Social psychologist Stanley Milgram is best known for a controversial experiment that tested the lengths people will go to obey authority. This is where Experimenter: The Stanley Milgram Story, director Michael Almereyda’s biopic of Milgram begins. With Peter Sarsgaard in the role of Milgram, the films opens in the early 1960s during a typical run of Milgram’s experiment studying obedience to authority.
In the experiment, Milgram’s employed experimenter explains to the two volunteers that they are testing how punishment affects one’s ability to learn. They are assigned either the roles of “teacher” or the “learner.” The learner — who in film is played by Jim Gaffigan — is cast away to another room and rigged up to a machine to receive electric shock, while the teacher sits in front of the machine where they control the amount of shock the learner will receive. The teacher shocks the learner with each incorrect answer, gaining voltage as the lesson continues. By the end of the lesson, they’re shocking a man with 450 volts while he’s screaming for help in the other room, begging them to stop. But the experimenter insists they must continue. (Milgram observed their reactions from behind a one-way mirror.)
It’s all a set-up to see how far the teacher will go when an authority figure — in this case the the experimenter — commands them to. In Milgram’s experiment, an overwhelming amount of people went all the way with shocking the learner and, in the end, Milgram concluded that this experiment could explain the atrocities of the Holocaust and genocide as a whole — that it’s frighteningly in our nature to follow orders, despite how atrocious those orders may be.
Almereyda’s film depicts Milgram during the time of this experiment and in the years that followed, his relationship with his wife Sasha (Winona Ryder), his subsequent studies, and the way he engaged with critics of his practices — some of whom deemed his experiment unethical. The film employs fanciful touches, breaking the fourth wall, using two-dimensional sets, and bringing in a literal elephant into the room that trots behind Milgram as he delivers his monologues.
I spoke with Almereyda, Sarsgaard, and Ryder about Experimenter, getting to know Milgram 31 years after his death, and the unfortunate continued relevance of his best-known experiment.
Discovering Stanley Milgram
Michael Almereyda: A good friend of mine was taking a class at Bard that concentrated on the obedience experiment, and so her textbook was Milgram’s book Obedience to Authority. That book includes transcripts from the experiment, as well as an explanation of how they evolved, what he was intending, and how surprised he was by the results. And by his conclusion, 12 years later, trying to make sense of it still. It’s a very rich and compelling book, and I thought that would be a good framework for a movie.
Winona Ryder: Oddly — well, I don’t know if it’s oddly — but I knew about Milgram for a long time, actually. Ever since I was 13 and I was in a car with my dad listening to that Peter Gabriel album, So, and it has this song “We Do What We’re Told.” It’s actually called “Milgram’s 37.” I remember asking [my dad] what it was about and him telling me about the experiment. So, I’ve always been really fascinated with it and I had read a lot about him, so it was sort of amazing when [Experimenter] came along.
Peter Sarsgaard: I watched a lot of films that Milgram made of himself, which was quite handy in terms of the way he addresses the camera and asking why he’s doing it that way. Because he has a real style to the way he does it, down to having a glass of wine next to him or walking down the street trying to make it informal. I always found them kind of funny because he’s such a formal guy.
Almereyda: The more I read about Milgram and learned, I recognized that [the obedience experiment] was a starting point for him. It wasn’t fully defining him, so I wanted to include other experiments and track the history of the obedience study and how they influenced and shadowed the rest of his life.
Sarsgaard: I had a drawing that Milgram did of himself where he gave himself sunglasses and a beard. So I thought, “This is someone who became famous — probably never anticipated being famous — is a scientist, and this is how he dealt with it.” I looked at the beard and a lot of that as a mask.
Almereyda: This is really the first portrait or portrayal of him in a movie. But he is referenced in Ghostbusters. It’s very funny, the experiments are referenced. And there’s a William Gibson novel with a character named Milgram. So, he does have a certain visibility as a reference point.
Sarsgaard: He would be someone I would be very interested in having a conversation with. He — based off of the person I kind of created versus real Stanley, who knows what he’s like — he wouldn’t be somebody that I personally would probably become close friends with. He always seemed to have a certain kind of remove. Also, intensely focused on his job. Being focused on your job is a way of being inward facing, versus other people in their lives and what’s going on.
