Vincent Kartheiser

Photo by David Walden

Would you invite Pete Campbell into your home? Maybe a better question is: Could you keep him out? While you think about that, consider the man behind the mask, Vincent Kartheiser, who breathed life into one of Mad Men’s most indelible characters. He has been honing his craft since childhood, in films including Masterminds, Alaska and The Indian In the Cupboard, and later in Another Day In Paradise and Crime and Punishment in Suburbia, for which he received critical acclaim. Kartheiser is also familiar to fans of the WB television series Angel. When Editor-at-Large Tracey Smith sat down with him, she was wondering what all Mad Men fans do: How much of what we see on screen is Vinnie and how much is Pete? So, naturally, she asked…

EDGE: Peter Campbell is manipulative, maniacal, devious, shrewd and success-driven. Is there a little bit of Pete in Vincent Kartheiser?

VK: Is it me? No. But is there a little bit of Peter in Vincent? Yes. I think that if we did a really thorough search and investigation of our history, we would find that we all have those personality traits, either momentarily or in the long term. So, yes, there’s a part of Peter in me. I’m capable of things that aren’t great.

Courtesy of AMC

EDGE: Why do you think Matt Weiner cast you as Pete?

VK: I would like to believe that I fit his vision, that he was looking for somebody who had a certain amount of cockiness and confidence and sliminess, but didn’t really know he had the sliminess. I don’t necessarily have any of those things in real life…but I guess I did in the audition room. (laughs)

EDGE: Thanks, by the way, for doing the fashion shoot for us. Is that fun for you—like a vacation from your everyday wardrobe?

VK: Sometimes. We generally schedule those sorts of things on the weekend. If I’ve had a big week of work, sometimes I have lower energy for such events. And lots of times they put me in stuff that I would never understand how to wear, or hope to wear.

EDGE: On Mad Men, which era of fashion is closer to your taste?

VK: I don’t know. I can’t pull off loud outfits. It doesn’t suit me and I don’t have a great physique, so those really tight pants and those form-fitting shirts aren’t as great as a suit that covers up and makes everyone look relatively similar.

EDGE: You looked great in the Bespoke Couture. Will we be seeing the Vincent Kartheiser collection someday?

VK: No. No we won’t. I know nothing about fashion, nor do I really aspire to. That being said, you know Photoshop is one helluva thing and I’m sure it was utilized. I’m sure a lot of Photoshop is done on my photos!

EDGE: When Season One of Mad Men started shooting, how did you see your character evolving over the years?

VK: You try not to think too far ahead when you’re acting. I do try to think of the past and the present of the character. A character has dreams and hopes and fears, and I do access those, but I tried not to put too many of my own kind of desires into Pete’s character. I didn’t want to put that pressure on myself. I knew what the character wanted in the first season; he wanted to be Don Draper and he wanted to switch out of accounts and be a creative guy. That was something he thought he was more suited to, something that was exciting. I focused on that and I never made too many assumptions of where he’d end up plot-wise.

EDGE: Is Pete Campbell the first character you’ve played that has had to age significantly? 

VK: Yeah, because most of the time you play characters—or at least I’ve always played characters—where the timeframe for the experience is very short. It’s one week, or one year, or one day. Very few stories span ten, twenty, thirty years. In the case of Pete, I aged as well, so it worked out.

EDGE: Is there anything about 30-something Peter Campbell you like better than 20-something Peter Campbell?

VK: There are quite a few things about Peter Campbell that have changed, and I admire them. I think he fits his place in the world and his place in the office. He understands what his role is, what his limitations are, and what his fortés are. In those ways, it makes him an easier person to be around for other people. When a character or a person is always trying to change, or fit a mold that isn’t quite right for them, it’s uncomfortable—not only for them, but for everyone around them. It causes a lot of conflict. So I think it’s wonderful that he’s come to peace with his role in the world, which is to be an account man. At least that’s where he’s settled in. I think his envy and jealousy of people around him has simmered down a bit. He doesn’t need to hate as many people as he used to, which I think is partly due to aging. We all experience that. Because it was such a prominent part of his personality, it’s nice that it’s gone away. He still gets frustrated very easily and feels that nothing ever goes his way, that he’s always getting the short end of the stick, and has a “woe is me” outlook on life—and he still has a sense of entitlement. So not everything has changed. But he has calmed down a bit and stops trying to set fire to everybody around him.

