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

By Christopher Wallenberg
05 Sep 2012

Vincent Kartheiser on "Mad Men."
You said in the past that you're the type of guy who always wants to be better and that you have a tendency to beat yourself up in striving to do better. Is that one of the ways you connected with Pete?
VK: No. I don't think Pete beats himself up. I think Pete thinks that he should be praised. I think Pete thinks he does a great job all the time — and is shocked that he's not made like the President of the company and that people don't like carry him around on a chair everywhere he goes. But Pete sees his life, and he says, "I have nothing. I haven't gotten what I deserve. Everything in my life is not as good as it should be." Whereas I look at life, and I say, "Hey, I've gotten a lot more than I deserve. And my life is way better than it should be." [Laughs.]

Will Pete Campbell ever find a sense of happiness or fulfillment? Or will he always be searching for something more?
VK: We had a line this season where Don Draper says, "You know what happiness is? It's that moment right before you want more happiness." And that's what "Mad Men" is about. "Mad Men" is not a story about like, you know, everyone getting married, and then all of a sudden all their dreams come true. It's a real life story about what it means to be a man of ambition and ego and flaws in that decade. Those men aren't happy.

Happiness for them is not a destination. It's not even a journey. It's an impossibility. Like so many people in life, it's insatiable — you know, this quest for happiness, this quest for success, this quest for respect. So if they were to be all of a sudden given that, I don't know how the show would continue to make sense.

Tell me about your stage roots. You got your start performing at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis as a kid. When was the last time you were on stage?
VK: Theatre is where I began acting when I was 6 years old. I did lots and lots of plays both at the Guthrie and the Children's Theatre Company in Minneapolis. So I developed my acting skills at both of those places. Then I started in TV and film, and I kind of left theatre behind for a little bit, because I wanted to go and get a foothold in the industry — in television and film. Right now I've had theatre on the back-burner for a while. But it's something I've always enjoyed doing and I've always loved. So it's always a joy when I get the opportunity to do it. I did a play in my mid-20s in New York City, another new play, another very difficult play to interpret. It was at the Cherry Lane Theatre. That was the last time I was on stage doing a play. So I very much look forward to getting this one up in front of people and starting to get some feedback.

Kartheiser and Polly Lee in Slag Heap.

What was the play that you did at the Cherry Lane?
VK: I don't know if I should tell you. [Laughs a little.] The play was called Slag Heap [2005]. I don't think it's ever been done again since then.

How was the experience for you on that play? Was it a good one or leave something to be desired?
VK: The experience was absolutely wonderful. I really enjoyed the director we worked with, and I loved the other actors. But we didn't really sell any tickets. [Laughs.] When there's more actors on stage than in the audience, that can really be a hard thing to swallow.

What's the adjustment been like transitioning back onto the stage after years of doing series television like "Mad Men" and "Angel" and film work like "Rango" and "Another Day in Paradise"? The process and mechanics can be very different.
VK: For me the biggest change between television and film and theatre is the length of rehearsal and the way you approach rehearsal. That's really the biggest difference. In TV and film, you almost have no rehearsal at all. You just show up, you show 'em what you're doing, you take some notes, you do it again, and then you move on to the next scene. The great thing about doing theatre is that you get this opportunity to really work it out — to really explore new things, go home, sleep on it, come back the next day and say, "I have this new idea." Try that out. Realize it's shit. Go back to the old idea. Come up with a new idea. Do that all over again. That's something that you don't really get in doing film and TV work. In film, usually you're like driving home and you get a great idea, and you're like, "Oh shit, I should have done that!" But you don't get the opportunity to do it again. It's already been filmed, and it's going to be there forever. And your great idea is just a thought in your head. It can never be tried.

You've said that you're something of an adrenaline junkie. Is that one of the major attractions of doing theatre for you — satisfying that craving for an adrenaline rush?
VK: It does give me that punch of adrenaline that I need. When you're on stage, it's this do or die thing. You're out on a limb, and in that moment feel so alive. But for me, doing this play is about challenging myself as an actor—spreading my wings and trying to reach different boundaries of my own abilities—and hopefully fail pretty epically.

So you're not afraid of failure?
VK: I embrace it. I mean, I'm terrified of it — absolutely. But that's what makes it worth doing. Any actor, any person who is involved in the creation of something regardless of what it is, will tell you that it's only through failure that any sort of real growth happens.