The Obedience Experiment
Ryder: I think, as actors, we’re naturally sort of very amateur into psychology. I was also a little bit of a history buff and fascinated with World War II because my grandfather, my mom’s father, died in the Battle of Guadalcanal. And on my dad’s side, we lost a lot of relatives to concentration camps. So, I’ve always been fascinated with the whole idea of how regular people could either stand by and let horrible things like that happen or participate.
Sarsgaard: I grew up thinking that the police were people that always only did things that were right. Every policeman. I believed in policemen as a child. And then you see that not all policemen are perfect. Well, not all people are perfect, so now we have that myth destroyed.
Ryder: Would I go through with shocking, or what I thought was shocking someone? My immediate reaction is absolutely not. But I guess you don’t know. But I can’t imagine doing that. Especially when you’re hearing someone screaming and all of that. I just can’t imagine. I know that they re-did the experiments in England. Milgram didn’t, but some other scientists did, and they used a lot of women and the women cranked it up all the way [laughs], which was really interesting.
Sarsgaard: None of them go all the way happily. I don’t see many sadists. That’s my positive takeaway. No one gleefully goes to the last one and is like, “Ah ha! You’re really screaming now!” Thank goodness not too many of those popped up. Most of them are weeping or laughing uncomfortably or experiencing some form of anxiety.
Almereyda: I take it for granted that I wouldn’t really know. I’d like to think I wouldn’t because I’m sort of intransigent. I dropped out of college and I have a history of not doing what I’m told. But you never know. You can’t know and that’s maybe the deepest lesson of the experiment. The people who can confidently say they know are probably deluding themselves because it’s in our nature to stand and buckle when certain situations press down. And you don’t know until it’s tested.
Sarsgaard: It’s the accepting of some sort of unseen authority. Sometimes we talk about this blind obedience to a malevolent authority. I think these days, that’s more amorphous, it’s not Hitler. We live in a world that sort of has ideas that are spread by the Internet. It’s bigger than an individual. It’s sort of like some piece of information or a paradigm of a belief system that we’ve all come to accept that if we all sat down and looked at it, we’d go, “That’s not right.” That’s not what is right for all people.
Almereyda: Unfortunately, I think [the experiment is] more relevant than ever. A lot of things that happened in the Bush years reflect on the experiment, correspond to the experiment in ways that are depressing and the consequences will be with us for a long time. It seems overridingly relevant. The current wave of police violence against black men, the way that torture has been casually nurtured despite the Geneva Conventions. All sorts of standards for the treatment of human beings has began to disintegrate, it seems. I think you can look at Milgram as a way of trying to come to terms with it… history tells us that these things keep happening and it’s hard to break the cycle.
Sarsgaard: My wife is always telling me that she thinks I do [Milgram-esque experiments] with strangers [laughs]. I don’t let my opinions about something be known before I ask the other person their opinion about something because, a lot of times, your own opinion will change theirs or make them feel uncomfortable about them expressing their own. Especially if it’s not popular… A scientist would do that, they wouldn’t tell you what their opinion was and then ask you what yours was. So, I do have a little bit of that in me.
Ryder: I can’t think of any Milgram-like things that I’ve done. Or tried on myself… I never thought about that. I wonder.
Almereyda: There’s an element of Milgram that corresponds to performance art, especially when a person is in a big city and you have this world of strange people and events happening. There’s something about his sensibility that I can relate to, that human behaviors are absurd. So that experiment where he had people stare up into the air as if they were seeing something, and then if he had enough people doing that, then crowds of people would collect and stare up in the air. And nothing was there, but other people were looking. I think that says something about being a psychologist that is unfortunately profound.
Sarsgaard: What I would take away if I were someone who went all the way — and I don’t know if I would be or not. I might be — I would be glad to know that about myself. It would be better to know than not know. That’s what I believe in general. I think a lot of people would rather not know what they’re capable of. That was a big criticism of the experiment, that some of these people were adversely affected. It’s just information. It actually may be now you’ll think about it more, and next time, you won’t do that. Next time, you won’t blindly follow an authority figure whose ideas, whose sense of right and wrong, are not your own.
Almereyda: I find Milgram, as a thinker and as a man in the world, to be much more compassionate, self-critical, and aware of his critics. When you measure his life — what he did and how he was in a strong marriage and very supportive of his children and, for the most part, had very constructive relationships with his students — the portrait that emerges is not a manipulative monster, but the opposite. Someone who is generous and open. So, I’m just not sympathetic to his critics.
