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Grilling Mad Men star Vincent Kartheiser, a.k.a. Pete Campbell, on what the show really means



vincent_kartheiser.jpgHe doesn't want to sound like a broken record or an apologist.

But Vincent Kartheiser spends a fair amount of time in many interviews defending his character, young ambitious ad man Pete Campbell from AMC's hit drama Mad Men.

Yes, he seemed to push a young au pair into having sex with him; but it was unclear whether she gave into pressure for sex or was attracted to him, Katheiser says. Yes, he had an affair with Elisabeth Moss' plucky copywriter Peggy Olson, who then had his love child and gave it up for adoption; but Campbell didn't find out about the kid until two years later.

"Being the actor that plays this character, I’m inclined to see Pete’s side of it," he said, laughing a little. "I feel like he’s made changes in his life. Maybe that’s showing the audience another side of him. He’s learned to dampen some of these immediate responses. I think his wife has helped him to grow a lot. She’s been a real stabilizing force, someone he’s learned to listen to.”

As Mad Men wraps up its fourth season Sunday, so many questions loom, fans' heads are spinning. Will the ad firm employing Campbell and hero Don Draper survive the loss of major account Lucky Strikes? Did bombshell office manager Joan Harris actually abort the pregnancy which resulted from her one-night stand with spoiled rich boy partner Roger Sterling? Will Draper's decision to run a New York Times ad criticizing tobacco save the company or kill it?

And will Draper's daughter Sally survive living with loveless mother Betty and her new husband Henry Francis?

To sort through it all, I tapped a blue-ribbon panel of Mad Menologists, including novelist Connie May Fowler, TV writer Ken Levine and Columbia University professor Evangeline Morphos. Check out some of our conclusions by perusing my story for Sunday's Floridian here.

episode-11-pete.jpgBut don't bother asking Karthieser; even if he could say without jeopardizing one of the best acting gigs on TV, he wouldn't. "I feel like (saying what a scene means) takes away from my job as an audience member. It’s not compete, this process, until it's interpreted by the observer.  I wouldn’t want to tell anyone what it really means. This show asks questions; finding the answers are your job."

Me: Has Pete come into his own this season?

Vinnie: “I feel like the first two seasons, he was more outspoken and had more youthful ego driving him. This raw ambition, not to care if its crass or appropriate. I don’t know if the taming of that emotion shows us a different side of Pete. He’s grown out of a lot of things – philandering on his wife, for example.”

Or forcing that Au Pair to have sex with him.

“That scene has been pretty controversial. That idea that he raped that au pair as been a little bit assumed by some of our audience. It stands as a smear on his character. I think what really happened was more about the difference between man and woman. There are two sides to that story. Being the actor that plays this character, I’m inclined to see Pete’s side of it.”

He seems to have progressed from being a guy with ambition and little business ability to a cornerstone in the firm.

“It’s funny because in our country we look at that  -- becoming a better businessman -- as a good thing. But what these guys are doing is selling us stuff we may not need.People say, 'Pete’s becoming a better guy,' well, he's learning how to cover Don’s lies and shake hands with racists. You know, sometime I miss the Pete that spoke his mind a little more.”

kartheiser-pete.jpgDo you spend much time on set dissecting what these scenes really mean?

“I’m constantly surprised by all the layers and subliminal and symbolic things written into these shows. I don’t think (creator Matt Weiner) – well, I’m not going to speculate on what he thinks. It’s already so rich with meaning and tone. Every episode has a speciifc idea about the human condition. There seems to be a specific tone or thesis, what it’s really about and supposed to encompass. I’m shocked at how much I never thought of these issues that way. Sometimes its really obvious – I’m like how did I not get that? A lot of it is so subtle. And the way real people talk. I think the audience get it.”

Got an example of when you were confused?

“That moment with Freddie Rumson when he comes back to the firm and I say 'Freddie, there’s a question we’ve all been dying to know; I’m sorry to bring this up." And Roger Sterling interrupts me to say 'Will you play Santa for Christmas?' I don’t know why I didn’t connect the two, but I thought I was actually going to ask him about Santa (instead of whether he'd gotten control of the alcoholism that first got him fired). Sometimes I miss those simple things. Sometimes its heavier than that.”

Do you have a hard time talking about the meaning of these scenes fans are busy dissecting?

"TV is a hard thing to put the word art into. But in entertainment art, I feel like there’s three parts, the idea, the creation and the viewing of it. The audience has a role in my opinion. You have a job as an audience member to be in tune and attuned, to put yourself into it. It’s not compete, this process, until its interpreted by the observer. In my opinion, there is no right of wrong there. I wouldn’t want to tell anyone what it really means. This show asks questions; the answers are the audience's job.

katheiser-peteandpeggy.jpgThis seems to be a season that's mostly about breaking down Don Draper.

“Now, you’re asking me the observer – you’re just asking another observer. I think these things come in waves for people. You go through periods in your life where you're up and down. It’s cyclical. I can’t say what’s ging to happen with Don. Ultimately, that's Jon Hamm's character. You’re working 15 hours days, you’re not going to walk off the stage and say 'Hey Jon, tell me about Don Draper; those conversations rarely happen. But Don's been reaching out for someone to love him since the very beginning. He’s definitely hit some crucial breaking points this season. Emotionally that mask has cracked. That’s been an amzing performance. And with Don you never know; there’s always a wild card, at any moment he could turn and fire you or abandon you.”

Why do you think Draper gave Pete $50,000 to fund his stake in the company?

“I don’t know – I’ll say the reason Pete Campbell covered for him because, what else are you going to do? This is your company and you don’t drop a grenade on the company. It’s family. You do what you have to do. I also think Pete would never want another man holding money over him. If he ever gets $50K, he’s going to pay him back. We have been building to that moment for four years in a lot of ways. These are two people are locked in this relationship, no matter what they think of each other. It’s like Peggy and Pete -- no matter what happens, they’ll always have that bond between them.”

[Last modified: Sunday, October 17, 2010 4:59pm]


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