With AMC’s award-winning series Mad Men airing new episodes Sunday nights, I recently had the chance to participate in a roundtable interview with Vincent Kartheiser. Since the cast is always guarded when talking about upcoming episodes, most of the interview covered the twists and turns of last season, why people prefer Don (Jon Hamm) over Pete, gender roles in the 60’s, Hamm’s directing skills, the way he prepares for filming, and a lot more. Hit the jump to either read or listen to what Kartheiser had to say.
Before going any further…spoilers from previous seasons and the season 6 premiere are discussed during this interview.
If you’d like to listen to the audio of this interview, click here. Otherwise the full transcript is below.
VINCENT KARTHEISER: This is the state of Oklahoma in reverse.
It’s also who’s in this room, I think.
KARTHEISER: Yes. So… let’s talk about Mad Men.
Let’s talk sideburns. They look great on you.
KARTHEISER: I like yours too.
Are you digging them? Do you like them?
KARTHEISER: I had them before the season.
Okay, so no story there.
KARTHEISER: There’s no story. Sorry. Next.
I do hear that the wardrobe for the men is going to be particularly interesting this season. Can you talk a little bit about that?
KARTHEISER: I wish I could.
I love the fact that you put that you were named after Vincent van Gogh in your official bio.
KARTHEISER: I’m actually not. The official bio is the wrongest thing you’ve ever seen in your entire life.
Do you have plans to fix that?
KARTHEISER: I’ve tried endlessly. I’ve literally gotten down on my knees and blown the entire staff of IMDb, which is 35 people and two dogs. I actually didn’t have to do the dogs, I was just… But, uh.
Maybe next time.
Why did you drop out of high school?
KARTHEISER: I wanted to go make money.
So can you tell us what it is about Pete that you identify with?
KARTHEISER: Sure. I think we have some similarities. We are both insecure, we both feel unworthy. We both have moments of immaturity, we can both be impulsive. We’re both unlikeable types. Truly.
Do you think he sees Don as a father figure and he wants his approval?
KARTHEISER: No. But I think he might have at one point, yes. But no. Not anymore.
Along those lines, not to talk about what happens in the new season, but Pete does seem to get a great sense of enjoyment whenever he gets one over on Don or proves Don wrong in some way.
KARTHEISER: Well, sure. But I think that’s true. He probably feels that way about everybody. I think he gets that enjoyment whenever he can do that. But with Don, who’s kind of the big dog on campus, it probably feels a little bit better. But now that they’ve been working together for years and years and years, I think that some of those feelings of… It’s like when you first start working with a big celebrity, at first you’re like, “Oh wow.” You revere everything they say. And then, six months into the job, you’re like, “That guy? Yeah.” ‘Cause you see behind the curtain and know that Oz is just a man. He’s not really a wizard. That’s what’s happened. He’s seen that the great and powerful Don Draper is really the weak and scared Dick Whitman. As much as he wanted his approval, now he’s gotten to a point where he’s just trying to manage him and make sure the job’s coming in on time and that the clients don’t see exactly that he’s not a wizard. That’s the real challenge for Pete. I’m saying too much.
Now that he’s getting an apartment in the city, do you think that he’ll be able to indulge in his worst instincts?
KARTHEISER: That’s hard to say.
Talk a little bit about how much you’ve known going into each season.
Really? Matthew’s never said anything?
Talk a little bit about your reaction to last season, how it all played out.
KARTHEISER: Loved it.
It’s basically a year later that you get to talk about what happened. So were there any twists and turns last season that you were like…? What was one that really got you?
KARTHEISER: I was surprised by the whole Joan thing. But I understood it. And it was explained to me. I enjoyed very much the Beth Dawes. Matt told me about three episodes in, he was like, “You’re looking for your mistress. You’re looking for your girl on the side. You’re looking for someone who will love you.” ‘Cause he had success. He was a partner. He was the bossman at work. Everyone was listening to him. But he didn’t feel loved. His wife was getting everything her way. The child was getting a lot of love. But he didn’t feel loved. So he wanted that. And he found love with this woman. They shared this sadness, this unconsolable sadness, this broken-child sadness that some people go through life feeling. And most people, especially back then, don’t have any pity for people like that. They don’t care. [Mocking voice] Oh, you sad? Poor Pete Campbell. [Real voice] But this girl did care. She understood. He felt he had a kindred spirit. And then that was taken away. So he had this awareness about himself that he would never be happy, he would never be content. He would always be an open wound. And I love that. I love that speech. I love idea. I think it’s very true. I think it’s part of the human condition. We’ll see how Pete reacts to it. We’ll see if it helps him in his life at all.
