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Is Vincent Kartheiser anything like Mad Men's Pete Campbell?

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Vincent Kartheiser as Pete Campbell in Mad Men
Vincent Kartheiser as Pete Campbell in Mad Men
Unlike his character on "Mad Men," 32-year-old Vincent Kartheiser, whose face is even more youthful in person, has a beard. His hair is not slicked back like Pete Campbell's, but flops down into his face, and he's sans tie and suit jacket.

That's not where the differences end, either.

Sitting in a hotel room at the Gramercy Park Hotel in Manhattan, between sips of tea with honey -- he's getting over a cold and no doubt weary from endless interviews and appearances to promote the premiere of the AMC show's fifth season this weekend -- Mr. Kartheiser chatted with Ad Age about the numerous contrasts between him and the at-once pompous and insecure Campbell.

For one thing, Mr. Kartheiser grew up without a TV and is a minimalist. He's not worried about social status or desperate for approval -- or even to be known. And despite the fact that the Hollywood game is all publicity, he has no Facebook account and claims he's not really sure how to pronounce "Twitter."

Advertising Age: You got your first taste of the ad business long before you joined the cast of "Mad Men." I read somewhere that you did commercial voice-overs when you were growing up in Minneapolis. What was that like?

Vincent Kartheisier: One year I did 65 radio commercials! I made good money when I was a young man doing that sort of thing. I think I was 9 years old when I did 65 radio commercials. And I would do some print. Remember [retailer and catalog company] Fingerhut? I did stuff like that. But not as much as voice; voice was my bread and butter.

Ad Age: On the show you are clean-shaven, wear crisp suits and live in a fancy apartment with your wife Trudy. But sartorially speaking, that's not what you're like. Your personal style seems way more casual. So what does that mean for getting into character and for your relationship with Janie Bryant, the costume designer for "Mad Men"?

Mr. Kartheiser: It's lovely. Anytime we can do something that's so different than ourselves, it gives you a head start into finding parts of yourself you can explore. That's the fun part of my job -- pretending to be someone I'm not. It's what we all love to do, and it's where we feel needed when we're actors. We get a chance to use our imagination and our interpretation of something. It's nice to have things that kind of kick-start you away from yourself, because you're used to making the choices you always make. At least I am. If someone was to give me a clean slate, a piece of paper and said, "Create a character," it's harder than if someone said here are these set things: "You're an ad executive, you wear this suit and you have a wife and a kid." Then I'm already three steps away from myself.

Janie Bryant has impeccable taste, and I have no taste at all. So, without her, I'd be completely lost.

Ad Age: In real life, you're pretty much a minimalist or an ascetic, yet on the show your job is meant to sell people stuff. Does that make you disgusted with the character you have to play at times?

Mr. Kartheiser: Well that's all of our jobs. Even as an actor, that's my job, and the product is myself. ... But I'm never disgusted with Pete Campbell, and I'm not disgusted with other people in real life, either, who don't make the choices that I make. I don't make them because I think they're superior choices. I make them because it's what feels comfortable to me. I'm a minimalist not because I think it's terrible to own a lot of things, but because I find it more convenient not to own a lot of things. It never strikes me to go out and buy things.

Ad Age: But as someone who's anti-consumerist, do you think the business of advertising is evil?

Mr. Kartheiser: No, I think advertising is necessary. I think advertising helps out the little guys as much as it helps out big corporations. If we didn't have advertising how would little companies ever get a foothold against corporations like Coca-Cola or Walmart? Advertising helps to introduce new ideas and push competitiveness among products, and I think that's an important element to our society.

Ad Age: Do you have a television?

Mr. Kartheiser: Yeah, I do have a television. And I watch TV.

Ad Age: Movies?

Mr. Kartheiser: I don't watch as much as I should. I watch a lot of Netflix. Recently I've been getting into the "Alfred Hitchock Presents" [series], 'cause I never really watched a lot of those and even the ones I did see, I'd forgotten. There's so many great movies that I still haven't seen from the old days that it's hard to keep up with the new ones.

Ad Age: Who are some of the actors you grew up admiring?

Mr. Kartheiser: When I was growing up, 'cause I was raised without a television, the actors i admired were from the theater that I grew up at, the Guthrie in Minneapolis. Actors whose names you wouldn't know but who changed my life. Men and women who took me under their wing and they became different characters every season. As I became a teenager, I looked up to people like Gary Oldman.

Ad Age: How did you prepare for the role of the account man in an ad agency? Did you read or research, maybe things like "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit" or books about corporate conformity in the '60s?

Mr. Kartheiser: I did a little bit of that. I read a little bit of "Ogilvy on Advertising" and Advertising Age. But to tell you the truth, our show is about advertising, but it doesn't matter whether your character is a copywriter or an artist or an agent. We're human beings and the human experience is universal and the characters have much less to do with their jobs than people think they do.

Especially Pete, who never really thinks of himself as a people person. For Pete, the story is much less about how well he understands being an account executive and how well he understands the industry, and it's much more about the ambition. The things he's trying to prove to himself, to his father, to people around him. His insecurities, his fears, his desires, his passion, his love. That's what's going to drive every character, so whether you're Don Draper, being a genius writer and copy man, you're still playing on why he does the things he does and the way he does them, and I draw on the same questions for Pete. It's not important necessarily what his job is, as much as what his job means to him. We all need to feel like we can't be gotten rid of. We all need to feel that we are important in our jobs. And it's taken a few seasons for Pete to get to a place where he feels capable and worthy and valued. Now he actually finds his job important and knows that he's actually bringing something to the table.

