I can’t even tell you how much stuff I have from the Toronto Film Festival to run. Just a ton, an honest metric ton, of interviews. I’ve been on the road for the last week and a half, and I’ve doled out some of the interviews I got from Toronto, but in the next few days this will turn into a flood.
Let’s start it all with Peter Sarsgaard, a guy who I think is one of the best actors working today. He starring in Flightplan, the new Jodie Foster thriller opening this weekend. In the film Foster’s daughter disappears on an airplane mid-flight and Sarsgaard is the air marshall onboard who thinks she’s completely nuts and there was no daughter in the first place.
By the way, sometimes there’s stuff from interviews that just don’t make the site, whether it be a request that an answer be off the record or something that’s just too visual to fit in our transcript format. This time it was Sarsgaard showing off the ballet moves he learned as a kid. Trust me, it was magical.
It’s a busy 2005 for Sarsgaard – Skeleton Key was just out this summer, and he still has The Dying Gaul (which I will be seeing soon – and interviewing Sarsgaard for, hopefully, bringing me to a Peter trifecta) and Jarhead coming up. Flightplan is opening this weekend.
Q: Is there a different way that you approach thrillers?
Sarsgaard: It’s more about information. Information control. You shoot a movie like this and you walk down the stairs from one scene and they don’t have the downstairs built yet. A long time later they pick up downstairs coming through, it’s like just trying to remember is a lot of what you’re doing.
Q: Was it claustrophobic shooting a movie that was almost all on the one set?
Sarsgaard: Yeah. I didn’t enjoy it. It was on a soundstage and in a tube on a soundstage with a lot of extras, all sitting there all day long.
Q: They were the same extras every day.
Sarsgaard: The same extras every day. For me any time it takes a sense of order to get everyone out of a situation through the little hole in the back safely, I get a little… phew.
Q: Were the extras properly deodorized?
Sarsgaard: No! It’s like an airplane. But without the ventilation.
Q: You’re not able to be put in a box in terms of what you do as an actor. Is that important for you when you’re taking a role?
Sarsgaard: It’s just what comes along at any given moment. Right now I’m not working for a while. I’m just going to cool it for a while and find something – I’ve raised the bar on my expectations. I enjoy acting, I enjoy working, I don’t enjoy sitting on my ass that much. But I don’t really think about doing something different, particularly. I’ve just been fortunate enough that I’ve played enough different things in the past that I usually get offered a different thing. I’ve never had to fight my way out of a box. Maybe I will at some point.
But the two movies coming up this fall after this are very different – The Dying Gaul couldn’t be more different.
Q: What is your criterion to jump on a project?
Sarsgaard: It varies from movie to movie. For this movie I knew Billy Ray, the writer, from Shattered Glass. Billy called me and told me about it and he told me how great he thought Robert Schwentke and I watched Robert’s other movie Tattoo, and then there was Jodi Foster… it wasn’t difficult to decide. I’m really good friends with Billy, so I really trusted him.
Q: You mentioned that your bar has been raised for yourself. This has been a big two years for you – you’ve gone from being a cool but unknown actor to becoming a name. What’s that been like?
Sarsgaard: It doesn’t feel that much different, to be honest with you. The only way it feels different is financially, but that’s never been my goal in life. When I say raised the bar on my expectations, I don’t necessarily mean bigger, more better – I just mean I’m waiting for something that truly strikes a deep chord in me before I go on. Sometimes I think that my love of acting can get in my way in terms of loving it. You love eating and you just eat tons of shit all the time, you’ve got to calm down and figure out what it is you really want to eat. I think you start doing anything that much – even at the end of Jarhead, and it works for that movie and it was the last one I did, I started to just search for the finish line. I’ve never had that feeling before on a movie. I did Skeleton Key, Flightplan and Jarhead with no break back to back for an entire year. A calendar year. I went from April to April. I had Christmas and Thanksgiving off. In Jarhead luckily it really worked because that’s what these guys are going through. I’m not going to do that to myself anymore.
Q: How do you respond to high stress situations? It’s interesting in the film how Jodie’s character throws sanity out the window.
