Peter Sarsgaard is seated alone in a hotel room in downtown Toronto. When I entered, he was sitting perfectly centered on a curved couch. With his scraggly beard and intense demeanor, I really did feel like I was meeting with some sort of nefarious type who might loan me money, or something. I mentioned this to Sarsgaard and, without missing a beat, he said, “You look good for it. I’ll give it to you.”
Sarsgaard is the villain in The Magnificent Seven, which just premiered here at the Toronto International Film Festival, playing an ornery cuss named Bartholomew Bogue. Sarsgaard looks like he’s having the time of his life in The Magnificent Seven, (to be fair, everyone looks that way in this movie, which is why it works). I mentioned to Sarsgaard that his performance kind of, sort of reminded me of Cyrus the Virus, the character John Malkovich played in Con Air, which turned out to be the perfect setup for Sarsgaard’s own Malkovich story from when Sarsgaard played Malkovich’s son in The Man in the Iron Mask.
During this discussion, we also get into Green Lantern — Sarsgaard thinks the movie had way too much green in it — and Garden State, because why not? We are both in Canada, so when would be a better time to talk about Green Lantern and Garden State?
I enjoy watching you as the villain.
Well, obviously the challenge of playing a bad guy in a movie that’s PG-13 is I can’t just slit some throats and let that be it. So, I had to imply a lot of violence. Or the threat of whatever is in your head of the ultimate violence.
Can that be more fun?
Yes. And also, I think it’s scarier. You look at something like Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury. You know, the idea of what’s scariest is what we don’t know.
There’s a scene where you stick a little boy’s hand in a jar and it’s the most frightening thing because we don’t know what’s in that jar.
Well, that’s a good example of working with Antoine [Fuqua]. I have that scene with a big speech in it and I said, “I want to have a kid come up here. I have this jar and I want to do this thing with the kid.” He goes, “This kid can only work part of the day… so we’ll come back and shoot it tomorrow.” And we did! And that was a case of me literally trying to come up with a kind of violence kids could absorb: The unknown. What is in the jar? And the fact Antoine would rearrange the entire shooting schedule for that day felt like true collaboration that, on a movie this size, never happens.
That has to be why this movie works. Even while dying, everyone looks like they are having the time of their lives.
And I think that’s because Antoine gives a lot of direction, especially before you start. I think he leaves a lot up to you in terms of how you’re going to do it. He’ll steer you in a direction.
This feels like a movie that if you wanted to ham it up, that’s available to do. But you stay fairly reserved, mostly.
I also thought there needed to be a real threat in the movie, otherwise there were no stakes while they were doing any of the comedy.
It reminded me a little bit of John Malkovich in Con Air, your father in The Man in the Iron Mask.
It’s funny, when I first got that part in The Man in the Iron Mask, I had only been in one other big movie. I had been in Dead Man Walking. I remember going out to L.A. and going through a whole process and reading with John. In the end, John’s producing partner said to me, “You know why you got this role, right?” I said, “Because I did a good job in the audition?” He said, “No, it’s also because you two seem like you could be related.”
It’s not easy to find someone to play John Malkovich’s son or someone to play my son. So, I think we have a similarity in the way we speak on a superficial level. That might be because we are from a similar part of the country. I’m from southern Illinois. It’s nice, one day he will be the “old Peter Sarsgaard,” but for now I’m afraid I’m the “young John Malkovich.”
But I make that comparison because both are smart and I never know what they will do next.
Right. And very mercurial. I felt like I could do anything at any given moment. I actually felt like I could have gone to a Gary Oldman in The Fifth Element place if I felt like it.
I bet you could have.
I could have. [Laughs.] That doesn’t come naturally to me and I don’t know how Gary does that. I think it’s amazing. In terms of really pushing that edge in villainy, he does it as well as anyone.
And that accent.
I love thinking about when an actor like that shows up on set and what the first day is like. And they open their mouth and everyone went, “Ummmm.”
That thought comes to mind in Magnificent Seven with Vincent D’Onofrio with that voice and dialogue that made no sense sometimes. But it was so entertaining.
