Mad Men Season 6 premieres Sunday, April 7, at 9pm ET on AMC.
Vincent Kartheiser never thought he’d be here.
After becoming something of a teen idol in the ’90s with movies like Alaska and Masterminds, he figured his time in the profession would be limited.
“When I was a young man, being a teen actor was like the kiss of death,” he says. “There was no way you were going to get out of it. Well, it turned out, we were all wrong. I mean, you look at so many of those teen actors who have gone on to have successful adult careers. But we didn’t know that. I was terrified that I was going to stop working at 21 when I stopped looking like a teenager.”
Seeing that he’s now 33, and speaking from the set of Season 6 of Mad Men — one of TV’s most talked-about and celebrated dramas — it’s clear that Kartheiser’s fears were unfounded. The role of the eminently unlikable but compulsively watchable Pete Campbell has assured him steady employment as an adult, at least until next season, which will reportedly be the show’s last.
On that front, he’s not willing to say much about what’s in store for the gang at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. (Unless you count “Don Draper is still on the show.”) Thanks to series creator Matthew Weiner, however, we know that there will be a time jump between seasons 5 and 6, and that Elisabeth Moss will return despite her character Peggy’s departure from the company.
But Kartheiser, who just got engaged to onetime Mad Men costar Alexis Bledel, is more than willing to talk about how playing the same character for so long — something he’s never really done in his career — has affected him.
“Playing Pete Campbell is a roller coaster of a ride,” he says. “The interesting thing about playing a character for seven years is that backstories I have to create I’ve actually lived as the character. There are things I did five years ago that were brought up last season — there was that scene where I’m having a baby and Peggy comes to my door — and we actually lived that story. The things that you’re calling on to use are things you’ve actually been a part of doing. … I think it has an effect on being myself. Playing Pete Campbell for seven years starts to shape who you are. Playing a depressed, little insecure guy kind of follows you home sometimes.”
Many interviews with Kartheiser do, in fact, focus on similarities between himself and his character. After Pete was oh-so-memorably decked by Lane Pryce last season, stories surfaced where Kartheiser talked about being involved in several real-life fistfights. It’s a reputation that’s followed him since his days as that disgruntled teen actor who yearned to be taken seriously. Yet on this day, he couldn’t be more pleasant and even thankful when talking about the path he’s taken.
It’s a gratitude born of having once performed in a three-hour play in New York for less than a handful of people, and living the life of a teen idol thinking that it’s all going to go away soon. Kartheiser gets to remember just how lucky he is each and every time Mad Men starts up again.
“We all go away and do projects on our hiatus, and they’re oftentimes really good projects, but you forget how good this show is, and how fun it is to do these scenes,” he says. “Every season when I come back I’m always just floored at how good the writing is. I think everyone’s always really excited to dive back into these characters and tell these stories.”
Photo: Credit: Frank Ockenfels/AMC