Vincent Kartheiser on Playing Billy Wilder Onstage and Closing Out Mad Men

Photo: Michael N. Todaro/WireImage

Now that Mad Men has wrapped filming the second half of its final season, Vincent Kartheiser has time for pursuits that allow him to keep his natural hairline. Starting this week, he'll swap Pete Campbell's deliciously Waspy accent for an Austrian one: He's playing Billy Wilder in the new Billy & Ray — about the director's time making the noir classic Double Indemnity with Raymond Chandler — Off Broadway at the Vineyard Theater (Garry Marshall directs). Kartheiser spoke to Vulture about his leotard-wearing, theater-kid past and the end of the road for Pete Campbell. (You can listen to a portion of the interview over at The Frame, Southern California Public Radio's new arts and entertainment show.)

I was just reading the headlines of past interviews we’ve done with you. They include “You Cannot Make Vincent Kartheiser Buy a Car.”
Bought one. Bought two!

Vincent Kartheiser Has Some Unique Methods by Which He Gets Into Character.”
Don’t anymore.

Mad Men’s Vincent Kartheiser on his Bitchface.”
Had forgotten all about it!

And “Vincent Kartheiser Finally Breaks Down and Buys a Toilet.”
Yes, well, I always had one. So! We’re all caught up.

I can only imagine what I’ll learn today! So, before we chat about this play: I’m under the impression you were a bit of a theater kid growing up in Minneapolis.
I did some plays at the Guthrie, the children’s theater company. A lot of kids come in to do shows, and they have a great training program there that teaches kids kind of the basics of how to use your voice, how to use your body, how to use your emoootions

Are there any hilarious childhood roles in your past?
I’d probably be too embarrassed to bring them up. Though I had one role where I played a prince, and they put me in a full leotard that was pink with a huge purple collar. It was a Dr. Seuss story, so you can imagine the outfits were pretty wild and over the top. I crossed my fingers every night that the bullies from my school wouldn’t be in the audience, and I don’t think they ever came.

Tell me about the backstory for this play, Billy & Ray.
It’s about the writing of Double Indemnity. Billy Wilder wrote it with Raymond Chandler, and right before they started, Billy had a big falling out with his long-term writing partner Charlie Brackett, so they brought in this book writer who did mostly pulp novels and magazine short-stories.  And it’s really just the story of the blending of these two people’s careers. Two people who worked very differently, had very different goals and ideals and theories. And how sometimes, people who don’t get along so well make great partnerships.

Were you a Wilder fan before this?
I was, but it’s not like I called my agent and was like, “Find me a Billy Wilder play, I need to play him!” It intrigued me to play someone who had such a big impression on film in its formative years. He’s a bit of Hollywood royalty, you know? I haven’t had a lot of experience playing people who were actual people. Not that I’m doing an impression of Billy Wilder, by any means. All the stock footage I could find is him as an older man, so I'm borrowing a little from that, but mostly, I’m doing my own kind of take on the material. And the story was just really intriguing. There’s always interest in how movies get made; whenever people come to a set I’m working on, I always love to watch the disappointment on their face. Making movies is not a very enjoyable experience — I mean, it’s not very titillating.

It’s not exciting every second.
Right. I think Wilder and Chandler wrote the film over seven months or something like that, so you can imagine there were some awfully dull days there. And Mike Bencivenga, the playwright, went through all these original Billy Wilder manuscripts — he saved everything, so there are all these notepads, and like, what they had for lunch, what their fights were about, all sorts of little minutiae that he had to pick through but that really allowed him to understand the tone of that room, of the two gentlemen and what they were up against.

For whatever reason, I think of you and [play director] Garry Marshall as an odd couple …

Ha. Why do you think of us as an odd couple?

I don’t know, I imagine him as this guy sitting around, telling stories all day …
As he does!

Very entertaining stories, I’d imagine.
Oh, so I’m the opposite of that? [Laughs.] I’m a guy who sits around and does NOT tell entertaining stories!

No, he just seems like this earthy, homespun kinda guy …
Ahhhh, and I’m not earthy! I see. So in this situation, he’s the friendly nice person, and I’m the dick. Is that what you’re saying?

I’m going to dig myself out of this hole now. How did you two first meet?
I had never met him before, which is amazing, because over the last three weeks, we’ve realized he’s worked with everybody, everybody knows him. He does tell a lot of great stories, and part of his directing style is telling stories. I find it to be a very useful tool; he’ll come over to you and say, [puts on Marshall voice] “I’ve got this story, I worked with this guy …” and you’ll realize, oh, he’s telling me a clue as to what’s going on in this moment with my character. So it’s kind of a neat way of getting to know [the character]. Probably the biggest thing that drew me to this project was the opportunity to work with Garry, someone who understands comedy. I don’t have a ton of experience doing comedy.

