You might not believe it watching the Minneapolis-born actor, while he’s playing his smarmy character Pete Campbell on the hit show, “Mad Men,” but Vincent Kartheiser is chock-full of “Minnesota Nice.”
The 31-year-old admits he may have ditched our winters for calmer climates but when it comes to the Land of Lakes, he says it’s truly the greatest place. After all, he did spend his entire childhood here (a great one, at that) and always looks forward to visiting his family that still lives in the southern ‘burbs. But perhaps some of his favorite memories are the ones he made at a little production house in Minneapolis called the Children’s Theatre Company.
That Minneapolis entertainment hub is where it all began for Kartheiser — and also what brings him back this week. The “Mad Men” star will speak at the annual CTC Curtain’s Up fundraiser on Wednesday to discuss his early involvement with the theater and the many memories he made on stage and behind the scenes.
Before his speaking engagement, Kartheiser spent a few minutes to talk about everything from his childhood experiences at CTC to his hit show — and yes, even those weird rumors regarding his so-called “lack of a toilet.”
Growing Up In Minnesota
Until he was about 14 years old, Kartheiser called Minnesota home. It wasn’t until he got a Los Angeles-based manager and agent that he started spending more time under the Hollywood lights. As a kid, he and his family did the typical Minnesota outings – the Holidazzle parade in the winter and various parks for the summer months.
“It’s something you don’t realize when you’re a young person,” he said. “You go to other communities and there’s just, there’s not as many lakes and parks and just opportunities to just watch the clouds pass.”
Kartheiser said he certainly misses a few of his old stomping grounds – Green Mill in Uptown for pizza, the former Figlio or Uncommon Grounds for coffee with his sister. But more than anything, when he’s away from home, he misses his mama’s home cooking (especially her chili).
Speaking of his family, not everyone in the Kartheiser family got the acting bug – though he jokes that in a family with four sisters, he found them all to be “actor-y and dramatic.” That being said, he does credit the reason he gave acting a chance to his sister Colette, who was enrolled in the then-Children’s Theatre Company school. She attended a couple classes and nabbed a few roles on the main stage, which grabbed Kartheiser’s interest.
“It was really convenient for my mom at a certain point, because when (my sister) was old enough to drive, it kind of lifted the burden of my mother’s carpooling, the obligations,” he said with a laugh.
A Children’s Theatre Actor
Kartheiser was only 6 years old when he started acting. He appeared in several CTC productions including “Pippi Longstocking” in 1989 and “Our Town” in 1992. While he said it did play a role in solidifying acting as a future career, the purpose of CTC and the effect it had was much more than that.
“Just because you go to acting school, doesn’t mean you’re going to become an actor. Even if you go there, you know, and it’s not your ultimate objective to become a working actor, it’s still a great community and it’s a great hobby,” he said. “I don’t look at CTC and think, ‘Oh, they’re training the young theater thespians of our time.’ I think you can get training there, amazing training, and I think whenever a young person learns things, they’re going to have a head start on anyone who learns when they’re 19 or 20, because it’s just so easy to create muscle memory and emotional memory at that age.”
But ultimately, Kartheiser said the goal of CTC isn’t just to create actors.
“One thing that they did do that was pretty cool, is they create a level of expectation. If you are going to do a play with them, be on the main stage or even on one of the smaller stages, they treat you like a professional, like an adult, and expect you to live up to that,” he said. “Having expectations for kids is really a great thing — not that I know anything about child rearing, mind you — but I know for me, it was a really great thing to have someone who needed me to excel and who needed me to take something seriously.
“I think kids want that, we want those boundaries, we want those limits. We want someone who will say, ‘You have to do this, you have to study, you have to be prepared.’ They say that and the kid says, ‘Oh they take me seriously, I should, too.’”
Still, it wasn’t all work – many hours were spent hanging out with the other kids and playing in the game room, Kartheiser said.
