Peter Sarsgaard is one of those actors you know, but who you might not know you know. He has a credits list a mile long and has worked with more or less everyone. He’s been in awards darlings, he’s been in bombs. And unlike a lot of prolific “that guy” actors, he doesn’t have a terribly memorable face. He’s somehow both an oddball and a chameleon, a guy who seems to show up in everything but never quite in the same way.
Because he seems like the kind of actor who’s in everything but whose name my aunt or in-laws probably couldn’t summon were they to ever encounter him, I asked him who he most often gets confused for. He mentioned John Malkovich, a connection I never made before, can instantly understand. They’re both carefully spoken and kind of indefinably odd. Sarsgaard is more vulnerable somehow though, more ingratiating in his oddness. I’ve seen him play a lot of bookish intellectuals — like the “house tuner” in Sound Of Silence — but also tough guys and rednecks and sensitive tough guy rednecks — Chuck in Lovelace, memorable roles in Jarhead and Salton Sea. It’s a combination that’s… again, mostly unique to him.
This month he’s in Mr. Jones, a movie about a Welsh reporter who travels to the USSR in the 1930s to see “Stalin’s Famine” first hand. Sarsgaard plays Walter Duranty, the NY Times Moscow bureau chief who initially won acclaim for his reporting and even a Pulitzer Prize, but later was found to have helped whitewash a famine in Ukraine to avoid offending Stalin, and even smearing reporters who tried to tell the truth.
Duranty is a fascinating character, a sort of drugged-out, sexed up, one-legged Stalinian Colonel Kurtz, who trades his morality for a life of cushy decadence among the Soviet literati (or so the movie depicts it). In fact, one of my biggest criticisms of Mr. Jones is that it’s about the teetotalling boy scout, Gareth Jones (played by James Norton), and not about Sarsgaard’s Duranty, who seems far more interesting on just about every level. But that’s kind of Peter Sarsgaard, he’s made a career embodying weirdos and creeps you secretly want more of.
I spoke to him by phone this week, and though he speaks slowly, seeming to choose his words as carefully as one of his characters, all he needed was a little nudge to dive into some great stories. I asked him about Salton Sea (2002), probably the first role I ever noticed him in (playing Val Kilmer’s sensitive speed freak buddy), and he told me about Val Kilmer playing weird pranks. I asked him about method acting, and he told me about the director of Boys Don’t Cry telling him she thought she’d hired a man. I felt like I barely scratched the surface in the time we had, but it was a fun one.
Well, I’m just going to get into the highbrow stuff first. Is this the first time that you’ve had your bare butt in a film?
Oh, no. No. Endlessly, endlessly. No, it’s the first time I’ve had a prosthetic leg and a bare ass in a movie, probably. Being naked is one thing, being naked in the way that I was, was strange.
Any special preparation for that?
No, no. I think my special preparation is to just chill out. The nice thing is [Mr. Jones director] Agnieszka Holland is such a straight shooter, such an excellent person and has lived through so much personally that it was nothing to her. It was just what it said in the script. So we did it.
I’ve always been interested in actors with your level of recognizability, where you’re so prolific as a character actor that people might have trouble pinning you to one specific role. Are there any other actors that you get confused for?
Definitely. No. I would say that when I first started acting, I would get asked if I was related to John Malkovich or something. But I think that just has to do with the way I sound, or maybe some of the characters I’ve played. But no, not particularly. Not really anyone else in particular.
So your character in this, Walter Duranty, he feels kind of like, I don’t know, like the Stalinist Colonel Kurtz. Did you do a lot of research about him? What did you think about the character?
Yeah, I read this book called Stalin’s Apologist, which is a fantastic read. I perused another one that I don’t remember the title of, but it’s pretty interesting as a life. The people that he knew, the people that he associated within the art world, he really wanted to be like a novelist, to be an artist. And the journalism was more of a fallback, even though he ended up winning the Pulitzer for it. So I think a lot of his bad decisions were to try to keep up this lifestyle that he had going. Like most of us, most of our bad decisions come from personal greed. I don’t think he had much of a true personal ideology.
I was interested in that storyline of him living this sort of decadent lifestyle in Moscow. Was there any more of that that didn’t make the final cut?
No. That was basically it. I mean, the movie was so sprawling and such a massive movie. It was always really focused on Gareth, as it should be. I mean, yeah, there’s plenty of stories about… You could do a whole movie about Walter Duranty. He had a child with, I think she was his maid, a Russian woman, and I personally think that’s one of the reasons why he had trouble crossing Stalin or anyone in the government or saying anything bad and ruining his access. It was all about access for these journalists that were coming, and the fancy people that are coming to visit him, his access to Stalin and all that stuff. So, I think if he had been a problem and not been allowed to stay in the country, he couldn’t have been with his own kid, couldn’t have even taken the kid with him. So he got into plenty of sticky situations.
I mean, what’s wild is like, this guy was a reporter in World War I, where people were dying and losing limbs all over the place. And then when he actually did lose his own leg, it was not war-related. He was on a train that went off the tracks. But no, he ended up in Hollywood kind of wanting to be involved in movies. The guy just… pretty wild, the scope of his life.
So my favorite role of yours I think is Salton Sea. I really love that movie. Do you have any memories from that set at all?
