SO GOOD, HE'S BAD

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When Woody Allen called, Peter Sars­gaard didn’t even bother to ask which role the di­rec­tor wanted him to play in Blue Jas­mine. The ac­tor said he was in­ter­ested. But then Sars­gaard was asked to play the abu­sive hus­band of the world’s most cel­e­brated porn star in Lovelace, and the ac­tor hes­i­tated, even though it was a much big­ger role than Blue Jas­mine and could put him into awards con­tention at the end of the year.

It wasn’t un­til his wife, ac­tress Mag­gie Gyl­len­haal, in­sisted that he take the role that he changed his mind.

As a re­sult, Sars­gaard has two movies open­ing next month – Blue Jas­mine and Lovelace.

The 42-year-old ac­tor ex­plains why he jumped at the chance to work with Woody, but was ter­ri­fied to ac­cept the juicier role in Lovelace. Sars­gaard, who works steadily in films such as Shat­tered Glass, Boys Don’t Cry and Jar­head, also will tell us why he made a ca­reer de­par­ture by tak­ing the role of a death-row in­mate on the ca­ble TV se­ries The Killing, and how some­one with such an in­no­cent-look­ing face can play so many mon­sters.

In Blue Jas­mine, Sars­gaard isn’t a mon­ster but he’s still not the most pleas­ant fel­low, play­ing a ca­reer diplo­mat who falls for Cate Blanchett, a woman on the verge of a break­down af­ter her mar­riage falls apart. She was the wife of a Bernard Mad­off-like char­ac­ter (played by Alec Bald­win) who not only swin­dled his clients but stole his wife’s com­fort­able life.

Lovelace tells the story of Linda Lovelace’s ride to the top of the adult film in­dus­try, and is based on the porn star’s mem­oirs. Ob­vi­ously, her mem­oirs have not been kind to her con­trol­ling and of­ten-vi­o­lent hus­band and man­ager Chuck Traynor, who died in 2002. Amanda Seyfried plays Lovelace, and there is very early Os­car buzz for a nearly un­recog­nis­able Sharon Stone as Lovelace’s un­for­giv­ing mother. The film was di­rected by Rob Ep­stein and Jef­frey Fried­man. Re­porter Barry Kolt­now: I met Chuck Traynor. Peter Sars­gaard: Re­ally? BK: Yes, he was mar­ried to Mar­i­lyn Cham­bers at the time, and he was there when I in­ter­viewed her. She told me that what Linda Lovelace was say­ing about her hus­band was un­true, al­though she clearly was in­flu­enced by what he had told her. PS: I al­ways as­sumed that we were not telling the ac­cu­rate story of Chuck Traynor be­cause it’s told through the eyes of Linda Lovelace. The film is her per­cep­tion of events, so I didn’t worry about play­ing the real guy. BK: But how you played him leads me to a the­ory I have about screen vil­lainy. There are what I call the “mous­tache twirlers”, who are the over-the-top vil­lains we see in ac­tion and comic-book movies. And then there is the “mon­ster next door”. Th­ese are the vil­lains who look in­no­cent enough but then we see this burn­ing in­ten­sity that fi­nally erupts in rage. You seem to have per­fected the lat­ter. Did you de­cide in act­ing class that your baby face would make a per­fect against-type vil­lain? PS: It’s what you get asked to do. I’ve al­ways had a great cu­rios­ity about peo­ple. I want to know how a per­son’s mind works. When a per­son leaves the room, I’ll talk about them be­hind their back, but I won’t call them names. I’ll point out some­thing about their be­hav­iour. That’s what fas­ci­nates me about peo­ple, and that cu­rios­ity is what I bring when I’m play­ing th­ese guys. BK: When did you re­alise that you could play bad so well? PS: Prob­a­bly in Boys Don’t Cry (he played a killer). Pre­vi­ously, I had been cast mainly as vic­tims. BK: How did play­ing a vi­o­lent psy­chopath af­fect you? PS: There was some­thing re­ally em­pow­er­ing about do­ing it. It was my first taste, and I felt the power of be­ing some­one who de­manded things of other peo­ple, who pushed peo­ple around and forced them to do things he wanted.