“For me, because I wasn’t the most popular kid in my school, it was a really a great social outlet, more than anything else. That’s where my friends were,” he said. “But that’s really what it’s about. Giving these kids a hobby, giving them something to do with a special group of people and you know, lastly I’d say it’s kind of training them. … If you look at it that way, it’s not as fundamental to the community, to the quiltwork of Minnesota’s multi-cultural stamp on the Midwest. Because Minnesota has so many great things and although they have great theater, the Children’s Theatre is unique because it’s more than just a professional theater.”
Minnesota Man To ‘Mad Men’
Whether it’s breeding America’s next great actors or not, Minnesota has quite a presence on Kartheiser’s AMC hit show, “Mad Men.” Besides himself, fellow actor and Stillwater-native Rich Sommer plays Harry Crane on the show, not to mention, the executive producer, who also calls MN home. Though, none of this is shocking to Kartheiser.
“Because if you’re from Minnesota, you get used to running into people from Minnesota — at least in our industry, you do. All of my friends out here, except a few, are from Minnesota. You know, in the music industry, there’s a lot of Minnesotans,” he said. “You asked me why I love Minnesota and I think we just create doers. We kind of have a community of people who like to get off their asses and go do stuff. I don’t know if that’s only because there’s, like, three months of the year that you can get off your ass and actually do something? It’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, we can leave the house!’”
“Many, many people I know from Minnesota have great careers out here and I’m constantly running into people from Minnesota. So, I wasn’t surprised and I’m never really surprised. I think it might also have something to do with the fact that we breed a lot and we tend to leave Minnesota, too,” he continued. “If you’re in a warm city, chances are there’s going to be a lot of people from Iowa and North Dakota, Minnesota that have migrated there because not all of us are tough. Not all of us can handle it year in, year out.”
Besides running into plenty of Midwesterners, there’s another run-in that Kartheiser had to adjust to. His character, Pete Campbell, on “Mad Men” started out as the smug young blood who always seemed to be in over his head – aka: the character you can’t help but hate. It’s no surprise that had its affect on Kartheiser’s real life.
A particular incident had a young woman at a bar berating Kartheiser for the character he played – but she didn’t just stop there. She went on to say not only did she dislike his “Pete Campbell” but she was filled with anger at the mere sight of his face on TV. How does he handle that?
“I learned to be incognito more. When I first started doing ‘Mad Men,’ I would maybe go home with my hair still up, maybe I’d meet a friend for a drink, maybe go have dinner with someone and people would recognize me. And now, I have a very large beard, I wear a hood,” he said. “So I really never, ever, ever, ever get recognized.
“Even funnier than that is when people don’t recognize me but they just dislike me and they don’t know why. It’s because part of their brain recognizes me and it’s not the conscious part, and that part of their brain is like, ‘Oh, I don’t like this guy, he’s a weasel, I don’t trust him.’ And I’m just trying to order an Arnold Palmer and they’re like, you know, spitting in it.”
As the years went on and the show, and writer Matthew Weiner, continued to grow Campbell’s character, the mood from fans of the show has definitely become less abrasive, he said.
“The role is definitely changing and it’s been a really fun arc. Matthew is so wonderful at knowing when to walk away from a particular kind of characterization and pattern for the show, and he’s not scared to do it. I think a lot of creators in that world are scared to change things. ‘Oh my gosh, we have a hit! People tune in every week to see their show. They want to see what they’ve seen every week.’ And the audience is going to get bored with seeing that whether they realize it or not,” he said. “They have to move on. And I actually think that takes tremendous courage and I’m constantly inspired by Matthew Weiner’s courage.”
Another person of inspiration on the show is seemingly perfect Jon Hamm, the man behind the highly flawed Don Draper. Kartheiser said that parallel of Hamm vs. Draper is really the essence of the Don Draper character – he’s both sides of the coin. While those on the outside see a man who can do no wrong, “Mad Men” pulls back the curtain and reveals a highly disturbed individual in Draper, he said. Still, as far as Jon Hamm the person is concerned, that’s just not the case.
