The TV series portrays the ad men as archetypes, always selling versions of themselves to anyone who will listen. And Kartheiser, on the screen, is able to convey that sense perfectly.
So, among all the riddling personas, does he have a stable sense of who he is? One thing is for sure – he is not defined by his possessions.He considers for a moment. “I know there is someone in there,” he says. “I guess we are all on a big search to figure out who we are.”
Some of the ways that Kartheiser has chosen to do this are unconventional. He has, for example, in the city of freeways, given up on a car.
“I go on the bus. I walk. A friend left his car recently at my house and I took it out one day just for 15 minutes and it was terrible. You know why? I felt like I was back in LA again.
“Now I feel off the grid. I feel that I am not part of the culture. And because I dont have a car I dont really go anywhere to buy things. In fact, I have been in a slow process of selling and giving away everything I own.” Like what? “Like, I dont have a toilet at the moment. My house is just a wooden box. I mean I am planning to get a toilet at some point. But for now I have to go to the neighbours. I threw it all out.”
To prove the point he later takes the interviewer back to his house, which really is an empty box a small one room bungalow on a nondescript Hollywood street and, indeed, it has no toilet. Is it a Buddhist thing, or an early midlife crisis thing?
“It started a couple of years ago,” he says. “It was in response to going to these Golden Globe type events and they just give you stuff. You dont want it. You dont use it.
“And then Mad Men started to become a success on a popular level and people started sending me stuff, just boxes of s***. Gifts for every holiday, clothes. One day, I looked around and thought I dont want this stuff, I didnt ask for it. So I started giving it to friends or charity stores, or if it is still in its box I might sell it for a hundred bucks. I liked it so I didnt stop.”
Does he have a bed?
“I do,” he concedes, “but that might go”
“Actually, that was the big discussion today, when a friend came over. I was wondering, should I have a screen in my home? It seems like the next step. I havent had a mirror for six or seven years, though I admit that causes a lot of problems when I have to tie a bow tie. Or if I have to, you know, comb my hair for something. Im forever looking in the mirrors of parked cars.”
It sounds a bit like an extreme reaction to the venal material desire of Mad Men.
He laughs. “I probably should be worried. Sometimes, I look around my house and think, Is this normal, Vinny? I mean, its a bit more than just a remodel.”
So what does he do with all his money?
“I dont have a lot of money. I get some from Mad Men. But I dont think Im rich.”
Surely he should be by now? Mad Men sells across the world. Or is his agent very rich?
“I dont really use an agent,” he says though he is signed to ICM. “Maybe thats where I am going wrong. TV is very different from where it was 10 years ago. There are so many more channels, so much less ad money. Contracts have gone through the floor. At least mine have.
“Someone is no doubt making a ton of money. But it doesnt go to the actors or the writers or the journalists or whoever. We are way, way down the food chain.
Does Kartheiser, single, possessionless, doing brilliant make believe for a living, have anxieties in this regard by any chance?
“I dont think anyone feels like a grown up,” he says. “Grown up is just a word that kids use to describe someone who is not having any fun.
The great strength of period pieces such as Mad Men is that they hold a mirror up to our own times. What lessons does he take from it?
“Mad Men is about that whole idea of corporate money as we understand it and how it was really built by America,” he says. “We are seeing the fallout of some of that now.”
Though series creator Matthew Weiner is in overall charge of the nuance of the story, nearly all his writing team are women. Does Kartheiser think that is one reason that men vain, unfaithful, treacherous dont come out of it too well?
“Well, men are assholes at some level, arent they?” he says. “The powerful white male in history is like the most evil entity, isnt he? Mad Men is a portrait of white men doing their stuff, just as their power is coming under a bit of threat
Kartheiser, meanwhile, hints at a complicated private life. “Ive never been monogamous,” he says. “It might happen, but it never has yet. I dont understand women Im off that kick.”
He wears a wedding ring “just so I can flash it to warn people off if I need to,” he laughs, in a stagey demonic way, “or at least put it on in the morning”.
Does he fear that fame will get in the way of any relationship or, at least, Pete will?
