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At the Artios Awards with Vincent Kartheiser

Vincent Kartheiser After all of the statues had been handed out at Monday night's 25th Annual Artios Awards in New York City, we had a drink with "Mad Men" star Vincent Kartheiser, who was on hand to present several awards honoring the top casting directors in the industry.

Back Stage: What brings you to the Artios Awards tonight?

Vincent Kartheiser: Well I was offered to come, and I said, "That’s a huge honor and I’d love to do it." I have primarily worked out of L.A., although I know some casting directors in New York. I love casting directors. I owe my career, like all actors do, to two or three casting directors who have really stood behind me.

Who are some those casting directors who've shaped your career?

Mali Finn was actually a huge, huge impact on my life as a young man. She basically pulled me out of Minnesota, brought me to L.A., screen tested me. She passed away a couple years ago now, but she was a huge catalyst in my career – and they always are. Throughout your career, you’re going to go through periods where the public doesn’t want you and directors don’t know you, but these people who do the work, and spend their evenings watching movies they don’t want to and plays that are out of their way, are the people who we owe our careers to and who believe in us.

As a young actor just getting started, most people are usually intimidated by casting directors. But then once you've found some success and get to know a few casting directors, do you become less afraid of the auditions?

Well, it depends. You're still afraid, because then you're afraid of disappointing them. Because they tell the director, "Hey, you don’t know this kid, and I know you're bringing in five other great big actors, but trust me. I’m going to bring in this kid too." And the last thing you want to do is go in there and shit the bed, and make [the casting director] think, "Oh my god, is this director ever going to hire me again?"

I think any person who has been around this job or this industry long enough understands how important every piece is.

How dramatically has your success on "Mad Men" changed your relationship with casting directors and the audition room?

Well, I’ve had a great career. I’ve been very blessed. I’ve been acting 25 years, and I’ve always had something going on. But no, it hasn’t changed that much. People kind of expect you to bring in something similar to your character, which I try to not do, but sometimes you have too. I think directors know me more now [because of "Mad Men"], but no, most casting directors have known me for a long time.

Casting directors know me. And if you don’t know who I am, I’m severely disappointed in you doing your job – because I’m not some big star, but there are not that many guys who have been around for 20 years.

Plus, you're part of an award-winning television series.

Exactly. So directors know me more now, but casting directors have always known me. I go in now and they go, "Oh honey, I’m so happy for you." Most of these casting directors haven’t been able to hire me, so they brought me in time and time and time again and go, "I think your great, but you just weren’t right." Or the director didn’t want me or the studio didn’t want me or whomever.

Is it tough not to make personal when you get rejected?

Well sure, but it’s part of the gig, man. If you can’t do that, you're not in the right industry.

Does it ever get easier?

No, it gets harder in some ways. I think the first few rejections are new, and it’s a blow to your system. But as you go on longer and longer it gets harder, because you have an idea of what you can do and you have expectations for yourself, and you also have more responsibilities – like your mortgage and your kids, or whatever it is in your own life that depends on you doing that job – and you expect to get better.

When you're young, your like, "Oh, I didn’t book it!" And your agent is like, "It's ok, get back in a class. Get your thing going." As someone who's been acting for 20 years, you think, "I should really be able to walk in this room and book this, and I don’t care if I’m too tall or too white or too whatever. I should book this role."

Can you share any memories of your bad auditions?

I went to an audition once, and I was supposed to do an Irish accent. I only had two days with it and they were like, “Please don’t do an Irish accent. The director's Irish, the producer's Irish – they really don’t want an Irish accent, they just want to see if you can act. Please don’t do an Irish accent."

I was 21 years old and I’d never really done much accent work. I’d done a little and I was like, “I’m going to fucking do an Irish accent,” so I went in there with like 15 pages of work, and the Irish director and the Irish producer sitting across from me, and I get halfway through the first page and the director just puts his head in between his hands like this. (Kartheiser drops his head and covers his face with his hands as if in shame.) And he doesn’t bring them up until I leave the room. Literally, I shook everyone else’s hand, and he just sat there with his head in his hands. And I walked out and was like, "Ahhh, I probably didn’t get that one. Probably don’t have to worry about going to Ireland this summer." (laughs)

Are you at all surprised that "Mad Men" casting directors Laura Schiff and Carrie Audino won the Television Drama category tonight?

No, because we have an amazing amount of guest actors on our show, and we expect them to do really hard work. In television, our directors and our writers and our producers don’t have a lot of time to cast. We don’t have a month to do a country-wide search. You've got a couple days, and in a couple days, our casting directors consistently bring in the most creative and amazing choices for these roles. I’m shocked and sometimes scared when the guest stars come on, because I’m like, “Oh my god, they’re going to kick Pete off and this guys going to be the new Pete," because they’re so fucking good. They just really bring amazing choices.

I think we all look at the script and say, “Why don’t I have another scene here?” But then as an objective viewer, and as someone who can kind of see beyond my own heady ego, you have to consistently remind yourself that you're part of a story, even though you might have these grand ideals or plans for your character.

Right. There was an episode this season that was almost entirely about Pete, and then you were basicallyy absent for the next two episodes.

It serves the story, it serves character, and it serves so many different things. And then you're winning awards and you think, “Wait, how can I second guess? Why would I second guess anything that they’re doing?” So even if there's a fleeting moment where you're like, "This guest star has been in three episodes in a row and they get a love scene, and I haven’t done a love scene in one year!,” honestly those feelings pass so quickly, because your doing Shakespeare. You don’t care that you're “Witch #3,” you know?

How much do you credit the casting director with creating the world of "Mad Men"?

At the end of the day, the casting director brings in a lot of choices and Matthew Weiner has an impeccable eye for talent -- with the exception of me, where he kind of missed. (laughs) I mean, I’ve never played a role like Pete Campbell in my entire life. Any other director in the world, looking at my work, would’ve been like, "I don’t see it. He’s never done this before." ["Mad Men" creator] Matthew Weiner doesn’t care, because he trusts himself.  He’s got faith in himself that comes from working 30 years in this industry. He has a great eye for talent.

No one would have ever said January Jones can take on this project. Week after week he gives her heavy, heavy stuff because he knows she can do it. And he knows just how to see parts of people. I remember the first night I went out and drank with Matthew Weiner, and later that night he looked at me and said five things about me that pretty much no one knows. He just guessed. He’s just that type of an observer, and he just sees the world in those eyes, and he sees Pete Campbell in me. And he writes parts of me that weren’t in Pete Campbell into Pete Campbell, and he allows me to stretch as an actor, writing things for me that are nothing like me.

Do you have a favorite Pete Campbell moment?

No, no. It's so hard to do that with a character.

But was there one moment where you realized, “I know who Pete is now?"

Yeah. At the end of season one, I remember we were all doing a table read. We go around and say our names, where we usually say something like, "I’m Vincent Kartheiser and I play Pete Campbell." And this time I said, “I’m Vincent Kartheiser and I am Pete Campbell.” And the room cracked up, because it was very true – and they kept writing these foot-in-mouth moments [for Pete] which are very apropos to myself.

Visit BackStage.com for more coverage of the Artios Awards, including a complete list of winners and nominees. And read our Blog Stage Q&As with 2009 Artios Awards host Janeane Garofalo and actor/Artios Award presenter Patrick Wilson on Blog Stage.

-- Daniel Lehman

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