To put together her feature profile of Mad Men’s Vincent Kartheiser that appears in this week’s issue of New York Magazine, contributing editor Jada Yuan needed just a couple of quotes from series creator Matthew Weiner about the actor who plays Pete Campbell. Not surprisingly, the effusive showrunner had far more to say than any mere profile could have ever hoped to contain, which can only mean one thing: bonus Weiner. Their long-form chat is below; read on to hear his memories of Kartheiser’s audition, why he thinks Pete’s reaction upon learning that Peggy had given up their baby for adoption still stands above all other Campbell-isms, and what he means by “the emasculating experience of being a husband.”
What was your first impression of Vincent and what was his audition like?
His audition was great. It was a very hard part to cast. The men in that age range were very casual, you know? And the scene that they had to audition with was the one where they criticize Peggy’s clothing. And to explain that they were both criticizing her and flirting with her at the same time was very difficult. It was very far from modern demeanor, any of it. Even the flirting, it just didn’t seem to be part of the vernacular of that age range at the time. There was a very sort of disinterested or low energy, snotty sort of frat boy thing going on. I can’t even explain it. But no skills of seduction whatsoever, no charm at all.
And then Vinnie came in and he just had it all. He’s got a great voice and was funny and handsome. We talked about him; we knew he was going to be Don’s nemesis from the pilot. We were just casting the pilot but I sort of had an idea about what it would mean for the rest of the season if we got to do it, and it felt like he was very viable, a guy who was younger than Don and hungry. Vinnie had all of that. He really popped. You could see a whole person there. And, you know, he’s from Minnesota and as it turned out, a lot of the cast was from the Midwest, and I think it was just a matter of manners. Just being raised with a certain kind of manners that fit the story.
Yeah, I think it’s something that hadn’t been socialized out of them yet. They weren’t super casual. They were polite, and it gave it a slightly period feeling. But right away, he was up there to play Pete.
What’s your impression of how Vincent is different than Pete?
Well, he’s a lot more fun. [Laughs.] He’s a very contemporary person. He’s a very contemporary, modest, thoughtful person. And a little bit shy. And Pete doesn’t have any of that. As an actor, he’s very serious, and I knew that right away, that he had prepared and committed to the character. I was always impressed with how deeply he had thought about what we were doing and the choices that he would offer when the scenes would start. But he also has this thing — he used to, not so much anymore — but he used to scream right before a take, or clap his hands or jump up and down or something like that. And you’re like, “I don’t know what that’s doing to everybody else, but I hope it helps you.” [Laughs.]
His ambition doesn’t seem striving.
Yeah, that’s definitely a difference. No one could be Pete Campbell. I mean, we write that guy. That’s a whole different person. But Vincent’s personality is so soft and thoughtful and lighthearted and artistic. He’s like a real artist. And I don’t think you see that when you see this guy in a suit who’s conniving and plotting and always seems ungrateful and overreacts to everything. That’s a writing thing that we do. That’s not Vincent.
He did seem like he’d been burned by the press a bit.
I can’t speak to that. I just know that he’s changed a lot in the time that I’ve known him in terms of his dealing with strangers. I think he’s a shy person and [when] you play a character who people have strong feelings about, and the first question they ask you is, “Why is your character so awful? Why are you such a horrible person? Why did you do that to your wife? Why did you do that to Don? Why did you do that to that girl, to that au pair?” And you’re like, “Uh, because it was written. On a page.” [Laughs.] That’s the kind of thing where you kinda feel like you’re being tried for a crime you didn’t commit. And when those qualities get assigned to you as a human being, you know, it can be unfortunate and it can put you on the defensive the minute you open your mouth.
What is a moment from the show in which he surprised you?
He always surprises me. The thing that surprises me is the pathos. Just from the very first season, the episode where he got fired and unfired, that shot of him walking through the bullpen of the old Sterling Cooper. It’s emotion. He surprised me [in that scene] when he came over to see Peggy. I script a lot of the physical relationships, so there was this thing in here about him talking to the top of her head, about his voice and his posture. It’s very seductive. It wasn’t as predatory as I expected. Any of the episodes where there is an attempt to show his inner life and to see the show from his point of view. “Signal 30,” when he has the crush on the girl in the driving school and he’s just frustrated with his life, and Don sees him going back with the prostitute and he’s like, “You’re happily married, you have everything.” And he’s like, “I have nothing.” The scene in the elevator at the end of that, I’m always just blown away by the reality of the emotion that’s coming through.