Did you actually hear from people after Pete did what he did to Joan? Pushed her in that direction…? Did you hear from people saying — I mean Pete’s done some sort of slimy, sleazy things throughout this season, but specifically after that episode?
KARTHEISER: Well people love Joan. You can step on the neck of a lot of people, but you don’t want to step on the neck of Joan because the world out there enjoys that character. People had a higher level of protectiveness around that. But, I think it’s quite funny because everyone says that’s the worst thing Pete’s ever done. And I think, what did he do? Isn’t that the worst thing Joan’s ever done on the show? ‘Cause all he did was offer her five percent of the company to go on a date with this guy. She’s the one who said yeah. And I understand…
KARTHEISER: No, Don was in the conversation, but then Don left before they voted. He looked at all the other partners and said, “We’re all partners. It’s four partners in this room. And that’s one that left. Four to one. It’s a democratic society.” The other three guys looked at him and said, “Okay, if she says yes. But I don’t want to do it.” And Pete said, “Well, this company needs a car. This agency needs a car.” And let’s be honest, Joan’s not a nun. It’s not like Joan got to where she got to because of her great secretarial skills. She was an element that they had in the office for the reason that when clients came, she walked them through the office. That’s the flat truth of it. She was sleeping with one of the partners for years. She’d slept with other people at the job site. They’d referenced that she’d slept with Michael Glass’s character in the pilot. She was a known… He brought it to her because he thought she’d say yeah. They offered her more than they probably needed to because they respected her. She was a good secretary, but that’s not the element that put her in the office. But what’s interesting is how people react, not only to what happened, but to my comments afterwards.
People like characters like Don Draper over Pete Campbell, even though Don Draper’s done just as many terrible things as Pete Campbell, but the reason that we like Don Draper and Joan Harris and not Pete Campbell is because Don Draper and Joan Harris are attractive and they’re charming and they’re subtle and they’re well-dressed and they’re poised and they keep their cool. And we like to imagine that we’re like that too. That we’re really good-looking and everybody wants to like us and wants to be us. But they don’t. Most of us are kind of ugly. Most of us aren’t very charming and lose our cools all the time and act like fools. And we hate ourselves for that. So we like to look at the TV screen and hate the guy on the TV screen, so we don’t have to hate ourselves. That’s my theory. But, I think it’s an interesting thing about society, the way that they judge some characters and the way that they refuse to… What if Joan Harris had come to Pete Campbell and said, “Pete Campbell, will you sleep with this person?” And Pete was like, “I will.” I guarantee you people would be saying it’s Pete Campbell. And I know that sounds crazy to you, but I almost guarantee that that’s the way it would go.
It’s partly because of the writing. It’s written in the sense that Don Draper is your protagonist and you’re supposed to follow that story, and it’s good that we do. But I also think it’s an interesting statement about society that we are prone to just be that shallow. I’m the same way. We’re shallow enough to say, “Roger Sterling is great, he is a charmer, isn’t he?” Even though he’s cheating on his wife at any chance, and doing all these despicable, terrible things and riding girls around the office like a horse, but he’s so funny! So we excuse it all. Whereas Pete Campbell’s not funny. So it’s not excusable. Because he’s not charming. It’s like presidents or rock stars. JFK could have sex with anyone he wanted, and Bill Clinton, because they’re charming and they’re witty. You get away with a lot.
Do you think there’s something wrong with people who prefer Pete?
KARTHEISER: No. I don’t think there’s something wrong with people for that. I think everyone’s different and I’m making big generalizations, but I think some people have reasons for liking or disliking characters. Who knows what an individual’s reasons are? But maybe those people that are aware of what’s maybe driving him or maybe they feel sympathy for him. I feel very sorry for him. I feel sorry for myself, so it’s easy to feel sorry for him. And especially back then, the world just didn’t have pity for guys like that. But I do. I’m the kind of guy who sees someone who everybody hates and I’m like, “I want to be their friend. Nobody likes this guy. What’s so wrong with him?” And then usually I’m like, “Oh yeah, he’s an asshole.” But I’m still drawn to it. So maybe it’s just people like that, they want to save somebody.
You also get some of the most hysterical lines in the show.