Oh, my God, Yeah. I really loved playing that character. That was a fun part. I remember my hair weave. I had a good hair weave in that movie. I actually remember, when I got the tattoo of Val on my arm, and when we did it, it actually was Val, and he hadn’t seen it. And I remember doing that, and I ad-libbed that whole portion because I think my line was just like, “Oh, look at the tattoo I got.”
And I was like, “Yeah, it’s of you.” And I don’t remember everything I said, but I was like, “Is it weird? Is it okay?”
I just remember the look on Val’s face. He was really fun to act with. He was such a prankster and… a really alive and keen guy. He was naughty, but really fun. And we just had a blast. He and I in some of those scenes were just riffing.
What kind of stuff did he pull on you?
Oh, I remember once, it was his closeup, and he dropped out of frame, and he put up a little doll and started doing all of his lines with a doll. He once gave me a rewrite that he had done of the scene. And he said, “I think we should do this.” And I’m pretty sure he was joking, but it’s always hard to tell with him. And it was in rhyming dialogue. Like, “I’ll be back.” “Oh, come on, Jack.” like back and forth, all rhymes for like two pages of one line each. And he was like, “No, I think this is what we should do.” And I was like, “You’re telling me I should memorize this and we’re going to do this?” He’s like, “Yeah.” “Have you shown Caruso this?” And he’s like, “No, but I think it’ll be good.”
This is a time when we were on a big movie, and I don’t find this to be true anymore, where you could really stretch the limits and explore all kinds of stuff, including changing some dialogue, especially in scenes that were not plot focused. …Yeah. Different time, really fun. All fun memories, like Vincent D’Onofrio, yet another intergalactic performance from him [as a speed dealer with a prosthetic nose named “Poo Bear”]. I mean, God, he really stretches it right to the edge. I loved it. It was a wild cast.
Are there sets that you’ve been on that maybe haven’t been fun while you were doing them, and then you saw the way the movie turned out, and you were blown away?
Most of the best movies I’ve done. Yeah. I wouldn’t say Salton Sea is one of the best movies I’ve done. It was a fun character, and it was fun to do, but sometimes it’s like if you’re having too much fun, no one’s minding the store. It’s hard work to make a movie. Confrontation is necessary. You have to have your idea, they have their idea. You’re hashing it out. It doesn’t need to be a fight, but it is two people that have a point of view. This is the way it works. It’s not just all like hanging out, having a barbecue. You know? Boys Don’t Cry was one of the most contentious sets I’ve been on, and it kind of needed to be. I don’t think the movie would have been what it was without it.
Do you remember any specific fights from that one?
Yeah. They never involved me, really. I mean, except Kim Peirce kept telling me that she thought she had hired a man, and why was I such a pussy? That’s a quote, actually. I think she thought that she was hiring a tough guy, and I wasn’t really a tough guy. I had to act it, and I didn’t walk around being like that. And she really wanted to create an environment where we were walking around being like that. I didn’t enjoy doing that. I’m not a very confrontational person, even though I play a lot of people who are. Really proud of the movie though. I feel like if you think about the issues that it contains, and I think this is its 20th anniversary or something this year. Pre-COVID we were going to do something, just because all the issues are so in the news right now.
But yeah, it was really hard, and there wasn’t enough money, and people will get upset when there’s not enough money, and people walked off the set, and all that kind of stuff. It was intense. I remember actually once Hilary Swank said, “I need you to treat me like I’m a man.” Because I wouldn’t treat her like she was a man when we weren’t acting, she was just Hilary. She was like, “I need you to do that.”
And later that day, we were standing on a hill, and I didn’t really realize we were on a hill, and she said something, and it kind of pissed me off, but not like that much. But I was like, “Oh, I’m supposed to like treat her, like, tough.” So I pushed her, and she rolled down the hill. And then of course, I was like, “Oh, my God. Oh my God. I’m so sorry.”
Is that a common thing, like maybe a director or other actors wanting you to be more method than you would be naturally?
Sometimes. Yeah. I mean, I think most of what I encounter is I wish people would have their heads more in the movie. I am from the method, I studied method acting with Actors Studio in college. So I’m from that background, and they used to always say, the method is whatever method you use. They would say Peter Sellers was a method actor. So the definition of that is kind of wishy-washy. To me, really, what it means is, we are here to work. There may be some people involved in this business that think that they’re doing this job to not work, that being an actor means having a good time. It’s hard work. It’s: have a method, have a way of doing it, have a point of view, pursue the point of view, fight for what you need, create your own dance floor and fucking dance on it.
You were talking about the director wanting you to be a tough guy. It seems like you always either play a white trash character or an aristocrat. It seems like you have this polarizing thing with your characters. What do you think that quality is about you?
Trying to think if that’s true. Recently, I feel like I’ve played a lot of people in government jobs, CIA, FBI, federal narcotics officers. I don’t see those as either. But I do kind of know what you mean. I think that, that’s the way people write scripts. I think people frequently latch onto the social position of someone in society and have that kind of lead. I will say that my favorite kind of character to play is probably just got like a background that’s very similar to my own, which is probably somewhere in the middle. My favorite characters, those types of things are not the most important. That’s why I like playing someone who’s in jail or in the military because you have a haircut that you probably didn’t spend a lot of time on, you wear all the same clothes as everybody else. And so, all the stuff that an audience will normally judge you on right away, they can’t. They have to look for something deeper, and that’s what I’m always hoping for.