“Jon Hamm, you know, honestly I don’t see any flaws that the man has. I really, really look up to him. He knows how to stay focused on what his goals are, he has things he wants to do with his career, he’s pushing to do them,” he said. “He does it modestly, and without a, kind of, big fanfare. He’s just a really down-to-earth guy. He’ll tell you honestly what he thinks about something — sometimes that’s a bit intimidating. Often times, though, it’s really honorable.”
When you’re on a hit show like “Mad Men,” dealing with the media is an inevitable part of your life, whether you like it or not. And, as Kartheiser learned the hard way, what you say may not always paint you in the best light. Take an interview he did with “The UK Observer,” where he revealed he didn’t have a toilet at the moment. That little statement caught fire and soon, headlines painted him as a bit of a whack job that uses his neighbor’s facilities for his business.
“I was in a particularly wily mood and the next week, it came out and my friends were all like, ‘Dude, what happened?’” he said. “I went to set and someone was talking to me, and Jon (Hamm) overheard me and was like, ‘Yeah, what’s the deal, man?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, I said some stupid stuff to a reporter,’ and he was like ‘Yeah, you should know better.’”
Truth be told, Kartheiser said he was actually just in the middle of a remodel at the time of the interview, so yes, he didn’t have a toilet in his home but, worry not, it was on the way. The interview debacle was a bit of a wake-up call — one that more or less came from Mr. Hamm.
“It was kind of cool to have someone not sugarcoat it and just be like, ‘Yeah, dude, you messed up and what’s the deal? Don’t you know that by now? You’re 30 years old. Don’t you know not to say stupid things?’” Kartheiser said. “But I don’t know not to say stupid things. And Jon Hamm does. And I respect him for that.”
And just for the record, he wasn’t using his neighbor’s toilet, he was using the guest house bathroom until the new toilet could arrive. An error that’s already done its damage.
“Especially with the Internet, people pick up stories from five years ago and run them like they happened yesterday, so it’s the kind of the story that keeps getting circulated and I feel really stupid every time someone asks me,” he said. “It’s my own fault. It’s my own lack of being able to focus and say the right things.”
Back To Work — And Beyond
Luckily, he’s had a little time to get that focus. A slight delay and bit of a standoff over contracts for the show’s fifth season have ended and soon, it’ll be back to the set for Kartheiser and crew. He said they’re scheduled to start shooting in a few months and he’s anxiously waiting to get back to work.
“It’s truly been the opportunity of a lifetime to work on something like this, I just feel so honored and it’s so exciting to get to go back and do some more of it,” he said.
As for a sneak peek into the upcoming season? Not even Kartheiser knows.
“You think I know it? We don’t know anything about scripts until we get them and that’s usually two days before filming. Everyone once in a while, Matthew might tell you something so that you know something your character should know. But man, I don’t know anything. And I really like it that way,” he said. “Sometimes it begins to resemble real life where you don’t know what your character is going to be faced with.”
Beyond the show, Kartheiser hinted that he might be headed back to the stage sometime soon — maybe even back in his hometown. Nothing is confirmed but there are a few projects that he’s looking into.
“I’d love to get back to the stage, I mean, I would love to do something in Minneapolis. I’d love to do some theater there and maybe something that we could start there and move to New York, or the west end, who knows,” he said.
After all, that’s where it all began and supporting local theater continues to be a passion for Kartheiser — something he hopes he can convey to the Children’s Theatre audience on Wednesday.
“This is a very, very important part of our community, at least in my growing up, it was a huge role in my life — not only being on the stage, but being the audience and exploring my imagination,” he said. “It’s one of those things that we have in Minnesota that makes us so wonderful.”
“A Dialogue with Vincent Kartheiser” is at Noon on Wednesday, April 20 at the Children’s Theatre Company’s Cargill Stage, 2400 Third Ave. S., Minneapolis. Tickets are on sale now. Contact the Children’s Theatre Company at 612-872-5104 or visit the website to reserve your seat. You can also watch Kartheiser in studio on the WCCO This Morning show on Thursday.