Pete Campbell is forever lost at sea. Vincent Kartheiser, the Minnesota-bred actor who portrayed the Brown Nose Most Likely to Succeed on the already iconic series “Mad Men,” throws his breakthrough role overboard in “Saints & Strangers.”
The new miniseries reminds viewers that Thanksgiving isn’t just about stuffing your face and that the National Geographic Channel is no longer just for doomsday preppers and dog whisperers.
He’s William Bradford, the Mayflower’s spiritual captain, who finds time between prayers to become the five-time governor of the Plymouth Colony, a role that required him to trade in those sleek suits for dingy duds and grow a beard that looks as if it could house a family of prairie dogs.
Since the Emmy-winning series, Kartheiser has followed the trajectory of the promising shooting star: marrying a popular actress, “Gilmore Girls” graduate Alexis Bledel; spurring brisk ticket sales to gawkers for the Guthrie Theater’s 2013 production of “Pride and Prejudice”; abandoning plans to move back to the Twin Cities, and building a reputation for playing cat-and-mouse with the media.
During press junkets for the “Mad Men” finale, Kartheiser was reluctant to stroll down memory lane. Papermag.com once posted a piece titled “A Brief History of Vincent Kartheiser Acting Weird.”
But during a phone interview this month, Kartheiser was the same chatty, self-deprecating, witty dynamo I met while window shopping on Rodeo Drive in 2007, just before “Mad Men” premiered and changed his life. No topic — with the exception of buzz around his wife’s participation in a “Gilmore Girls” sequel — was off limits.
Q: Your character in this miniseries is so religious he won’t even help save a damaged Mayflower because of the Sabbath. How did you relate to that kind of devotion?
A: The idea that you would die rather than go against the word of God is foreign to my own personal experience, and I didn’t want to bring in my own religious beliefs, which are quite different. I think you just have to imagine this sense of commitment as a small ball of twine and keep wrapping yourself around it until it gets larger and larger in your psyche.
Q: Were you deliberately looking for a role that was a departure from the self-centered Pete Campbell?
A: That wasn’t my motivation. It’s much simpler than that. You get a script and if you’re interested in what’s going to happen next, you get involved. Pete was so well defined, so unique, that every subsequent part was going to be a departure. This was pretty grim stuff. I had read about the Mayflower in school, but I guess I didn’t understand all they had to endure even before they arrived. They had no food left and very little beer.
Q: A beer shortage? Wasn’t that all the reason they needed to turn back?
A: One thing we learned is that the water was so bad in the United Kingdom in those days that everyone ordered eight glasses of beer a day, even 4-year-olds. They believed beer was good for you.
Q: Did you use real beers in scenes?
A: Yeah, I was tanked. No, we didn’t bother too much with the details. We were more interested in establishing a mood. There were a lot of arguments between people with two different points of view, which is what our country was ultimately based upon.
Q: You grew quite a beard for this. It’s almost like a supporting character. What was Alexis’ reaction?
A: She liked it, but it did start to take on a life of its own. I thought I might have to start working at an artisan pickle factory. I like opportunities to cover any part of my face. For my next role, I’m hoping to wear a burqa.
Q: The first time we met, you were wearing a shirt with ripped pockets and one of your shoes was being held together by a makeshift lace. Have marriage and “Mad Men” upped your fashion sense?
A: It hasn’t really changed. Maybe it will in the future. During this movie, we had like one costume change for the whole two months we were there. I remember when we got our second outfits we had a day of rejoice. Very different from “Mad Men.”
Q: What did you learn from Jon Hamm about being a leader on set?
A: There was a tone that Jon set and the way he approached other cast members that I very much admired. I would probably copy it if I could, but I’m very much my own person.
Q: In other words, you still insist that crew members can’t look you directly in the eye.
A: Yeah, that’s all still there. I still need to be carried around on set.
Q: There was a report that you like to throw things at reporters. In all the years I’ve known you, you’ve never tried to hit me with anything. Should I take that as a slight?
A: I’m doing it over the phone right now. I think that came from one article in Vulture. The person doing the interview had established a mood of playfulness and it was at the end of a long, long day. I think I was shooting pillows the size of the palm of your hand and treating them like basketballs, trying to bump them off different things. Once it got in the press, it was interpreted as something else.
Q: When “Mad Men” broke, you talked about a three-year plan to move back to the Twin Cities. There were also rumors that you were house hunting in the area. What’s the latest?
A: It’s not going to happen. I’ve become a little more realistic. It just doesn’t make sense financially. But I am looking for work and would love to come back to the Guthrie.