‘Ex­per­i­menter’ is not your con­ven­tional biopic

The Washington Post Sunday - - MOVIES - BY MICHAEL O’SUL­LI­VAN michael.osul­li­van@wash­post.com Ex­per­i­menter (R, 98 min­utes). At Land­mark’s E Street Cin­ema.

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

MAG­NO­LIA PIC­TURES

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.”

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