
Mostly German, a little bit of Polish. Tiny bit of Finnish. What else am I? Swedish. I’m also Luxembourgian. That’s where the name Kartheiser comes from.
Have you been to those countries? Have you done any geneological tourism?
I haven’t. I’ve been to Germany but haven’t done any ancestral searching. I do know, however, that Kartheiser comes from a wine. Kartheiser Hamburg, which is made by Catholic monks, and it’s a very sweet riesling. My grampa’s name was Gruyé, that’s my mom’s maiden name. But we’re not Swiss, they just took the name of the town.
It’s a kind of cheese, of course.
Yeah, and they moved to Gruyé and they changed the name because they were running away from something. And that’s it. That’s my lineage. I’m a Germanic person.
Finland is nice. I’ve been there a few times.
Is it? They make really good saunas over there. My brother married a Finn.
You have a lot of siblings.
Yeah, you too?
I have one older sister. She lives in San Diego and she’s a school teacher. What do your siblings do? Anything creative along the lines of what you do?
The thing with my type of job is that it’s really winning the lottery. You can be good at it, you can have all the drive and motivation, but you’ve got to be lucky. And so they all have things that they’re good at that they do, but they do them as hobbies. They never quite developed into careers. My sister Elise is a brilliant piano player. She studied, she went to college for it. She’s magnificent, and if we were in the 1600’s she’d probably have a job doing that, but in this day and age how many people can have a job being a piano player? Really you’d have to be one of the top 200 in the world just to have a job doing it and be able to support yourself. But she’s brilliant. And my sister Andrea plays the cello, my sister Theresa writes novels and short stories, nothing that’s been published on a wide scale. My sister Colette was an actress when she was young, and was really into dance when she went to college. So we all were into the arts and cared about things like that. My brother Nathan is a baker. Now two of my sisters run day cares, two of my sisters work corporate jobs. My brother actually ended up having the most creative job.
What kind of bakery?
Just bread. He doesn’t do sweet stuff. It’s a hard job. He gets up at 1am and goes to work. He goes to bed at 6pm every night.
I know what you mean by winning the lottery. Good is just another genre. There’s plenty of good stuff. It just needs the hook, the platform, whatever magic that makes it connect with the masses.
Exactly, yeah it’s true.
[Giants – Saints game on TV now.] Who do you support in this game?
I support the Giants, because New Orleans is in competition with me for the last NFC wild card spot. Well, not me. I gave up my professional career. I was the ball for a long time.
Did you ever play sports?
No. I played sports in my backyard, and I have pretty good eye-hand coordination, but no. I started acting at a really young age, and I just threw all my extra time into that. There’s a great community in Minneapolis that supports the arts, and there were all these adults around me who were like, "Hey, you’re good at this. Work hard at it." Really motivated me. Nurtured my desire. That’s where I focused all my energy. And it paid off. It’s the whole idea of choosing one thing and really trying to be good at that.
I think you’re good at it. It was my choice to interview you, this was not an assignment.
But now it feels like an assignment.
Well, I have to do the work. Making something coherent and interesting and a little bit different. That’s the work.
That is the work. What’s been your favorite interview you’ve done?
I was really happy to meet Sean Lennon and interview him. It was fun to talk to him and his girlfriend, who he sings with.
Who’s his girlfriend?
Her name is Charlotte Kemp Muhl. She’s a model.
Publicist: She’s a cover girl model. You see her at Target.
I never go to Target. Because this season is coming up, I have to go shopping, and I never never never go shopping in my real life. I never find myself in stores. People tell me, “Oh when you’re out, and you see something you like, just grab it!” But I’m never out. Now I’m forcing myself to go to these Targets and shopping malls. It’s horrendous. [To stylist] Don’t you like shopping though? That’s kind of a chauvinistic thing to say. Well, my girlfriend loves all those things! All my girlfriends always liked shopping, and all my sisters do too. So I just assume women are like all the other women I’ve met. They’re not, dammit!
Who is your girlfriend?
I don’t know. [Kartheiser is engaged to actress Alexis Bledel.] Not a supermodel, I’ll say that.
Stylist: That’s harsh!
No! That’s nice! I wouldn’t date a supermodel. I mean I’ve worked with a lot of models, and they tend to be really mean people, in my experience.