Sarsgaard: I usually have an opposite reaction in moments of stress. Not that I’m calm, cool and collected, but that I can turn a little bit comatose. I remember when my friend did a compound fracture on his arm after jumping off the second story to a trampoline. I landed first and he shot up in the air and he came back down and his arm went through where the springs are and his body went off the side. He totally snapped his arm. The other kids who were watching screamed and ran. I remember I just stood there looking at him for like a while. He was in shock so he was looking at me, and we had about a two minute standoff. So from my experience in those situations, I tend to freeze.
Q: Last year you had Garden State and Kinsey. Garden State really clicked and found an audience. Kinsey I was surprised to see didn’t, and it also got left behind at the Oscars. What do you think happened?
Sarsgaard: I don’t think the right came out strong enough against the movie. I think a movie like that relies on debate, on a dialectic opening up. I feel like the people that were there to say it was valid what he did, or at least interesting, it wasn’t like he was a perfect man, isn’t this relevant somehow were really ready to talk. There are whole groups whose whole mission in life is to take him down didn’t come out against it hard enough. I know Frank Rich wrote this piece that said it was brought down by those groups, but I remember one day on set I looked outside and saw three people picketing the movie. We had expected protesters… I think I signed autographs for a couple of them too.
For that to happen, it needs to play in cities other than New York and LA and San Francisco. If it doesn’t play in Oklahoma, where I’m from, in the bigger theaters, then the people who disagree with it don’t get a chance to see it. As opposed to Michael Moore’s movie, which was in every theater in the nation and even people who hated it saw it. I think that’s what happened with it.
Q: I’ve heard rumblings from the right even this early on about Jarhead.
Sarsgaard: It’s not political.
Q: You don’t expect any sort of backlash?
Sarsgaard: It’s not a yes or no, good or bad movie. It’s a movie that says this exists, and it gets into the experience of it. It’s not like the book. It’s based off of the book. It’s hard to describe, it’s really an incredible movie.
A lot of my relatives are Republicans, and I don’t see them having a problem with it. I have relatives who dies in Vietnam, their widows I don’t think will have a problem with it. It’s really a meditation on violence. It’s really about our dreams of what war is, not what the reality of war is. It’s about our infatuation with war, which is one of the interesting things – why we all, if it’s a war movie, want to see them shoot. It’s like, ‘Oh it’s boot camp, can’t wait for them to get to the big Fallujah scene!’ It preys on those feelings and dreams and expectations of what war can be, and I don’t think – if somebody had a problem with that, I’d have a hard time understanding them. I’d try, and maybe it will open a debate like that, but I think it might be a more common experience than what everyone is expecting. And I don’t say that to promote the film because I believe Michael Moore made a lot of money being controversial. I don’t think it’s like that.
Q: Did the US being back in Iraq when you guys were filming it affect the way you went about it?
Sarsgaard: We had Marines working with us. We never had much of an opportunity to show how awful Marines are. It’s not the point of the movie. Doing the movie and being a Marine – just carrying the weight they carry without the real bullets made me have a profound respect for what they go through and an understanding for how it can go wrong. How sometimes they can do things that are not… OK. And to understand that really to court martial the guy who did it is not the thing. Once you’re there, war is not clean. That’s what the movie is like. We need to understand that going to war is never going to be like ‘We stuck the landing! It’s perfect! We nailed that target and that target, we got this guy in jail and it’s over.’ It’s not like that. So it’s sort of a critique in that way. But it’s really fascinating and I’m very proud of it.
Q: You have these different types of movies – but what kind do you like in particular for yourself? It seems obvious that you are so into Jarhead, but then you also do thrillers like Flightplan and Skeleton Key. What kind of film do you like to go see in theaters?
Sarsgaard: The Dying Gaul! [laughs] No, but I think there’s something about The Dying Gaul that I know is never going to reach that large an audience. The thing it’s talking about is so specific and so a thought that maybe a lot of people are not ready to entertain that it challenges your ideas more. The Dying Gaul is a movie that a lot of people will come out of and have an extreme reaction to, it’s not a movie that you come out of and go, ‘Oh, that was nice.’ It really challenges your ideas of what right and wrong are.
Q: So as a moviegoer you’re more drawn to films like that and not escapism?
Sarsgaard: I am. But when I was younger I responded to the other thing. It’s just where I am at my life at this time. I’m not a film snob who is like, ‘Oh, I hope we all only make Tarkovsky movies.’ I don’t believe that’s the way. I just hope that the Tarkovsky movie can exist and the other kind can exist, that we can have the variety. The variety is what I’m interested in as a person who does it.