Alexandra “Sasha” Milgram
Ryder: I did get the opportunity to spend some time with [Sasha Milgram] and she’s just an absolutely wonderful person. She was very helpful, incredibly charming, fiercely intelligent. Clearly played a big role in his life, not just as his wife, but really thoroughly knew about all of the experiments that he did, not just the obedience one. She worked in his office and I appreciated the choices that Michael made in what he showed in their relationship because it wasn’t just cookie cutter.
Almereyda: I’m very proud and pleased with how the chemistry between Winona and Peter Sarsgaard clicked. They had known each other, they were friends, and I think that bond gives a spark of real warmth in a movie that could be considered not as emotional as some other movies. But I think emotion is in that connection, and I think it’s powerful and I’m pleased with that.
Ryder: I thought that [Almereyda’s] choices of what to show between them were really unusual and thoughtful and quite beautiful. Because she wasn’t just his wife or housewife.
Sarsgaard: That’s always very difficult, to portray a marriage that you can’t possibly know anything about. What is the exact nature of their relationship we gleaned from talking to Sasha, talking to his brother. I think one of the reasons that’s not in a lot of the movie is because Michael doesn’t like to make things up. Most of what’s in this movie is taken from things that were reported to have happened, including a lot of the scenes between the two of us, between me and Winona. Like the scene in the elevator, how they met, all of that, it’s as close to what she remembered as possible.
Almereyda: Everything in the movie comes from an actual event, an eye-witness account or something he wrote. So I didn’t make much up. I could only go from the testimony of his wife who was happy to tell us her story. I feel it’s a movie he might have approved if he was around… I had a lot of luck in talking to people who worked with Milgram and knew him well… There’s a nice range of people who were students, friends, his best friend at Harvard, this fellow named Paul Hollander, and these people were very open with me. And it was encouraging to hear how much respect and admiration they felt for Stanley. Sometimes when you research someone, things get dark and you begin to feel less enamored with the person, but in this case, everything I learned about Milgram made me like him more rather than less.
Ryder: You know the shot where it’s my reflection and [Milgram] waves at my reflection? I love that shot. It’s so poignant.
Sarsgaard: What I see in the end, when I watch the movie and when I act in it, was two people with some distance between them. So, I had this dream when we were filming, and it was about the two of them. It ended up being the scene where, at the end of the movie, I wave. I literally had never done this before in any movie, but I came in and I told Michael that I thought we should shoot this scene. We shot it and somehow that says something about their relationship to me. And it’s not something you can describe in words, which makes it cinematic.
Ryder: That shot is so touching to me because he’s not looking directly at me. I think it’s beautifully composed and a very poignant shot. And anything I do, anytime I get to spend with Peter, is magic.
The Elephant In The Room
Ryder: When we screened it, when we did the Q&A afterwards, a lot of people were asking [about the elephant] and Michael didn’t really want to answer it because he feels it’s either a) too obvious, or b) it can represent different things to different people. Because it’s a movie that’s full of perspective, which is what’s so great. He’s singing to the camera. There’s an elephant. It’s so creative.
Almereyda: I like to keep that open. I think it’s different for everyone. It sort of invokes the blind man with the elephant. Everyone has their own elephant, the thing that is inadmissible, but obvious. Thing that follows you around. Milgram was always pointing to the elephant in the room. He’s accompanied by the elephant in the room. So, it’s a visual metaphor. If I tried to pin it down any more than that, I think it would be kind of shallow, so I like to keep it open.
Sarsgaard: The elephant in the room, there’s no one elephant, unfortunately, or life would be very easy. Sometimes the elephant in the room is “this cigarette is killing me” [laughs]. The sort of obvious thing that somebody’s doing around everyone and sort of killing a lot of you. And the things that we know to be true that we don’t just face. Our own fears, our own acceptance of a system, like capitalism. Our own acceptance of the rule of a given establishment that says, no returns. Well, you sold me this thing that was broken. Surely I should be able to get another one or a replacement because I took it home and it was broken. No returns.
Almereyda: Everyone gets happy around an elephant. [Jim] Gaffigan came to the set even though he wasn’t working that day and took pictures. I’d like to make more movies with elephants. The elephant was very well-trained and the same age as Peter Sarsgaard. They had sort of a simpatico relationship.