One of the most versatile actors in Hollywood, Peter Sarsgaard effortlessly switches from mainstream to Independent film. An actor who has demonstrated a fearless capacity for exploring the darker side of human nature, Peter Sarsgaard has become synonymous with the term “edgy young performer.”
A graduate of St. Louis’ Washington University, where he was a co-founder of the improvisational group Mama’s Pot Roast, Sarsgaard studied at the Actors’ Studio in New York. After he completed his studies, he was cast in the off-Broadway production of Horton Foote’s Laura Dennis, and, as a member of Douglas Carter Beane’s Drama Department, he appeared in John Cameron Mitchell’s off-Broadway production of Kingdom of Earth.
Sarsgaard made his screen debut in Tim Robbins’ Dead Man Walking (1995) but had his first substantial role in The Man in the Iron Mask (1998), which cast him as the ill-fated son of John Malkovich’ s duelling Musketeer. He then appeared in a series of largely unseen independent features, including Larry Clark’s Another Day in Paradise and Morgan J. Freeman’s Desert Blue (both 1998). In 1999, Sarsgaard broke out of obscurity with his role in Kimberly Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry. His increased profile was reflected in the number of projects he has since been involved with, including P.J. Hogan’s Unconditional Love, The Salton Sea, Shattered Glass, Garden State, Kinsey, and the upcoming Flightplan, Jarhead and The Dying Gaul. In a New Orleans hotel, it was an upbeat and often hilarious Sarsgaard that talked to Garth Franklin.
Question: Have you had time to enjoy the nightlife of New Orleans?
Sarsgaard: I went out last night a little bit. Came back early.
Question: Where did you go?
Sarsgaard: Uh, Vons. Saw Kermit Ruffins. He’s a trumpet player. Has an amazing trombone player, this kid. The trombone player is kind of what I went for. The trombone plays with the band that’s in the movie, called the…whatever. The band that’s in the movie. (laughs) He couldn’t when we were filming. But he’s amazing and so I was psyched to go see him.
Question: Is that partly why you wanted to the movie, because of the New Orleans theme?
Sarsgaard: I really wanted to do the movie because the character I’m playing is sort of an interesting reverse-double somersault with a half-twist pike. I was interested to see how I would do it. I didn’t know how I would do it, so I was just sort of like, “Oh, this will be interesting.”
Question: How were you prepared to do that? What were the challenges?
Sarsgaard: With this role, I started to think about who this guy’s heroes might be, or who the heroes would be that I could get away with having. And I started thinking about Sun Studios, like Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley and stuff like that, people who sort of took Blues music and made it popular. I’ve got a little Carl Perkins hairdo in the movie, and I got a drum kit in my apartment. I started thinking, “This guy’s like a bassist.” Keeping the band tight and together and not taking any credit, but he knows he’s the true rock star in the band. I thought of him being like a session player from there or something like that. But obviously he’s an estate lawyer in New Orleans and all that stuff. I think he thinks of himself as a rock star.
Question: How much of your work was lost when they cut the romantic subplot?
Sarsgaard: The romantic subplot. It wasn’t cut. There’s still a romantic subplot.
Question: No, there’s not.
Sarsgaard: There’s a romantic subplot, it just happens late in the game.
Question: Well, I was actually on the set and saw a big kissing scene that’s not in the movie.
Sarsgaard: That’s not, yeah. But there’s a little thing late in the game.
Question: So there isn’t too much that was lost.
Sarsgaard: I don’t think so. I mean, a little bit, maybe here and there. But not too much. I mean, I wish I could tell you all the devilish plans I had, but…there was always an opportunity with this to have a ridiculous amount of fun with it, you know what I mean? But also that wouldn’t have served the movie too well. I could have had like…I mean, I could have gone nuts. But that’s not going to be in the interest of the movie and everyone’s gonna be sort of like, “What’s going on?” I think in any movie like this where there’s…obviously several reveals in the movie, where it’s a thriller, we’re piecing things together, when they get in the editing room they decide what best serves the information and how and all of that. So yeah, it changed somewhat, the final picture. But I don’t hold on to my work or anything like that (inaudible) in a precious way. I always feel like there’s more where that came from and it doesn’t matter to me. I’m a bassist, you know. (laughs)
Question: Do you envy an actor like Johnny Depp, who’s reached the point in his career where he can approach a role with a specific manic idea of how to interpret it?
