Over seven seasons Mad Men viewers have found themselves experiencing a specific feelings about Sterling Cooper Pryce's sometimes smarmy, oft-frustrated and frequent poor decision-maker Pete Campbell: love, hate and love-to-hate. But the actor who plays him would like you to know he's always been in Pete's corner.
Even as his role on one of television's most universally acclaimed series has reached its end, Vincent Kartheiser insists he's not particularly sentimental about the conclusion of his experience, nor has he completely wrapped his head around Mad Men's long-term significance in the pantheon of game-changing television. But as he revealed in a recent sit-down with members of the press, he does look fondly upon Pete Campbell – though he could've lived without that increasingly receding hairline.
Spinoff Online: What's your experience like, being on such an acclaimed and beloved show, now that it's in the homestretch?
Vincent Kartheiser: Well, it’s been quiet. It’s been, you know, it’s been different. Usually we’ve gone on hiatus for a few months anyway, but right about now we’d be going back to work. So now is when it starts to feel a little bit strange. And promoting the last season, it’s bittersweet. But lots of you guys have been covering this for years and there’s nothing really left to say about it, at least from my perspective. The show has spoken for itself – but it’s bittersweet, you know?
Is there any sense of relief that this part of your life is over and it’s time to move on?
No, I wouldn’t say relief. There’s no relief – it was a great job and I was with great people, so I wasn’t relieved that it was done. But I’m glad we made it to the end. I’m glad we got a chance to do seven seasons and Matt [Weiner] got a chance to get to the point he wanted to in his career, with the storyline.
But are you at least relieved you don’t have to shave your hairline anymore?
[Laughs] Maybe! Maybe that was a little bit tedious toward the end. But no, overall, I still miss that. That was just part of the job and there were so many positive and wonderful things about the job that it’s hard to kind of take any part away from it.
Do you remember your very first day on the set of Mad Men?
Yeah, I do remember it, we were shooting in New York, and we were in an office building with a brand new floor they had ripped out to be Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. And yeah, I do remember that…I don’t think anyone thinks "This is going to be iconic," or at least I didn’t. And we hoped it would be a long-term gig, but most of us were [thinking] there wasn’t really anything like that on TV, so most of us thought, “Well this is great, but how are they going to market that? How are they going to get people to this channel? How are people going to stay interested with no murders or sci fi elements?" And you know, I think the public really surprised us and our audience was really rabid for our next episodes. So we were all surprised by it but I don’t think in the beginning we would have seen that, this level of interest.
What do you remember about the material that was available at the time you were auditioning for Mad Men? What made this show so different?
This is different than anything that has ever been on TV, and I guess that’s a bit of a broad statement because everything has some differences, but this was so wildly different than other things. What was going on that year? Heroes was coming out – I think LOST had made a splash so everyone was trying to do that sort of thing. I don’t know, I never really read a lot of TV shows, but there was always great stuff on HBO, and The Sopranos had just finished, and Six Feet Under, so there was still interesting stuff on TV, it just wasn’t – it didn’t have this pace.
When did you get a sense that you guys had really pervaded the popular culture?
I don't know if I ever did get the sense that we did pervade the popular culture. I think we affected a certain group of the culture. I think in New York and L.A. we definitely were part of the popular culture. I still think there are a lot of people to find out about Mad Men and watch Mad Men. That’s what I realize when I’m out and about in the country and talking to people. People say, “Oh yeah, I’ve heard of that! I should check it out.”
We've heard that the last table read for the final episode, the show appeared to have an incomplete ending and people said, “Is that it?” and then Matt called certain people into his office and told them what was really happening in the final scene…
Yeah, and we knew there was more – and it said something like, “Scene to be added later,” so people knew that wasn’t the ending. They knew that there was more scenes and at least one more scene. And then just about ten or 15 of us who’d been, I guess, in Matt’s eyes sort of primary to the telling of the story, he brought to his office and showed us parts of what he was going to do. And it was cool.
What did you come to love about Pete over the years? What about him made you root for him?
I was always rooting for Pete. Even when he was doing atrocious things, I understood that he didn’t think they were atrocious and he had a method to his madness and there was a reason why he did those things. I never really thought he was a terrible person. I thought he made some poor choices. I always liked him, though, and he was fun to play. He definitely was a spoiled little brat for most of the seasons, and that was kind of fun to play.
Do you feel that he evolved?
