You won’t often see Peter Sarsgaard act. Between his regular contributions to specialty films, from Boys Don’t Cry to Kinsey, and mainstream forays like Flightplan and Orphan, the versatile performer keeps plenty busy, but he never lets people see him work. Without making a show of his ability to blend into characters, Sarsgaard never gives the same performance twice—or perhaps it’s just that the private-minded actor doesn’t let his core self interact with his roles. In either case, the part of An Education’s David fits him perfectly. A working-class Jew in 1960s England, David is an outsider several times over, but his cultural savvy and ingratiating manner gain him entrée into the life of 16-year-old Oxford hopeful Carey Mulligan, whose skeptical parents also fall under his spell. It’s clear from the beginning that something about the character doesn’t quite jibe, but it takes a while to discern what. (Fair warning: Spoilers on the subject below.) Even once David’s secrets are revealed, Sarsgaard keeps us from losing sympathy with him. The same ambiguity that made him hard to embrace makes him impossible to dismiss. Sarsgaard sat down with The A.V. Club in New York to talk about playing irrational characters, how acting is like painting, and why he doesn’t put much stock in research.
The A.V. Club: An Education is based on a memoir by Lynn Barber, and in her telling, the character you play comes off as a real creep. But the way you play him, it’s much more ambiguous. You can more easily see how she and her parents could be taken in.
Peter Sarsgaard: Well, that makes sense. I mean, if you’re Lynn Barber, and you’re writing about him, you’re not going to try to understand him. It’s my job to give him some sort of life.
AVC: How much of that was in the script, and how much did that change as you came on board?
PS: It was there in the script, but there were certain parts that were still delicate in terms of figuring that out, like the fruit scene. You know, when I read the fruit scene, I thought, “Wow, we’re really dealing with something pretty intense here.” So when scenes like that come up, or the names scene, where I do the names, “You call me this, I call you that,” I had to find a way of doing that that was supported by humanity. In those scenes, it’s clear to me that there’s some element of anxiety that is making him act like that, that he’s not actually somebody who’s that interested in sex. I mean, he’s interested in sex like everybody’s interested in sex, but that’s not his primary motive. So once I took that out of the question, and it wasn’t going to be a movie about a 37-year-old guy fucking a 16-year-old girl, which it’s not, then all sorts of doors opened. You know, when I first was pitched the movie over the phone, I went, “Yeah… I don’t know, I have a daughter. No.” But then you read it, and it’s Nick’s writing and everything, and it’s not like that.
AVC: If sex isn’t his motivation, what do you think is?
PS: I think this is a guy who, when he was her age, it was the ’40s, post-war, and he’s Jewish, he’s living in London, he doesn’t go to school. He obviously has a whole other life that is shown in the film, that shows that he’s not living the way that Danny [Dominic Cooper] is, for example. So this is a guy who’s lived by hook or by crook for his entire life and has had a lot of responsibility, and I think that he wants to be young. I think he wants to go back and experience not just youth, but the world. But I don’t think he knows that much about art. I think he knows some about music. He’s an autodidact, so there are big holes in all the things he knows, and he wants to fill them in. He wants to learn, just like she wants to learn.
AVC: He knows just enough to impress a 16-year-old.
PS: Yeah, I mean, Elgar’s what they play at weddings. So it’s not that tough. [Laughs.]
AVC: She and David are similar in a lot of ways. They’re both aspirants in a society that, even then, was pretty stratified. There isn’t a lot of upward mobility.
PS: And they both have fundamental things about them that are going to make things more difficult to achieve in that society.
AVC: Do you think that’s part of why he’s attracted to her, specifically?
PS: Yeah. I mean, I don’t think of it—it’s not love in the proper term “love.” But it’s like, “Oh, wow, you want what I want.” You know what I mean? It never gets there, never has a chance of getting there, because I’m living in a fantasy world, as is she. But mine is really a full-on fantasy world, so that limits what can happen between the two of us, even in terms of friendship.
AVC: We eventually come to understand that a large part of the pressure comes from the fact that he has a wife and child to support. You have a daughter who just turned 3. Did being in that position yourself make that easier to understand?
PS: It’s easy to understand. I mean, because of who he is, which is easy to understand, because many people, in the name of optimism, live in a fantasy world. And we love a lot of those people.
AVC: You sort of have to, to a certain extent.
PS: Because who knows what’s going to happen? We all know what is happening, so you can’t think about the boys dying overseas or anything like that every day. So we all kind of do that, and I just gave him that. I just gave him that to the max, and I thought, “What are this guy’s daydreams?” They’re not sexual, I don’t think. They’re about his life, and about his status and what people think of him, and that kind of thing.
AVC: It’s obvious early on that there’s something not quite right about David, but it takes a long time for the penny to drop. The way you play the character, it’s tough to get a fix on him.