Q: What was it about Billy Ray’s script, and did it remind you of Shattered Glass?
Sarsgaard: Shattered Glass was about piecing together information, it was like a thriller in its own way. I think Billy -what I was drawn to when I first read it [Flightplan], if you really thought about it, it all worked out. More than other thrillers there’s more to piece together, and you may come out of the movie not having pieced it all together, but still been thrilled. If you go back and maybe if you really look at it you may not be able to, but when I was talking to Billy about it, I saw all the ways the little pieces could fit together. I knew that it was a thing I could make whole.
Q: What was it like working with Jodi Foster?
Sarsgaard: It was great. She’s very good at putting that stuff together. Jodi’s got an incredible intellect. She’s excellent at it.
Q: Are you a good flier?
Sarsgaard: You would never know that I’m one of the people who doesn’t like it. I don’t express it. I look more like when that kid broke his arm. I pretty much just stare. Everytime I get on a plane it is a psychological thriller. But I just try to stay very still and not be seen!
Q: Before when talking about all the extras on set, you sounded like you enjoyed more of the one on one, intimate scenes.
Sarsgaard: It was weird for me having 300 extras watch as we’re on camera. It’s like having an audience the whole time. On stage I incorporate that audience. The theater is larger than the stage, it’s everyone. It’s weird for me when people are watching who I am not incorporating.
Q: We always hear about the challenges of finding roles. You obviously are moving beyond playing just the bad guy – is that a challenge for you?
Sarsgaard: There’s a wealth of roles. I think what you’re referring to may be just a blip in time that may have been kismet.
Q: You’re doing a thriller like this, where you’re servicing a story, versus doing a film like Kinsey or Garden State or I assume Jarhead where you’re servicing a character – how do you approach those differently?
Sarsgaard: Some movies are plot driven, some movies are character driven, some movies are camera driven. You just gotta know which kind you’re in. I do approach it differently. In a movie that is as interwoven as this movie, you’ve got to pay attention to that stuff. To do it free form isn’t going to work. It’s hard to say how I do it differently. I don’t do it in a way where I think about the technique I’m going to use, it’s not like that. It’s a lot more like an environment is created by a director and a writer and other actors – like in this movie, Robert had all these crazy cameras hooked up that are attached to the ceiling and they crane around it swings around and you stand up and say your line and zoom, it swings that way and you look that way, you know what I mean? That’s a different type of acting challenge.
Robert is so, so cool. And a really good friend of mine now. He was so much fun to be around. He would bring me fruit, really great pears. I had never seen – I grew up in the Midwest and it didn’t look like a pear to me, but it was an asian pear. I didn’t know what it was! He was always trying to make me happy because the conditions in making the movie were at times difficult and at time required a bit of technique like that. He was always interested in my sanity and comfort.
Q: So you considered it more of a challenge than a restriction.
Sarsgaard: I make everything I do a challenge. I don’t believe in restrictions.
Q: Do you like playing the bad guy?
Sarsgaard: I don’t particularly like to play bad guys or heroes. I don’t particularly dislike it, but my favorite is the middle. Neither bad nor good, just them.
Q: How are you biding your time while you wait for the next thing that strikes you?
Sarsgaard: I just got done windsurfing. I think I’m going to write a little bit. Write, travel, meet new people.
Q: Where are you going?
Sarsgaard: I am going to Dubrovnik. There’s a role I may play sometime next year – Craig Lucas and I are working on a movie together. He did The Dying Gaul. We don’t know when we’re going to do it, it may be in the spring, it may be a year from now, it may be whenever, but I’m going to start researching it a little bit. I may go to Tibet with my girlfriend because her best friend speaks Tibetan and Nepalese. I just want to open up my world a little bit more.
Q: Is directing in your future?
Sarsgaard: Maybe one day. If I can get my act together.
Q: What are you writing? Screenplay, novel, memoir, kiss and tell?
Sarsgaard: A screenplay I’ve been working on for a long time.
Q: Can you tell us what it is, or is it a big top secret?
Sarsgaard: It’s not top secret, but if I were to tell you what it is I would be exploring what it is at this table right now. It’s something I’m actively working on, so sometimes to talk about it makes it not essential to write about it. Do you know what I mean, as a writer?
Q: Once the ideas are out, who needs to put them on paper?