STAGE TO SCREENS: Vincent Kartheiser, the "Mad Men" Ad Man, Stars in a New Play

By Christopher Wallenberg
05 Sep 2012

Vincent Kartheiser
Photo by Aja McCoy
When you were talking about your cynical younger self, did that cynicism stem from being a struggling young actor trying to make your way in the business?
VK: No, I've always kind of had a foot-in-the-door in the industry. I've always been very blessed in that way. But when you're young, sometimes your perspective is skewed, especially for this guy Sebastian. His perspective is that everyone he loves has died. "So why get connected to anyone? We're all going to disintegrate and decompose. That's the only real truth out there. Wasting your time writing books or trying to change the world isn't going to change the world. You're not going to save anyone's life. Everyone's going to die. So what's the point?" But I think that approach to life is a perspective thing. Of course, if you don't feel that way in your 20s for a little bit, then you're probably not really searching the ranges of your psyche. But if you've kind of not gotten over it by your 30s, you maybe never will. For me it was just a phase. I definitely explored it. Then I grew up.

Was there a turning point when your outlook changed?
VK: I think it gradually wore off. It just takes a huge amount of energy — that sort of emoting and ennui. Eventually I just got so busy that I didn't have time to be that cynical anymore.

The playwright Jonathan Marc Feldman said that he'd seen you on "Mad Men," and he thought you'd be a good match for Sebastian, even though Pete Campbell is such a different character. How would you compare these two men?
VK: Sebastian is someone who has achieved a certain amount of success. Whereas Pete Campbell, for a good part of his time on television, has been yearning for that success. Sebastian reached it at such a young age, which has such a different impact on you. He doesn't have that inferiority complex that Pete has. If anything he has a superiority complex. And he doesn't want to be involved in the world. Pete Campbell's whole life is built around basically entertaining people and trying to move his way up the social ladder and be accepted by people. Whereas Sebastian is trying to exclude people from his world. He doesn't really believe that there is a social ladder.

"Mad Men" creator Matthew Weiner has remarked of Pete and Don, "We all want to be Don Draper. But we're all actually Pete Campbell." Do you think people react negatively to Pete because he holds a mirror up to our own faults and foibles and vulnerabilities, which is a hard thing for viewers to face?
VK: Well, even Pete Campbell thinks he's Don Draper. Pete Campbell feels that he's charming and he's all those things that Don Draper is. He doesn't realize how the outside world sees him. I don't think he realizes that the world doesn't view him as Don Draper. He thinks he's as smooth as Don is. And that's what makes that character work. I mean, he has to believe that what he's saying is the cleverest thing — even though everyone in the room realizes that he's putting his foot in his mouth once again.

In what ways have you personally connected with Pete in his journey over these past five seasons?
VK: Well, he's me. I mean, he's parts of me. I obviously relate to him in some ways. We both are beta men, basically. I'm a beta male. He's a beta male. We both have inferiority issues, probably. And we both have a high level of ambition, although my level of ambition is very different than his. But it is something that I share in common with him. And we're both constantly sticking our feet in our mouths as well. I oftentimes say things that are so stupid, and the second I hear them come out of my mouth I wish I could take it back.

I think we all have those moments.
VK: I don't know. I really don't know if some people do it as much as others. I think some people are very gleefully ignorant of their social ineptitude.