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Mad Men’s Vincent Kartheiser on His ‘Bitchface’ and Why Pete Took the Bullet for Don

As the dark clouds gather over Sterling Cooper Draper Price, scheming underdog Pete Campbell is actually having a pretty good year: He achieved his dream of making partner, swiped the purse strings from his father-in-law, and saw (or rather, missed) the birth of a new baby girl. As for Vincent Kartheiser, he's not having a bad year, either: Mad Men’s rave reviews keep coming, and now the hot young actor has lined up his next film project, Andrew Niccol's untitled sci-fi thriller co-starring Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried. Vulture spoke to him about Mad Men, trying to shake off the reputation of being the Guy Without a Toilet, and the emergence of his own Internet meme with Pete Campbell's Bitchface. "I'm so proud of it," he says. "It’s weird how proud I am of my bitchface."

So congratulations on your new movie. Are you a sci-fi fan?
It really depends on the project. Like, I love Blade Runner. But Blade? Maybe not so much.

It sounds like it’s going to be one of those smart, high-concept sci-fi movies.
Yeah, I mean, you never know what’s gonna happen, but definitely at the place where I am now with the script, I love it. I think it’s a great project.

And you’re playing Amanda Seyfried’s … dad?
[Pauses.] Is it pronounced “Sy-frid”?

I actually just looked it up, and Wikipedia says that it’s “Sy-frid.”
I’ve been doing so many interviews where I’m like, “Sayfreed! Sayfreed!” Well, I’m a jerk. But I have a difficult last name, too. If anyone ever asks her what my last name is, I’m sure she’ll get it wrong.

How do you say your last name?
Karth-izer.

Good, I was pronouncing it right.
Well, that’s just luck.

True. So, Mad Men. Congratulations again, on your new daughter. How does it feel to be a new dad?
I feel like I have just as much responsibility as I did when I didn’t have a daughter. This is exactly how I always wanted to have children: in a movie. In a movie, on a TV screen, or in some sort of nightmare.

Where they never cry, and you get to see them for a moment looking cute and perfectly styled, and then someone takes them away and feeds them?
Right, or you wake up and they’re not there anymore.

I feel a lot more sympathetic to Pete this season. Is it just me or is he chilling out a little?
Well, I think it’s probably just you. I mean, I’m sure there are some people who still don’t like him, and I’m sure there are some people who have always liked him. It’s hard to say: What one person likes, another person doesn’t. I will say that he is growing up. And I think he’s learning how to be a little socially not-awkward. Obviously the protagonist Don Draper has some secrets, and Peter seems to be helping him out with those. And in a show like this, where you have a definite protagonist, whoever is serving that person’s mission tends to be liked by the audience. And I think when he covered for him with the Department of Defense, he probably gained a lot of people’s — if not respect, but at least, he got them on his side. But I can see him kind of chilling out and slowing down, and realizing that now that he’s made partner, he has to act a little more professional.

Do you think making partner has had more of an effect on him than his marriage and starting a family?
Well, no, I don’t. I think the marriage has probably had more of an effect on him. [Trudy] tends to know kind of how to persuade him to take a more adult approach to things, and I think just the responsibility of the child and all of that's changed him a bit more. But I think the partner thing has changed him. He’s always wanted respect. I don’t really know if there’s much to the title; he has a smaller office. I don’t think he gets paid any more. Maybe he gets paid a little more. But there’s not a lot to it, other than a title. But I think that for a lot of people, that means a lot.

So he took the blame for Don on the Defense thing for the good of the company?
I think he did it for the company. I mean, what choices does he have? Is it selfless? Absolutely not. I mean, I don’t think anything in relation to the advertising business is considered selfless, you know? It was to save the company. If Don Draper goes to jail, there’s no company. What do we have? What’s gonna keep Glo Coat, what’s gonna keep any of these clients, if Don Draper’s not there? So it wasn’t selfless, it wasn’t like Pete is like, “Oh, I love Don Draper so much.” And I don’t think he dislikes Don. But he just did what needed to be done.

I think the selfless part of it is the part that he said, "I fucked up. It’s not Don who did it, I did it." But it's not all selflessness there, either, because it’s also protecting the community within the agency. Roger Sterling went to war, he fought in World War II, and if he found out Don was a deserter, how is that gonna change the dynamic between those two? If Lane Pryce finds out that he’s working with someone who could go to jail at any moment, is he going to hang around or is he going to go back to London? So, he kind of did that, not selflessly, but because it kept a cohesive workplace. And also because I think he now feels that Don will be indebted to him somehow. And I think he understands how these things work more than he did in season one. I think he understands that this is maybe a more subtle form of blackmail in a way. There’s going to come a time that Pete’s going to need something, and maybe Don will remember this. I think that’s what Pete’s thinking.

