Although Vincent Kartheiser is currently bringing Hollywood director Billy Wilder — who rose to fame helming the film noir masterpiece "Double Indemnity" — to life onstage, the "Mad Men" star had not seen the classic movie until a few years ago.
Kartheiser was first introduced to the story of the failed criminal plot between an insurance salesman and a housewife when attending a screening of "Double Indemnity" in a Hollywood cemetery. He went, he admitted, just to drink wine and have a picnic, but 10 minutes into the movie, he had forgotten about dinner.
"I was not eating and staring dazedly at the screen," he recalled. "I had never heard dialogue like that before. It was taking itself so seriously. It was so hilarious."
The 35-year-old actor, who starred as advertising anti-hero Pete Campbell on the AMC drama "Mad Men," is currently starring in the comedy Billy and Ray, playing versatile filmmaker Wilder. Mike Bencivenga's play, which continues through Nov. 23 Off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre, chronicles the creation of "Double Indemnity" and Wilder's rocky relationship with fellow screenwriter Raymond Chandler, played by Larry Pine. Garry Marshall, of "Happy Days" fame, directs the cast, which also includes Sophie von Haselberg and Drew Gehling. "The character was someone I wanted to explore," Kartheiser said of Wilder. While the slender actor does not physically resemble Wilder, Marshall assured him he was not looking for an impression of the actual man. "He said he just wants me to get the sense of the character, the sense of who this guy was," Kartheiser said. "Try to figure out what his persona was and do my version of that. He's a witty, clever, acerbic man who has a big ego and who doesn't take himself too seriously. But he knows it's all about the writing and the story, and he's able to put his ego away when it comes to that. And in that sense, he's like a lot of great writers where they're able to have a big ego, but then put what's best for the story in front of that ego."
Wilder's ego often clashed with that of Chandler, and that conflict drives Bencivenga's play. But the lack of warmth between the two men did not bother Wilder, Kartheiser said, because that was never his goal. "I think there's kind of a lot of tender and soft people in the world now, and I don't know people were quite like that back then," he said. "Men were made of a different cloth. They were a little bit harder. If you weren't at war, then you had a tough upbringing. There were very few people who had the cushy lives that we've all, four generations into being in this country, had."
"He drinks a lot. He smokes a lot. He's a man of that era," he said of Wilder. "And he's a foreigner to this country. That's something to always keep in mind — that his roots aren't American. He doesn't come with necessarily the American perception, and yet he made these films that were very American and spoke to the American experience."
While Billy and Ray offers a look at the creation of a dark style of film, the play itself contains many light and comedic moments, offering Kartheiser an opportunity to show a different side of his personality. He credits Marshall's direction with helping him demonstrate his comedic skills onstage.
"Garry understands the minutiae of comedy like no one I've ever had the pleasure of working with," he said. "He really gets what makes something funny and what doesn't. And it's a mathematical equation, but like, I think, most geniuses, he doesn't have to do the paperwork. He just knows the answer.
"He has a very interesting way of telling a story to you, and in the story is a nugget of information about the character you're playing," he continued. "He's been very good with that. [Assistant director Joe Bwarie and Marshall] are both trying to get me to be funny. Kicking and screaming, they're dragging me into a funnier place. And there's a great cast around me that are phenomenal at finding these beats, finding the rythm and creating this atmosphere. I just try not to f*ck it up."
While backstage, Kartheiser said he likes to "push the boundaries," something he was also known to do while filming "Mad Men." Between takes, he would perform loud vocal warm-ups on set, even though, he admitted, he did not do them for the benefit of the actual exercises. "I like to sometimes stretch the boundaries of things on set when I don't know the crew because what we do, as actors, is we risk," he said. "And I think sometimes I find it easier if people already have an opinion of me that is far crazy enough that I can then take a risk without worrying about alienating them, because I've probably already alienated them." When asked if he was pushing the boundaries at the Vineyard, he said without hesitating, "I always do."
Onstage, rather than on screen, Kartheiser said he does not feel the need to experiment quite as much.
"It's a little different here," he said. "With theatre it's not as intimate. You can't push the boundaries with the audience before you start. In film, it's very intimate. The people you're doing things in front of, you can see. They're standing two feet away holding the light and looking right in your face. And they're right over the shoulder of the person you're looking at. You're surrounded by faces, and they're all watching you. Here, you know they're watching you, but you don't feel them watching you. You don't see them watching you. It's a very different experience. I don't feel the need as much to do it here, but I think it happens naturally."
The Minnesota native made his stage debut at the age of six, playing Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol at the Guthrie Theater. Laughing, he said he never thought he would make a career of it until the age of 10. While his career spans more than two decades on stage and screen, including the TV show "Angel" and Pride and Prejudice at the Guthrie Theatre, Kartheiser questions if ambition is as noble an attribute as people describe it, saying, "The years I was growing up, to be ambitious was always a good thing. But I feel like ambition can be a not-so-good thing. I just think you have to keep it in perspective. At what cost is your ambition coming? The succeeding of your goals — does it come at the cost of your ideals? Sometimes it does. I don't think that's a bad thing or makes you an evil person, but I want to keep it in check for myself."
(Carey Purcell is the Features Editor of Playbill.com. Her work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow her on Twitter @PlaybillCarey.)