Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Peter Sarsgaard has been a memorable fixture in movies for more than 15 years, appearing in everything from earnest indies (Garden State) to Woody Allen dramas (Blue Jasmine) to summer blockbusters based on comic books (Green Lantern). Two of his calling cards: intensity and working opposite terrific actresses—Cate Blanchett, Jodie Foster, and Hilary Swank to name a few. (He is even married to one: Maggie Gyllenhaal.) While doing publicity for his new film, Experimenter—which screened at the New York Film Festival the day of this interview—Sarsgaard talked about his approach to playing villains, the movie he showed Gyllenhaal when they were dating, and why he’s an ideal supporting player.
Experimenter (2015)—“Dr. Stanley Milgram”
Peter Sarsgaard: It was really working with Michael [Almereyda, the director]. I’ve known Michael for a while. I knew the way that he worked. I knew that it wouldn’t be conventional. I really wouldn’t have been interested in doing a biopic of Stanley Milgram as Hollywood would do it. I knew that he would neither be demonizing him nor championing him, really. That it would be about something else, about something a lot more interesting than either thumbs-up or thumbs-down. I do think the film itself, the way he was making it, explored different kinds of reality and ways of seeing reality and perception itself.
The A.V. Club: And you got to act alongside an elephant, which was kind of cool.
PS: Yeah, and sing. I was really excited about singing, myself. [Laughs.]
Kinsey (2004)—“Clyde Martin”
AVC: This is not the first time you’ve been in a movie about a controversial researcher.
PS: Clyde Martin was [Kinsey’s] assistant and also lover. And his wife’s lover. [Laughs.] That’s the whole way those experiments were. You know, in that time, coming out of the ’50s and stuff, there was a lot of artificiality that was ready to be dissected and broken into. From what I gathered—I wasn’t around—[there was] a world of pretense where people were ignoring the deep, underlying causes of things, even though some of them were doing therapy at the time. It’s not any kind of wonder to me that you have the Stanford prison experiments, the obedience authority experiment, Kinsey doing his experiments into sexuality and stuff. I think the country was ripe.
AVC: I know you’ve talked about kissing Liam Neeson and your nude scene, but I think what’s forgotten is how good he is in that movie.
PS: Oh my God, he’s fantastic in that movie. I’ve worked with him twice. We worked on a submarine movie together also [2002’s K-19: The Widowmaker], but he’s phenomenal. He’s a phenomenal guy. He has qualities that you just can’t act—you’re just born with.
Boys Don’t Cry (1999)—“John Lotter”
The Center Of The World (2001)—“Richard Longman”
Lovelace (2013)—“Chuck Traynor”
AVC: Kinsey, along with Boys Don’t Cry and Lovelace, delve into aspects of sex. Did that theme attract you to those characters or was it more the characters themselves?
PS: No. This Monday morning quarterbacking—trying to recognize a pattern out of what is chaos. Depending on what stage I’m at in my career, I either work or don’t work because I’ve been offered one thing. Or picking between, say, three things at the maximum and choosing between three things and not working. Well, I like to work as an actor. Not just for money, but because I really enjoy acting. So a lot of the time, I’m choosing what I think is going to be the best acting experience that’s available to me. So, I’ve made, probably 60 movies. The Center Of The World has to do with sex also. It’s also, like, if you figure the number of movies made that have to do with sex, that I managed to make four out of 60 that explicitly did. That’s a pretty low percentage compared to what it is out there.
AVC: It is, but those are the movies people know you for.
PS: I’m comfortable with it. I think one of the things that might distinguish me is when I’m going to work as an actor I really try not to worry about my own personal hang-ups and just really concentrate on the work. Because I have such a respect for acting, which is something I feel like I’m constantly learning how to do, that all of my energy is always focused on the acting itself. You know, it’s like Stanley Milgram didn’t do a lot of judging of people, even though these experiments frequently revealed parts of human behavior that were not admirable. He didn’t judge them. I think that’s one thing that I really respected and felt like I had in common with him. I don’t spend a lot of time judging anyone I play. Even if their function in the script is to be the villain, I concentrate on what their perspective of the events is. Not even to justify them. Sometimes it’s like, “Well, who is this person’s hero? Maybe this person’s hero is Stalin. How is Stalin kind of amazing? We’re all still talking about Stalin. Stalin was pretty amazing. Okay.” [Laughs.] Let’s link someone who really gets into the amazing parts and disregards the other parts. Or thinks of the other parts as something glorious. You think about someone’s heroes and that will sometimes help you.
AVC: You mentioned The Center Of The World. I read that when you were dating Maggie Gyllenhaal early on you showed her that movie and she showed you Secretary.
PS: That’s true.
AVC: How did the screening of The Center Of The World go with her?