EDGE: What is the value of a Pete Campbell to an ad agency?

VK: I think his value is obvious. He’s a good account man, he works hard, he has ambition, he has loyalty to the people around him and to the company, he’s not afraid to get his hands dirty—he’s not afraid to get his name dirty—and he’s not afraid to use everything in his arsenal to get the job done. He used the death of his father to get an account, he convinced Joan to spend the night with Herb Bennet to land Jaguar, and he is willing to go pretty far into a moral shadow. I don’t think it’s good for the world, but it does bring value to the agency. Actually, I have a hard time calling those things “value” because they’re unscrupulous. Unfortunately, that’s a part of the business world. I don’t think that all companies run their businesses that way, but some certainly do, and in those businesses there are people like Pete Campbell that drive the train, and it accomplishes something.

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EDGE: What’s it like playing a character that many viewers love to hate?

VK: I’m just the actor. The people who really created this character and did the work are the writers. In that writer’s room, we have people who have been agents, who have been advertisers. We have people who are still in advertising who consult, and we have a team of people who spend hours and hours doing research on the time, on the year, on the date, on products, on ad campaigns, on the types of people and the types of stories. Matthew Weiner and the writing team take all of this info and create these characters. I think it’s an honor that I haven’t ruined what they are trying to do—but it’s really that I’m just a vessel, and they really are owed the credit. By the way, you’re right. I get this all the time, people come up and say, “I work with a Pete Campbell.” They did a really good job of writing him in a realistic way, but still in a melodramatic way.

EDGE: Looking back, would you have written your character any differently?

VK: I wouldn’t have written anything differently. I’m very happy with everything they’ve given me. I’m honored that they’ve written what they’ve written. I don’t really live in a world of what-ifs. It gets too complicated.

EDGE: Pete says to Don Draper in an early episode, “A man like you, I’d follow into combat blindfolded.” Would you, Vincent, follow Jon Hamm into battle blindfolded?

VK: Well I wouldn’t follow anyone into battle. (laughs) I do feel he has my back. I think I can speak for all the actors that Jon is so supportive and is so consistent, he’s always giving 100 percent, he’s always present, he’s always good. I have off-days—there are days I can’t remember my lines or I’m struggling. Jon and many of the actors I work with are so, so strong. Jon is there so much and it’s Don’s story, so it is pivotal that he supplies his presence. Yet he does it almost effortlessly and I don’t know how. It’s a character trait that I admire greatly.

EDGE: There’s a lot of smoking and drinking on Mad Men, which is period-appropriate. But what are we to make of Pete’s food choices?

VK: He’s always eating childish food, like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and Cap’n Crunch. I think Matthew is making a statement about this boy-man that Pete is—which is something that I can relate to. There’s something about being an actor, especially from when you’re very young. I’ve never had another job, I’ve had a very blessed life, I haven’t had to roughen up my hands too much. I think there’s something about being an actor, particularly though, that keeps you a little bit childish. It’s make-believe, it’s imagination, and I might be guilty of being a boy-man in some ways.

EDGE: I know you’re a fan of Jack Kerouac. He wrote that “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.” Who are Peter Campbell’s people?

VK: The man who never grew old enough to understand what he wrote! I think you start yawning when you hit a certain age and Jack never got to that age. Who are Pete’s kinds of people? New Yorkers. Not the “new” New Yorkers, not the hippies that are taking over the Village in the late 60’s, or the drug dealers in the boroughs or any of those sorts of things, but the “old” New Yorkers. I would say his kinds of people are the logical ones, the ones that he can understand why they do what they do. They don’t get off-course, they stay the course. I think that statement by Jack Kerouac, he’s really just talking about himself. He’s saying the kinds of people I like are like me. So, the kinds of people that Pete Campbell likes—if we’re using that template—are the kinds of people like Pete.

Photo by Michael Yarish courtesy of AMC

EDGE: And who are Vincent’s kind of people?

VK: Personally, as Vincent, I like quiet people…and I wish I were one. (laughs) I like people who think about what they say before they say it. I wish I were one of them, too!  I like kind people, gentle people, people who aren’t out for number-one, people who are out for everyone—people who don’t jump to judgment but try to empathize. I’m not really any of those things, and I’m not talking about some crazy-eyed cult. I’m just talking about someone that is real, someone who really sees that their needs aren’t the needs of everyone. That their life isn’t any more important than anyone’s. I don’t know, maybe there’s no one like that in the world, but I feel like I meet them all the time.

