Peter Sarsgaard for “Jarhead”

It’s quite the year for Peter Sarsgaard, as he continues to define himself in both the Indie and mainstream worlds of Hollywood. Also starring in The Dying Gaul, Sarsgaard talked both films to Garth Franklin.

Question: So how did you and Jake keep from killing each other?

Sarsgaard: We didn’t. You know, it’s the greatest thing that ever happened to us, I gotta say. I mean, going in… I always tell this story — My aunt had my uncle once landscape her property and they didn’t speak for a year after that. And I told Jake that before we started. I said, ‘You know, if we’re not careful, this could be very bad.’

We went through so many difficult times together and then so many good ones, it’s like somehow when you have a hard time together, the make-up, it’s like you’re suddenly so much close. So that’s one of the most valuable things that came out of this movie, that Jake and I got a lot closer.

Question: Does doing a movie like this give you a very different perspective on war and will there be parallels to the current war?

Sarsgaard: Of course. People are gonna do that. I think what the movie gave me an appreciation for were all the things that I never thought about that they’re going through. Obviously we don’t have real bullets or anything like that and we are only in Mexico, we’re not in Iraq, so you can fly out on a weekend, maybe, and see your girlfriend, although there wasn’t much of that.

But it gave me an appreciation for the little things, just like carrying all that stuff, walking around, having to have everything that is yours on your person. You know, kinda the mental toughness that it takes and how that can take a lot out of you. I think what’s interesting about the movie is that these guys get all pumped up to kill and then they go and they just sit there and you don’t ever think like that’s a casualty of war, too. You think a casualty of war is watching you friend get shot. It certainly is. Or watching your friend get shot. Certainly is. Or shooting someone else. And it certainly is. But I think what’s interesting about this movie is it’s like, ‘Alright, let’s assume you didn’t see any combat, it still will change your life forever and in some ways that you might not be to happy about.’ It opened my eyes to that.

Question: How did you train for this role? When did you notice your body changing? And how does that apply to the Dying Gaul?

Sarsgaard: How does that apply to ‘The Dying Gaul’? You are a pervert.

Honestly, I was more fit at the beginning of ‘The Dying Gaul’ than I was at the beginning of this movie. My regime… Jake’s was, I think, 500 push-ups he said today to somebody. I was like, ‘I don’t know. I think that sounds a little fudged to me.’ Maybe like five sets of 100 push-ups over the course of a day? Mine was more like five sets of 100 cigarettes a day.

I talked to this guy before we were starting. I got cast really at the last minute before doing this and I was doing ‘Flightplan’ at the time and so I was rehearsing this, doing boot camp for this and filming ‘Flightplan’ all at the same time out here. I met this guy Fabian, he was one of our technical advisors, and I said, ‘Look at all these guys, they’re all like 22, 23-years-old. They’re all totally ripped.’ I could run as far as a lot of those guys, but in terms of the push-ups and stuff, I was like, ‘I dunno.’ And he said, ‘Well, look at me,’ and he’s like a totally normal looking guy, he said, ‘In the end, the only thing that matters is this’ [he makes a trigger gesture with his finger] I was like, ‘Right.’ So I sorta started more thinking about that part of it, like that amongst the guys, that I might be the one who really was the most capable of killing. I started thinking like, ‘They might be able to do push-ups, but can they kill? I can kill. I know I can kill.’ And so, I think that that makes the last part of the movie, the climactic moment of the movie, more powerful if I have described myself to myself as Troy as the authentic killer. I am the one who can do it. I’m the one who can do it without it effecting my soul. I know I can do it. I’m a professional at it. It raises the stakes for the end.

