Pete Campbell has taken a beating this season, both physically and emotionally. He’s been decked by three people, he was erased from his lover’s memory, and his “epic poem” of a commute is killing him. And yet his life, on the surface, has never sounded more perfect: He’s highly esteemed by clients, he has an adorably pudgy baby, and he’s married to a doting wife who showers him with care. He’s the quintessential character-you-love-to-hate — and also the character you feel curiously sad for. Vincent Kartheiser plays Pete to a T and has managed to turn his famous bitch face into one of the most reliably terrific reaction shots on the show. We talked to Kartheiser about the source of Pete’s angst, his physical transformation (he shaved his hairline and gained 25 pounds), and his favorite Pete Campbell expressions of all time.
Congratulations on Pete making it out of season five alive. I think we were all a little worried for him.
Thank you very much.
I talked to Jared Harris last week and he said you both were worried for your characters this season. How afraid were you that Pete would commit suicide?
I guess you don’t really think about it too much. You deal with the script at hand. It’s a complex show that we’re making and there’s a lot of things you have to consider for every episode, so luckily for that you don’t have a lot of time to dwell on the what-ifs, you know?
It provides a little solace knowing that the show doesn’t usually take the obvious route?
Everyone’s been talking about how punchable Pete’s face is this season. Are you proud when you hear about his punchability, since that’s kind of the goal with his character?
[Laughs.] I’ve been hearing that my whole life. I just have one of those faces you just wanna rip to pieces. I don’t know if I’m proud, but I think it’s a testament to the writing over the last five years that they’ve built animosity in our audiences towards a character that has done some pretty despicable things and, at the same time, who has lived a life in a perfectly moral way. I think most people who are throwing those stones should take a look at their own life. I’m sure no one’s done quite as many despicable things in a row, but no one’s perfect. If I went into anyone’s closet, I’m sure I’d find something they don’t want us to know about.
A lot of people think Pete reached a despicable low for engineering the indecent proposal with Joan. Do you disagree?
I actually kind of do disagree, because she said yes, didn’t she? He was kind of right, you know? I mean, he kind of felt that she might say yes, they gave her a good offer, and most great businesses are built on a great crime and that wasn’t that heinous of a crime. It’s not a wonderful thing, but I think he really wanted that account and he really believed that that character could veto it. And like I said, I felt like if it was someone who he thought wouldn’t say yes, he wouldn’t have done it. And Lane and Roger were both kind of fine with it. They just didn’t wanna be the one to have to take it on their conscience.
Although I thought he might have misinterpreted her reaction — that you couldn’t afford her — when he asked how much it would cost. Her response could have been construed two different ways.
But he didn’t [misinterpret her]. He was right. He construed it correctly, so, you know, he was right.
Going back to your punchability: A big part of it comes down to Pete’s sneer, otherwise known as his bitch face. Do you work on that face in front of a mirror, or is it an expression you just use in daily life?
Actors don’t work on things in mirrors, I don’t think. You just play the moment, and Peter is bitter. Especially in relation to this girl. I’m thinking of that scene where she calls him and he’s so pissed and has that look on his face through it all, and he’s just very bitter. He feels like he’s being kind of used and abused and taken for granted. If you have those emotions inside of you, they come out on your face.
Do you feel like it comes out in your real life, too, or is it a look that you’ve worked on?
Well, Peter has specific mannerisms. And I’ve developed those through the five seasons we’ve shot. I fall into those more simply when I’m playing Peter. My sneer in real life is probably more subtle and less bitchy.
My colleague pointed out that Pete and Don are the same in a lot of ways. They’re both adulterers, they’ve both asked lovers to run away with them, they both love Peggy. So why do you think people like to hate on Pete so much more than Don?
Well, I think there’s the obvious thing which I’ve been saying since the first season, which is that [Don]’s charming and roguishly handsome and he says things in a way that is really cool and he’s usually sometimes cold but always kind of succinct and has cool one-liners. Whereas Pete kind of has this self-hating whininess about the way he kind of expels those emotions of his. And I think someone’s whiny petulance tends to make people cringe and dislike them.
Is it that Pete is entitled and Don isn’t?
I think Don does have an entitlement, and I think he does have a level of ego. The same level of ego. Don really feels entitled to his wife doing what he wants his wife to do at the time that he wants his wife to do it. And he also feels entitled to run the agency the way he wants to run it and he doesn’t have to listen to the other partners. And so I feel like there is that entitlement, but I think the audience forgives him that because he’s our protagonist.
Going to one of your last scenes in the finale, Trudy hops onboard with the Manhattan apartment idea. But I got the sense Pete was on the verge of finally accepting his suburban life. He was so defeated. Did you feel that, too?