KARTHEISER: They’re not meant to be funny. They’re really not.
If you could give Pete advice, what kind of advice would you give him?
KARTHEISER: Don’t lose your cool. When you lose control, when you lose your cool… I saw a guy in the airport last week and he was yelling at these people, “You lost my bag, that was $70,000 worth of camera equipment!” and I kept thinking, man these people are losing so much respect for you. You’re never going to get anything accomplished that way. If you stay calm, you’ll terrify the shit out of them. ‘Cause they’re like, “Oh fuck. This guy’s just calm and collected.” As long as you’re calm and collected, you have a lot of power in this situation. It’s not kindness. It’s calmness. You don’t have to be kind. You have to be calm. Once you start showing that they can affect your emotions, then you obviously don’t have that much power. If a stewardess can affect your emotional life, then you don’t have any power in life and you just showed your whole hand.
If you could go back to when you first started to do Mad Men, is there any advice that you’d tell yourself back then that you learned along the way, anything from the way the show’s written to the way it’s run to interactions, anything you’ve learned?
KARTHEISER: Sure, there’s things I’ve learned, but I wouldn’t take any of it back. I wouldn’t tell myself anything, no. That’s one of those hard questions to answer because it’s like, I’m still alive right now. So if you could go back into the past and tell yourself something, wouldn’t you be terrified that you are going to tell yourself something and then because of that you’re going to have an extra beer one night and on the way home, some guy’s going to sideswipe you and you’re going to die? Like, I’m still alive! I don’t want anything to change! Okay? I’m alive. I’m very happy. I’m still on the show. Pete Campbell’s still alive. I’m not going to fuck with it.
Do you watch a lot of time travel shows?
I have to say, last season I was very worried for Pete Campbell’s fate. They were obviously building up to somebody dying and they were beating up on you a lot all season. But how worried were you?
KARTHEISER: Not at all. Matt told me I was safe.
The show immerses you in the culture of the 60s. Is there anything about it that you love? The music, the fashion, the girl-boy intrigue?
KARTHEISER: Yeah, I guess it was horrible. Was it horrible?
I lived it. Yeah.
KARTHEISER: What was the most horrible thing about it?
That women were expected to be second-class citizens.
KARTHEISER: They were? How’s that?
Because you get married and you would take your husband’s name and it would be anything he said would go, so that’s why I never got married.
KARTHEISER: That makes a lot of sense. I do find it interesting — I have four sisters — my sisters were born in the 70s and my mom raised them and said you’re going to have a job, you’re going to have a career, you going to be successful and it’s going to be great. And now my sisters are in their 40s and they’re all like, “I just want a husband and I just want to make him dinner and I just want him to come home. I don’t want to go to work and work in cooperate America. There’s not enough jobs for everybody.” I think there’s a certain segment of the female population that doesn’t really want that. Now, I’m glad that it’s been liberated and there’s many more opportunities and more women are going to school. That’s great. I think education is the number one priority. But I also think that second-class citizens is strong.
Well, I was raised in a household where the man’s word was law.
KARTHEISER: But that still is the case in a lot of households. And it wasn’t the case in all households back then. There were a lot of homes — I know in my grandparents’ homes, my grandma ran the home. When he was at the office, he ran the office and she ran everything at the home.
KARTHEISER: I wouldn’t know. But I do know that every time I saw him with her, the only thing I ever heard him say was “Yes dear.” It was basically like, “Yes dear. I understand you. Let me go onto the roof and shovel the ice off.” Not every family… Every family’s different and every situation’s different. I think definitely there were a lot of things in the 1960s, it’s wonderful that they are not anymore. I think especially in the workplace things have really gotten a lot better. But I think that if I could go back to the 60s, I wouldn’t like the element of the way women are treated. That wouldn’t be the thing I liked the most. I think probably the music.
They did have good music.
KARTHEISER: Yeah, the music was good. And I think that whole idea that things could change. The good thing is that women felt a specific way and they felt that way for hundreds and hundreds of years. And things changed. It wasn’t like the 60s came and then everyone became a second-class citizen. They were second-class citizens for a long time and then in the 60s, they were like, “Oh we’re going to change some things.” I think the thing that bothers me about now is that things don’t change really. There’s not really movement. We have Occupy Wall Street and then after two years everyone’s just like, “Alright, well that’s over with.” But nothing fucking changed. Right? At least things did change.
