INTERVIEW: Peter Sarsgaard talks acting choices and ‘Experimenter’

sarsgaardIt’s always nice to see a character actor or frequent supporting player get a chance to take over a leading role. One such actor is Peter Sarsgaard, who often is the highlight of a film, but in a small part. This week, however, he got a leading role in Experimenter, which is a biopic of noted psychologist Stanley Milgram. If we’re being honest, I didn’t care much for the movie, but Sarsgaard was very strong in it, so I was thrilled to sit down with him recently to have a short chat about the part. You can see the best of the interview below, which includes a very small bit about his small role in Black Mass, and if you’re curious about Experimenter, which is directed by Michael Almereyda, it’s in theaters now.

Here are the highlights of my interview with Sarsgaard:

How he picks a role and if he’s looking for something specific or taking the best of what’s offered to him, regardless of lead or supporting

Peter Sarsgaard – I take the best of what’s coming my way. I’m fortunate in that I’ve now played some many different types of parts that different people identify me with different things. There’s a variety in the material that I’m getting. You’re right in terms of playing, you know, playing the lead role in a movie, but most of the time the lead role in a movie is a character that is not morally ambiguous. So, if there’s no moral ambiguity, then I don’t really know who the person is, because I don’t know anyone who hasn’t got all colors to them. Obviously, those roles are really coveted because to be well liked is to be a big movie star which is to make a whole lot of money which is to get to make more movies. So, being well liked is obviously a very important component. You know, I don’t think this character (in Experimenter) on the page was written as needing to be well liked. So, maybe that’s why he (filmmaker Michael Almereyda) thought of me!

On playing Stanley Milgram and how you craft this person as a cinematic character

PS – You know they (Milgram and Philip Zimbardo, in reference to Experimenter coming out in the same year as The Stanford Prison Experiment) went to high school together. Jews from New York, up to good stuff! (Laughs)

Well, he was a guy who really had a mask, in life. He literally, the beard and the glasses and everything that he started rocking when he became famous, to me…when I see, a lot of actors do that. You’ll see actors have almost a Colonel Sanders type of image, and that’s their public mask, and they do that for all kinds of different reasons, and it’s really attractive as an actor to play a character with a mask. You don’t necessarily, to play sincerity, to play genuine qualities all the time, is really tough to make interesting. There’s no layer. Sincerity is “this is what I am, I’m showing you everything”, and that lasts for five minutes (Laughs). There are people who actually get away with it though! I was telling Maggie (Gyllenhaal, his wife) the other day, I was watching National Velvet with Elizabeth Taylor, and I was like “she’s so good and sincere and still interesting”. It’s something very rare, but you have to be a young Elizabeth Taylor to get away with it.

People are really into the extremes. I’m not interested, that interested, in the extremes. I’ve certainly played the extreme of evil, which is just sort of like when you’re a kid and you wear the black hat. (Laughs)

More on the character of Milgram

PS – I think he has a lot of personal anxiety. I mean, as I played him anyway, I don’t know what the real guy was like, it’s impossible to know. You know, he was often described as being dispassionate by people, also very competitive. People like his brother told me that he was competitive, so I don’t know if that was reliable information or not! (Laughs) What brother wouldn’t say that their brother was competitive? He also said though that he was really, their father died when they were young, so he really fathered him and really was a leader in his family. I almost think of him like a young Orson Welles, you know? Mature before his time, like grew up and was a full adult at age 15 or something.

On the uniqueness of Milgram not responding well to criticism

PS – No, no, it hits him hard. I don’t think that he, you know…I think in some way, I always thought of him as someone that was visiting from another planet. He came here and was like “I’m just observing. You’re saying that to observe who you are and then feed it back to you is not a good thing? How could that be bad?”. He couldn’t understand that it would trouble people to learn that they had anything but good in them, especially in 1960. You think of the 50’s as everyone in dresses and the lawn is mowed, everything is perfect, but meanwhile everyone is on amphetamines. I think he was interested in what was going on underneath, and it was hard at that time.

You ask so many people and who would answer that they would go all the way with the study and the test? I would, just to be the guy who says yes. I’d actually like to think that I would be the guy who opened the door when people started screaming. You know, no one opened the door when the guy screamed? You’re giving a test, flipping switches, ZAP, guy screams, you don’t go open the door? (Laughs)

If there’s a role that defines him or he thinks defines him

PS – When I was young, it was Boys Don’t Cry defined me for a long time. And that was tough, because that character was so specific, and so specifically not how I am. Not cerebral, totally impulsive, and violent.

Responding to my assertion that more laconic characters are what I identify him with

PS – Well, the character I just played in Black Mass is certainly not laconic. (Laughs) You could lick me and get high in that one! I had a ball.

What’s next

PS – Magnificent Seven remake! With Antoine Fuqua directing. I play Bogue, a very larger than life character that’s really fun. I’m also doing this thing with Errol Morris that’s kind of ongoing.

There you have the best bits of my brief talk with Sarsgaard. He can currently be seen in Black Mass as well as Experimenter, both of which are in theaters now…

Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!