Oh, Vinnie!

Jane Austen's aloof romantic hero is no Pete Campbell. That's exactly why Mad Men's Vincent Kartheiser came home to him at the Guthrie.

Photo by Cameron Wittig

The day after my interview with Vincent Kartheiser, I hear a hissing sound as I walk by a conference room in Mpls.St.Paul Magazine’s offices.

A stylist and two editors are discussing this issue’s cover shoot. They appear distressed.

“So is it true?” one of them asks. “Does he really have mutton chops?”

I nod. Yes, it’s true.

“Like, how big are they?”

The size of three bushy caterpillars, I say, holding my thumb and forefinger against my face to illustrate.

Mouth corners fold down. Eyebrows furrow. “Photoshop would look weird, right?” the stylist asks, just this side of rhetorically.

These are the teacup melodramas that stir when the most famous character actor in the local celebrity era comes home to play a Jane Austen heartthrob at the Guthrie. At the age of 34, Kartheiser has returned to play Mr. Darcy in the summer adaptation of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

“At least the hair on his head is growing back,” I offer. On this season’s Mad Men, Kartheiser shaved his hairline back almost an inch to reflect the vintage 1968 pressures on the now thirty-something Pete Campbell, his sniveling villain of an account manager at Sterling Cooper & Partners.

By coming home to play a romantic hero—and growing his facial hair out with the goal of achieving Byronic sideburns—Kartheiser seems to have created as much fuss and gossip as Mr. Darcy did when he decided to tag along with his buddy Mr. Bingley to Longbourn. The fuss may be good for selling tickets (and magazines), but it’s hard to believe audiences will accept the guy who plays one of the characters women most love to hate as one of the characters women most love to love.

Unless this is exactly how we’re supposed to feel. Kartheiser is all blue eyes and nonchalance when I meet him for breakfast at the Wilde Roast Cafe. The original plan was to meet for burgers in an attempt to gain some sort of synergy before the August “Best Burgers” cover shoot for this magazine. But he flew in from LA feeling under the weather. “I’m taking a break from red meat,” he says.

A lapsed vegan who gained a bizarre notoriety in 2010 when a British tabloid reported that he didn’t drive a car and didn’t have a toilet in his house, he informs me that a) that British gotcha journalist actually did see his toilet and b) he’s not as strident about his eco-habits as he once was. He drove here today, after all, and he’s just trying to eat healthy—no hamburgers at 10 in the morning on the second day of rehearsal while nursing a cold. He orders orange juice and the “Wilde Oats” with some extra sauce on his prosody: “How about more than a ‘hint’ of cinnamon, mister?” he swishes at the waiter.

Honestly, it’s hard to be disappointed that our burger breakfast isn’t happening when you consider that right now I’m the envy of every former English major who’s ever been to a Mad Men cocktail party. The Guthrie has to understand this crossover opportunity. It last staged Pride and Prejudice 10 years ago; it was very well received then, and that was before Downton Abbey reminded America how much it loved stuffy British chamber dramas. Before the breathless hysteria that accompanies anything to do with Austen’s classic these days. Teens are swooning to the horror mash-up Pride and Prejudice and Zombies while their mothers await the debut of a new BBC mini-series adaptation of British writer P.D. James’ P&P sequel Death Comes to Pemberley. Which is to say that the box office in all likelihood didn’t even need the stunt casting to sell tickets.

So why is Kartheiser back? Is Joe Dowling, a regular Mad Men viewer, counting on the audience’s enmity for Pete Campbell, in a meta-dramaturgical gambit to help us greet Mr. Darcy the way Austen intended?

“Yes,” Kartheiser says. “I think it’s out-of-the-box casting—because you’re supposed to dislike Darcy and then you’re supposed to fall in love with him. Look, I have four sisters, and when I told them I was playing him they’re like, Oh! Mr. Darcy! Nobody says, Oh! Pete Campbell!”

When I talk to Dowling about his choice, he explains that he was “doodling on the Internet” when the idea came to him. But he gets a little huffy when I suggest that casting Pete Campbell was a savvy way to get the desired insta-reaction from a Guthrie audience. “I’m a long time in this business,” Dowling says, “so I can distinguish between a character and an actor. And I could see very clearly that this was an actor playing a role. I wasn’t casting Pete Campbell; I was casting Vincent Kartheiser.”

At the very least, given the built-in disdain some audience members may have for Kartheiser’s Pete Campbell, Dowling’s choice will save us all some time. Kartheiser points out that the novel has 300 pages to escort us through our evolving feelings for Mr. Darcy. The book is full of letters and whispers and tiny gradations of minutiae that eventually reveal Mr. Darcy’s true character and feelings.

The new stage adaptation by Simon Reade “doesn’t have time for that slow burn,” Kartheiser says. “In the book Darcy doesn’t announce his love for [Elizabeth Bennet] until more than halfway through. We have to get there more quickly. We’re not putting on a five-hour production.”

But Kartheiser believes the audience will still ultimately respond to what Austen wrote 200 years ago. “I think the way we make Darcy undesirable is the nature of his stance—the way that he talks to people, the way that he delivers his lines,” Kartheiser says. “It’s gotta be a subtle shift, because in the second half of the book he’s been humbled. She’s like, ‘Look this is how the world sees you.’ And he’s like, ‘Nobody’s had the balls to tell me that that’s how I come across.’ And he literally does change.

“What my goal is,” Kartheiser continues,“ is for people to look back at the first act and say, ‘Wow, all the things he said, and all the ways he said them, didn’t mean what I thought it meant. It’s my own prejudice toward him.’ That’s what the story is really about: This community of people have seen him as one thing and made an opinion and judgment of him based on a first impression, and we can be so wrong in that.”