PS: He does all kinds of things that are wildly irrational in the movie. There’s a way you can act something if it makes sense to you, [but] if the director doesn’t film it and show the impulse, however small it is, that made something happen—for instance, the proposal—Lone [Scherfig] did a shot of me to make that be able to happen, right? And it’s not just a shot that’s about my acting, the way I’m framed in it, with my head turned, and I’m sweating, and it’s not flattering. It’s a horrible shot of me, because it’s meant to contrast. It’s a contrast-y shot. And then I turn to her, Helen, and she looks the way she does, and I was always given all of that to at least make it come out of somewhere. In life, sometimes, those things really do look like they come out of nowhere. But in film, it’s hard for people to accept that sometimes a proposal, someone’s just acting completely normal, nothing’s going on, they walk to their car, they open the trunk, and they propose to you. [Laughs.]
AVC: Part of what’s satisfying about art is that it explains things that don’t make any sense in real life.
PS: That’s art. Yeah, exactly.
AVC: How much do you concern yourself, as an actor, with those sorts of filmmaking details, as opposed to just the performance?
PS: I’ve learned to ask if it’s being shown, and I don’t worry about it besides that. I didn’t think about what I looked like in that frame, which I think is so significant, the way she had me turn my head in that weird way.
AVC: Or “Where’s my light?”
PS: I don’t worry about any of that stuff, but I do say to myself, “Oh, this is that moment that’s going to help us for that moment?” I do think in that kind of detail, but only before. I go, “Oh, it’s being shot. Good.”
AVC: That’s always the part of film acting that seems most difficult, that you’ll shoot Scene 54 and then Scene 3 right after it, and you have to have the arc of the character planned out in advance.
PS: You don’t. It’s just, a little bit before, you think about the story. I do very little. But then you just start making choices. It’s like a painter would work. Not every painter thinks about the whole painting before they do it. They go, “Oh, looks like there’s a dog over there. Wow. Oh, and there has to be a leash.” There’s a certain amount of after-the-fact figuring it out. Sometimes, there’ll be a fuck-up, and you go, “Oh, we have that like that. Well, I guess this scene has to be a little bit like this. That’s not what we thought it was going to be, but it has to be.” What’s great about that is that you end up doing something that you didn’t think of and the director didn’t think of. It’s just forced by the circumstances, which is okay.
AVC: Is that something you have to learn along the way?
PS: Or work with a really good director. I mean, you know, it depends on who you’re working with. With Lone, she knows that stuff. And she thinks about it. Lone is very good at making it look like she’s not thinking about it, though.
AVC: The has an unusual tone, but it’s elusive. She is a woman who made a comedy about suicide, after all.
PS: Yeah. [Laughs.] I know, I know. She is, in some ways, so mysterious to me, Lone. And in some ways, totally the most open person I’ve ever met. It’s hard to explain Lone. She’s Danish. I mean, that’s part of it.
AVC: Did you have any contact with Lynn Barber? I assume the real guy is not around.
PS: He is not. Although he apparently contacted Lynn not that long ago, a couple years ago.
AVC: But did you talk to her about him at all?
PS: No. I’ve not met her. From playing characters that were based off real people, the people involved rarely give you interesting information. Because she’s just going to hate on him. [Laughs.] And I don’t care which way he parted his hair. So what is there to be gained? I remember when I was playing John Lotter in Boys Don’t Cry, he wanted to contact me. He actually wanted Christian Slater to play him, and then when he realized that wasn’t happening, he wanted to contact me. And it was like, “I just have absolutely no desire to talk to him. Because it’s not like he’s going to portray himself to me in a light that’s helpful. He wants Christian Slater to play him.” [Laughs.]
AVC: Some actors put a lot of stock in that sort of research.
PS: Yeah, yeah. I don’t. I put more stock in just walking around and talking to people, and seeing different things in other people, feeling myself interact with those people, thinking about things that I said and did for different reasons, and just being aware of my own unconscious mind as much as I can be. Obviously, it’s just the tip of an iceberg, I’m no Jungian or anything, but that’s the most important thing.
AVC: Do you put a lot of stock in research, generally? Does it depend on the movie?
PS: Not particularly. It’s nice to know how to hold the gun. If you’re supposed to have an object, or a certain facility, playing piano, shooting a weapon, that type of stuff. If your character’s supposed to be able to scale walls or do something like that, you want to make all the physicality look not like you’re trying to do it for the first time and you got lucky, you know?
AVC: But if you’re going to play a therapist, you don’t go hang out with therapists.
PS: Yeah, I mean, I did a play once where I had never made a pot of tea and put a tea cozy on it before. And I worked on that for a little while. It’s a whole thing to figure out. And it was tough, because I had to be talking at the same time. Any time you’re talking about one thing, and this is like an old habit? I do this every day? Well, you’ve got to be able to do it like it’s an old habit, like you do every day.
AVC: That’s the stuff that people don’t notice unless you do it wrong, too.
PS: Yeah. And suddenly you’re slowing down talking because you’re trying to put on the tea cozy, and they’re like, “I thought you knew how to use a tea cozy. Or are you doing this for the first time? Or what’s wrong with you?”