Ad Age: There's this awesome scene in season four, when you're sitting on the couch with a very pregnant Trudy in her nightie, and you talk about how other people destroy things and you just had to pick up the pieces. Do you think that's the role of Pete within the agency?

Mr. Kartheiser: I think it's been the role of different people at different times within the agency. But yes, you're right. I think a large amount of the time it is him being the responsible one. But Pete's had his own mishaps ... and people have been there for him. He couldn't put $50,000 into the company, and Don Draper was there to clean up that mess. He's certainly done things that aren't perfect. I think he's just the kind of guy to imagine that he's the one in that responsible role.

Ad Age: Well, you're not only loyal to Don in the role of Pete, but in real life you're also loyal to Jon Hamm. You were the only cast member who spoke up and supported him earlier this week on the "Today" show about his comments slamming reality TV and about Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton being "fucking idiots." So do you think reality TV is rotting America?

Mr. Kartheiser: No, I don't think it's rotting America, but I don't think he's wrong. It's OK to look at something and say what it is. It's OK to look at a McDonald's hamburger and say, "Yeah, I like the taste of them, but they're not good for me." We live in a time where everyone's very aware that there's people who are celebrities because of their fathers or celebrities because of this machine that's selling something very simple and very ordinary, and people are buying it. It's not an awful thing, but I think it's OK to say it's not a splendid thing, either.

Ad Age: You made the point that people like to turn on the TV to see something or someone who is awful, because it makes them feel better about themselves. Don't you think that people might do the same with "Mad Men" -- when the characters are cheating on their spouses or throwing their colleagues under the bus -- and think "at least I'm not that terrible"?

Mr. Kartheiser: Yeah, maybe they do. Maybe all of television is a form of self-reflection. You get out of it what you put into it. Yeah, I think that's a valid assessment. I can't say why people watch the show, and I don't know why anyone watches anything they watch.

There's been shows -- "Top Chef," and other reality-like shows -- that I know I watch and I'm invested in. So to me, I don't think of it as a terrible thing, but I just think of it as obvious.

It's OK for Jon and for myself and others to dream of a time when people expect more, and that's all. It's like the kid in a toy store running up and grabbing the cheapest toy and saying, "Mom, I want this" because it has great advertising and looks amazing. And the mother can look at it and know that it's going to break in two days. But the book that's going to teach the kid doesn't jump out [at him]. It's OK to look at America and say, "I hope for more from us," just like you would look at your kid and hope for more for the kid. Sometimes, you gotta buy the toy they want, but also make sure they read their books or play with Legos or another toy that's going to stretch your imagination. That's all entertainment is. It's a toy, it's an escape. None of it is so lofty or great. The greatest novel in the world is still a piece of fiction and no greater than Kim Kardashian's show.

Kartheiser, with Hamm and John Slattery in season 4.
Kartheiser, with Hamm and John Slattery in season 4. Credit: AMC

Ad Age: Jon also said he thinks it's funny that he's landed in some kind of Twitter feud, because he's not even on Twitter. How about you. Are you on Twitter?

Mr. Kartheiser: No. And I'm not on Facebook.

Ad Age: Is that purely for privacy or you're just not interested?

Mr. Kartheiser: I think self-expression has become a form of entertainment, and that's wonderful for people who like it. But I remember a time when you you used to have to have something to say to be handed the microphone.

Ad Age: Did you know that there's a Twitter feed? @VincentKFan?

Mr. Kartheiser: No.

Ad Age: It has 27 followers.

Mr. Kartheiser: [Guffaws]. That doesn't sound good. I don't have a lot of fans!

Ad Age: That's probably not true. But why do you say that?

Mr. Kartheiser: Well, 27 followers doesn't sound very good.

Ad Age: It appears to be run by the same person who runs the Vincent Kartheiser Fan website.

Mr. Kartheiser: Does that have 27 members?

Ad Age: No, sort of creepily, it has thousands and thousands of pictures of you.

Mr. Kartheiser: Oh. I've been doing this a long time. I'm sure I have a few rabid fans. It's nice to know that people watch and care. That's cool. It's a funny world, and I'm just glad to have a job. There's fans of this show, and I consider that a great thing. That's my job, is to be a part of this show and to be a character on this show. It's not to promote myself. I don't need fans of Vincent Kartheiser, I'd rather people are fans of Pete Campbell.

Ad Age: It's kind of amazing that in the era of social media that there's next to nothing out there about the new season of "Mad Men." It's incredibly well-protected at a time when all kinds of information gets out into the universe before it's meant to, or before people want it to. How is that possible?

Mr. Kartheiser: We just don't tell people. If you want to keep a secret don't tell anyone. And beyond that, I don't think anyone is on [pronounces it as Tweeeter].

Ad Age: You're kidding. You know how to pronounce it.

Mr. Kartheiser: I honestly fucked that up. I don't think anyone is on Twitter? Twitter. In our family. I'm not a fan of the Twitter or the Facebook. I don't really know. Maybe Rich [Sommer, who plays the role of Harry Crane] is. It's pretty simple to just not say anything, and everyone's been doing this a really long time, acting for decades. We're just an older school of people, we're not chomping at the bit to become famous and compete... It's just a different approach to careers and lives than publicity.

Ad Age: What's something people should know about Matthew Weiner?

Mr. Kartheiser: He's incredibly loving. He's someone who can know you for two hours and probably know more about you than most of your friends just through his observational skills. He's a very observant person and he sees to the heart of people and sees what really matters to them and does it very quickly. It's quite frightening actually.

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