Yeah, I mean, he kind of falls in love with this other woman and he falls in lust with her and he perceives some dream life with her in California or anywhere and then when that’s gone, the idea of going through that again with another woman or being hurt again by a woman I think has made him kind of feel like, Well I’m not gonna do that again, I’m gonna stick with what I’ve got. And he goes home to kind of be like, You’re steady, you’re always here for me and your love doesn’t hurt me or reject me. And he might be walking in with the goal of saying that, and he even does say, “I’ll come home, I’ll be home, I will, it will happen.” And she says, “No, that’s okay, [get] your apartment.” And I think he does feel a little uneasy like, Oh, okay, well maybe this isn’t consistent anymore. Maybe she’s about to reject me, too.
This has been such an unhappy season for Pete and you have such an eloquent monologue at the hospital. Did Matt Weiner sit you down early on to discuss the source of Pete’s constant dissatisfaction with life? What is this “permanent wound” Pete is talking about?
He did. At certain points he did. There was that scene with the skis, where he gets these skis and he realizes that the success and acknowledgment he’s been craving has arrived. It is in front of him in the form of his colleagues giving him business, and clients trying to reach out and impress him. And what Matt said was, “There it is, there’s the thing you wanted in life, and it doesn’t complete you. It doesn’t fulfill you. It’s not that great.” And whenever that happens in you life, you start looking for something else to complete you, at least Peter does, and that’s where his affair with this girl comes in: It’s okay, I’m not gonna feel complete through work, I don’t feel completed from fatherhood, I don’t feel completed from acknowledgment from my colleagues. Maybe love, maybe some new fling will give me that sense of fulfillment. And Matt said something really interesting. We did a panel last week and he said something about success, about how we look at success in our society and we think that’s easy. But success isn’t easy. Success is really hard and it’s painful, and it takes a lot out of you, and I think that’s a big part of it. You have to make a lot of sacrifices, sometimes do things you don’t wanna do and be a person you don’t wanna be. You have to maybe be a pimp or you have to maybe steal or you have to be ruthless, and those steps that get you to a place of success in your life, the things you have to do to get there, they change you. Just like Joan having sex to have her partnership. Well, that’s gonna be with her for always. She’ll get the success, but it comes at a price, and it’s not easy, it’s not simple, it’s not happy. It’s hard and it takes something from you. It alters you.
That’s certainly what happened to Lane. He was always trying hard for success.
Right. You don’t get the success without paying the price and that price is often your character or your integrity.
That’s a huge theme this season.
Absolutely. Like Jon [Hamm] with his successful marriage, or Peggy having to leave the people she loves to have success. It comes with a price.
I loved Don’s speech when he meets with Dow Chemical, where he asks, “What is happiness? It’s just another moment before you need more happiness.” —
That’s right. The scene I loved in the finale is the scene where he watches Megan in her screen test. I just thought there’s a scene with no dialogue. Just a man watching a video and she looked gorgeous in black and white and his face, I mean, I got shivers. The hair went up on the back of my neck just watching that performance. I thought it was brilliant.
Everyone keeps wondering when Pete and Peggy’s kid is going to resurface. Do you and Elisabeth Moss ever hypothesize about the baby’s whereabouts? Do you have theories?
Nope. We don’t. I mean, we really leave the plot points ambiguous because we’re always excited to see where it goes. You don’t wanna have hopes or expectations because, truthfully, Matt has such great ideas and we really trust him.
I love the scene where Joan brings her baby to the office and leaves him with Peggy and when Pete sees them he kind of stares at the carriage with a look that says, I hope that’s not mine.
Right. “What is that?” That’s the great thing about this show, is that just like in real life, you hardly ever think about those things and then they smack you in the face out of left field. It really mimics our real lives in that way. Just when you least expect — it’s like Beth showing up on the train in the last episode. He’s finally kind of over her, he’s finally kind of moving on, and then just like in real life, just when you finally get over someone, boom, they show up at a premiere or a screening and there they are, and you’re like, Oh shit, I just stopped thinking about this girl. And it’s kind of the same with the baby. You never, ever think about it. And then there’s a baby and it’s like, Oh shit, that’s right; that thing happened between me and this person.
As a fellow Mad Men junkie, do you hope that Pete and Trudy ever get to dance again?
[Laughs.] Yeah, I love every scene I have with her. I’m always very excited when I know there’s a Trudy episode. We have great chemistry and she’s a great actress. So yeah, I love to do physical stuff. I love to dance and love to be in my body, so Matt thankfully writes a lot of stuff in for me like that. You know, physical comedy and falling and hitting myself and getting in fights — I had a lot of that this year. It’s something that I love to do and I’m so grateful that Matt writes it for me.
So many amazing expressions come out of Pete’s mouth. “Christ on a cracker” is my favorite. Do you have any favorites that you use in real life?
I really like “Hell’s bells, Trudy.” [Assuming Pete’s voice.] Hell’s bells, Trudy. I love “Christ on a cracker.” Or “a thing like that,” which I didn’t say this season, but there were three seasons in a row that I had a good “a thing like that.” Yeah, or the line in the finale, “Well, I’m the president of the Howdy Doody circus army.” I really liked that line.