I think of you as someone who’s very funny.
I think of myself as funny, but I think doing comedy and being funny are very different things. Some of the funniest people I know are dramatic actors, and some of the most dramatic people I know are comedic actors [laughs]. It’s kind of strange, actually.

Have you been surprised by anything you’ve learned about Wilder?
Little kernels about his life have come up that gave me a clue as to what kind of person he was — all the while trying not to get too psychological. I’ve always believed our job is really just to entertain. While Double Indemnity was being written, most of his family was still in Austria, some were in [concentration] camps, the whole time they were making the film, he was trying to find out where his family was, trying to get them out of the country. But he was the kind of man who didn’t let people know those sorts of things. He was good at compartmentalizing things, and he used his work as an escape from any sort of emotional issues that were going on. He did have some tragedies in his life. He lost his son. But he was the type of person who didn’t focus on that; he distracted himself.

Between your recent appearance at the Guthrie and doing this, I have to say, it’s nice to see an actor with a recognizable name not just signing on for a play when it’s a marquee Broadway one. Is regional theater something that’s important to you?
It is. This is my third play in three years, and they’ve all been at regional theaters. I’ve never done a Broadway show, and I would, but I kinda choose by the project and the place, and the Vineyard has a wonderful reputation. They do some amazing plays.

This is a very theater-y block, which I never realized before. There’s like, four theaters, plus the Strasberg Institute.
I know, right? It’s pretty strange. We have people come in here all the time looking for ... other theaters. We’re like, “We’re still in tech! You leave! We don’t have a show! But come back next week!”

From Mad Men, we certainly know you as someone who’s a great physical comedian — I think of movement as a big part of what you do. Does that come from having a theater background?
It does, and it’s funny, it’s a good question, when I left the theater when I was 15 — I didn’t leave, but when I was pursuing acting ….

“When I left the the-a-tah!”
[Affects actorly voice] When I left forevah! To kick dirt in its eye! No, but when I went to L.A., I did take a break from theater for almost ten years, and it kind of drifted a little bit, that physical part of my world, but it was always in there, and I think Mad Men really did a lot to bring it back out. Matthew Weiner realized something in me at a certain point, I usually didn’t even know I was doing them …

Ability to fall down stairs?
Yeah, but even earlier, there were these funny little things he’d have me do, like jump for joy, these physical manifestations that other characters didn’t have. A lot of the characters, it was never scripted like, “John Slattery skips with glee.” But Matthew is one of those rare people who knows how to see what you’re capable of. Garry Marshall is like that as well. People who are really great at storytelling, and great at being the head honcho — which is a job so few people are capable of actually doing, and Billy Wilder was one of those people.

So we should chat at least briefly about Mad Men. This is the first time you guys have had a season broken up like this. Between parts one and two, I’d imagine you have to walk around with some sort of defense mechanism in place? Do you get stopped by fans who want to know how things will end?
No, that doesn’t bother me too much, I just say no. You know, when people do recognize me, they never ask what’s going to happen. The great thing is, the show’s been on the air for so long, a lot of people who do come up to me haven’t watched it all yet, they’re like, “Oooh, I'm only on season four!” And the people who are caught up, they don’t tend to want to know what’s going to happen, so I don’t feel defensive at all. 

Do you have a preference between L.A. Pete and New York Pete?
I don’t have a preference, no. I think when we change places — when we change apartments or buy a new set of clothes — you have a momentary change of being. But I don’t think anyone really changes too much.

I’m curious about what kind of ending you want for Pete. Do you want a happy ending? Or is that even what’s right for him?
Well, I don’t think it’s in line with the show to talk about endings — the great thing about Mad Men is that, to steal a line from Double Indemnity, it doesn’t leave things tied up neatly with a bow. The story will continue. If you look at the last seasons of Pete, there are moments of happiness and moments of despair, and I think people will know that no matter how the show ends — whether it’s one of those things or neither of those things — it’s just a passing moment. There is no ending. There can’t be, until death. And that’s always happy!  Everybody dies. I’m not saying on the show, but eveeeentually, the character …

We should all prepare ourselves accordingly.
You should all prepare yourselves now.

Have you thought at all about what you want to take home from the set?
Well, we already shot the last episode. So I’m growing my hair back.

I was wondering, is this a Billy Wilder, haircut or just ... your hair?
No, it’s funny, on Mad Men, Pete’s a balding guy towards the end, so I was shaving my hairline. Then I get Billy Wilder, and I go to look him up like, Hmm, what does Billy Wilder look like, and — he’s balding! I’m like, They hired me because they think I’m balding. And I look nothing like this guy! But yeah, I think they kind of hinted, "Hey, would you mind shaving again?" And I was like, "You know, I like you guys a lot, but we’re gonna let the audience use their hairline imaginations."