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

Kartheiser is proud that the Guthrie has asked him back. But not as proud as the internal 12-year-old Vincent Kartheiser.

“To the childhood version of me, this is bigger than winning the Oscar,” he says. I ask him how big a deal it was to make his Guthrie debut at the age of 7, playing Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol.

“That wasn’t big,” he says. “And I’ll tell you why: because at 7 years old, you don’t get it. A 7-year-old sees a terrible tragedy happen on the TV and he’s like, ‘Oh, this is bad.’ But they don’t understand how it fits into the context of the world or the history of America or the context of their family or anything.”

As he grew older, his understanding of and appreciation for the craft grew. “By the time I was 12 years old, in The History Plays at the Guthrie, then I understood, watching these actors do what they did, which to me was impossible. It was like watching a gymnast at the Olympics. You watch it and you go, ‘I don’t even know how you do that!’ That’s what this feels like. These are my heroes. It’s like stepping onto the Olympic stage after watching it your whole life. It’s quite profound.”

Kartheiser’s old friend and fellow actor Jerry Drake has been a regular in Twin Cities theater since he came up with Bain Boehlke and Wendy Lehr. He’s been at the Children’s Theatre for 42 years now and had just finished a matinee performance of Alice in Wonderland when he stopped to call me about Kartheiser.

Drake rattles off his former stage mate’s credits like he’s reading the back of a baseball card: “First play I was in with him was Pippi Longstocking—he must have been 10 years old. Then The Velveteen Rabbit. He acted with the great June Gibbons. She was my age now when she was with Vinnie. And he did Pinocchio. He was in Our Town, where he played my son Wally. In Treasure Island he played Jim Hawkins: ‘One more step Mr. Hands, and I’ll blow your brains out.’

“In The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, he played the Grand Duke Wilfred, this snobbish outcast, this snotty spoiled nephew of the king, which is a completely different character than Jim Hawkins, which is completely different than Our Town, which is completely different than being a sick boy in The Velveteen Rabbit.”

Kartheiser would send Drake notes on opening night. “And not like some of the other little kids—not like, ‘Here’s a sucker and break your leg,’” Drake says. “He wrote me a note when he was about 13 years old, wrote a little poem with it. And after we did Treasure Island in 1992, he drew an illustration of a ship and a poem, ‘Seamen Praying to Saints.’ Then he said, ‘Someday when I’m your age (25, I mean!), I want to have the memories you have. Happy opening, Vinnie.’ He was just more sophisticated. You could tell he loved the work.”

Drake’s been impressed for a long time. “Even after he had done films out in Hollywood, he came back and took dance classes at Children’s Theatre. He was still committed and still wanted to continue to work on his body and his mind and everything,” Drake says. “He’s a committed artist. I think that’s the secret of the thing.”

It’s not that I keep pushing my Pete Campbell theory on Kartheiser. The role is obviously a defining experience for him—just as defining as those early experiences at the Children’s Theatre—because he keeps bringing it up. At one point during breakfast, he’s talking about success and he says, “I’ve always been ambitious. Not the way Pete Campbell is; I’ve always been ambitious for myself.”

“What’s the difference?” I ask.

“He really believes that he can have success and it will change how he feels,” Kartheiser says. “He believes that there’s a relation between those things. And I don’t.” So how did you figure that out?

“Because it happened: I had success. It changes the way you feel but it doesn’t fulfill you. I think we all have this idea at a certain point: If I’m married, then I’ll feel fulfilled. If I have the kids, then I’ll feel fulfilled. If I would just get this house or that promotion. But if you’ve had any of that, you know it doesn’t. And people who have had less success or luck, they constantly look at other people and go, ‘Well you’re lucky and you’ve got everything and you have no problems.’ What they don’t get is that there’s no fulfilling of yourself. And you will never feel like a complete human being. You just won’t.”

Kartheiser’s life seems pretty complete right now. He’s recently engaged to Alexis Bledel, the former Gilmore Girls star, whom he met while she was playing Pete Campbell’s love interest on Mad Men. And he’s back in his hometown doing his thing. His reps made it clear that he didn’t want to talk about his relationship with Bledel, but it’s a natural part of the conversation when you’re talking about getting older and figuring out your identity. He opens the door a little.

“I’m trying to tiptoe around it,” he says. “But the truth is, when one is to meet the right person—and it’s such a cliché—but then it all makes sense. And then it’s not a sacrifice.

“It’s gotta be the right time. My brother got married when he was 21, and he’s very very happy. He’s a baker. He found his career about five years ago. We all take different steps, whether it’s emotional or financial or spiritual. It’s just a desire to be the man that you think you should be.”

Then he does it again—he compares himself to the character he plays on TV.

“Pete Campbell has been a good kind of weather balloon to kind of judge, like, ‘How am I . . . ?’ To play a character like that, you have to investigate those parts of yourself. And thus become aware of some very negative parts of yourself.”

Now, playing Mr. Darcy, he gets to explore the psyche of the hero. Darcy is a man of high moral integrity and a little bit of an introvert, the anti-Pete. “The reserved, the honorable. I haven’t played the hero that often,” Kartheiser says. “And from a performance end product way, he is the hero. So that is a goal and a motive that we as a production have.”

He is enjoying exploring Jane Austen’s universe, so different than the one creator Matthew Weiner has shaped on Mad Men. “There’s justice at the end of her books,” he says. “And I don’t know if that’s true on Mad Men.”

Kartheiser sees this role as an opportunity to find some new milestones, to float some new non-Pete Campbell weather balloons. “It’s the 200th year of this book being published,” Kartheiser says. “It’s the 50-year anniversary of the Guthrie. This is a good time for me to spend a summer with my family. I’m going to be married. And there’s not going to be as much time to spend with them once I have my own family. So this is in some ways, I can’t even say it in a magazine, but it does mean a lot to me coming back to Minneapolis to do this play. And I want more than anything for this play to be well received.

“It matters to me what people in Minnesota think.”