Editor’s Note: The only question Vincent Kartheiser dodged in this interview was about his girlfriend, Alexis (Gilmore Girls) Bledel. Now we know why. Vincent and Alex tied the knot over the summer in a secret ceremony. Log onto edgemagonline.com to read more about Vincent’s other television and film roles, and how he kept the EDGE crew loose on his fashion shoot.

Harry Hamlin

When Princeton-educated F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that there are no second acts in American lives, it is unlikely he imagined someone like Yale-educated Harry Hamlin. Like the figment of a talent agent’s imagination, Hamlin arrived on the entertainment scene in the late 1970s with a killer combination of easy charm, classic good looks, impeccable stage training and a knack for making parts his own. After reaching the apex of his profession in the 1980s, he backed out of the spotlight to raise his family. When Hamlin decided to get back into the game, his timing couldn’t have been better. Yet, as Editor-at-Large Tracey Smith discovered, when it came to landing the role of Jim Cutler in Mad Men, timing wasn’t everything.

EDGE: In 2014–15, you are a cast member of Mad Men and Shameless. They are wildly different shows. Are they wildly different sets?

HH: No. They’re both extremely professional. John Wells and Matt Weiner are two of the most accomplished and professional writer/show-runners that have ever existed. So you can imagine that everything is extremely well thought- out on both sets. There are very few differences, other than the fact that on the Shameless set you’re not allowed to have any sides. Sides are small versions of the script that are handed out every day, kind of a crib sheet for the actors. John Wells doesn’t permit them; he demands that the actors know all of their lines in advance.  Normally, the sides are right there in your dressing room and you look at them to find out what scene you’re doing first and what the order of the scenes is, and what words you may need to brush up on. In the car on the way over to the set from the studio, Emmy Rossum said, “You’d better know your lines—if you don’t, you’re in deep trouble with John Wells and he’ll never hire you again!” (laughs) So, it’s a good thing I knew my lines.

EDGE: How did your casting experience compare on the two shows?

HH: For Shameless, I was offered the role and didn’t need to read for it, or even meet John Wells. He obviously knew who I was. Matt Weiner has a policy where he meets everybody that comes on the show, and reads everybody that comes on the show. But he normally doesn’t cast anyone who has a profile. He likes actors to be somewhat known, but not really, really well known.  In my case, there have been times in my career when I have been really, really well known, but not so much lately, because I took some time off to raise my kids. Anyway, I was surprised to get the call from my agent to go in and meet Matt and read for a part they called “Swinger Boss” for Mad Men. They told me it would be a one- or two-episode part. I was a fan of Matt’s, and I loved the show, so I agreed to go in.

EDGE: But Matt obviously knew who you were.

Photo by Eiske Photography

HH: Yes. The casting directors told me later that they had to spirit me into the room by putting a fake name on the docket for Matt, because they wanted him to see me for this part—but they knew that if he saw my name on the docket he probably would say, “Wait a minute, what’s he doing here? I don’t see guys who are well known.” So as soon as I walked through the door, there wasn’t much Matt could do but say, “Oh. Hi. How are you? Welcome and let’s read the part.” So I read for the part…and didn’t get it. I was disappointed, because I wanted to work on Mad Men.  But a few months later, they called and offered me another part. They didn’t tell me it was Jim Cutler. They said it might go for two episodes, but definitely one. Once again, I said to myself, Well, I don’t really do just one episode, but then [my wife] Lisa said, “Come on! It’s Mad Men! You should go in and do it…maybe you could get Jon Hamm’s autograph!” (laughs) So I did. I went in, got the part, and it expanded and became what it has become now.

EDGE: Cutler seems like a deep pool, a pragmatist who plays everything close to the vest. What do you like about that part?

HH: I like that he’s quirky. It’s a chance to play a character that’s somewhat eccentric or a little bit off. I saw Jim being at somewhat of an angle to reality—not exactly a right angle to reality, but maybe thirty degrees off. In my opinion, he has potentially another secret life that has not been revealed. They gave me a lot of latitude to create the character that I wanted to create. I had to say the words they gave me, but when it came to my behavior, they kind of let me loose.