It was an era that you felt people could change things.
KARTHEISER: Yeah! And people gathered together. Maybe it’s because it was the civil rights movement was such a large proportion of the population, and the movement for women’s liberation was such a large proportion of the population. Once they all got on board with it, it was like, okay, that’s a lot of people to fight. Whereas Occupy Wall Street, not enough people really got on board. So, maybe that’s the thing.
What kind of father do you think Pete will be?
KARTHEISER: That’s hard to say.
Will it be a good thing for him? Or not so good?
KARTHEISER: That’s also hard to say.
So do you think he looked at his father and said, “I don’t want to do that?”
KARTHEISER: I think he would say that. But I think that’s oftentimes a problem with people raising kids. ‘Cause you say “I don’t want to do what my dad did” and you go so polar opposite. It’s like if you we’re raised in a home where there was lots of discipline, then you let your kids have everything. I think that could work against him if he does that. If he’s like my father didn’t love me at, so I’m going to smother this child with love. That’s not always the best thing ever. What do I know about having kids?
Talk about the preparation process for the show. Do you follow a set schedule where you’re breaking down the script as soon as you get it? Are you breaking down the scenes you have the night before to memorize? I’m curious how you prepare for each episode.
KARTHEISER: Well, I’m in character now. I stay in character throughout the season. No. We get the episode the day before we start shooting. I read it. I read it again. We go to the table read. I get notes from Matt. I write them down. I go home. I look at my order of scenes. The day before my scene, I read it over. If I have a lot of stuff to do, I’ll read it over a few times. I’ll run it with a specific person who cannot be named and I will work on it sometimes. Sometimes it’s the kind of scene where I don’t want to work on it very much because I want to stay open for what happens on the day and then I go into work. Then I shoot. Then I go home. Then I take a bath. Then I dry my hair. Then I take a poop, so I have to take another bath. That’s all. I’m sorry, yes, I shit, okay? News flash. Here come the questions.
Now when you shit…?
Is it usually firm?
I do want to ask, though, you showed a great knowledge of this time, even the shitting, did you do immediate research once you got the role? Or is it something that’s come along? You have a deep understanding of that time period.
KARTHEISER: I know how to bullshit. You know what it is? When I got this role, I spent three months watching old films. That’s basically all I did. I wasn’t really watching it to learn about the time period — I kind of let the writers take care of all that — I just wanted to figure out how people talked. You know what, man? People don’t talk the same every generation. You go back the 30s and the 20s and people talk differently than they did at the turn of the century and that they did in the 60s. We go through different patterns of speech. We use different words. We literally have… The way I’m sitting now is not the way men sat in the 60s. You would never see men, maybe the beatniks would in the 1940s, maybe the hippies would, but you would never see a business guy sitting like this, hunched over, you know? There was a way that you behaved. I learned that from watching these things. There’s a certain cadence to the voice, a certain richness. They cared about it. It mattered a little bit more. It was just different. And it’s not always the same because people in movies talk a little bit different than people in real life, but they do mimic each other. If you watch The Office or a modern day TV show or film, that’s pretty similar to the way that people talk because we copy the people on screen and the screen’s copying people in the real world. I did a lot of that and then I borrowed from my grandpa a little bit. But I didn’t do a lot of learning. I did a little bit about advertising, a tiny bit of learning about advertising, read a few books.
But Pete has definitely a distinctive way of talking. Was that something — once you brought that in and put it on the table, “This is the way I’m playing this character” — they were on board with that? Did you really have to sell this thing?
KARTHEISER: No they were on board. I brought a little bit of it in the audition, a tiny bit of it in the audition. You’ll see from the pilot on, it’s gotten stronger. Like if you were to watch the pilot and then watch an episode from Season 3 and an episode from Season 5, you can see it’s changed. That’s ’cause I’m not a great actor. If I was a great actor, I would’ve been consisted, truly. And I wasn’t able to do that. It was something that did grow as I worked on it more. But it was something I brought into there and then at times Matthew would come to me and say, “Okay, this is too strong” or “I need more of that” or “I need a little more consistency with this or that.” So it’s not something I’ve been perfect at. It’s been a collaboration with me and Matthew and the directors who work with me so closely on set. Even Jon Hamm, I had an episode with him this season, and he came over and he goes, “Don’t lose Pete’s diction in this scene. You’re slipping out of it a little bit.” So I need those reminders. It’s helpful to have people around who can keep you in line.
