When I think of Peter Sarsgaard, I think of An Education. I think of him breaking Carey Mulligan’s heart, and then devastating others in Boys Don’t Cry. I think of him as the creepy villain in Green Lantern, the slippery student in Kinsey, and Linda’s awful boyfriend in Lovelace. Common denominator: bad guys.
In Night Moves, directed by Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy, Old Joy) Sarsgaard stars opposite Dakota Fanning and Jesse Eisenberg as environmentalists who plan to blow up a hydroelectric dam. Recently we discussed his own personal activism, passions, past, and perhaps why he’s so drawn to play those “evil” characters.
MA: Your father was in the air force and your family traveled a lot when you were a child. Did this ignite your inclination towards acting, to play different characters in different environments?
PS: I mean I don’t think it got me interested in acting. I think it might be what makes it so that I can have the idea of the variety of people in the world, different incomes. That helps. When you’re going to play someone it’s interesting and nice to see experiences that aren’t like yours. But there’s always the remarkable similarity of all people.
MA: What made you decide to become an actor?
PS: I was at Washington University in St. Louis. I thought of myself as an athlete and a writer. I’d gotten concussions and injuries playing soccer so I quit and I needed something to fill my time. I never daydreamed about being an actor, although my interest in literature was in Shakespeare.
MA: Was there ever a different path you considered choosing, or still consider today?
PS: Marine Biologist.
MA: Why Marine Biology?
PS: Because the oceans are pretty unexplored places and the final frontier on our planet; also because they’re the source of life. There are dramatic things happening to them at the moment, and they're worth exploring.
MA: You were raised Roman Catholic. You’ve said that something that always fascinated you was the concept that you’re supposed to love your enemy. Did this influence your work with evil characters, John Lotter in Boys Don’t Cry being one of them? How do you access that?
PS: “Evil characters” is not something I would ever have thought of them as. It may have been my upbringing in Catholicism, may have been me. It’s not helpful to think of anyone as evil. I’ve always looked at the world as a place where people have done evil things. There are people in the world, for instance, that would describe Americans as evil.
MA: Who’s the most frightening person you’ve ever played?
PS: Who would I least want to hang out with? Probably John Lotter. I guess I have a place of understanding for everyone I’ve played.
MA: Who was the most challenging?
PS: I always had a very hard time connecting to Chuck in Lovelace. With John Lotter, it was understood thoroughly why he was doing what he’s doing. Chuck was like a big baby, super destructive and self-serving.
MA: How did becoming a husband and then a father change your work as an actor?
PS: I don’t know the answer to that. I mean, my daughter is desperate for me to do something she can watch. That’s not really up to me!
MA: You need to play a Disney villain.
PS: I could segue into it by playing the voice of a bad guy, maybe, and go from there!
MA: Do you use your family as emotional triggers in your work or try to steer clear of that type of personalization in your method?
PS: It’s all personalization. There’s nothing else. It has nothing to do with the people immediately around me. It’s more self-oriented than that. I’ve done my best work when I’m away from my family.
MA: What are your methods, or does it depend on the film?
PS: It depends. If no one on the movie has met me before or knows me, that’s the easiest. I don’t do a lot of things that don’t relate to being the person. I will try to keep it going for my other actors. I want them to do the least amount of pretending as possible.
MA: In Night Moves, the characters take an environmental issue into their own hands, blowing up a hydroelectric dam. Is there any issue you are this passionate about?
PS: The death penalty. My first movie was Dead Man Walking. I was around people that really felt strongly about it, and they made me think about it. Usually the way I think someone is radicalized is through a personal experience. The thing about environmental activism is that we are all having a personal experience with our environment, whether we open our eyes or not. I think these people [in Night Moves] are not able to disassociate as well as some people. A lot of us don’t hear the DefCon 5 alarm bell ringing as loud as these people do.
MA: How has being a working actor given you a platform for your political, environmental or social activism?
PS: When I did The Killing, I did that part because I felt it explored the issue in a way that was challenging. A lot of people, practically all the way through, thought this person was supposed to die. I believe even the guilty should not be killed. We can all agree that the 4% of people on death row that are innocent is a big problem. That’s how I’ve used it.
MA: What was the most interesting thing you learned working with Kelly Reichardt? What was it like on set?
PA: It doesn’t feel like anything to be in Kelly's movies. There’s not that performance feeling, ever. You’re not opening on Broadway. Kelly wants it to be easy, without a lot of fretting. She values the way in which people don’t think about what they’re doing. In life, people turn on the radio and end up singing to James Taylor on the way to blow up a dam. It’s difficult to keep a thought like that in your mind.
MA: What’s an
aspiration you have in life apart from something in the arts?
PS: I would like to sail across the Atlantic. I would like the experience of being that far away from land.
Meredith Alloway is a LA local and Texas native. She is currently Senior
Editor at TheScriptLab.com where she focuses on screenwriting education
and entertainment resources. She also launched her own interview show,
"All the Way with Alloway," where she scoops the latest up and coming
industry insiders. She received her Playwriting and Theatre degree from
Southern Methodist University and continues to pursue her own writing
for film and stage.