Mad Men is back!
Wednesday 21 March 2012 20.00 GMT
Cold, spiteful – and compelling
People used to come up to Vincent Kartheiser and tell him, to his face, that they hated him. I can see why – he inhabits the often spiteful, always immature role of Mad Men's Pete Campbell with such aplomb that I consider it a point of pride that I only call him "Pete" once during our 25-minute conversation. The good news for Kartheiser, however, is that it's happening a little less these days.
"Well, it still happens sometimes," he says, "but those people are usually a couple of seasons behind. Some of Pete's immaturity went away in season four when he was given a title and more power at the agency. By that point the writers had made all of the characters a little bit human."
This embodies what we love about all of Mad Men's characters but Pete especially: that they change, and that no person is simply all good or all bad. And whereas it's a bit odd to say Pete is your favourite Mad Men character, he's definitely one of the most compelling. Clearly talented but with a sense of entitlement, he has a willpower as weak as his putdowns can be cold. Yet Kartheiser says he instantly liked the character and reasons that even his most cutting lines – such as when he tells Peggy: "If you pull your waist in a little bit, you might look like a woman" – come from a motivated place.
"As an actor you focus on what you feel towards the person you're speaking to and where you're coming from emotionally … so from that perspective it doesn't feel cold or cruel, it just feels like you're standing up for yourself or lashing out or releasing your anger. We all do those things in real life, lord knows I've said plenty of things that have made me sound like an egotistical little snot!"
Often Pete's immaturity adds humour to the show – one of my favourite scenes is the unexpected discovery that Pete and his wife Trudy are excellent dancers ("we were all seeing different trainers for two weeks for just 25 seconds of film"). Yet when they're dancing the Charleston, Pete's vision remains fixed on his bosses, desperately seeking out their admiration.
Other things are harder to stomach. One scene that set the blogosphere alight was in season three when Pete slept with his neighbour's German au pair after he helped her get a dress mended. As with many things on Mad Men all was not made explicit and it was understandable why some viewers assumed he had raped her. Kartheiser maintains that the scene was never supposed to imply rape but concedes that "there were ways that we could have shown her consensual-ness a bit better. I think I'm to blame for some of that because it was perceived the way we did it to be more forceful than it was. It was definitely forceful and manipulative in some ways, but I do believe she ultimately wants what happens to happen."
Despite these scenes, there are glimpses of warmth and kindness in Pete which keep him interesting. His relationship with Peggy – who gives away the child after their brief fling – is key to the show, and Kartheiser admits those are his favourite scenes.
"There was a scene last season where she reads a card and finds out Trudy is going to have a baby," he says. "She comes to my office and says congratulations. I think she's talking about work and she says: 'No, the baby.' It's a very simple scene but also very subtle with just the right amount of restraint and undercurrent of emotion."
He says their relationship mirrors real life, where you can try to ignore something important but sometimes you can't. He could even be talking about the wonderful slow-burn nature of the show itself when he says: "Their relationship is like a needle left in your clothing. You don't see it, you don't see it … then you sit down and it jabs you straight in the back."