“Im just not that grounded,” he says. “I just think LA is a very tough place in that respect. Since Mad Men got popular, I spend more time with my family. I like going back there.”
Sometimes, Kartheiser says, fame isnt all it might be. He’s sitting telling stories on an old car seat on the porch of a house in West Hollywood in the sun. For instance, he says, hed met a woman the previous night and theyd talked for 10 minutes before she had asked him the inevitable question: “How do I know your face?” Kartheiser had no option but to own up. “I said Im that guy Pete Campbell in the TV show Mad Men.”
And then it started. Kartheiser shrugs, resigned: “She said Oh my God, I f***ing hate you. And I go, Well, you mean you hate my character.
“She said No, its more than that. When you come on the screen, I dont want to be in the room. Its a completely physical thing. You make my flesh creep. I loathe you.”
If youve seen even a single episode of Mad Men you will know exactly what the woman meant and exactly why, off screen, Vincent Kartheiser seems at pains to be everything Pete Campbell is not: scruffy, charming, relaxed, witty, unshaven, likable
Mad Men follows the Madison Avenue, New York, advertising men in the 1960s, in a fabled, sharp suited, scotch drinking, skirt chasing, unreconstructed male paradise at the dawn of the consumer age. Pete Campbell is the serpent in its garden, the repressed, preppy malcontent in the offices of Sterling Cooper, forever in the shadow of Don Draper Jon Hamm, the square jawed genius of the sales pitch.
Kartheiser is fascinated by and touchingly loyal to the weak willed and neurotic monster he has created. “You know at the end of series two,” he says, with some surprise and pride, “Pete sits cradling a gun on his lap due to his failing marriage and a doomed affair .?.?. well, apparently most of the audience was desperate for him to shoot himself.”
In person, Kartheiser has none of Campbells oiliness, but a good deal of his complex compulsion. Hes 30, but has been acting for 25 years and even off screen it seems hard for him to stop. He is the youngest son of six. His father was a tools salesman; his mother ran a nursery.
“I was,” he suggests, “aged nine, the go to kid in Minneapolis for a commercial voice over.
He is now the go to guy for a certain kind of smooth and boyish psychosis. Directors seem to see a duplicity in him, a useful doubleness. Where does that come from? He looks askance, or mock askance. “Well, I think certain roles are chosen for us. The moment I read Pete Campbell I thought, I can do this this is mine.
“The truth is I turn down a lot of projects. If a character doesnt have some kind of internal struggle, its no good for me. I think to live in the unnatural world we live in and not have some kind of unresolved issue going on would be naive in the extreme.”
Kartheiser is clever and manic in the hour or two that we talk, sometimes vulnerable, but never quite in earnest, antic and boyish, shouting occasional funny obscenities at the photographer and his assistant as they set up.
Like his characters, he seems to invite psychoanalysis, partly because he rarely stops analysing himself. Hes given up on therapy, he says, “because though I like generally to be healthy in my life, I sometimes like to be unhealthy in my thoughts and my actions”.
A Vanity Fair profile recently followed him on to the set of Mad Men where he was, unsurprisingly, the noisiest of presences: “Between shots, Kartheiser pinwheels around the set, teasing the crew and other actors or loudly psyching himself up for the next shot. Its a funny kind of psyching up. Whats wrong with me? F*** life in the ass, he shouts after one take. Im off today I know it! I know it! Dont bulls*** me, he yells after another. I wish I could be anyone on earth but me! As a colleague says, Its kind of unusual, but it works for him. Its what Vincent needs to do to lose his self consciousness.”
Does he use those John McEnroe ish techniques for a purpose?
“I might scream something to wake up the nerves in my nose and my lips and my eyes, you know” he says. “Thats where I do my work.”
Unlike his alter ego, Kartheiser could sell you any idea, but on this particular pitch Im not quite convinced. Even when, for a photograph, he stands in an empty swimming pool, with a noose around his neck, he never for a moment forgets who he is: a natural born actor and one who never stops auditioning for the fleeting, engaging role of himself.