He's a go-getter, a whippersnapper, an up-and-coming advertising exec whose greatest liability may be his ambition. That, or his penchant for illicitly dipping more than his toe into the steno pool. He's Pete Campbell, and he's played winningly on AMC's super-sexy Mad Men (Thursdays at 10 pm/ET) by Vincent Kartheiser. TVGuide.com invited the Angel alum to emerge from the series' smoke-filled set and share his take on his Mad Ave. alter ego.
TVGuide.com: I'm a huge fan of Mad Men, so I've got to hit you with a burning question, since you're the first cast member I have Q&A'd. The omnipresent cigarettes — what percentage of the cast are smokers who had to pick up the habit again, and how many of you hate having to light up for the scenes?
Vincent Kartheiser: Last year when we did the pilot, very few people were constant smokers; maybe three of the top 10 [cast members]. This year, I actually don't smoke anymore — I quit right after we filmed the pilot — but now I would say a little bit over 50 percent of us smoke. I don't know if it's because of the work, or because they're smoking on the set....
TVGuide.com: It's almost like, how can you not?
Kartheiser: Well, I don't have a problem not smoking. Pete doesn't smoke. But it is hard going to a cast party where everyone is smoking.
TVGuide.com: Much has been made of Mad Men's look, its visual sense of style, but that obviously isn't on the page when you're reading that pilot script. What was it that drew you to the show?
Kartheiser: What drew everyone to the show was the dialogue and the era and the subtleties of it. There are things [from the time period] that are glaring but if you look beyond that, there are a lot of character elements and subtleties. Some people see the glaring things like, "Oh, they're smoking," or, "They're being so obviously chauvinistic, so obviously anti-Semitic," and that's a problem because they're missing these more subtle moments. Sometimes writers write a lot of words that say very little and yet [executive producer] Matthew [Weiner] has this capacity and ability to write words that you don't have to pontificate upon. They get right to the point. [Visually] we knew Matthew was on Sopranos and we knew that [director] Alan [Taylor] was on Sopranos, and we knew that people who had done that level of work were going to want to one-up themselves. We knew there would be a great look to the show, but we didn't realize it would be this amazing.
TVGuide.com: We were saying in our podcast that this is the closest basic cable has come to an HBO-quality show.
Kartheiser: I don't watch enough TV to make that sort of statement, but from what I have seen, it looks great. The composition of each shot, the lighting... they're doing a lot of work on the actual film stock in [postproduction] to change the look. [Our producers] are people who are willing to sit in the editing room for hours and hours to make it right.
TVGuide.com: Would you have liked to live in the '60s?
Kartheiser: I think I would like to live anytime, as long as I can live. Every generation has a lot of unique aspects. But I would hate to be a teenager now. This generation... I don't know, they seem like wimps. In '92, '93, we were crashing cars and burning buildings, staging riots. These kids are on the Internet talking crap on a message board. C'mon! [Laughs]
TVGuide.com: Does Pete Campbell love his wife?
Kartheiser: One of the things this show tries to do, and I want to drive home this point, is to be fun. It doesn't have to be some highbrow, "We're telling a message" kind of thing. It's about entertainment. But one of the messages Matthew is trying to get across is that love and all these things are very subjective, and they change daily. Don Draper is this man with a beautiful wife and perfect kids and everyone adores him, and yet he isn't really attached, truly attached, to anybody. The simple answer is yes, Pete does love his wife. The more difficult question is why. We all love for different reasons, and Pete feels like this is what he's supposed to do.
TVGuide.com: Pete's "thing" with Peggy (The West Wing's Elisabeth Moss) — is it perhaps more than just a notch on his premarital belt?
Kartheiser: You'll have to watch.
TVGuide.com: Is Pete scared into submission after his near-firing last week?
Kartheiser: [Laughs] My friend — Peter Campbell will always find a way to put himself in the mix! He's just one of those guys. Back in the '50s and early '60s, people felt like ambition was rewarded. If you wanted to be the top, you worked as hard as you needed to to get there.
TVGuide.com: What's next for Pete professionally — a big win or another stumble?
Kartheiser: Oh man, I can't even say. It mimics life in many ways. With every big step forward, you just have more to lose. Every step Pete takes forward raises the risk level. His own expectations can also be hurt the more he succeeds.
TVGuide.com: I loved how Roger Sterling (John Slattery) spun it so that it was Don who saved Pete's bacon.
Kartheiser: It's brilliant. Who knows if that's something that would happen now. People are usually wanting to take credit for even the smallest things. Another great thing about this show is the older people looking up to Don and wanting to be him and the younger people wanting to be him. That's how it is in real life. We all have "man crushes" on each other. But the irony is that if they only knew how conflicted and f--king lonely this guy is!
TVGuide.com: If Pete gets wind of any of Don's big secrets, he'd have a nice ace up his sleeve....
Kartheiser: It'd be difficult, though, because Don keeps the cards close to the chest. He's smooth and always a couple of steps ahead of the game.
TVGuide.com: What was your biggest takeaway from your Angel experience?
Kartheiser: Learning how to work on a schedule like this, and learning how to respect the people who do it and still come out with a great performance. Seeing the hours that David Boreanaz [who played Kartheiser's father; long story] worked on that show every week, and how people like Amy Acker were able to come up with these fleshed-out characters.... To do that day after day is a remarkable thing.
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