As Mad Men's exasperatingly cheeky Pete Campbell, Vincent Kartheiser delivers a generational foil to his superiors at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Though Don's junior, he still drinks heavily, fights the yoke of suburbia, cavorts with pretty young things and seeks ever-fleeting contentment.
In anticipation of the premiere of Mad Men's sixth season this Sunday, April 7th, Kartheiser spoke with Rolling Stone about the character arc of Pete Campbell, playing cribbage between takes and why, after years of traversing Los Angeles by city bus, the actor finally bought a Volkswagen.
How has Pete Campbell changed over six seasons?
(laughs) Has he changed over six seasons?
I don't know.
Let's say, over five seasons, because I can't really talk about the sixth season. I would say last season, he calmed down a little bit; he had reached his potential in some areas of his business world. He was beginning to get accolades. The family and the life in Connecticut has calmed him down. That being said, in many ways he has not changed; he was still a malcontent. It was still not enough for him. His personal life still needed a lot of handling, a lot of daycare. He needed a lot attention, prostitutes and mistresses constantly telling him that he's enough and he's worthy of love.
That's touched on in the hospital scene with his mistress [played by Alexis Bledel, Kartheiser's real-life fiancée]. Where does that feeling come from?
His parents never loved him. They never made him feel worthy, he was never good enough, and he never got over it.
How has your approach to playing Pete changed over five seasons?
That changes script-to-script. At the beginning, he was very, very ambitious and he was very hungry and wanted everyone to like him and he also wanted success. And somewhere around Season Three or Four, when success began to come to him, he no longer wanted everyone to like him, he just wanted everyone to respect him, and to obey him. And I think maybe now, he wants people to like him again. And around Season Five he was like, 'I need someone to love me; doesn't anyone love me?' And the world said, 'No, we don't.'
If Betty represents The Feminine Mystique and Don is The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, where does Pete fit in this time period? I think it's shifted. I think he represented the age that was coming up at the beginning of the show, and he represented the man that was able to see the future. That was in front of the curve. And I think as we are getting a little later in the series, he is representing the older, more conservative male who is thinking things are moving a little too fast now.
Are you still taking public transit all over Los Angeles?
No, I bought a car. I still take public transit sometimes.
What kind of car did you buy?
I bought a $20,000 Volkswagen.
Was it pre-owned?
Oh, no, it was new. I splurged.
What made you finally get a car?
I was just going too many places every day, and I was trying to run errands, and I was remodeling my house, and I was having to go to stores, and taking a bus to and from Bed Bath and Beyond and the mall and West Elm. It literally takes two days to do all that. And then getting off the bus with bags of stuff. It started to get to me. It all just kind of caught up to me. I'd gone without a car for four years in Los Angeles. And I just thought I've done my bit. I still do take the bus a lot when it's convenient.
Did buying a car having anything to do with dating a beautiful woman?
No, I got wheels about a year before I met her.
So maybe the wheels helped make that happen?
(laughs) I wouldn't know.
Will we see Alexis Bledel again?
I can't say.
I know. But you met on set?
Yeah we didn't know each other before we started working.
I read that the cast plays dominoes on set. What else do you do?
Play cribbage, play dominoes, read a book, take a nap.
Who is the best cribbage player?
Who would argue with you on that?
They would all argue with me on that. I'm the best domino player, I'm the best cribbage player, I'm the best book reader, I'm the best napper, I tell the best stories, I am the best looking, I am the strongest, I am the fastest. I am none of those things.
I feel like Jon Hamm could really kill some cribbage.
Why would you think that?
Because he's one of those good-at-everything kind of people. But maybe that's just how they market him.
No, that's true. Do you want me to give the phone to him?
If you were writing the script, where would Pete go in this season?
I'd like to see Pete succeed. I'd like to see Pete have a little bit of happiness in his life.
Do you ever give notes to [creator] Matt Weiner?
Oh Matt doesn't do anything without my say-so. So you know what will happen is Matt will have an idea and before he tells the writing room about it, he gives me a call and I give him the yes or no on it. I usually send him some notes, and then he makes sure he understands them, and then he brings them to the writing room.
No, I don't give Matthew Weiner notes. I don't give him ideas. I have faith he knows more about everything than me. I just stay out of it, and try not to knock shit over.
Is there anything you can tell us about Pete in terms of where he is and where he's going?
I can tell you that if you like Pete Campbell, you are going to like Season Six.