Vincent Kartheiser comes home to Guthrie

JENNA ROSS | Updated 7/2/2013

Minneapolis boy Vincent Kartheiser swings from playing neurotic Pete Campbell on “Mad Men” to romantic Mr. Darcy in “Pride and Prejudice” at the Guthrie.

In person, there’s no mistaking Vincent Kartheiser for Pete Campbell, his character on “Mad Men.” For one thing, he’s smiling.

He’s also unshaven and relaxed, with none of the fragile ego that drives Pete’s pompous grimace.

“Be yourself,” a publicist urges.

“No, no one wants that,” Kartheiser replies with an easy grin.

But it’s just as hard to reconcile this Kartheiser with the Vincent Kartheiser character he’s curated in years of interviews. That guy — eccentric, dark, often lewd — was nowhere to be found in recent interviews between rehearsals for “Pride and Prejudice” at the Guthrie Theater.

He perhaps came closest to Vinnie, the Apple Valley kid who is quick to praise his training at the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis. The guy who says he took the Guthrie gig to spend more time with his five nieces and nephews. The son whose family sees him in Pete when they gather each Sunday night at his parents’ place to watch the latest episode.

“Why does everyone hate Pete Campbell?” asked Elise Molina, Kartheiser’s eldest sister. “When I watch, I see Vinnie.

“It takes me a while to remember that he’s not supposed to be a character you like.”

Kartheiser, 34, says he digs Minnesota’s lakes and Marvel Bar’s drinks. But he decided to play Jane Austen’s romantic hero Mr. Darcy partly to be a better Uncle Vinnie. He realized a few years back that his nieces and nephews were growing up, he said, “and I didn’t know so much about their lives.”

So he began visiting more often, said Molina, whose 5-year-old son, with his big blue eyes, looks an awful lot like his uncle. It didn’t surprise her that Kartheiser “jumped at the chance to do his craft near his family,” she said. He’s a family guy. Together, they play board games, go out on a pontoon boat, maybe make a meal. Kartheiser’s fiancée, actress Alexis Bledel — whom he refers to simply as “my girl” — has also been spending time in town. Just the other day, his mother Janet said, “we were showing her all the scrapbooks.”

“There are no spa days or anything,” Molina said, laughing. “At most, a low-key hot tub at Mom and Dad’s.”

Kartheiser credits his Midwestern upbringing with teaching him that “it wasn’t about the scale of work you did, it was the quality of work,” and that “it’s not about how much money you made, it’s about how you spent that money ... whether you gave back.”

Punctual, polite, self-deprecating. He called himself “a very small portion” of the “collaboration” that is “Mad Men.” He even acknowledged “the people behind the scenes.”

This is the actor who warranted “A Brief History of Vincent Kartheiser Acting Like a Real Weirdo”? A list, by Paper magazine, that featured him cussing, throwing things at reporters and suggesting that “it’s not rape after the first five minutes”?

Kartheiser’s careful these days, pausing before selecting his words, sharing less about his personal life. He tries to tamp down his urge to amuse a room full of people, “a real flaw of mine,” because “journalists will pick up on the juiciest pieces.”

“You say something foolish, trying to entertain someone,” he said, “and then you spend the next five years of your life trying to get people to understand the context of the joke.”

But he can’t keep himself from entertaining. Publicists, reporters, a photographer and his co-star, Ashley Rose Montondo, were waiting on a recent Friday evening in the small, bright rehearsal space where he’s been “getting into the nuance and minutiae” of playing Mr. Darcy. Kartheiser quickly readied himself for the photo shoot with Montondo, never pausing to look in a mirror.