Sure. I think all the characters evolved. But more importantly they stayed who they were, which is kind of what we all do, you know? What’s the line Matt always said? “People change – but not for that long.” And it’s true. I think there were changes and he did evolve and he did learn. But that core character, his core personality was pretty similar.
How does this experience set the bar for what you do next?
I try to not let it, unfortunately. Because it’s like anything, really: you can’t compare any job or any friendship or anything to another. I think if you do, it’s kind of a recipe for disaster.
What was your last day on set like?
Like all the other days, really. I just showed up and worked. I try not to subscribe to too much sentimentality. It’s just not an emotion that I find to be very worthwhile. I don’t know – it doesn’t serve me. I just showed up and did my work, high-fived people, and left before anyone got too sappy.
What fascinates you most about the American ‘60s now?
Really how it wasn’t that long ago, and how much shifted in that decade. How much radical change there was, and growth in the psychology of this country, in the social norms – how much they shifted. I think that was really interesting. The changes in the women’s movement. If you take 1959 to 1969, it’s radical, the shift that was available for women in the workplace. The position that women who stayed at home considered themselves to be in shifted drastically. That’s probably the most interesting thing to me, but I don’t know much about it. I’m just an actor. Just a stupid actor.
Was Mad Men a funny set? Any reliable pranksters or jokesters?
I don’t think anyone was a prankster, but Jon Hamm is hilarious, John Slattery, Elisabeth [Moss], January Jones is hilarious – very, very funny people. I mean, Jon Hamm has a memory like a steel lockbox, so he remembers full comedy albums – it’s really quite brilliant. But Jon’s hilarious and watching him and Slattery kind of kick back and forth with jokes and voices and characters that they had throughout the years created, just through being good buddies – they were probably the funniest.
Is there appreciation at this point for how the show changed television?
I don’t know if it did.
It absolutely did!
Well see, you’re the experts. I don’t really study television or how things do or don’t change. So I don’t know anything about that. I’m just a stupid actor. I really am. They literally put a piece of tape on the ground and that’s where I stand. And then they give me a page full of words, and those are the words I say…I’m from the Midwest: [acknowledging] that would come across as vain. I’m serious. I mean, we don’t live in that. That’s for everyone else. We just show up and do our work. All the hoopla around it is great, it’s wonderful that that happened. But it’s not something that interests me.
I think television is always changing, right? It’s always shifting. And there’s been a lot of great shows before Mad Men and there will be a lot of great shows now, there are a lot of great shows now. I don’t know if Mad Men was a part of a great generation of television, but I don’t think it was the pinnacle, I don’t look at it that way. I look at it that we were one of many great shows.
How did making the show change over the years?
Well we added more days, and it took more money as the show went on and the cast of characters grew. The time it took to do things got a lot longer. But it was just – there’s a lot more attention to detail because there were so many more people and so many more story lines we had to make sure we did it right.
And I think Matt also had the first couple of seasons written in his mind before we started, so as we went on we had to make sure that – he wanted to make sure he kept the show at a high level. So that meant him working longer and longer hours and staying up later and a lot of pressure was put on him. So in that sense the show definitely did become a completely different thing. When we started it was like ten little crew and bam, bam, bam, we’d shoot the scenes out. And then our crew got huge and our cast got huge. As the time went on too, it wasn’t that simple – the fashions changed, and the hair. There was a variety of hair going on on set, so that took more time as well. So yeah. It did change a lot. It felt like a totally different show.
Did you meet any self-professed “real-life Petes” going along? People who came up and said, “I was like him” and “I did that back then”?
Yeah, no one really said that, but people said like, “I was account manager” – we pretty much got two responses to that: people would say, “It was exactly like that” or “It was nothing like that.” And we decided that it was basically people who was privy to what was going on and people who weren’t. And I guess every advertising house was a little different.
Were you able to use anything from encounters of people who lived it?
No, not really. We had such a team of writers and experts and a group of people combing thorough history and finding great stories, great moments and great campaigns that we didn’t really need to reference outside of that. And they were vetting everything and making sure that it was true to life.
Are there individual scenes or lines that hang with you or people often come up to you and mention to you?
People never come up to me. It’s the blessing of being Pete Campbell and not Roger Sterling. It’s funny, I went to a bar with John Slattery in New York and it was me and our makeup artist – this was about four months ago – and all night long a steady stream of people walking up to him. And I was sitting right next to him and no one ever said anything to me. They just don’t recognize me. And so I don’t know what people liked or don’t like – but I liked a couple things he said. "Not great, Bob!"