When we last saw Mad Men's resident Machiavellian creep Pete Campbell, he was headed to Los Angeles to open a new West Coast Sterling Cooper and Partners outpost. With the seventh and final season of the show set to debut on Sunday, we checked in with actor Vincent Kartheiser – who's more or less grown up playing Campbell (he was just 22 when the show premiered in 2007) – to weigh in on everything from his feelings about the end of the show to his thoughts on how his character's future might unfold.
How does the split season feel to you? Does it sort of feel like two seasons?
No, it doesn't. I guess I'm used to big breaks between the seasons, and we had a short break. Not long enough to grow my hair back. If I don't have my hair back, I feel like it's the same season.
This is the last time you guys are going to be doing this – has that sunk in?
Well, it's bittersweet. I'm sad that it's over, but I'm excited to see how it ends, you know? So it's kind of both of those things.
In the final episode of the last season, Pete has this very touching moment of saying goodbye to his kid, and then heading off to start a new life. How do you see where he is as this season begins?
I think you've said it perfectly. He's embracing the fact that he may be able to make a new start. I mean, it's something I can relate to, because every time I start a new show — or play or movie — I can go into it and create a new type of atmosphere. I think Pete hopes that he won't make the same mistakes, and he will be more the persona that he hopes to be. It's certainly something he needs.
Like a lot of the characters in the show, he's previously had these kind of epiphanies when it's revealed to him that the consequences of his behavior have been very bad for him. Does this feel like a different level of actual understanding, on his part?
Well, I've long said that [in my own life] I have many epiphanies, but no real action is taken on those revelations. I thinks others may be like me. It's hard to change, you know? You can change in the short term but in the long term, it's hard. I think, especially, if you're doing the same job in the same place with the same people, or having the same personal life.
So I think he's hoping, and expecting, that with all of his growth in the last few seasons, he can finally apply it to a new atmosphere — [one] where people aren't expecting him to be who he was in the past, and he really can enact those changes. He can really embrace the transformation, because he's not stuck in the same old rut.
How does the experience of Mad Men compare to other things you've done – say, shooting a big Hollywood movie. In what ways is it similar, how is it different? How intense is it when you guys are in production?
Well, if you know anything about me, you'll know that most of what I've done is huge blockbuster films.
You've been in some big productions!
No, that's true. I'm just being hilarious and it's not working. You know, it's very different. It's just different from the first season, you know? Our crew and our budget has grown enormously, and … but it's very different. This is the most amazing work experience I've ever had in 29 years, and I've had some great experiences. It's been really special, not only because the world embraced what we were doing, but just because I have a real fondness for these people, and we've all grown to be close and to know each other. We've had a lot of fun.
One of the other things that happened at the end of the last season is that everybody's secrets were revealed except for one secret, which is Peggy's and Pete's. How much has that weighed on him? How important has that been in his life?
I'm going to say not very. Most people will think, Impossible, how can that be? But if you were to go out and do a survey of 1,000 people who have been in situations like this, I think you would be surprised at how many people would say, you know, I thought about it a lot at first, and as the years have gone on I think about it less and less…and now I almost never think about it at all.If something is too distracting or too heavy, you just compartmentalize it; if you don't, you become a mess. I think you could say, maybe he is a mess, but he's not consciously thinking about those things.
Your character is in to L.A. this season. Has it been fun to have your character be there?
Yes, because it's a character I've been doing for so long … I know him pretty well. I know how he reacts to his environment, and I get to throw this very new experience at him. I don't have to wrestle with the character, because that's established. I just get to let him explore this place in this very organic form. And it feels wonderful. I'm always blessed – well, not blessed, but grateful – when Matthew and the team decide to do something different and interesting with my guy.
Pete would be probably just a few years past retirement now. Do you ever think about how his life might have played out?
Oh, I don't know. I think about it as much as probably Pete does, you know? I think if I was to say what Pete's dream is, he's some sort of an iconic figure in the advertising world, and people flock to him to find out his secret. You know, he dishes them out as he chooses to whom he chooses. People respect him.
His biggest fears are that he becomes unimportant. A shadow, kind of lurking in an office somewhere. I don't really know which one is really going to happen. Just like in my own life; it's impossible to say whether that will happen to me.
If Matthew offered you a spin-off show —Pete Campbell in LA, in the 1970s — would you do it?
Well, I mean … that's a lot of hypotheticals, but yes, because it's Matthew Weiner coming to me saying that. I love his writing. I love this character. I'd love to continue to explore it, absolutely. But it would never happen. [Laughs] It's not something I would ever … I've never even entertained that thought.
In any case, I can't wait to see what happens next.