They often appear to be in a bad mood.
They tend to be really snotty. I’ve had bad experiences I guess. [To stylist] You’re very defensive of supermodels. Are you a supermodel? They’re just nasty because they’re so used to everyone coming up to them and saying “Can you get that can of corn from up there? Because I’m not 14 feet tall.”
"Can of corn" for an easy pop-up is my favorite baseball euphemism.
I love that euphemism. I’ve also known a lot of gorgeous women who are not that way. [To himself] Say nice things! So, they’re wonderful! But, if that was your job, wouldn’t you just kill yourself? If my job was just to take photos all day, I would need to do more. I’ve done a lot of photo shoots in my life and it’s not fulfilling. Do you guys all want to leave now that I’ve said these things?
I mean, acting is just one step above that, but the entertainment we provide is a little different than just the selling of products, which is really what a model is doing. But I also have four sisters, so I also grew up watching my four sisters look at these women and try to emulate them. They would try to be like these profoundly anorexic women, you know? And watching every woman in my life have issues with that sort of thing makes me wish that we really had a different approach to models and modeling. They’re forced to make the decision whether or not to reject or embrace that sort of thing.
There’s no job harder to find.
Yeah, exactly. And it’s happening to men now too, where the man’s body is being objectified more and more in magazines. You go into a high school now and the kids are ripped, most of the kids are ‘cut up’, you know?
Like Jersey Shore and stuff like that.
Yeah, exactly. But Jersey Shore is just following what it sees on the cover of GQ. And GQ is just following what they want to emulate for American Apparel or Abercrombie & Fitch or whatever. I think it’s the same with men. You either have to go the gym and really care about that shit, or you don’t care about it at all. I don’t care about it at all. I hope it goes back the other way. I hope men start becoming fat and ugly. I’d like that. So what else do you have to ask me that my answer will insult this entire room?
Much is made of your ascetic lifestyle. I can sort of see something of that here, but it’s not like you’re living in a tent in a park or something. No mirrors. That much is true.
It’s pretty close to a tent in the park. Have you ever been in a house this small before?
Well, I live in New York.
Not an apartment, a house this small. This is actually an old servant’s house. Right next door to us here is the oldest mansion in Hollywood, and it was owned by the guy who ran by the Republican National Committee back in the day, and this was where his servants lived. When I redesigned it you could tell, because everything was built not to code. It’s really a shed. We had to fix everything.
Are you involved in the environmental movement at all?
I was. I decided that to be involved in it would be a stretch at this point. I agree with it, and I believe in it, but I don’t do enough to say I’m proactive.
What could people be doing in their own lives to help?
Don’t eat meat. It’s the number one thing you can do. But see, no matter what I do, I know I’m a terrible polluter – because I fly so much. Airplanes are the worst form of pollution. They release three types of particles at a level that’s very harmful to the environment. The amount that I fly, which is upwards of 70,000 miles a year, even if I did everything else perfect, which I don’t, I’d still be in the top percent of polluters in the world.
How does that feel?
It sucks, but it’s not something that I can think about every day. What am I going to do? Not do my job – or not do the things I need to do? Not be a supportive brother, or a supportive son, not go see my girlfriend when she’s shooting somewhere else? You gotta do what you gotta do. This is the life that I’ve chosen. Our industry is a big polluter. I mean, it’s not as bad as like, textiles.
You’re not making Agent Orange.
No, no one’s making Agent Orange. I think they have enough! [To groomer] What? Stop squirting me. You have a basketball team in Brooklyn now, right? Jay-Z’s bringing them.
Yeah. The Nets are in Brooklyn now.
That new place [The Barclays Center] is sick!
I saw Jay-Z in one of his first shows there. It was a lot of fun.
Yeah, my girl went to that. She lives in Brooklyn Heights. Where do you live in Brooklyn?
In Park Slope. I was in Williamsburg for a long time, but when the kids came along we had to go to a place where there were good schools.
Park Slope is full of babies.
It’s the stroller capital of New York, the Upper West Side of Brooklyn.
It really is, but it’s a good place for kids, so it’s a good thing that you’re there.
I have two of them, and even I get sick of all the kids there sometimes.