Sarsgaard: I really admire his work. I really think he’s found a way to be both commercial and good at the same time. He’s sort of invented his own style of acting. Someone once told me he based his character in that movie Sleepy Hollow off of a 14-year-old little girl, and I thought, “Of course you did.” (Laughter) I think what he does is really cool. I mean actually, Willie Wonka, to me looks like it’s based off of like Andy Warhol or something like that. Imagine Andy Warhol taking kids on a tour. He just seems like has a good time with it. And it doesn’t seem like it’s precious to him. But you know, I don’t feel like I’m the same kind of actor that he is. And I feel like…I don’t know if I would do that kind of thing well. But it’s not what comes naturally.
Question: How do you pick a project?
Sarsgaard: It depends on what’s going on with me at the time. I pick different roles for different reasons, just like any job. Sometimes I decide to be in a movie because I think the movie is going to be a socially important movie. Shattered Glass, I think, was that way for me. Regardless of what you think of Shattered Glass, I think the message is still relevant. One of the most fundamental parts of a democracy that we keep forgetting about is the media, because without information you can’t decide how to vote. And if you ain’t got the facts, then how do you know whether to vote for this guy or that guy? Then the whole thing falls apart. That’s why I did that movie, because that this story, which on the surface is about this guy who makes up articles, is really about that idea. And that’s an idea I feel very strongly about. And sometimes I just go, in a more whimsical way, “Oh, this might be fun.” Or sometimes I go, “I want to work with this person,” or this person’s in it or this person wrote it. All different reasons.
Question: So why this film?
Sarsgaard: I liked the idea of the character. I thought it would be…it’s like I said, I had no idea how I would play it, going in.
Question: Did you want to be a lawyer earlier in life?
Sarsgaard: You’re very good. I wanted to be…no, I’ve never wanted to be a lawyer. I feel like I’d be a terrible lawyer. I think my character might be a terrible lawyer. (laughter) I think he might be really (bad).
Question: Can you talk about this character…you play two roles, in a sense.
Sarsgaard: Well, I’m playing somebody who’s…still waters run deep, I guess. I think…yeah, I don’t want it to be given away. I feel like that’s “y’alls” responsibility. I imagine you guys want the same thing I want. I mean, does it really behove your audience to know everything about the movie before they go see it? Are they gonna want to read the review by people that just explain movies to them? Oh, this is what happens, here’s the synopsis, here’s the Cliff’s Notes, don’t go see it. I guess you could do that, but I don’t want to read reviews like that. So I sort of leave that up to you guys. I try not to talk about the movie and explain it too much.
Question: You’ve got another thriller coming up, Flight Plan. Is it a similar sort of task for you?
Sarsgaard: That one is less so, I think. With that one, it would be very difficult for me to explain it or give it away, because there’s no single thing in it that is the giveaway. It’s a movie that constantly changes. I would have to sit down with you for like half an hour to explain what’s happening.
Question: Who do you play in Flight Plan?
Sarsgaard: I play an Air Marshall. And Jodie Foster thinks she got onto the plane with her daughter. Her husband has just died. She takes two Klonopin, falls asleep. Wakes up, her daughter’s gone. She really believes she had her daughter is one the plane. And I play the Air Marshall who is trying to determine whether or not she’s a woman who is going nuts on an airplane because her husband just died, or if she really did have a daughter on the plane. So it’s like another little bit of an investigator part.
Question: There’s a nice buzz surrounding Jarhead. What can we expect from it?
Sarsgaard: Jarhead – people keep asking me if it’s an anti-war movie, and I’m like, name one good pro-war movie. (laughter) I want to see that.