But there is a bit of selflessness to it. It’s just the easiest solution. Like, we all do it, take the blame for something that isn’t ours once in a while, just because it’s easier and faster than arguing the point. Like when a cop pulls you over, you can argue for 30 minutes or you can just say, “Give me the ticket.”

Yes, and two years ago, I don’t think he would have been able to look outside himself enough to think that way.
I don’t know if he would have, either. Because he’s a partner, he’s tied to the success of the business. The success and failure of the business is going to follow him to every place he goes in his career. And he understands the inner workings of the business much more from the partner position than he did from being another executive. He’s in this meeting, which he never would have been in at Sterling Cooper. So in a way, it’s not just because he’s older, or he’s married, or he’s smarter. I think it’s really because he had more information. I mean, what else is he going to do in that conference room?

One thing you’ve said in the past is that you really enjoyed doing the Pete and Peggy scenes, which is something we haven’t seen too much this season. Is that something that you miss?
Oh yeah, I love working with Elisabeth. I love working with all of them, though. This year I got to work with Jared Harris a lot. He’s amazing, and he’s a great actor, but he’s also a great guy. So we have a lot of fun on set, just like me and Lizzie used to. Honestly? Like, it’s funny, you say, "Do I miss that?" And the honest answer is, "Of course I do." But also, I feel like if we kept doing those same scenes, I’d be getting bored of it right now. You know? If we were still jumping the same hurdles that we were in season one and two ... I think it’s great that I get the opportunity to work with new people, and that she has the opportunity to have new love interests and new conflicts, too — like real life is. So, I’m glad, and I miss it.

I like how the show seems to keep all of the actors on your toes, the same way it keeps the audience on ours.
Well, I think a lot of writers find something that works and then stay with it. So they find a dynamic — this person’s the antagonist, or these two people have a love affair — and then that’s what happens every season. I’m talking about TV writing. If the audience is like, “We want more of this!”, and then you’re like, well, you’re not gonna get it. I think that’s really brave, and I think it’s the right thing to do, but I think it’s the hard thing to do.

You also worked on Angel, which is another show where the writers were always defying audience expectations.
Yeah, umm … I’ll just say yeah. I’ll just say yeah.

No comment on Angel then?
I’ll just say yeah.

Okay. So every article on you lately talks about how you don’t own a car, or a toilet ...
Well look, the toilet thing was a complete misunderstanding. How hilarious, how freakin’ blown out of proportion … The car thing, you know it's funny because my friends call me up and they’re like, “Dude, I read again that you don’t have a car! Why do you keep telling people this?” You know, I probably will have a car at some point in my life. I’m kind of getting to the point where I want one now.

But — I’m not trying to get on my high horse or anything — it would be cool if more people took mass transit. I probably won’t be called to do Jaguar’s voice-over anytime soon, but, I probably will own a car rather soon in my life, as more people watch Mad Men and it becomes more difficult to just kind of hop on a bus ... [Pause.] I’m the luckiest guy in the world. I would love it if you would put this in your magazine. I realize that my career is 99 percent luck, if not 99.9 percent luck. The fact that I’m born in America, and America has control over all these other colonies, and enslaved all these other countries — I mean, there are so many things that have happened in my life that make me so lucky. And one of them is that I’m an actor, somewhat of a public figure. But if there’s anything I can do to say one thing that might change one person’s mind, that will have some sort of value, my thing would be, you know: maybe take the bus once in a while. And I don't think I’m saving the world by saying this — billions of people do it every day. Like I said, I don’t think it’s amazing. But if it does something, then maybe I’m not the biggest asshole in the world.

You’re not biggest asshole in the world! If the New York Times is to be believed, you’re the Fred Astaire of the L.A. public transit system.
Wait, why Fred Astaire?

The Times writer who profiled you last weekend said that you descend the subway steps like Fred Astaire.
Oh well, you know, I inherited that from my dad. My whole life, my dad has gone downstairs sideways, and he does it with this little jazz step. And it’s super-cute. And now, in my 30s, I’ve started doing it. Oh my God, we all become our parents, don’t we?

Just wait until you have real kids. All right, I'll let you go. We’re the Pete Campbell fan club over at Vulture, so maybe we’ll be in touch.
Yeah! Have you been to Pete Campbell's Bitchface?

No, I haven’t! I went to What Would Pete Campbell Do
Oh, that’s funny. I haven’t seen that. A couple weeks ago, I got sent this thing from a friend; it’s called Pete Campbell's Bitchface. And they take all these screenshots of me and my weird facial expressions. [Laughs.] I’m so proud of it. It’s weird how proud I am of my bitchface.

Photo: Amy Sussman/Getty Images