Kids in New York are pretty decent though. Compared to the rest of the world they’re much less whiney and bitchy. I love kids. My mom runs a daycare, and two of my siblings run daycares, but in New York, because they’re exposed to so many people, they realize that certain behavior they’re just not going to do. They’re learning from their environment, whereas in the middle of the country, and even in LA, you go out here there’s a sense of entitlement. I don’t sense that from a New York kid. New York kids seem to be a little more with it, more like, "I need to let these other people have their space too, because we’ve got to share this little island."
They’re out there confronting things all day long. My kid is on the subway every day and there’s some things I can’t teach them that they pick up the vibes on. They can spot a bum getting on the train before I do, they just sort of feel the tension in the crowd, you know.
Do you get tense from bums?
It’s about the body language. It’s like, "Oh I’m gonna lean this way, I’m gonna look at my book this much harder.”
Yeah. [To groomer] Don’t you fill my hair in! [Starts singing loudly] IT STARTED WITH A WHISPER …
Why does that keep coming up?
AND THEN I START TO FIST (trails off). Maybe I shouldn’t be inappropriate. But you won’t put any bad stuff in the story.
It’s not a hit piece. I’m not looking for the ugly truth behind Vincent Kartheiser. You know Vincent is my number one mistaken name, when people can’t quite remember that my name is Victor.
Victor was my name in Spanish class, you know how they give you a Spanish name in class?
I was Jorge.
[To groomer, working on his hair] That feels so good.
I like getting my hair washed at a salon. It’s a guilty pleasure.
You can go in there and just get a wash for ten bucks. It’s a nice relaxing moment in your life. You get 20 minutes off. Come on, Park Slope, you’ve got ten bucks to drop.
I got a shoe shine at the airport for the first time ever flying over here. The guy said my shoes looked like I was a construction worker, and he was right, so I got in the chair.
I could use one right now. Very scuffed.
I went to military school when I was younger and I’m a really good shoe-shiner, but I kind of gave up on it.
Why did you go? Because you were a bad kid?
More because I was a bad student. They make you study for hours a night. Are you still shooting Season 6?
We’re still shooting. That’s why she’s filling in my receding hairline, because they shave it back.
Yeah, I guess the answer is right there on your head.
They just come in with a straight razor and shave it, and then they have to put three shades of makeup over it because covering stubble is one of the hardest things to do. They put a dark red, and then like a bluish color, and then skin tone.
I think it might be easier to be environmentally savvy in New York. I take the subway every day, haven’t owned a car in years. But you have a car now. Do you drive a lot?
When I need to. I don’t just go out driving. I take the bus still.
No doing donuts in the parking lot?
Actually I was back in Minnesota for Thanksgiving, and my girl came with me. She’s from Houston, and she’s never been in deep deep snow. In New York City snow is kind of cute. So I was trying to do donuts in a parking lot. She wasn’t so into it. She was like, "We don’t need to do this. You can stop." But yeah, driving’s not good, but New York City’s not the most environmentally sound city because it’s an island. Everything needs to get shipped in there. Everything that you purchase there comes by way of gas to your island.
But shipping is the least environmentally damaging form of transit. Rail and trucks are much worse.
That’s true, but most of it comes by truck. You know 80% of all produce in this country comes from California, so most of this comes by rail and truck. But you’re right, living in a big city is much more environmentally sound than being spread out. I don’t know man, I don’t know what’s going to happen with all that. It’s pretty cray cray. We need to make some big changes.
It concerns me. Like the rise in sea levels.
Being out in Antarctica and seeing where the ice usually was and seeing where it is now is pretty crazy.
What was it like being in Antarctica?
I’ll leave that to the poets.
Let’s talk about Mad Men. I like January Jones’ character, Betty, because in the first season I think she was intended to be kind of a victim, and then, almost out of control of the writers, she became something a little darker and more complex.
I’ll say two things about that. First thing is, nothing’s out of control of the writers. We have on our staff this amazing group of writers, led by Matthew Weiner, who actually watch the work and say, this is where it’s going. Sometimes writers collaborate with the actors. That doesn’t mean sitting down and talking to the actors, but seeing how the actor is interpreting their work. And saying, "Oh this is what the character has become. I wrote it as this, but now I’m watching it and it’s becoming this, and I see what it’s becoming is something different than what I was writing." And they go with it instead of trying to correct the actor, unless it’s something they feel strongly about that the actor needs to change. Generally, they’ll say, "How can we utilize that?" In my case, he writes things that I’m good at doing. He see what my fortes are as an actor, and how he can utilize them. I’m very creepy, weaselly, slimy. Those sorts of things.
