‘Experimenter’ is not your conventional biopic
Stanley Milgram is not a household name. But even those who have never heard of the social psychologist (1933-1984) may be aware of his landmark Yale experiment on obedience to authority. In a series of experiments, subjects were instructed to administer a series of increasingly painful electric shocks to a volunteer taking a memory test, as punishment for a wrong answer. Surprisingly, 65 percent of the subjects continued to deliver volts, despite cries of pain.
Never mind that the shocks were fake and that the volunteer was an actor. The fact that so many were willing to inflict what they believed to be pain on others — simply because they were told to — horrified the world. Milgram himself came under fire for the psychological damage some said he caused by his deception.
The controversial scientist is the subject of a new movie, “Experimenter,” starring Peter Sarsgaard as Milgram, whose curiosity about man’s inhumanity to man was inspired in part by the trial of Adolf Eichmann. Along with other former Nazis, Eichmann explained away the atrocities he committed as only following orders.
True to its name, director Michael Almereyda’s “Experimenter” is an unconventional tale, with a style of storytelling that acknowledges its own artificiality. At times, Sarsgaard’s character turns to address the camera, referring to events — such as the birth of his daughter, or his own death — that have not yet occurred. In other scenes, a circus elephant wanders the halls of Milgram’s laboratory building. Some scenes are staged with fake-looking theatrical backdrops.
We spoke with Sarsgaard recently about Milgram, the film and the challenges of portraying someone whose life and work centered on a fascination with contrivance and dissembling, but only in the service of a greater truth.
“Experimenter” is something of a meta-movie. In 1976, William Shatner starred in a TV movie, “The Tenth Level,” based on Milgram’s life. There’s a scene in “Experimenter” where Milgram is watching Shatner, played by Kelan Lutz, play Milgram. It’s all a bit confusing, isn’t it?
It gets worse. In the script, I complain that Shatner, who is Jewish, is a goy. And, of course, I’m the goy playing a Jew in the movie. The whole movie is kind of filled with that kind of thing. I have this crazy beard at one point, and then you have an Abraham Lincoln impersonator with the same crazy beard. So I have a scene with an impersonator.
Considering the unorthodox way of telling this story, how much research did you do into the real Stanley Milgram?
I actually paid more attention than I usually do to the surface of the guy: what he looked like, how he talked, that kind of thing. Especially for the stuff when I’m talking into the camera. He made many films himself where he talked into the camera in a very similar way. I like that he was creating a persona, however charmingly goofy. He would have a glass of wine next to him as the camera panned in, and he would put it down at the right moment and he would begin to talk.
So the Milgram that “Experimenter” presents is a construct?
A construct that he was putting together. Even the beard that he grew when he became famous, I think that had to do with maybe his not being comfortable with his own face being out there in public. How did I approach that as an actor? In some ways I did more research than I normally would. When I played [real-life FBI informant Brian “Balloonhead” Halloran] recently in “Black Mass,” I looked at a photograph and took note that people were calling him Balloonhead, and literally went on just those two things. But with Stanley, I concentrated on learning the details of who he was. He didn’t talk with his [New York] accent a lot of the time, because he was trying to sound more erudite. There’s a hyperarticulate quality to him, as if he’s making a presentation.
It’s all about artifice.
The very thing you’re pointing out is what attracted me to the movie: this different approach to acting, even to the idea of acting. Because this thing that Milgram was trying to capture is a candid moment. He’s creating artificial circumstances where he can see people when they don’t know they’re being seen. He was influenced by “Candid Camera,” actually. The movie also references the street photography movement that came along at this time, with Garry Winogrand, where photographers like him were trying to capture candid moments. The acting style that grew out of that time, from Brando on, tried to show the inner life of someone, where the actor is not sculpting the story. I — who, as an actor, am normally asked to do something quite different — was being asked to construct something in an entirely different way. It’s really hard to explain.
You mention art. Was Milgram an artist or a scientist?
I’d say he was an artist like Andy Warhol, in his dispassion about what he was doing. People always ask me about the Holocaust, in terms of it having an effect on his experiment about blind obedience to malevolent authority. I say, “Yes, of course. He’s a Jew. Growing up in New York when he did, that had an effect.” But he was also just collecting the results, like an artist. In some ways, there’s a significant overlap between being a scientist and being an artist. He was like, “Don’t get mad at me, I didn’t make the results.” That’s where the overlap is with art. If you want to reference “Hamlet” — oh, let’s just go ahead and do it, it’s old — he’s holding “the mirror, as ’twere, up to nature.” A lot of times an artist just goes, “This is what I’m seeing.” That’s what street photography does.
Do you see Milgram as a hero or villain?
Neither. I see him as someone who is both a really keen observer of the world and also decidedly not in it.
What’s going on with the circus elephant that we see following Milgram around?
Obviously, there’s the elephant in the room. I think a lot of people think it’s the Holocaust. It could be any number of things that you want it to be — this idea that we can’t trust our own senses and our own thoughts.
You bring a sense of cool, slightly unnerving detachment to the performance. Is that a quality you cultivate in yourself ?
Maybe on some level. It’s very easy for me to think of things that are not like that, like Balloonhead in “Black Mass” right now. It’s also what I get asked to do.
But would you be asked to do it if it weren’t part of your bag of tricks?
It’s interesting. I think of myself as someone who is extremely empathetic and attached and emotional. And I certainly have been very emotional in some movies. I would say that the opposite of that is what I feel a lot of the time. I’ll be like, “Oh, my God, I really let it all hang out in that role.” Like [the troubled screenwriter] in “The Dying Gaul.” If you watch a couple of scenes in that movie, I certainly expose myself. I feel like I do way too often, to be honest with you. I don’t like watching actors that act just to bare their souls. I’m also asked to be quite menacing a lot of the time, but that might be because when my career was really starting, it was probably from playing [murderer] John Lotter in “Boys Don’t Cry.” I was certainly known then for something quite different than I am now. For many years I was asked to play someone like John Lotter, who was quite “up,” quite aggressive and quite emotional.
Is it more interesting to repress or express emotion?
Emotions I never worry about. They come, they go. The audience does not care a whit. They just want you to try to pursue something and to see if you get it. In the case of Stanley Milgram, he pursued everything quite dispassionately. It’s almost as if he came from another planet. I like that about him.
It was announced earlier this year that you’ll be playing the bad guy in Antoine Fuqua’s remake of “The Magnificent Seven.” You’ve certainly played your share of villains, sleazeballs and psychopaths. Here you’ll be trying to eradicate the memory of the great Eli Wallach as the Mexican bandito Calvera.
The character [Bartholomew Bogue] is my own ethnicity, that’s the good news. Wallach didn’t get to play his own ethnicity. The other good news is I don’t appear to be good . . . before I turn bad.
“Obviously, there’s the elephant in the room. I think a lot of people think it’s the Holocaust. It could be any number of things that you want it to be — this idea that we can’t trust our own senses and our own thoughts.”
Peter Sarsgaard portrays controversial social psychologist Stanley Milgram, who conducted a landmark experiment on obedience to authority, and Winona Ryder plays his wife, Sasha, in director Michael Almereyda’s “Experimenter.”