The greatest thing he’s done in the show is his reaction to being told Peggy had the baby and gave it away. It’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever seen any two actors do. That’s in the finale of season two. But in season five, when he went to visit Beth in the hospital and she doesn’t know who he is — he has a monologue about why his “friend” had an affair, and it’s just so moving. I’m not surprised by that anymore because he’s so good. I’m just surprised about how much I feel for this guy who is at times very unsympathetic. The character, I’m saying. Vincent just imbues him with 100 percent humanity. Whether the audience wants to see him having 25 percent humanity, they can, but every once in a while it pokes out in one of these scenes and I feel so much more than I ever expected.
Has the role grown around his Vincent’s personal quirks?
Hmmm. It’s hard to separate how watching these people perform affects the way they’re written. One thing is you stop worrying about what they can’t do. That’s for sure. Seeing him outraged, I knew that there was entertainment in that. And right away, putting him in positions where he could be outraged or wronged in some way, you know that you were gonna get a full, almost Jack Lemon–like frustration and anger that was very funny.
I love when Pete’s angry.
Oh yeah, it’s amazing. When he falls down the steps. That was one of the payoffs to spending all that money on building that staircase. [Laughs.] We knew that he would just be apoplectic. There’s not a lot of screaming and yelling on the show, and if anyone is allowed to lose their temper it’s Don Draper, maybe Betty, and Pete, and you can count on Pete to have the perfect level of dudgeon and righteous indignation. And it will be physical.
Pete was so miserable last season. What direction did you give him?
I’m trying to think how I saw Pete’s story as miserable. We started it at the beginning of season five with Trudy making this commitment to move to the country, which was not a good thing to do with a guy who was such a born and bred New Yorker. And for whatever reason, that character saw that as an excuse, that he had been wronged in some way. And we tried to show that he and Don Draper had switched lives. Don living in this incredible penthouse in the city and Pete out there in the country. And Pete’s trying to make peace with that was very difficult. Having an affair with the guy on the train’s wife, and then his wife agreeing to give him this apartment in the city. And so we thought, well, okay, he’s kind of on the top of the world in terms of what he thinks he wanted. He’s getting to be more important at the agency than ever, and what happened was he screwed it up. He really screwed it up and he didn’t even know he did. He had an affair with that woman who lived down the street, and then he caught his father-in-law in a brothel, and Don ruined their chances to go public, and slowly as Chevy became more important and the merger happened, Pete was edged out of his position of status. And that was a good story, a good story for him to lose everything because he didn’t appreciate it.
He also had his mother disappearing.
And his mother and Bob Benson. Honestly, a lot of the show plays on the tension on whether people can change or not, and certainly Pete Campbell has changed the most to me, even more than Peggy, at his core, over the life of the show.
Yeah, I think that when he finds out that Bob has made a pass at him, Pete’s decision to not engage in a battle with Bob Benson was a deep sign of growth as a human being. It was learning. When Duck says, “I’ve never seen this before,” and Pete says, “I have,” you’re like, “What is he gonna do?” He’s actually going to just surrender, and I thought that was a lot of growth. When he gets to the end of the season, of course Bob Benson’s friend Manolo is responsible for Pete’s mother’s death — and I think that’s all he could stand — but his devotion to his mother and how little he got back, and his relationship with his brother, that whole thing, his whole family life is a big part of why he is the way he is. It was interesting to see him deal with that, right down to he and his brother deciding not to pursue their mother’s killer because it was a lot of money and they, on some level, didn’t miss her.
Speaking of things that sound bad, what about the fact that Vincent lives without a toilet?
Yeah, I always wonder what that was. You know what’s funny? He has a real commitment to environmentalism, and I think that half of the stuff he says — you know what? I probably shouldn’t make this comparison, but I will. If you watch an interview with Bob Dylan, I think you see someone responding to being asked questions that are kind of silly. And I think Vincent might have been bitten in the ass a few times by making fun of the people that he was being interviewed by. [Laughs.] That’s my impression of it. But I think a lot of it has to do with just the kind of strangely hostile attitude that sometimes confuses the character with the person, though I think at this point everyone knows that he’s an incredible actor. I think he’s a deeply unrecognized actor on some level. I don’t understand how someone who can transform the way he does — I mean, he is really, um, one of the greatest actors I’ve ever seen, and everyone who works here feels that way. You put him in a scene with anybody and you’re gonna get something very real and spontaneous and immediate. And he and Elisabeth or he and Jon Hamm or he and Slattery, or he and Joan, those have been some of the great moments in the show. There’s an intense reality that’s created. And it’s especially remarkable because he plays such an eccentric person.
Remarkable that he can make him so human?
What do you mean by deeply unrecognized?
I can’t believe he’s never gotten any awards recognition! It’s shocking to me. It reminds me of Michael Imperioli on The Sopranos, who did eventually win an Emmy. I think people think he’s not acting or something, it’s so real.
