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

By Christopher Wallenberg
05 Sep 2012

Vincent Kartheiser
Vincent Kartheiser

Television viewers know Vincent Kartheiser for playing dissatisfied ad man Pete Campbell on the hit series "Mad Men." The actor, who has roots in theatre, talks about what traits he and Pete share, and how theatre — including a current new play — is giving him a creative rush.

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As the twerpy ad exec on "Mad Men," Vincent Kartheiser's Pete Campbell is the quintessential character that audiences love to hate. Toiling in the shadow of charismatic alpha dog Don Draper, Pete is an often oblivious, sometimes neurotic bag of insecurities amidst a slew of strivers in a 1960s-era Madison Avenue advertising firm. With his self-satisfied smirk, grossly naked ambition, and calamitous stabs at infidelity and social climbing, Pete grates on both his co-workers and loyal viewers. Indeed, when Pete was cold cocked this season by partner Lane Pryce during a conference room fisticuffs, surely more than a few "Mad Men" fans felt a twinge of satisfaction watching the punchable Pete get popped square in the kisser. So why all the hate? Perhaps because Pete reflects back our own foibles, flaws, and insecurities.

The past season on "Mad Men" was especially hard on Pete. He slept with a prostitute, led the charge on the indecent proposal offered to Joan, and had a brief affair with a married woman (Alexis Bledel), Beth, who had her memories of him summarily erased by electroshock therapy. His despairing hospital room monologue delivered at Beth's bedside encapsulated Pete's constant dissatisfaction and offered an illuminating moment of vulnerability.

As for Kartheiser himself, in conversation he comes across as considerably more charming, content, and self-effacing than his onscreen counterpart.

Before he heads back to work on season six of "Mad Men" in late October, Kartheiser is in the midst of stretching his stage muscles, playing a smart young novelist, Sebastian Justice, scarred by deep loss and post-9/11 trauma in The Death of the Novel. In the drama by Jonathan Marc Feldman, now playing to Sept. 22 at San Jose Rep in California, Kartheiser's character has a bestselling, critically acclaimed post-9/11 novel under his belt. But he's lost faith in himself and the world and become a recluse who hasn't left his apartment in two years or written a word since. Then one day a mysterious stranger enters his cloistered world, offering redemption and hope.

In a recent interview, Kartheiser talks about his own youthful cynicism, the unhappy ambition of Pete Campbell, and tackling his first stage role in seven years.

You play the brilliant novelist Sebastian Justice in Death of the Novel. He's described as the most well-adjusted depressed agoraphobic in Manhattan. Who is this guy?
Vincent Kartheiser: Sebastian is really emotionally detached from people, because he's lost pretty much everyone he's cared about in his life. They've passed away. His mother, his father, and the love of his life. Three very significant people. So he's in a place where he has a lot of anxiety about opening himself up to other people. He also has a lot of skepticism, because he realizes that everyone wants something from him. His friends maybe want to use him to get laid. Other people want to use him to get into the writing or publishing business. So he approaches every new relationship with a big dose of cynicism, because he's always trying to find what a person's angle is, what they're trying to get from him, or what his value is to them. I think anyone who has reached a certain level of success or fame has to deal with people coming into their life for the wrong reasons, and he's just hyper-aware of it.

Vincent Kartheiser and co-star Vaishnavi Sharma
photo by Aja McCoy

As a famous actor, is that a dynamic you can relate to?
VK: Well, not on the same level, because I haven't had the same level of success — nor am I as self-conscious or as successful or as intelligent as this character. But I can see how he would feel that way, yeah. I've been around people who have had similar attributes or are in similar situations, and I think it is scary for them to invite new people into their lives, because everyone does seem to want something from them.

So what is the catalyst that finally draws him out of the cocoon of his apartment and back into the world?
VK: We're trying to build an anticipation about what will get this person writing again. What will get him inspired to have a level of hope or optimism about life? And how do we get inspired? [The play] speaks to the times. It's topical for that reason. We've been going through this Depression for the past four years, and I think people are kind of looking for a reason to have hope and looking for a reason to have inspiration.

There's a character in the play, a mysterious Saudi woman, who intrudes into Sebastian's self-contained world. Who is this woman and why may she not be the person she says she is?
VK: She's invited into his apartment, because one of his friends wants to impress her, and she's a big fan of Sebastian's book. For Sebastian, it's kind of love at first sight. He falls for this girl immediately. And she begins to construct this fiction about her life and who she is. He can see the holes in her story, but he makes a choice to love this kind of living piece of fiction. And it's what gets him to fall back in love with the idea of writing and the idea of telling stories.

What first inspired you to want to play this part when you read the script? What was the hook that grabbed you?
VK: There's certain pieces of this play that I think hit the nail on the head when it comes to understanding men in their 20s. It's something I related to. I remember feeling the way that Sebastian feels. And I think that the play will speak to audiences because there are a lot of people out there who don't believe in love or that they can give it to anyone. They don't believe that there's really anything great in the world. That's a character I really wanted to play, because I feel that there is another side to it, and I wanted to show that transformation. I also knew it would be a big challenge to take on a role that has so many psychological dimensions. I'm always looking for opportunities to do things that seem maybe a little bit out of my league. [Laughs.]



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