Question: Talk about playing a different kind of killer in ‘The Dying Gaul’

Sarsgaard: Whether or not I killed or didn’t kill in that movie I think is up for debate. But I think that everyone is on morally unsteady ground in that movie. What’s interesting about it is that each perspective is justified. I think that from my perspective, what Patty Clarkson does to me in that movie, is something that if anyone had done to them… If your lover died and then someone convinced you, as she convinces me, that he’s alive somewhere, really alive, not spiritually, but somehow actually there and can communicate with you, and then tells you that they did it to you, that it never existed, raised your hopes like that for someone that you loved, you might really do something that you’d regret later. It’s not a matter of being a killer. I’m put in a very bizarre situation there. On the other hand, her perspective is totally justified too… Everyone’s… You know, Campbell is very clear with me about the kind of movie he wants to make, says, ‘No one,’ I love this for the movie, my screenplay’s called ‘The Dying Gaul,’ he says, ‘No one is going to see ‘The Dying Gaul’ because Americans hate gay people. If they hear it’s about gay people, they’re not gonna see it.’ And he says that to me from the get-go and it makes me do something that’s for me morally reprehensible — I change a very personally script to make a million dollars that was about my dead lover and that’s the beginning of the end. It’s like a Greek tragedy in that way, where you do something in the first act — you know, the prophesy is told — and in the end, you’re f***ing your mother and gauging your eyes out.

Question: Sam made reference to a group insanity that descended in the desert among the cast during production. Could you give us an example?

Sarsgaard: I keep telling them about other people, but Jake reminded me of one that I did. I wasn’t drinking for the first half of the movie, because I was trying to get fit quickly, because for ‘Flightplan,’ I kinda didn’t care what physical shape I was in. It’s not like I gained weight for the movie, but sometimes I’ll lose weight for a movie. So I was trying to get fit quickly, so I wasn’t drinking. Well, I got fit enough. We’re in Mexico and there was a lot of stress and I decided one night to start drinking again. I had a couple margaritas… Jake started drinking beer at that point and I had some margaritas, maybe only two or three. And there was a thing that was like a fountain in the middle of the courtyard. We’re staying at this not-very-nice hotel that had like a fountain and it looked like it could be a pool, but it was not actually a swimming pool. And he says I finished my margarita and I put it down and he said he was in mid-conversation with me and he said I just walked over to the edge of the pool and with all my clothes on, just walked into the pool and went underwater for a little bit and then came up and walked into my room totally wet. And he said he was in the middle of talking to me about something. So that actually happened, I realized, and I sorta blocked it out.

Question: How much did you research the life of the real person you were playing?

Sarsgaard: None. No. When you’re not playing Nixon and everyone doesn’t know a lot about them, or Ray Charles and everyone doesn’t know a lot about them, the best way to honor them, I’ve found, is to just honor myself and only do things that I would feel comfortable doing and trust in the common experience of being human. I didn’t want to go find that family and dig up that stuff for them. It’s gonna be enough for them seeing this movie anyway, so let them be. It doesn’t really matter anyway. He’s only in a small portion of the book. I read the book, before I even knew I was cast, because Jake was doing it, so I read it just out of curiosity.

When I first got offered this part, there was no character there. There’s nothing there and Sam said he knew that and he wanted to create one. So we created it together, through rehearsal, while filming. We didn’t even know why the character needed to exist, exactly, but he knew that it needed to for some reason, although we were both incredibly inarticulate about it for a while. Then we just started to zero in on something, that this was a guy who had a past that he was avoiding. I know what my past was, but that’s probably not important for you guys. When I became a Marine, I became the best Marine and to me that meant putting one foot in front of the other, never complaining, never letting other guys complain, just doing it and doing it well and being a killer and doing it right and efficiently. And I think that’s why I have a nervous breakdown in the movie, because I’m suppressing all of this stuff for the entire movie. When I freak out in the movie, I’m not just freaking out over what I’m freaking out about, I’m freaking out that I’m having to leave the military. I’m freaking out over all that stuff. I don’t have a world out there that is not a Marine. I like the way the movie ended up, because we explained a lot of the things that happened in the movie. We had reasons that were filmed and he took a lot of those reasons out and I think it honors the character more.

Question: Is it hard to do commercial films where you aren’t as challenged?

Sarsgaard: It depends on the film. I do feel like I’ve done parts in movies where… You know, acting’s a very precious thing to me. Sometimes I forget that, just as we all do with things that are precious to us, and I treat it like a whore. And then I get upset that I’ve done that and maybe I do it again anyway. But it’s a struggle. It’s a balance between doing an art that’s commercial and trying to still have integrity to the little kid in you that wanted to be an actor. The little kid in me was 18, I didn’t decide before then, but the teenager in me. I try not to live in regret, I just go, ‘Don’t do that again.’