It felt like there was an evolution in her character that wasn’t intended on day one, when they made some changes that put her in a direction that felt more organic.
That may be true. I don’t know. She’s great at that character. The women on the show take a lot of flack from the audience about things, but I think if they lived during those times they would understand that that was the hand that they were dealt.
She’s a woman who supposedly has everything people of that era aspired to and realizes that it’s not satisfying.
Just like Don Draper. Essentially the first season is all about that. It’s all about the American Dream, and what it is to achieve it, and there’s no failure like success. Let’s talk more about January.
Let’s talk about everybody. We could run through every character on the show.
Let’s do it. Sal Romano. He’s gay! That’s inside information.
Do you draw on any particular characters or people for Pete Campbell?
I did. For his voice, I’m kind of borrowing from my grandfather, just for the timbre of his voice. [Imitating] Which is a little more in the back of his register than mine is. Peter Campbell is a little bit deeper. There’s a little bit of gravel to his voice. My grandfather was always “Yes dear. Darling, I’m going to go pull the car out right now.” So I’m borrowing a little bit for his voice, and for me that’s where characters begin. One of the first things I do when I decide there’s a character that I want to portray, or something that I’ve been chosen to do, is to try to find their voice. So that’s what I use for that. And other than that, not really. He’s just different portions of me.
I can’t think of too many corollaries or imitations. Pete Campbell is unique.
That’s nice of you to say. He sometimes gets Pee-wee Herman.
I can see that, and not in an insulting way. Just the awkwardness.
Have you thought much about Pete’s background beyond what has been revealed in the show?
In the first season we did. Matthew was very forward with being like, "This is where he comes from, this is who he was raised by, this is what he believes in, and this is what he wants." We did a lot of that work. Matt would come in and be like, "You don’t know this yet, but the reason that this scene is important is because Pete comes from this place," and he’d actually have a story about it. The interesting thing about doing a TV show for as long as we’ve done it is that you can stop creating the history because you’ve actually lived the history. We had a scene in the last season with me and Peggy. Peggy comes around to congratulate me on having a child with Trudy. You know Peggy and I have a child together. And there’s this moment where it’s unspoken, it’s subtextual, but I say thanks, and it’s there. I don’t have to create that history. I’ve lived eight years of this character’s life. It’s really interesting because it’s something you never get to do as an actor unless you’ve been on a TV show for years and years and years. There’s an actual progression of the character and it’s really wild. Actually the work is kind of done at this point.
Dykman, like Astor and Vanderbilt and Carnegie, are legacies of old New York families that built the city yet lost their influence over time. Do you feel that Pete is fighting to reestablish his family’s name and social position, or is he fighting for himself? Who is he fighting for?
Himself. He’s used the name because it’s given him access to places. It’s given him bragging rights in certain circles. But no, especially since he had such a cold relationship with his mother and his father. He has one scene where he actually says "I hate my mother," and that’s where the name Dykman comes from. His father squandered all of this money and sold all of this land, and part of him thinks that those people are losers. They’re failures. They stood behind this name saying we come from this thing, and what do they do? Nothing. Pete says, you know what? I’m going to go out and I’m going to actually do something and create my own name. The Campbell name.
What do you think about the advertising industry? Do you hold it in suspicion, like Pete’s family did in the ‘60s? How do you think the industry’s reputation became favorable over time, even as its methods became more sinister?
Good question. It’s wild that that’s what we do, often times, in America. The more sinister a company or an industry becomes, for some reason, the more we accept it. Maybe it’s because they’re so good at doing their own PR. I also think that, over the course of time, we become accustomed to things. We become accustomed to politicians lying. We don’t say, oh, he’s a bad guy. We say he’s a politician. So we’re not mad that advertisers are starting to inject themselves into schoolbooks, because it’s really ingrained in our society now. Especially in LA. You drive along and you’re constantly inundated by advertisements. But I wouldn’t view it as a terribly negative thing. It has its place in our society. [Whispers] I don’t think it works very well, to be honest with you. I’ve been informed of things, like a new product. But I’ve never been swayed from one brand to another from an advertisement. It does have its place, it serves a purpose, same as politicians.
