Pete Campbell, the whiniest weasel on “Mad Men,” just had his rockiest season yet. But it’s been a very good year for the guy who plays him.
Vincent Kartheiser keeps racking up critical acclaim for his portrayal of Campbell, an ambitious ad executive whose career trajectory is receding as fast as his hairline and whose own mom calls him unlovable. In March, the Apple Valley native became engaged to actress Alexis Bledel, the former “Gilmore Girl” he met when she guested on the hit 1960s-set AMC series as an unstable woman with whom he has a fling. And on Friday, he takes the Guthrie stage as Mr. Darcy, the rich, sullen, intriguing suitor of Elizabeth Bennet in Simon Reade’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s best-loved novel, “Pride and Prejudice.”
Anyone who’s seen Kartheiser on “Mad Men” knows he can exude haughty privilege in his sleep. But the look he gets when discussing his take on Darcy suggests that he’ll also bring some mischief to the role.
“You can’t do justice to Jane Austen without bringing a lot of humor,” he said, tucking into a plate of panang curry at the Thai restaurant Kindee during a rehearsal dinner break. “It’s hilarious how she approached the upper-class problems of those times. A Dickensian approach won’t do.”
In sand-colored jeans, a faded navy T-shirt with a small hole in one shoulder and a casually trimmed beard, 34-year-old Kartheiser blends in as he walks back toward the Guthrie carrying a green Lunds bag, drawing no glances of recognition. The only vestige of preppy, buttoned-up Peter Campbell is a retro briefcase bearing the initials “SCP,” the logo of the fictitious ad agency he works for.
After lipping off in interviews conducted earlier in the “Mad Men” run, Kartheiser seems a bit cautious about revealing anything personal, other than to mention he’s been walking around the lakes and seeing his family since he’s been in town rehearsing. Asked if fiancée Bledel will be coming to see the play, he plays coy, saying she’s “pretty busy.” (She showed up for the Guthrie’s 50th-anniversary gala, and he’s previously said they try to see each other at least every 10 days, so our guess is yes.)
His mother, Janet, who still lives in Apple Valley, is more forthcoming, calling the couple “fun and playful, modest about their careers.” She noted that the weekend of the gala, Vincent and Bledel visited his 91-year-old grandmother.
Asked if Vincent, the youngest of six children, could wrap her around his little finger as a kid, she said, “Oh, God, do you think? He was so endearing. He didn’t need to be primed to play the baby of the family.”
Kartheiser got an early start in his career, cast in youth roles at the Guthrie, Children’s Theatre Company, commercials and a few Minneapolis-shot films. After failing ninth grade because he wasn’t allowed to make up time missed shooting movies, he opted for a tutor and a correspondence program, moving to Los Angeles in his later teens. He got sporadic work in indie movies before landing the role of Connor on the supernatural series “Angel”in 2002. But he didn’t shoot to national prominence until “Mad Men” began in 2007.
Daring to play Darcy
Jane Austen’s Mr. Darcy was the McDreamy of England’s Regency Period, and endures as one of the most widespread and enduring literary crushes in all of fictiondom. The character is also a challenge for even the most skilled of actors because, as notable Darcy-portrayer Colin Firth once put it, “You have to be very careful not to make him either too idiosyncratic or too bland, and the danger is that you don’t dare to do anything at all.”
Kartheiser agrees: “He’s so contained, and he has to show interest in this woman without being overt,” he said. Those subtle emotions also must be projected from a stage, without the benefit of the extreme close-ups that television affords.
He sees Darcy as more shy than repressed.
“He does take pride in his family and position,” he said. “He doesn’t suffer fools, and isn’t interested in sycophantic or idle conversation. In so many scenes, he’s primarily an observer, and in others, he’s being talked about but not present.”
As for the intensity of feeling that female fans of Austen have for Darcy, he sees that as being much bigger than the character alone.
“It’s one of the most romantic stories of all time, but it’s not so much about him as it is about the circumstances, the way they make us feel,” he said. “We’ve all been there, where we know we’ve done wrong in someone else’s eyes and have the desire to right that wrong.”
Kartheiser’s co-star, Ashley Rose Montondo (a late-breaking Elizabeth Bennet replacement for Erin Krakow of “Army Wives”), calls him “a very agile actor, giving and supportive.” He said that though he grew up on the stage, it’s taking him longer than his castmates to pick up on certain things — like the dancing.
“There’s quite a bit of it,” he said. “Our coordinator sometimes stuffs me in the back like the ugly cheerleader, and I don’t blame him.”
He calls Joe Dowling’s direction “very open to other people’s ideas. In my perception there’s very little ego in that room. The words I’d use to describe him are ‘a peach.’ ”
Sally Wingert, who plays snooty Lady Catherine de Bourgh in the play, says Kartheiser is “smart, hardworking, and he doesn’t throw attitude.” She would also like America to know that he is “way cuter, so much more adorable” than Pete the petulant “Mad Men” plotter. The Guthrie veteran first worked with him nearly a quarter-century ago, when he starred as Tiny Tim in “A Christmas Carol.”
“Even as a little boy, he was a consummate professional,” Wingert said. “He had this gorgeous little sandpapery voice. I love that he’s blown up to be so huge.”
Though he tends toward introspection one on one, Kartheiser shifts into “ham” as a photographer clicks away, prancing lightly on a bench, clowning with his reflection. He’s grown back the hairline he shaved and lost the pounds he put on to portray aging Sad Sack Pete, who was really put through the wringer this season — wrangling his mean, demented mother, getting one-upped by his sociopath underling, Bob, and continuing to live apart from his wife and daughter.
Rich Sommer, who plays Pete’s colleague Harry Crane on the series, would love to come home — he’s from Stillwater — to catch Kartheiser at a Guthrie performance, but he just opened in a play himself, off-Broadway.
Sommer says that as Pete Campbell, Kartheiser “definitely is going the furthest from himself of any of us” in personality, and admires his ability to occasionally elicit sympathy even as a character everyone loves to hate. “It’s like they said about James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano. The parts you find sympathetic and accessible are him.”
He also has confidence in Kartheiser’s ability to draw out Darcy’s sexy side: “He’s got some pair of crazy blue eyes.”
Immediately after the play wraps on Aug. 31, Kartheiser begins shooting a film in New York, another dark indie drama.
At this career pinnacle, couldn’t he start gunning for some higher-profile parts in blockbusters like, say, a Bond villain?
He responds to the suggestion with an evil, Bond-baddie laugh. “That’s my real laugh, actually. And yes, Philip Seymour Hoffman and I are always fighting over those roles.” Then those intense blue eyes turn serious, his tone pragmatic.
“The truth is, Hollywood is full of great actors and there aren’t that many good film parts to go around anymore,” he said. “Television has created a glut of celebrities, and movies don’t make as much money as they used to.”
As for being concerned about Pete Campbell typecasting, he’s not.
“First, ‘we believe you so much as that guy’ is the greatest compliment you can get,” he said. Second, I like breaking my own mold. In my teens, I did a lot of action films, in my 20s, a lot of indie family dramas, and lately I’ve been mostly villains. That will change again. Maybe Darcy is the beginning of my rom-com era.”