KARTHEISER: Yeah. Mr. Hammersticks.
Can you talk about that? That’s his second time directing. What’s it like to be directed by Jon?
KARTHEISER: It’s awful. He’s so good at it. You’re just like, “Just be bad at something!” “I’m going to go shoot some bow-and-arrows this weekend.” “I’ve never done that.” “Yeah, come with!” And then he shows up and he’s like, “Fah, bull’s eye.” And I’m like, “Fuck you! Let’s go sewing.” [Makes sewing machine noise] Perfect cross-stitch. Fuck you! Hang-gliding, motherfucker. Yeah he’s perfect. And I love him for it. I love him. No, he’s great. He’s just like he is in real life. He’s synced. He gives you a really simple note. It’s really short, which is nice. Some people — film, stage, doesn’t matter what type of director — sometimes they give you the point and then they just keep on talking. He doesn’t. He just comes up and he’s like, “Hey, think about it before you say it. Let it occur to you.” And he’s out. That’s all I need. Perfect. That’s nice. He thinks about the shots. He’s on set early and the guy’s got a lot of heavy-lifting to do actor-wise, you know? So it’s a lot of work for him. He has to come in the week before for prep while he’s still shooting as Don Draper, then he has to shoot it while he’s still being Don Draper, then he has to edit it while he’s still being Don Draper. That’s a big load.
Is this something that you’ve ever thought about doing yourself?
KARTHEISER: Not on Mad Men. I’m not ready. I don’t have that… I’m not ready for that. I wouldn’t be good. I’m not ready.
KARTHEISER: [Asks his agent or publicist] Anything on the horizon work wise? You got any offers for me yet?
[Agent or publicist answers] Not yet.
KARTHEISER: No, presently I am going to help out in my mom’s daycare for a few weeks.
I can see you being good around kids for sure.
KARTHEISER: You’re being funny, right? I’m actually really good with kids, asshole. No, it’s funny because no one would think that, right? You look at me and you think that’s kind of weird. But I had a scene last season with this kid, which is a twin ’cause you need… And everyone was shocked that when the kid was crying he ran into my arms and he was calm. I’m surprisingly a good caretaker of children.
If you could take a role in a different decade, era, period, what time would you like?
KARTHEISER: That’s a good question. I like to play something in like — I never know how to say this, the 19-teens? How would you say that? The 19-teens, the 1910 to…
KARTHEISER: The 1910s? Right, how do you say it? That’s the hardest era to be in because you don’t know how to say it.
Then don’t pick it.
KARTHEISER: [Laughs] Yeah right? Fuck it, no the 20s! But everyone does the 20s because they were the Roaring 20s. No, the 20s or 30s would be fun too because then you could do that whole radio talky voice. [Imitates voice] Everyone talked real fast like that, like guys and dolls. Yeah, see this guy here, Mr. Wise Guy. [Ends voice] I don’t know, something like that. Or I’d like to do a real period piece. Like 1800s or something. It’ll never happen. I’m never going to work again.
With that attitude Mister…
KARTHEISER: I’ve had this attitude my entire career. It’s funny because I have all these friends that are positive thinkers. They’re all like, “Things are going to be great! You’ll see. I’m going to change the world. This next pilot season, I’m going to book the greatest pilot ever!” They’ve been unemployed for decades. And I’m always like, “It’s over. I’m never going to fucking work again. Who would ever hire a shitty actor like…? Oh we got nominated again? We won’t win. Oh we won? Won’t last.”
You said things haven been very serendipitous for you, though? Seems to be working out.
KARTHEISER: I don’t know how you got from one to the other. Yeah, answer me that. Does anyone else get that connection? Serendipity and negativity?
KARTHEISER: Because my negativity is added to my serendipitousness?
No it’s just that it seemed to happen for you when you have these positive thinkers who seem to be really…
KARTHEISER: I don’t think one actually affects the other though. It doesn’t matter what you think. Just try your hardest and get lucky. Being an actor is like winning the lottery. Maybe not in theater because there are a lot more jobs and it has a lot less to do with other elements, it’s kind of just about the performance. But in TV and film, it’s really about winning the lottery. You have to have a ticket. You have to have some talent, but there’s a lot of talented people on Skid Row. It’s not really about your talent, it’s right time, right place, right face. So I recognize that.
And making a good shit.
KARTHEISER: And have a good shit. I’m the most regular guy alive.