I thought you meant recognized by getting movie roles and things outside of the show.
Success outside of the show? I mean, these people work here, like, 99 weeks of the year. The fact that anyone could have anything happen outside of the show is impressive to me.
Has he adopted any Pete mannerisms?
All the actors are playing within their own physical realm, unless you put a fat suit on somebody, which we have done. No, not really. I have heard him say, “a thing like that” a few times in real life. He got that from Pete.
What do you mean by physical realm?
Well, sometimes actors go into a character and they have to really stretch. They have to put on an accent, they have to not just have a limp or something but be different than they are, outside the physical realm. And I write to these people, partially because they’re just people in suits, I write to what I think the characters are as people, what they project externally. And Vinnie’s voice is slightly different than Pete’s, that’s for sure.
Pete’s higher pitched?
I don’t know what it is. I think Pete’s is more urgent. [Laughs.] And Pete’s really — there is a snotty edge on everything. That’s why it’s so much fun to sort of see him get defeated and how he reacts. He definitely has a grandiose personality that is being deflated occasionally. And that’s what I was saying about last year that was so interesting to me, seeing him brought down, you know, through his own fault. When we started the season, he was the most important person at the agency. He was driving them to go public. And from the merger on, he ended up on the bench, he ended up being sent back down to the farm leagues in California.
Bob Benson seemed to happen because he was lonely and needed a friend.
Yeah, Bob Benson did play on that, but I also think some of that’s his ego. The mentoring, there’s the All About Eve–ness, the Talented Mr. Ripley–ness. Someone like that who doesn’t have a lot of people patting them on the back, you know, when you see someone who admires you that fully, it’s very seductive. And Bob really did love him, you know? He wasn’t getting a lot of love. I wanted it to be that way, you know? That Bob was giving him the love that he needed.
There’s nothing about Pete that wanted to return that in the way Bob wanted, right?
No, but Pete has consistently had very good politics, and I think that as much as he has done some very unsavory and scrupulous things — you know, he went to boarding school and everything. I don’t think he was shocked and disgusted by Bob Benson’s overtures. He was just like, Uh, what do I do about this? He wasn’t like, I’ve never seen this before! I mean, there’s an idea that we project onto the past as if, you know, varieties of sexual persuasion are something recent. Maybe announcing them is something recent and I’m glad that we have the freedom to do that, but homosexuality is part of the biological human condition and it goes back to the first time two people got near each other, as far as I can tell. So the idea that people would act like … I don’t know. I don’t want to get political about it. Pete did not return it but did not go into the bathroom and vomit.
He’s much more humiliated when he can’t drive stick.
Yeah, Bob really got him. Bob is just a step ahead. My favorite thing in that episode, too, is that moment where Bob takes the keys out. We did a little shot — I directed that episode — where Bob just holds the keys out for Pete, a close-up there, and you can just see Pete saying, “Oh my God, this is going to be bad.” Obviously, we’ve spent a long time setting up the fact that Pete can’t drive. He was very late to get his driver’s license, like many New Yorkers. It was really a New York characteristic, a Manhattanite characteristic, still to this day, to not get your driver’s license until you absolutely had to, if ever. And then, we realized the car culture of General Motors, if they ever found that out, he’d be done for. And as it was said, they wanted someone with gasoline in their veins.
It was a great moment.
[Laughs.] Especially because he’s such a snob sometimes, you know. He really is a snob, and to see him try to be folksy is always amusing.
Trying to fix the sink, do man things.
Right, so much of the show has been about masculinity. This is the guy who traded his wedding present for a rifle. I mean, that’s literally where that started, the emasculating experience of being a husband, which cannot be denied on some level. He’s spending his lunch hour returning this chip and dip and he trades it in for a gun. And his wife is furious, which is even better.
You’ve said that Peggy is the No. 2 priority on Mad Men, that Don and Peggy’s stories are parallel. Where does Pete fall in the hierarchy?
That’s a really big question. Honestly, Pete is a huge priority. He is always important in Don’s story, and in the story of the agency. It’s gone by the season, who we’re going to lean on for getting a big story. Peggy hasn’t had a big story some of the seasons. Sometimes Betty has more. There’s only so much screentime. And we try to service everybody. Pete had a big story last season. But the main characters are the main characters. Exactly who you think it is: Don, Betty, Peggy, Pete, Roger, Joan, and Megan. Everything emanates from what’s going on in those people’s lives, and I guess Megan’s really is part of Don’s. Pete’s very important, that’s all I can say. He’s very important. I mean, every season when we’re talking about what people are gonna do, it’s about Pete. He’s one of the people we talk about.