SO GOOD, HE'S BAD
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