Peter Sarsgaard seems instinctually drawn to dark, often difficult characters driven by morally ambiguous impulses. Among his more memorable, and uncomfortable, roles are John Lotter, the homophobic murderer from Kimberly Perice’s Boys Don’t Cry, and the older, married admirer of Carrey Mulligan’s Jenny Mellor from Lone Scherfig’s An Education. Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s Lovelace, now in theaters, gave the actor one of his most psychologically challenging parts to date as the violent and exploitative husband of Linda Lovelace, played in the film by Amanda Seyfried. This past February, I met Sarsgaard in Berlin, shortly after the film’s European premiere and just before shooting the third season of AMC’s The Killing, where we discussed what draws him to the characters he plays, improvisation, long-distance running, and the burden of wearing a beard in front of his wife, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and his two children.
I have to say it: Your facial hair is quite overpowering.
I finished Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves in November, where I played an environmental activist. We filmed in Oregon, and I got into it. Then my nine-month-old got used to the way I looked, so I knew if I shaved, it’d be difficult. Then I decided to do 10 episodes of The Killing, so now I feel like I can’t cut it. Also, my wife likes it.
From An Education to, now, Lovelace, you seem drawn to negative, abusive characters. Producers seem to like casting you in these roles.
I don’t think of [David Goldman] in An Education as nasty. He doesn’t hit or abuse anyone. He just wants something that he doesn’t have. He’s really good at dissociating. I always give this example: He waits for the girl to turn of age before having sex with her. That might not be comfortable for everyone…but it’s Carey Mulligan. Her character is quite a lovely woman, perfectly reasonable to be in love with. When he goes to pick her up at school, he stands outside the car, he doesn’t hide inside, he’s not furtive, he’s honest about it because he doesn’t think he’s doing anything wrong. His wife lives three blocks away from that school. The character just divides his life into two things. I think he’s probably a decent father and he’s good to her, he just can’t have everything.
My character in Lovelace, Chuck Traynor, suffers from wild insecurity. I think he never grew up from being six years old. Little boys hit, when they don’t like something, and Chuck still does that. He’s jealous, envious, and so needy of having something in his life that if it starts slipping from him, he’d sooner destroy it than not have it. So the only similarity in my mind is that I’m an older man and they’re both younger women. I don’t do “good” or “bad,” but this guy…let’s just say I’d rather hang out with David from An Education.
Insecurity makes Chuck what he is, and it seems like acting is a job where one has to be very confident. What prevents you from feeling insecure?
Nothing. I do feel that. It’s so easy for an actor to tap into those feelings. Jealousy, insecurity, envy…those are up any actors alley, and that requires no concentration. Everyone also has all those feelings in their personal life. You can go on and lie about it and say you’re someone who doesn’t have inappropriate feelings, but then you’re like the guy in An Education. Integration is what’s healthy to me: not pretending you don’t have inappropriate desires or not being envious. Acknowledging you have those feelings and saying that you do. That’s one thing about playing characters like Chuck: It ends up being a positive, as it brings to the surface feelings that we don’t like to acknowledge. I’ve played this guy filled with envy and realized, and I’m full of envy too.
Chuck is a tyrant, but there’s also a sense of loneliness and desperation about him. When playing such a character, do you ever think about making them slightly likeable?
I really think in terms of seeing the world from his point of view. Everyone has a point of view, and most of us are the heroes in stories of our lives we tell ourselves, no matter who we are. Charlie Manson is the hero to his own story. I also think that we were all babies, and every baby was born innocent. So if I go far back enough with this character, I’ll find a place that I can identify with. And then I sort of track his journey through life up until this present moment, and while he might be way off course for doing things he should be in jail for, they’re still understandable.
I have understanding for everyone that I play. Of course, when I was in Green Lantern, I didn’t ask, “Mmmm…who is this guy?” I was imagining a 17-year-old boy and trying to entertain him. It’s different. You know what genre you’re in and you play it that way. Chuck’s actions are neither good nor bad when I’m doing them, just understandable. I didn’t enjoy doing a lot of things in this movie. I have a wife and a kid—one then, now two. I didn’t want to do many things. Doing sex scenes in a movie is uncomfortable. Doing violence is even more uncomfortable. Luckily, I had a partner in the film who was an incredibly brave and secure woman. That’s rare in an actress. [Amanda Seyfried] was willing to give me permission to take it to place that felt right.
Chuck Traynor is a real character. Did it require doing lots of research to get this part right?
I really didn’t worry much about playing the “real” Chuck Traynor, because it’s irrelevant for a number of reasons. One is that the whole movie is told from [Linda Lovelace’s] point of view. So the movie’s vision of Chuck is the one she has in her mind. He might bare some resemblance to the real guy, but my duty in this film is to the story, not to the real guy. The video I watched of him, he was with a woman in a bikini, showing her how to shoot a semi-automatic rifle. My research for this movie in terms of character was: “I want to be powerful, look good, be the sexiest person in the room. I’m the porn star, the star, and she’s not.” So I paid a lot of attention to what I looked like and I tried to feel good about it. The rest of it was just hanging out with Amanda and making sure I had her trust.