Vincent Kartheiser plays Pete Campbell in a scene from the April 15 "Mad Men" episode.
Vincent Kartheiser plays Pete Campbell in a scene from the April 15 "Mad Men" episode.

Story highlights

Vincent Kartheiser plays Pete Campbell, a young go-getter on "Mad Men"

Campbell is slimy and cruel and will step right over you to climb the corporate ladder

Kartheiser: "I can relate to ... some of the way Pete hates himself"

CNN —  

One of the odder, funnier moments of “Mad Men” came recently when two head honchos, Lane Pryce and Pete Campbell, duked it out in a conference room.

The fight lasted only moments, but according to Vincent Kartheiser, who plays Campbell, it was one of those rare moments that creator Matthew Weiner had a vision that aligned with what fans had clamored for over the years.

Kartheiser’s portrayal of the young go-getter is an excellent study in how to make an audience despise a character.

He’s slimy and cruel and will step right over you, sometimes even on you, just to climb the corporate ladder. And while it’s easy to cast Campbell as one of “Mad Men”s villains, still, there’s something sympathetic and likeable about him underneath it all. CNN spoke with Kartheiser about staging fights and social change on “Mad Men” and why there’s a little Pete Campbell in all of us.

CNN: This recent episode featured a fist fight between Pete and Lane. Does a small part of you wish he knocked Lane out?

Kartheiser: Well, no, not really. The reason is, I stopped wishing for things with my character because I’m very aware that (creator) Matt Weiner has a plan for how this story should go. I trust him like I’ve never trusted any writer or creator that I’ve worked with. He knows what the audience wants and he rarely gives it to them. But in a rare case, the audience wanted this, very badly, for many a year. It’s one of the few times that Matt’s plans happened to coincide with what the general population of “Mad Men” wanted. So I’m kinda glad to give the people a little something that they’ve been longing for. To be honest, I take a hit much better than I give one.

CNN: When you get a script with Pete in a fight, what’s your reaction? Do you research how a guy in the ‘60s would fight.

Kartheiser: Most fights that I saw growing up in high school and most fights I’ve seen as an adult at bars are pretty stupid. They look ridiculous and rarely do they look two guys who know what they’re doing. So, I didn’t do any research. We have a team of people who are very good at researching that stuff. We showed up a week before the fight and had stunt coordinators and had been schooled in the research of the era and what Matt wanted.

I’ve done a lot of shows where there’s fighting and often times the stunt coordinators can get carried away, throwing in fancy moves and special punches. I love Matt because he comes in and says “No, that’s not real, that would never happen. Take three punches out and make it real.” I think most people who have seen a fight in real life would be like “Yep, that’s about right: Two guys who should never be throwing down are taking crazy swings at each other and one guy gets plunked in the nose and that’s game.”

CNN: Punches aside, one of the interesting aspects that we’re still seeing evolve with this show is Pete Campbell’s relationship with Don Draper. In a recent episode he was so giddy that his boss was coming to his house. You never see him that happy.

Kartheiser: Well, it’s a rite of passage. Don is finally accepting him as a friend, as an equal! Making the trek out to Cos Cob on the weekend, it seems like he’s going out his way for Pete. And Pete really seems like he needs that kind of attention. John Slattery said, “In this scene, you’re basically like ‘Aw, shucks, boss. You came on down to Cos Cob.’ That whole idea of “Aw, shucks,” it really helped me in that scene in hitting the right tone.

CNN: The show over the years and certainly now hints at these socio-political changes that are happening outside of the office and might be trickling in now. Is that a big thing for this season?

Kartheiser: The times are a-changing and in the first few episodes we’ve seen it make its way into Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Times have been changing for the last few years. There’s been riots and integration and things have been changing but it hasn’t affected the lives of these people as profoundly as we maybe the history books would want you to believe. Let’s take something huge, like the war in Iraq. It’s huge and in 30 years we’ll look back and think that everybody’s life was inundated with this war but for most of the people I know, including myself, it had very little effect on us. It has an effect, but we can’t quite see it yet. It’s the same with the 1960s, and we look back and say: “Oh, there were these great changes, everyone must’ve felt it.” It takes a while for these things to take effect in the exclusive, upper- and middle-class office buildings. We’re just starting to see it now. It’s ‘66 and it’s starting to hit home.

CNN: The show has a handful of directors that are used frequently. Are there stylistic differences that each have that you’re seeing shape different aspects of your performance?

Kartheiser: Every director brings a little taste of themselves. At the end of the day, Matthew Weiner has final cut. At the end of the day, Matthew Weiner will re-shoot a scene if it doesn’t fit into the look of the show. That’s wonderful. Everyone has stylistic differences and he wants them to express those things, but he wants to make sure that there’s a consistency to the look of the show, to the tone of the show. That being said, I absolutely love John Slattery as a director. He loves the art form of it.

CNN: Do you relate to Pete at all at this stage in the show in any way?

Kartheiser: All sorts of times. Something that Matt does wonderfully, is that he writes for his actors. He says: “What do these people deal with in real life?” Pete feels emasculated, he feels a bit insecure about his place among the men of the world. … He doesn’t have that machismo or the elegance of the men that surround him. I think I can relate to some of those things and some of the way Pete hates himself and worries that the world hates him for those things too. Now, granted, I’m not trying to say I’m Pete Campbell. Those issues reside in me as deeply as they do as him. But I have understood those through my life. I think most people can. I think if people took a fearless look at themselves, they’d see a lot more Pete Campbell than they’d want to believe.

CNN: There’s a great line in this Slate interview where you said people are always asking you about highbrow stuff, but sometimes you’re just a lowbrow dude. I picture you sitting around listening to Katy Perry and enjoying whoopee cushions.

Kartheiser: (Laughs) No, I don’t think I’m a lowbrow dude, feeding off Top 40 and watching Fox News all afternoon. I enjoy reading literature and learning about the world. This show deals with some complex issues – every episode contains a theme and they come from the minds of some really intelligent people. I’m just saying I don’t know if I’m the best person to answer those types of questions. As much as I don’t think I’m an idiot, those ideas are very profound.