Question: The Green Berets
Sarsgaard: But the Green Berets…I watched that recently and John Wayne takes a M-16 and smacks it against a tree and breaks it in half. So the Green Berets is about that level of reality. Because if you ever held an M-16, you know the tree is going to break before the M-16 does. (laughter) And he’s just like, “Damn.” So our movie, in contrast, is like…instead of deciding whether or not this war or that war is wrong or ok, it’s more like, all right, here’s a job that is the hardest job on the planet. You’ve got to learn to kill people in a way that is with discipline and is professional and not personal. And that is the nature of being a warrior. There’s no other way to do it. You can argue whether or not there should ever be a war, but certainly most people would way World War II was justified. This is a job that people do. And it has the hardest training, period. Everybody knows about boot camp. The reason they do that is both to prepare you in your body and your mind. And then when you get there, you’re ready to do this thing. That’s why they talk the way they talk, because you don’t want to be like, “So, I’m going to go over there and pop that guy in the ass, and I’ll be back in a minute.” You go, “Yes, sir. I’m going to do the thing.” It’s a mission. You do it professionally and you do it exactly and you shoot ’em through the head. But what happens when you get over there and you’re not fighting? And you’re sitting there in the desert and you gotta clean the shitter and then you gotta clean the humvee and you’ve been there for a couple of months and you’re missing your girlfriend and stuff and you’ve gone through this training where you’re ready to kill and you’re not killing and you might have to kill tomorrow or they might drop chemical…what happens to your mind? And so it’s really a movie that I think honours marines by showing how difficult it is to be a marine. So I think that that’s kind of the genius part of the movie. Usually people when they go to make movies like this, it’s partisan. To me, that’s not a partisan thing. That’s like, everybody, if those guys are going over there, you can get behind the idea that they gotta do it well, and you can understand when they start fucking up, I think, in this movie, because it is…maybe working on an oil rig is number two, but this is number one.
Question: How much training did you have to do?
Sarsgaard: Boot camp was not that long, but I’d say actually doing the movie was the hard part. We shot what’s called French Hours, which means we didn’t stop for lunch. We shot hand-held, so you just go on to the next scene and they start filming it. There’s no go-back-to-your-trailer time. And you start to just feel…not that you’re life is on the line – that’s the part that’s different – but you feel what the 60 lb. backpack feels like. You’ve got the flack jacket on, you’ve got your chemical stuff on, you know – Mach 3. And it’s got charcoal in it. And then you’ve got your stuff on underneath that. And you’ve got a 15 lb. rifle and it’s 90 degrees out ’cause we’re in Mexico. And you’re standing there and you start to figure out ways to lie down, just in between takes while they reload. We looked like turtles. We would get down like this and put our helmet like that, and there’s all these pictures of us going like this. And then they go, “All right, we’re going again,” and you stand back up. I just started to go…just carrying this shit, not even with live bullets, just carrying the shit and standing there is not easy. So that, on top of the discipline and all the other stuff, you start to really have a lot of respect for what these guys do, even if they do fuck up. You start to understand why they fuck up, because it’s not a task that I’m sure is not humanly possible to do perfectly.
Question: Why don’t you do more comedies?
Sarsgaard: Garden State.
Question: I know, but that’s one out of all the other movies we’re talking about.
Sarsgaard: I’m pretty funny in The Dying Gaul I have coming up. There’s a little comedy in there. It’s not just me; it’s them.
Question: It’s them?
Sarsgaard: Hollywood. If them, the big them, if you do enough movies – I’ve done 25 movies now and a lot of them have not been comedies – at a certain point it’s just a process of natural selection. They stop selection, you know? Also, I can make a drama better if it’s not perfectly written. I know how to do that, to make it better. A comedy – a lot of comedies revolve around a premise. He’s in her body, she’s in his body. If that premise is just fucked from the beginning, there’s no amount of salvage in saving it. If no one’s written the jokes, I’m not going to particularly come up with them, you know what I mean?
Question: How can you save a drama?
Sarsgaard: Oh, by just making it make sense. I go, “Nobody would do that after that happened. Are you kidding me? No.” And then we figure out what might happen. I feel like my job most of the time is just to go, “Wouldn’t happen. How would that happen? Ok, if you want that to happen, then you’ll have to put this in to make that happen.”
Question: Did you fix anything on Skeleton Key?