EDGE: Do we see any Harry Hamlin in Jim Cutler?

HH: No. The rhythm and how he holds his body, I don’t do that at all in life. I actually used my 10th Grade Latin teacher as a kind of a template. I remember him being pretty tightly wound.

EDGE: How would you characterize the quality of the writing on Mad Men?

HH: Every single word is well thought out—the choice of every comma, every single nuance of the language. There’s nothing there by accident, and there’s nothing there that hasn’t been embedded over and over again to make sure that the cadence that the actors deliver is exactly the cadence that they want to hear. Oftentimes, narrative dialogue is very right-on-the-money; it’s not how people actually speak. In Mad Men, they have integrated spontaneity into the dialogue.

EDGE: You mentioned taking time off to raise your children. What was behind that decision?

HH: I deliberately stepped back from the business when my new flock of kids was born. The hours that we keep on TV shows just do not jibe with raising a family, and with films you’re going on location all the time. It was the late 1990s and the business essentially left L.A. right about the same time the kids were born. You’ll recall that the Canadian dollar went way down, and incentives began to be put into place in different states; Hollywood ceased to be Hollywood about fifteen years ago.  When that happened, I said to Lisa, “I’m going to keep working, but I’m only going to work here in L.A. because I want to put these kids to bed every night. We’re going to have to figure out a way to make ends meet and make our lives work with that arrangement.” I already had a son and didn’t get a chance to spend any time with him, because he grew up in Rome and I was working all the time. I was devastated by that, and am to this day. You don’t want to have kids and not be there with them growing up. The most important thing in life is the legacy one leaves with their children. The ability to raise a solid family and be part of it, I think, is the greatest effort that we can make in life. So, I just said, “You know what? We’ll figure something out. I’ll write a book or I’ll do some reality TV, or we’ll do whatever is required to stay in town so that we can put our kids to bed every night.”

EDGE: And it worked.

HH: It did. We were able to do it. Lisa and I both worked and kept the fire going. Then, when the kids were old enough, around 13 or 14, I said, “It’s time now for me to go back to work.” I called my agent and said, “Let’s see what we can find.” Veronica Mars shot here, so I could do that. Army Wives shot in South Carolina. By then, though, I could leave for a while. Curb Your Enthusiasm came up and that was a lucky stroke. Then Shameless came up and people liked that, and then I got Mad Men. I have been very fortunate that things have worked out as well as they have.

EDGE: Final question…Perseus 1981 or Perseus 2010—which Clash of the Titans am I renting tonight?

Warner Bros

HH: Well it had better be 1981! (laughs) Little known fact about Clash of the Titans that Matt Weiner revealed to me on my first day working on Mad Men. They were in the process of casting Jim Cutler and Matt’s 13-year-old son was having a bunch of guys over for a sleepover birthday party. He told his son he could rent any movie he wanted and watch it in the screening room, and his son picked my version of Clash of the Titans. Matt said, “You were on my mind two weeks ago when my son asked to have this movie screened at the house.” That’s 30-some years after this film was made. That a kid would still ask to have that movie screened at his birthday party, I was amazed by that. I don’t know whether that had anything to do with his decision to cast me for the role, but that was something he told me my first day working with him.

EDGE: What do you recall about Clash of the Titans?

HH: Well, we kind of skewered the mythology a little bit. At Yale, I wrote my thesis on Myth and Drama. When I got the script for Clash of the Titans many years later, I noticed that the story was all screwed up. Perseus never rode a Pegasus in the original myth. Also, about three-quarters of the way through filming in Malta, they informed me that I would not be cutting off Medusa’s head with a sword. They had been told by the studio in London that the movie might get an X rating for violence, so I couldn’t do it. I said, “If that’s the case, you’re going to have to find somebody else to finish the movie because I’m going back to Los Angeles tonight.” They totally freaked out. They locked me in my trailer and unplugged the electricity. I still refused to do the shot. “You’ve screwed up the mythology so much in this movie—and now you want me to cut Medusa’s head off with my shield? Like a Frisbee? I’m not gonna do it!”

EDGE: You won that one.

HH: Yes, I did.

Editor’s Note: Tracey Smith took Harry Hamlin back to his days as a teenager and 20-something, and also quizzed him on his starring role on L.A. Law. Log onto edgemagonline.com to read more of their Q&A.