PS: She liked it, but it’s because we were talking about a certain kind of acting that we were both interested in at the time. And she was doing something—her acting in Secretary is stylistically different from what I was doing in The Center Of The World, so we were just geeking out as young actors going like, “This is what I do and how I do it.” We were mainly concentrating on—and we still do—on how we do it, rather than the actual story itself. Which someone else makes. Do you know what I mean? We as actors tweak the story here or there, but somebody else has come up with the art most of the time.
The Skeleton Key (2005)—“Luke Marshall”
Blue Jasmine (2013)—“Dwight”
AVC: You have a pretty good history of working with fantastic actresses, including in a romantic capacity.
PS: By the way, I consider Gena Rowlands one of my romantic leads, also.
AVC: I forgot about that.
PS: I actually told them when we were filming that movie [The Skeleton Key] because of the way that plot works where there’s the twist where Gena Rowlands is really my wife that we’re trying to get to Kate Hudson’s body, I kept saying, “We should film she and I in a big make-out scene before the reveal.” And that way everyone would be going, “What the fuck is going on?” And Gena and I would get our great make-out scene that I’m sure both of us wanted. They didn’t listen to me.
What is it? I do think that one of the skills that I have as an actor is sharing the screen. I’ve worked with many actors that don’t want to share it. Look, I see how people boss other actors around to try to get a scene favorable to them. I absolutely just never engage in doing that. If someone’s going to do it to me, I just let them have it. You can’t fight it. There’s no reason to fight it; just let them have it. I’m interested in the other thing, so when I encounter a situation when there’s tons of resistance to that, I know it’s futile to fight. I let it go and I save my energy to act another day.
AVC: Typically, Woody Allen himself reaches out to actors he wants to work with. How did he approach you for Blue Jasmine?
PS: He asked if I would come down. I came down. I showed up in person. He said, “What are you doing this summer?” I said, “I’m having a baby.” And he said, “Maybe you’d want to be in my movie.” I said, “What is it?” He said he would send it to me. Then he sent me a note, a letter, with the script. I read it while somebody waited, just my parts. It seemed interesting, but I had no idea what was in the context of the movie. When you read my part you were like, “How is he asking her to marry him when he’s only known her for five minutes?” [Laughs.] Trying to create the logic was part of acting the part. I thought, “That’s something to do. That will give me something to do. I’ll have to try to make this make sense to me.” As it turned out, it’s almost like I’m the too-good-to-be-true fantasy. But I didn’t know that when I was playing it.
Shattered Glass (2003)—“Charles ‘Chuck’ Lane”
AVC: Many consider this to be your breakthrough performance, and deservedly so. When did you sense that?
PS: You know when you’ve caught the fish, so I knew I had a fish on the line. I also walked into my first meeting for that movie really not looking the part. It is a miracle that they gave it to me. I was coming back from Costa Rica. I had a straw hat on, some flip-flips. I was on Costa Rica time. I had been there for, like, two months driving around with my friend, the most vagabond sort of trip.
I didn’t think about it beforehand. When I read it, I wasn’t like, “Oh, this is great.” I just thought, like, “Okay, I can figure out a way to do this.” Then when I started doing it—showed up in Montreal and we started working on it—I knew immediately. So many real aspects to it, you know: the fact that Hayden [Christensen] was playing that role [Stephen Glass, the whiz kid journalist turned disgrace]; the fact that it’s Chloë [Sevigny, Sarsgaard’s co-star in Boys Don’t Cry], who I knew from before, in the other role. All these elements that were real. I talked about this with Hayden at the time: “You’re in Star Wars. You walk down the street and you’re going to turn more heads than I do.” That feeling, if I can get into that feeling, playing someone who wanted that somehow. I’m not sure I’m someone who wants that. I’ve never really had that. But if I could get into that kind of envy that would be the thing that was the opposition to, “Okay, no, I just need to be a great journalist and tell the truth.” But you had to have the ugly thing that you were trying to suppress, while pursuing the noble aspect of the character. Sometimes circumstances like that will really help you. Like I said, Hayden playing that role really helped me play my role. He was also great to play opposite.
AVC: Because Hayden Christensen was a rising star and Stephen Glass was a rising star, there are those parallels you can draw upon?
PS: Exactly. It was totally the same.
Garden State (2004)—“Mark”
AVC: I look at this, along with Shattered Glass, to be one your one-two punch, but they’re such different roles.
PS: Again, I just looked at what was in front of me and went, “That seems appealing.” I’m not somebody who once I’ve done something I’m not out to look for that thing again. However, if it’s presented me, and I’m not doing anything else, I mean, I might do it. I’m not so precious with my acting. There have been plenty of movies that I did that in retrospect I go, “Well, I just did that movie because I needed to act and I hadn’t acted in a while and I wanted to do it.” You know? Not even for money, because I wouldn’t say I’ve actually been ruled as much by money as by the desire to act all the time.
AVC: So activity trumps all?
PS: Yeah, and I pick out what is going to be the best bang for my buck. And that’s how Garden State came around. It’s like you read it and you go, “I can pick something out of this. I know what to do.”