Sarsgaard: It’s a process of working together on that type of thing. We certainly had debates about different things. A lot of times you lock horns with a director – not in an argumentative way, but in a way that’s like a Sophoclean dialectic, man. They got their point of view and you got yours, and the third idea is the one that’s the good one. And that happens. It happened on Skeleton Key, it happens on a lot of movies. But the guys I admire are…you see Vince Vaughn get into a movie sometimes where on the page you would be like, “No way is that thing going to make it.” And I’ve read some of them and been like, “No way. That can’t possibly work.” And I really admire and actor like that that can turn a comedy around. I feel like for me I need to have it happening early. (laughs)
Question: So where does your sense of humour lie? Do you find it hard to find things that make you laugh?
Sarsgaard: Well, there are more dumb comedies than there are dumb dramas. A lot of times when are making a comedy, they’re out just to make money, because they know comedies make more money. So it’s already like they’re not trying as hard. But there’s like plenty of…I like the idea of doing a comedy where someone’s not just trying to make people laugh. It’s like make people laugh plus something else.
Question: Like Garden State.
Sarsgaard: Like Garden State. Or like Stripes. (laughs) God, if Stripes came around and someone offered me the part of that guy who’s like, “You touch my shit, I’ll kill you,” I’d be all over that role.
Question: Where do you stand on believing or not believing in voodoo/hoodoo?
Sarsgaard: I believe that if you believe, it’s real. I believe that if you think it does something, then it does something. If you think you’re having a heart attack and you obsess about it, you might have a heart attack. Someone hands you this nut and says you’re going to drop dead in two weeks, if you believe in it enough you might drop dead in two weeks. I feel immune from it, because I don’t believe in it.
Question: Are you a cynic?
Sarsgaard: No, I’m a Catholic. (laughter)
Question: So what do you make of the cameras not working? Is that just bad mechanics?
Sarsgaard: The cameras not working?
Question: Yes, that’s what Iain said – there were days when the cameras didn’t work.
Sarsgaard: That’s what Iain believes. I don’t mind the cameras not working.
Question: So does anything creep you out?
Sarsgaard: Yeah. Like Satan. (laughter)
Question: So you believe in Satan?
Sarsgaard: No, but I can’t shake it, cause I went to an all-boys Jesuit high school. I was an altar boy. I’m screwed, man. Seriously. It’s like some things you can’t…like if I’d grown up with Voodoo, I’m sure even if I moved to New York and started being all Bohemian and stuff and somebody handed me the buckeye, I’d probably be like, “Aaaaahhh.” Enough to watch my hands in the salt water. A friend of mine here believes in that stuff – my friend Mary. I hung out with her while we were filming and we were walking down the street and there are these people on the streets that will sometimes do Voodoo stuff like that, for the tourists. And this woman gave us some nut or something and said, “Now you guys have eternal love and you’ll have great sex,” and that kind of stuff. Well, she’s like my friend. She’s not my lover. She never has been. And so she was trying to say she thought we were a couple walking down the street. So, my friend took me back to her house, had me wash my hands in salt water. We did the stuff, and I was just like, “Mary, I’m fine.” She’s like, “Just do it for me.” And we didn’t end up having sex.
Question: And that didn’t make you believe.
Sarsgaard: That didn’t make me believe, because I wasn’t going to have sex with her anyway.
Question: What else are you working on right now?
Sarsgaard: I’ve taken a break. I just got a sailboat, so I’ve been sailing. I’m kind of cooked.
Question: You have a lot of films coming out.
Sarsgaard: I do. I have a film that I’m probably going to do in January with the director of the Dying Gaul, Craig Lucas. We’re setting it up right now. I’ve really enjoyed working with him and I’m really…that movie was such a great experience and I had such an awesome time acting in it. It’s probably the most fun I’ve ever had acting.
Question: When is it coming out?
Sarsgaard: It’s coming out in October. Strand and Sony are releasing it. It’ll be on just a couple of screens. And we’re gonna do another small movie together in January, probably. And I might be going to Croatia this fall to research the role, because I play a Slav. I gotta get my Slavic going on.