Vincent Kartheiser is no stranger to the no-toilet lifestyle. The 36-year-old actor, best known for his portrayal of Pete Campbell on Mad Men, has always been—how should I put it—old fashioned, or, umm, minimalist to the extreme. In 2010, just months before the Season 4 premiere of Mad Men, Kartheiser told The Guardian—in an unforgettable interview—all about his lavatory-less way of living: “My house is just a wooden box. I mean I am planning to get a toilet at some point. But for now I have to go the neighbours. I threw it all out.” He then goes on to talk about possibly also getting rid of his bed and how he checks himself out in mirrors of parked cars because he hasn’t owned a mirror for seven years. Vincent Kartheiser is by no means your typical celebrity, which is why he’s always been my favorite. (Well, that and the fact that he’s appeared in some of my favorite TV shows: Mad Men and Angel.)
Of course, I just have to tell him this as soon as we meet. “You’re my favorite celebrity,” I whisper at him. He doesn’t hear me so I have to repeat it, a little bit louder this time. “Really?” he says. “That’s so nice of you. I’m glad I met my number one fan. Been waiting for it my whole life.”
When I heard that Kartheiser was going to be at an “intimate” Thanksgiving lunch with members of the press, I knew I had to weasel my way in somehow. And I did, suddenly finding myself swishing around a glass of champagne on the penthouse level of New York’s hip Chelsea spot, the Nomad Hotel, talking to actors and producers about—oh, I’m not even sure. We’re there that Tuesday afternoon to celebrate a new Vincent Kartheiser-starring project called Saints & Strangers, a two-night miniseries on National Geographic (Nov. 22 and 23) that depicts the real story behind Thanksgiving. Which brings me back to that toilet comment. “You’re used to not having a toilet…” I lead on, as we discuss his role as the Mayflower-board William Bradford. “Yes,” he says laughing. Of course, the actor has since invested in indoor plumbing. “Vincent Kartheiser Finally Breaks Down and Buys a Toilet” was a headline from a few years ago, and I’m pretty sure his wife, Mad Men co-star and Gilmore Girls actress Alexis Bledel—who's expecting their child—would mind if they continued living that way.
“Did you bring that lifestyle back on this set?” I ask, in case he method acted his way into his pilgrim role (it’s Vincent Kartheiser, so you never know).
“No, we tried to keep it pretty cushy,” he tells me. “We had five-star amenities all around. There was no method acting going on.”
Though really it doesn't sound all that cushy. To stay loyal to the pilgrims’ shortage of material goods, the entire cast wore the exact same costume every day. “That’s like—," Kartheiser says to me, stopping short of finishing his initial thought. "Especially for the females, they were like, ‘Really? Same old bonnet? This old ratty thing?’ It was actually quite dirty out there.” At a certain point, the clothes started to mimic how the settlers may have actually smelled. “You can’t even imagine what the trailer smelled like,” he says.
Thankfully, our feast that day doesn’t really reflect 17th century cuisine, though being seated between the actors who play pilgrims (most of them actually British, like Barry Sloane and Michael Jibson) and Native Americans, there is a level of authenticity I’ve never experienced at a Thanksgiving gathering before. The meal is certainly a stand-out: The main course is a roast chicken layered with foie gras, black truffle, and brioche, and the sides include squash, mashed potatoes, and fancy things that I have never even heard of (what is an écrasé?). Even the cranberry sauce is called a “gastrique,” and for dessert we have mignardises.
The indulgence of the feast is more in spirit with how Thanksgiving is usually celebrated, though anyone who’s gotten past second grade social studies knows that the origin story is more complicated than that. Saints & Strangers attempts to tell that non-sugar-coated version. The title doesn’t actually refer to settlers versus Native Americans, or vice versa, but rather the two groups of pilgrims that came on the Mayflower: the religious Separatists and the opportunists. If the title seems to exclude Native American perspective, the show itself is actually quite the contrary. Screen time is pretty evenly split between the two groups, with nearly half the show subtitled, and due to National Geographic's commitment to historical accuracy, the Native American actors had to learn the nearly extinct language of Western Abenaki. "If you don’t have people who really care about the details and who really care about getting it right and can do that in a short amount of time, you’re in trouble," Kartheiser tells me. Earlier that afternoon, producer Teri Weinberg had told me that an immense amount of research went into the project before shooting.
It shows. Produced on what looks like a high budget, the historical drama never feels cheap or rushed, and it is careful about its depiction of events. That's not to say there aren't parts that don't feel long or toiling. Characters often come and go swiftly (like Anna Camp, who plays Kartheiser's wife) but staying loyal to the true events can be blamed for their lack of screen time, as death and disease also came along on the ship when they traveled to America.
If there's one commendable aspect of Saints & Strangers, it would have to be the well-rounded Native American portrayal, especially that of Squanto (Kalani Queypo), who, due to his fluency in English, acts as an interpreter between the two groups. Through his bilingual interactions, we see him curiously misinterpret meanings back and forth. Native Americans are portrayed as neither martyrs nor savages, and Squanto proves to be the most complicated of its tribe members—when he's off-screen, both parties are often seen questioning his motives. Likewise, among the pilgrims, some members are painted with more aggressive characteristics while others, like Kartheiser's Bradford, is shown as a God-fearing do-gooder who expresses guilt for intruding on settled land and tries to make peace at every turn.
"He’s a man of the Word, not of the sword and his bidding is done, at times, by other men," Kartheiser explains his character. "But his hands are often, not themselves, physically bloody. I think he was faced with hard decisions and no matter which decision he made, there would be a brutal outcome. Do you fight or do you die? Do you steal or do you die? There is no right decision and the hard thing about being stuck between your morality and your code and surviving is: Where do you break? Where does the character break?" The miniseries isn't trying to make this Thanksgiving feature a gritty picture about the "evil white people" and the "poor Native Americans" who had everything taken from them, but rather it shows a series of miscommunications and amends. Mistrust is expressed on both sides, and it shows how "doing the right thing" is never really clear when it comes to matters of territories and co-habitation, and above all, survival.
Vincent Kartheiser says that even with National Geographic's efforts to be as real as possible, what we end up seeing on the screen is still very much a "clean image." This rings especially true that day, when we're conversing and networking over such a fancy feast. Still, the cast doesn't get away with a dirt-free look, especially since the series prides itself on realness. "Are you wearing eyeliner in that?" I ask, referring to the dark smudge around his eyes. "Let me tell you something. I've always got eyeliner on," he jokes. "Well the character is tired and dirty and we did our best to show that to the audience," he clarifies. Maybe Saints & Strangers isn't your feel-good holiday viewing (it's certainly no A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving), but it's a good start for those seeking to remember, and honor, a less filtered version of the familiar story—dirty smudges and all.
And speaking of dirty smudges, by the end of the meal, which I had hastily devoured, I end up with cranberry sauce—excuse me, gastrique—on my cheek. I quickly wipe it off before bidding Vincent Kartheiser farewell. I look completely wrecked, but he gives my cranberry-stained cheek a kiss anyway.