Vincent Kartheiser on Hollywood’s “Evil” Mad Men Moment
And his newest film, My Friend Dahmer.
The man best known for playing Pete Campbell, the relentlessly ambitious advertising executive everyone loved to hate on TV’s Mad Men, sounds remarkably friendly on the phone. In fact, to call Vincent Kartheiser a “low-maintenance” celebrity is something of an understatement. The 38 year-old is known to live a possession-free, minimalist existence (he spent years living in LA without a car), he’s soft-spoken, and he’s disarmingly prompt—calling at exactly the appointed minute we were scheduled to talk.
Since Mad Men ended its seven-season run in 2015, the former child star has taken on a wide variety of roles, most recently as a doctor in the new movie My Friend Dahmer, which arrives in theaters today. The film, based on a graphic novel by cartoonist John “Derf” Backderf—who was serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer’s high-school friend—delves into the complexities of the infamous Dahmer’s youth. Here Kartheiser spoke to Best Life about his role in the film, the futility of trying to alter his IMDB page, and the sexual harassment revelations rocking Hollywood. And for more great interviews, don’t miss our sit-down with White Famous star Jay Pharoah.
What drew you to My Friend Dahmer?
My Friend Dahmer appealed to me because I heard it was a great cast of kids and I really liked the script. I grew up in Minnesota in a time when that was front-page news. It was the first time that I remember seeing an interview with someone as scary as Jeffrey Dahmer and seeing reports of things like cannibalism. It made a big impact on people of my generation. When the script came around, I thought it was interesting to look behind the curtain to see Dahmer before he became this monster.
You sound choosy about your roles…
[laughs] Is that how it seems?
From some interviews, yeah.
Those must have been from a long time ago.
Are you less choosy now?
It’s like looking at the kid, the loner, in the corner of the cafeteria and being like, “That kid is really picky. He really wants to be sure who his friends are.”
When you think about roles, what are you looking for now?
When I was young, it was more about how is this going to change the perception of me in the eyes of the public or the industry. I don’t really do that anymore. Now it’s more about whether I like the material, whether it seems like a fun way to spend my time, and how long is the commitment. Maybe you can play a really terrible character for one week, but do I want to play a really terrible character for 10 years?
If I find myself re-reading the script or wanting to talk to my wife or my family about certain themes in the character, that’s good. I had an audition the other week, and I was doing it over and over again. Any chance I got, I was trying something else out for the audition. That’s a really good sign. I go off of cues that I see myself emitting.
Do you actively avoid roles that are similar to Pete Campbell?
No. Nothing is similar to Pete Campbell. You can look at something and be like, “This guy is a smarmy business man.” That’s fine. But you’re not going to have that writing. You’re not going to have the depth. You might, but it’s going to be in a different direction. He was a very particular person with a very particular life story. The dialogue was written in a very specific way. Will I ever do anything as amazing as Mad Men again? Probably. I mean, who knows? But it’s a rarity to find something that is that amazing and has that potency. I’ve played a lot of characters since that time that were like Pete Campbell to be honest with you in the sense that they wear suits, they are in industry, they are smarmy. But Pete is too unique.
Do you have different feelings about Mad Men now that you’ve gotten some distance from it?
It’s impossible—maybe for me, maybe for all people—to fully realize how amazing something is when you’re a part of it. Maybe it’s just how we tend to look at things through the filter of nostalgia. I look back on it and think it was amazing, but I wish I could have drank it in even more than I did. I miss it.
You’ve talked about getting rid of your possessions in the past and of trying to live more simply. Does that get harder now that you have a daughter [with wife Alexis Bledel]?
You can’t be as much of a minimalist. It’s always nice in life to reduce things to the bare necessities and maybe a couple of extravagances. It really does make it easier, regardless of whether you have kids or not. It’s like the old thing: You buy a kid a bunch of toys and they end up playing with the box. In our society, we believe we need to get a lot of things for babies and kids—and there definitely are more things that you need to do when you have a child—but I don’t think it’s to the level that most of us go to, myself included. You get every little thing, and then you realize that they are happy with one or two things.
What surprised you most about being a father?
I don’t know. I don’t know. It’s a big question. Next.
Is it true you’re named after Vincent van Gogh?
No. But my IMDB page says I am. It’s so impossible to get your IMDB page changed. I think I’d have to become part of the company. For three years in a row, I tried endlessly to get quotes taken off, stuff that’s from when I was like 13 years old. You just can’t. Once it’s in there, it’s in there. Now I have to live with being a UCLA graduate of history and other things that never happened.
In 2010, you told an interviewer, “Grown-up is just a word that kids use to describe someone who is not having any fun.” Do you still believe that?
[Laughs] That’s a good line. Gosh, I say all these things and I don’t even really think about them when they come out. That’s the problem. That’s why for me especially it’s good to have a written script. Tell me what to say or else I will say some trash that just pops off the top of my head. I don’t know what kids think.
In that same interview, you said, “Well, men are *ssholes at some level, aren’t they? The powerful white male in history is like the most evil entity, isn’t he? Mad Men‘s a portrait of white men doing their stuff, just as their power is coming under a bit of threat.” That seems like a pertinent quote for now in Hollywood. Are you surprised by the revelations of sexual harassment and sexual assault?
I’m immensely proud of the people who are standing up and bringing really painful past experiences to light. That to me seems so courageous and so amazing that people have that strength inside of them. Am I surprised that there’s all these things coming out? I don’t know. It’s not something I ever knew about. I don’t know Kevin [Spacey] or Harvey [Weinstein] or anything about the actual details.
But I think that statement is still very true. I think there’s a movement right now to make things equal and to bring balance. Part of that is recognizing past criminal acts and past I don’t know what the word would be. I want to say transgression but it’s really much bigger than transgressions. Past criminal acts, really. These people have abused their power. I don’t know if it’s just our industry. Our industry is in the headlines. I think if you went into the oil industry or the finance industry, there’s going to be upheaval in all of them. I think that its great. It’s time that it happens. It’s going to be uncomfortable for these men in power and that’s okay. It’s supposed to be. It’s necessary.
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