He didn’t tell anyone before he did it. But that’s what you have to do, though. I think once you start asking permission about doing things, everybody’s so nervous in life. You are inviting people second-guessing. If you just walk in and do something, it’s amazing. People say, “Oh, I don’t get any artistic freedom. I’m being manipulated all the time.” I think it has a lot to do with them… So I always think you can just take those things, and dare to get fired. Because getting fired sometimes is the best thing that can happen to you.
Has that happened to you?
I’ve never been fired, but I was around an actor once who was doing a performance a certain way and I thought it was the intelligent way to do it.
Can you say what movie this is?
No. And she was doing it counter-intuitively and the director and the producers were freaking out and everybody was trying to get her to do it a different way. They called her that night and they said, “Come in and do it tomorrow our way, because we know you know how to do it our way, or you’re fired.” And she came in and she did it their way. She did the rest of it their way, unhappily, quietly, as well as she could. And the film came out and it was a huge fucking mistake.
Did the film do well?
No, the film bombed. And one of the reasons it bombed was because of that element.
Isn’t that weird as an actor when you can tell that and the people in charge can’t?
And the thing is, as another actor, I think even more than knowing when we’re doing well, it’s tough to know if you’re doing well. When you look at another actor, I can go, “That actor is swinging freely.” Do you know what I mean?
Can you notice that on something like Green Lantern?
I didn’t know what my prosthetic looked like before I did the movie.
That was quite a prosthetic, yeah. Were you like, “Are people going to like this?”
I wasn’t even thinking that. I was thinking, I am so under eight pounds of material right now that takes four hours to put on and it’s really hot because it’s Louisiana. And I was just trying to survive. But I then found great freedom in the kind of feeling of anonymity and knowing that I could give a larger-scale performance than I normally did, because I had to fill this mass. And so, you know, you start finding the range of behavior underneath this mask. And that was actually really fun for me and I didn’t pay attention to the rest of the movie because the leading man and the villain don’t meet in movies like that except in one or two scenes at the end, right?
You did have your own story.
I have my own story, I have no idea what’s going on in the rest of the movie. Half of those movies you can’t see on set because you’re looking at green screen. So I think it can be very hard to tell in movies like that if it’s going well, which is usually my problem anyway.
Green Lantern was almost too faithful to the source material.
I think the color green is really unappealing.
Well, that’s a problem with a movie called Green Lantern.
[Laughs.] I do. I think you get tired of the green. I do.
There’s a lot of green in that movie.
Yeah. And I also think we like our superheroes, in this culture at least, to be cultural outsiders more, even further. Like Batman. Like a gunrunner, like Iron Man. Like somebody that’s not our friend or neighbor. I don’t think Superman is really the times we live in.
This is why Superman is so hard to do in 2016.
Yeah, if you do it in 1950…
There’s this little comic book store near where I live in New York City. I walked in there the other day and they had a brand new set of Desert Storm trading cards and I thought of you in Garden State. I bought a pack.
[Laughs.] Oh, no way!
I didn’t even really know that was a real thing. I thought that was kind of made up for the movie.
I asked them that on that day. I remember on that movie, right around that scene, I learned to play classical guitar for the movie. I play regular guitar, but I learned some classical songs, finger style, nylon strings. I’m playing them, and for me it was the most important part of that character: like he had no ambition, didn’t want to do anything. Except he plays serious classical guitar. And we couldn’t do it because of sound. We had dialogue in the scene and they were like, “You need to just fake the playing of the guitar.”
But you learned a new talent. Have you done it since?
I play guitar.
But have you played the classical guitar since that day?
But you can pick one up and do it?
I could play the pieces that I learned probably, still. One of them, anyway.
That’s not nothing.
It’s funny what becomes important to you in terms of character. Because to play a character who has no ambition, you really want it to be in the movie. Like, wait, but you bothered to do that! And when that’s not in the movie? You know, I just think of like as an actor, you create something and they decide what pieces of it to put in the movie. And I always find little things like that where I go, well, now it’s not what I intended. But that’s the thing. I’m giving them the pieces to make something. There’s the movie they intend to make, there’s the movie I intend to make, then there’s the movie we actually made. And the movie you actually made is never the same. And it’s especially true with The Magnificent Seven. The movie that was actually made was created every day spontaneously.
Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.