Peter Sars­gaard ex­plains why he nearly re­jected the role of an abu­sive hus­band in Lovelace, but jumped at

a part in Blue Jas­mine

BK: Did that role change your ca­reer path? PS: In Hol­ly­wood, there are three cat­e­gories of ac­tors. You’re the vic­tim, the per­pe­tra­tor or the per­son who’s look­ing to solve the crime. To get to play the lead or hero takes in all sorts of eco­nomic fac­tors. They bet on you like a race horse. But when you play a vil­lain, you’re given such enor­mous freedom be­cause there are less peo­ple in your pocket try­ing to fig­ure out what you’re do­ing. If you play a straight pro­tag­o­nist, you have to have the au­di­ence in your mind. There is an enor­mous re­spon­si­bil­ity there, and I re­ally re­spect ac­tors who do it well. BK: Is there any dif­fer­ence for you as an ac­tor be­tween work­ing on a TV set and work­ing on a movie set? PS: The only dif­fer­ence in this case is that they’ve all worked to­gether. There is this core of peo­ple who know each other re­ally well. They’ve done two sea­sons to­gether, and I walked into a well-oiled ma­chine. My job was very clearly de­fined. I did what I was told. BK: And how is that dif­fer­ent than work­ing on a Woody Allen set? PS: Woody is re­ally open to in­ven­tion. He only says this once, but when I ar­rived, he told me that I had all the freedom in the world to do and say what I want. BK: Were you say­ing his words or your own words? PS: We were say­ing his words, but dec­o­rat­ing it up in our own style. To me, that’s the ul­ti­mate in freedom. That’s why he gets th­ese wild, off-the-wall per­for­mances out of ac­tors. If I worked with him again, I might take more ad­van­tage of that freedom. My role re­ally wasn’t big enough to play with. BK: OK, that role is rel­a­tively small, but the role of Chuck Traynor in Lovelace is much big­ger and showier. How do you view th­ese two dis­tinct roles? PS: I look at it like I’m a guy who makes fur­ni­ture. Some­times I make my own gor­geous chair, and some­times I pound a nail into some­one else’s chair. If Woody Allen wasn’t di­rect­ing this film, I may not have made the same de­ci­sion to take the role. But the fact that he was di­rect­ing meant ev­ery­thing. You want to work with one of the great di­rec­tors of our time, so you do it. With Lovelace, I had a lot of reser­va­tions. BK: Why? PS: There was so much vi­o­lence and sex in it, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to go there. BK: So, se­rial killers are OK, but abu­sive hus­bands are not OK? PS: It’s more per­sonal. The guy in The Killing, for in­stance, is a vi­o­lent dude and he prob­a­bly hit women, but he’s long past the point where he’s go­ing to kill any­one or hit any women. That’s what made him so in­ter­est­ing. But, with Lovelace, I’d be pre­tend­ing to make love to Amanda and pre­tend­ing to beat her up, and that is so in­ti­mate. You make th­ese bizarre con­nec­tions, from one ac­tor to an­other, and I didn’t want to do that. It takes a toll on you. It’s pretty un­pleas­ant. Chop­ping a gnome’s head off in The Lord of the Rings is not the same thing as throw­ing a woman against a wall. I don’t like to go there. BK: And what changed your mind? PS: It was Mag­gie. She tried to help me with my de­ci­sion. She asked what ap­pealed to me about the role, and I said it was the bravado. I miss play­ing a guy with this kind of ex­pan­sive­ness. It’s so much chest-thump­ing but in the end, he looks weak. As much as the role up­set me, it also drew me. I’m an ac­tor. This is what I do, and she made me re­alise that.

Blue Jas­mine opens on Septem­ber 12 and Lovelace on Septem­ber 19.

Sars­gaard and Amanda Seyfried in Lovelace

Peter Sars­gaard with wife Mag­gie Gyl­len­haal

With co-star Cate Blanchett at a screen­ing of Blue Jas­mine

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