Do you like Pete Campbell?
Yeah. If I don’t like him, I’m in deep trouble. Because he’s me. For me as an actor, it’s not like I’m out there creating some guy who doesn’t exist. I’m just being parts of me. They’re all parts of me. Do I like those parts of me? Yeah, I do. I don’t always love them, I don’t always agree with what he does, but I don’t always agree with what I do. I’ve made a lot of stupid mistakes in my own life. Things that are based on ego and not the right thing to do. But yeah, I do like him. He’s really ambitious. And that can lead to a really loose moral compass. He’ll do anything for success. Lots of people will judge that and say he’s terrible, but the reason that most businesses are alive today is because they had someone like that on their team who would say, "That other company won’t do that, and I will." It’s like that old saying, all great companies are built on a great crime. Pete Campbell is willing to do the dirty work. That being said, I’m not as ambitious as Pete Campbell. I would just as soon not be successful and not be that person than be successful. But for Pete Campbell, success is important to him. Mostly because the question you asked earlier, about building his own name. Not being a loser, not being a failure like his family was, and amounting to something.
Every company needs a Pete Campbell. You need someone on your team who’s willing to do it, but you don’t want to see them do it.
But there is a line. You can go too far. Once you get a bad reputation you lose some of your integrity and certain people aren’t going to want to work with you. There is a fine line to it. You can’t have all Pete Campbells. You need to have someone else being like, "No, that’s not right. We shouldn’t do that." What happened with Joan last season [Joan slept with an influential client in order to land the Jaguar account] is the perfect example. Her having this opportunity to move up in the company but having to do this degrading act. Basically all the partners but Don Draper were like, "If she’s okay with it." Pete was the one who had to go and do the heavy lifting and be the face of that thing. And Pete became the face of it, even though it wasn’t his idea, and everyone else signed off on it, except for Don. But because he went through with it, because he did the bidding of everyone else, he had to carry the weight of that. And carrying the weight is one of the things that weighs heaviest on Pete.
You said moral compass before, how your moral compass can get screwed up by being ambitious, but the way I see it, in some ways Pete Campbell has a straighter moral compass than some of the other characters. He does feel regret. He either chooses to disregard it or go around it.
You’re absolutely right. He feels way more regret and guilt over his affairs and misdeeds than Don Draper. That’s a personality thing, I don’t think it’s a moral compass thing. I think Don Draper’s moral compass is actually better than his, he just has less regret. Pete’s line at what is moral is further away than Don Draper’s, but he feels guilt about the things he does cross the line on. I think Don Draper probably does think that cheating on your wife is probably not the right thing to do. But he doesn’t feel guilt about it. Pete Campbell thinks that cheating on his wife is probably not the right thing to do, and he probably feels guilt about it.
But I don’t think I’ve ever seen Don Draper show remorse for stepping out on his wife. You look at Don Draper deserting his army post, he never seems to show regret for that. But my character blackmails Don Draper in the first season. Don Draper might never do that. His moral compass does not allow him to do that. Pete Campbell’s allows him to do it, but he still feels a little guilty for it. Everything has come a lot easier to Don Draper than it has to Pete Campbell. Don Draper’s smarter, more creative, he’s handsomer, he’s taller, he’s stronger. He’s a lot of things. Pete Campbell needs to fight dirty just to stay in the race of life. It’s tough for little guys like me. You have to make do with what you’ve got. I’ve done that with my life. I didn’t exactly win the genetic lottery. We all do that. Most of us aren’t Don Draper.
Let’s not use false modesty.
I’m not using false modesty. I’m proud of the fact. Sure, in Ohio I’m probably a pretty good-looking dude. But if I walk into an audition room in Los Angeles? I’m not like those dudes. I scratched my way to where I am.
Pete Campbell trades on his willingness to do these acts, just like a criminal. All you have to do is be willing to stab someone in the eye with a fork and you’re super-valuable to your mafia cohorts.
