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Mad Men’s Vincent Kartheiser on Pete’s Curious Reaction to Bob Benson and Throwing a Good Tantrum

It’s crazy that Vincent Kartheiser has never been nominated for an Emmy. He is the only major actor from the original Mad Men cast who hasn’t been recognized, even as series boss Matthew Weiner continues to put Pete Campbell through the ringer both physically and emotionally. This season might be his angstiest yet. He has been dumped by Trudy after cheating with a neighbor, become emboldened enough to give Don shit (“You’re Tarzan, swinging from vine to vine!”), gotten high at work, become saddled with a sick mom, and most recently, hit on by the mysterious Bob Benson. Kartheiser’s achievement (outside of his famous bitch face)? We still feel bad for the guy! Vulture caught up with the actor, who is in Minneapolis rehearsing to play Mr. Darcy in a staged production of Pride and Prejudice, to talk about Bob’s flirtation and his real fear when it comes to playing Pete. Taking a tumble down the stairs was nothing.

In Sunday’s episode, Bob appeared to be making a pass at Pete. Were you surprised Pete played it cool?
I think it was very natural.

Really?
Yes. You found it unnatural?

I guess I expected Pete to snap, which he tends to do.
This is not something that he foresaw. It’s not an ongoing issue. This is a moment that happened out of the blue, and if it’s ever happened to you, and I don’t know if it has, but if it’s ever happened to you, if someone of the same sex that you didn’t recognize had those feelings toward you, and then all of a sudden that happens, there’s just a moment where it sets in.

Now, you also have to understand the reason he didn’t explode is because Bob is bigger than him and stronger than him, and Pete last season got his ass kicked by someone who wasn’t as big or as strong as Bob. Matthew’s allowed his characters to learn. Okay, Pete can scream at his secretary. He can scream at his mom. But to scream at or attack someone like Bob, who has a lot to lose in this situation, may open Pete Campbell up to a broken jaw or a black eye.

That makes sense.
Also, Pete’s not quite aware when it first happens that that’s what it is. It’s not like Bob tried to kiss him, so he’s being subtle. He’s being slight with it, you know, because he doesn’t quite know that that’s what it means.

It’s a rare moment of restraint for him then. You do deliver a rant better than most.
Oh, I don’t know whether to be honored or embarrassed.

Honored! Harry’s also had his moments.
Yeah, I mean, Harry’s really making a lot of big moves, and he’s doing a great job in the television department, and yet, he continues to get passed over for promotion, right? He’s got his reasons.

Pete’s had a lot of legitimate reasons to be angry this season: Trudy threw him out, Don doesn’t listen to him, his mom is sick. Do you do anything special to get worked up?
No. I have techniques that I use, but there’s nothing particular I use to get worked up more than I would use to get any other emotion. I don’t want to get technical because not only is it boring, it’s also personal. But sometimes, if I’ve done many takes, and I still can’t get it, I will naturally become aggravated with myself.

Tell me about filming the scene where Pete’s shouting at Don after Don fires Jaguar. He calls him Tarzan.
[Laughs] I loved it. It is a great line, and I’m constantly getting great lines on the show. The whole challenge is to not ruin it from page to performance, to keep somehow the hilarity and the intensity that’s on the page. That line in particular is funny because our A-camera operator is named Don Devine, and that line “vine to vine” became kind of our play on words for Don Devine. Now, every once in a while, someone will say, “You’re Tarzan, swinging from Don Devine.” Inside joke for you.

And Matt showed you how to fall?
That’s true actually. I went and did a couple of takes, and then Matt came and said, “You know, it’s this,” and then I just did my best to do that.

Is fake falling down the stairs still a little scary?
Well, I mean, fear is not something that you really engage too much in while you’re acting. The things that really scare me about acting have nothing to do with physical harm. It’s more emotional harm to one’s psyche. That five minutes before you walk onto a stage to do a performance that you haven’t done before is a much more paralyzing fear, a fear to your core that is really indescribable and yet overcome-able. And so fear of physical harm … I embrace that. Falling down the stairs? I mean, I make an ass of myself much more as Vincent than Pete ever could on that set, so basically, I’ll do something as Pete, and then [the cast and crew] will say, “Gosh, why can’t you be more like that?”

They do not.
You’ll have to interview some of them. They’ll probably agree.

Well, Pete makes an ass of himself in wonderful, hilarious ways.
I’m not playing it for laughs.

Right, that’s why it’s funny. Pete’s so serious. It makes his quiet moments, like when he’s alone with an empty box of cereal in his apartment, that much more sad. They’re more of a gut punch.
I actually had no idea that people thought it was funny. Sometimes I think Matthew does not intend these things to be funny, so if I am having that as the outcome, then I would consider that a failure on my part. I will say that Matthew would re-shoot if he thought that I had given the editors something that they couldn’t manipulate into a performance worthy of what he’s trying to express. I do have faith that, if people are finding it funny, and if Matthew finds it funny, then I guess that was what his goal was.

Do you watch your performances?
I’ll watch parts. I’m always impressed with how they’ve managed to make my performance palatable because that really is quite a feat, and I’m very impressed by that team of people. I would say that has much less to do with me and much more to do with the team of professionals and technical people behind the scenes, the editors and the director and the post-production producing team. I enjoy watching the other actors that act across from me, and I learn a lot about my flaws and my mistakes by watching what I do, so I do watch sometimes, and it’s always a humbling experience. 

Photo: Michael Yarish/AMC