You’re the guy willing to pay the punishment. If you’re the guy willing to get arrested and go to jail for 20 years, you can have the job. That’s what Pete Campbell has to offer. He doesn’t have a lot to offer except he’ll do what those other guys won’t.
How else has Pete Campbell changed over the years? I still see him as ultimately a good person. He does love his wife, even though he runs around on her. He’s definitely softened now that he has a daughter. But is Pete Campbell ready to mentor someone else. Could a junior executive come in and benefit from a relationship with him?
They would, but I don’t think they ever would ask. Generally in life people follow people other than Pete Campbell. He’s willing to be a mentor, and I think he thinks of himself as a mentor, but finding someone who’s willing to be his mentee is less likely. I would like to be a mentor too, but nobody would ever come to me. You’d learn how to lose friends and alienate people.
Why has Pete left Joan alone all this time?
Joan’s really not his type. He likes strong women, but that’s not generally who he gets. That scene with Peggy in season one when she’s having fun and dancing, and he’s like “I don’t like you like this.” There’s a lot of men out there who don’t like women who are successful. That like broken people. Some women like men who are like that too. There’s a specific type of person that’s attracted to the broken.
And Joan might be broken, but she’s not perceived that way by people. It makes sense that he doesn’t like Joan, but last season that might have changed a little bit.
You think there are any parallels between Pete Campbell and Roger Sterling?
They have parallels because they both have the same job, and he also comes from a wealthy family, an old school family, same as Pete.
Where Roger and Pete deviate is that Roger’s not introspective, and never behaves like he’s wounded. “We drink because it’s good.” It almost seems like Pete doesn’t even enjoy drinking.
Pete drinks differently than Roger does. Pete drinks to get away from his life. Pete’s in a lot of pain. But he’s always been in a bitter place. He doesn’t win very often.
Something in Pete’s DNA made him get nasty with Lane Pryce. Lane never belonged there.
He never forgave Lane for picking Ken over him as head of accounts. That’s the thing about business, and it’s one of the things that Matthew does so well. You can go side-by-side with someone for four years after they do you wrong and never say a word about it, and the second you have power you say "You’re fired." I’ve seen it happen. Especially in season five, Pete Campbell is carrying that burn. Don Draper is napping most of the day, out with his new wife, on vacation all the time. Going to Howard Johnson’s and all these things. Roger Sterling’s not doing anything, Ken has three accounts and Pete Campbell has 11. And he’s like "What the fuck Lane? What are you doing here? Oh you check our books for us. We have an accounting firm. You have a partnership. And you can’t close the one deal with Jaguar so we have to go out and close the deal, and what does the guy want to do? He wants to go fuck hookers, so we give him what he wants." And Lane blames us. Lane comes in on his high and mighty horse and says you guys ruined my friend. Your friend is a fucker! And he didn’t tell you because he thinks you’re gay.
It’s spur-of-the-moment stuff that you don’t think about it. The little things that irritate you about someone come out at moments like that. The moments when you get in a fight with someone you love, and they say something about you, all of a sudden, you’re like, that’s how you really feel? You’ve been holding that inside all this time? It’s just building up over time. Every day, coming into work, this door’s closed, that office is empty, and Lane’s running around giving orders to people. Fuck you, dude. What do you do? What do you do here? [To stylist] What do you do here? Roll up the fucking sleeves? You’re a sleeve-roller? [Snaps fingers.] I’m a snapper. That’s my job.
What does Pete have in common with Duck Phillips?
They’re both bitter and they both drink.
But Pete can handle it a little better.
He’s just younger. As you drink and drink and drink it gets into your blood. Even without having a drink, alcoholics have a blood alcohol level. Who knows, maybe next season he’s in AA. No one knows. What about you, you got enough?
I have some more questions. You and I should go get a drink. What do you drink when you drink?
Gin. My favorite drink right now is a gin martini, straight up, three olives, stirred-not-shaken. You should never shake gin.
A stirred drink will be colder and less diluted.
And gin gets bruised. Yeah man, let’s have a drink.
I’ve got a 9:00 interview at Sassafras tomorrow, we could have a drink before?
Yeah, let’s do it.
And we do.
Photos: Shane McCauley
Styling: Cat Wennekamp
Grooming: Louise Moon