Sarsgaard gets stood up

On playing RFK in Jackie and how to be a convincing sheriff

Peter Sarsgaard and Natalie Portman in Pablo Larrain’s mesmerizing Jackie.
  • Peter Sarsgaard and Natalie Portman in Pablo Larrain’s mesmerizing Jackie.

Why would anyone cancel a phoner with Peter Sarsgaard? The next critic in line did just that, leaving twice the normal allotted time for your Big Screen correspondent. Our talk was meant to promote Sarsgaard’s performance as Robert Kennedy in Pablo Larrain’s uncustomary biopic Jackie, opening December 16. But extra time means extra movies up for discussion. Fortunately, I come prepared.

Jackie official trailer

A few years back, I spoke with Sarsgaard’s mother-in-law Naomi Foner when she was making the rounds for Very Good Girls. It was going well, and toward the end of our interview, I thought I’d rib her a bit about having an actor known for leaving an uncommonly grimy imprint on film as a son-in-law.

“Maggie (Gyllenhaal) has incredible taste,” she said. “They are so beautifully matched. Both of them are constantly trying to disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed. He’s the only actor I can think of who can take a character that could so easily slip into being a total asshole and at the same time show us his vulnerability and why he was doing it.”

Sarsgaard wasn’t happy with the final cut of The Magnificent Seven.

Sarsgaard wasn’t happy with the final cut of The Magnificent Seven.

An audible blush followed by a “Thanks, Mom!” was Sargaard’s response. Turns out one of cinema’s all-time social deviants gives great interview, including a couple of candid gems, starting with his disapproval of the final cut of The Magnificent Seven. There’s a lot more to the interview than this space allowed. Pick up where you left off by visiting The Big Screen.

SM: You were an army brat who moved something like 12 times growing up. Did you see a lot of movies growing up, and if so, which ones inspired you?

PS: The first movie that I ever watched with any regularity was Reds. And the reason was...we were living in Oklahoma. I think I was 11 or 12 years old. There was one of those video stores that when you became a member you get to own a movie. My folks let me pick out the movie and I chose Reds. Because it’s so long — there were two tapes. (Laughing.)

It was the only movie we owned. I watched that movie so many times. It was the first time I ever saw Jack Nicholson. It was one of the first movies I watched that didn’t have the Village People in it that I paid attention to.

SM: I’m laughing because I paid to see Can’t Stop the Music in a theater.

PS (Laughing): Absolutely! It was amazing! Then I got into fiction and stuff like that and it wasn’t until I got into high school that I had this teacher (at Fairfield Prep) who started showing me art films after school. I got interested in cinema at that point, before I was ever interested in acting. I became an actor in college when I was 20. I did a bunch of plays in college when I was in my junior and senior year. But I had no other interest in acting before that. I was a cinephile before I was an actor.

SM: You’re known for bringing a nuanced delicacy of experience to each of your roles. Can some of that airiness be traced back to your time spent studying ballet and soccer?

PS (Pausing): That’s interesting! You know, soccer and ballet are pretty similar in some ways. You know, your body in space...it’s finding your center when you’re all twisted up. I never felt like a performer. When I was a kid doing ballet, I felt uncomfortable about any time there was any performing going on. Even in soccer, I always preferred it when we were practicing versus when we were playing a game. I just have never been somebody who enjoyed performing. I’m not what I call a natural performer. I’m somebody that realized I was good at something and unfortunately part of it is doing it in front of people. (Laughing.)

SM: When people stop you on the street, whom do you get mistaken for the most? Anyone ever call you Stellan?

PS (Laughing): Not yet. I used to get mistaken for Jason Bateman a long time ago. And people would say I sounded like John Malkovich. They thought I was his son. I’ve been pretty lucky... Oh. I know who. Ewan McGregor for a while.

SM: Ewan McGregor?! I don’t see it. Moving on. Playing a man as beloved as Robert Kennedy must have been a formidable challenge. We’ll get to that in a moment, but first the historian in me must bring up a film currently playing in theaters in which you have enormous shoes to fill. Eli Wallach’s Calvera is one of the screen’s most recognizable villains.

PS: I was having so much fun in Magnificent Seven. There’s an element of that character that was taken away in the final cut, which is kind of interesting. I played it that I was dying of consumption, coughing up blood...it was pretty clear that I was dying. When they took that stuff out, the motivation for some of this behavior — if you’re looking for any — isn’t there. What was great about that was just how diabolical it makes me. All of the sweat is coming from where? My bloodshot eyes they’re what? I thought the director turned the performance into something like more interesting maybe than what you were thinking of in the first place.

SM: Not having seen the cut footage, it came across that the character wasn’t long for this earth.

PS: You clearly appreciate movies. A lot of people go just because it’s hot outside and they want to chill out for a couple of hours. You really have to cement home an idea like that if you want it to stick in their brain.

SM: Were you familiar with Pablo Larrain’s work before signing on for Jackie?

PS: Yes. And I am a fan. In many ways I signed on to do the movie in spite of the fact I was playing Bobby Kennedy. I was like, it’s (director) Pablo Larrain, (producer) Darren Aronofsky, and Natalie Portman in the lead. Script-wise it looked like something I’d never seen before and couldn’t imagine how it could be a movie that somebody was paying for. I guess I was going to have to figure out how to play Bobby Kennedy.

SM: Robert Kennedy is not your first time playing a real-life character. Nor is it your first time playing a hero. I think you put a rather gallant spin on Charles Lane in Shattered Glass. But this is your first time playing an out and out deity. Natalie Portman looks like the character she plays. With all due respect, all the prosthetics and CGI work in the world couldn’t transform you into a Kennedy. Yet when it’s over, I never once questioned the veracity of your performance. Where did you find the inspiration?

PS: I’ve always been a fan. In spite of the obviously well-documented flaws that he had here and there — working with McCarthy, the ways in which he did things for his brother that his brother didn’t want to do. It was somebody that I admire.

I think it’s the speech he gave after Martin Luther King was assassinated — everybody go back to their YouTube and watch it. It’s one of the most extraordinary things about the man. It makes you wish you could be like that. He improvised the speech off the back of a pickup truck in front of a largely African-American crowd.

He told them that Martin Luther King had been assassinated. You hear them respond and then he actually takes them to another place. He elevates it. I just can’t imagine anyone else now doing that as well as he did. Maybe Barack. He was incredible. The hard part was not letting that admiration get in the way of my acting.

SM: What’s the greatest piece of advice a director’s ever given you?

Peter Sarsgaard in Kimberly Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry.

Peter Sarsgaard in Kimberly Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry.

PS: One of the coolest and simplest things a director ever told me to do was Kim Peirce when we were making Boys Don’t Cry. I was doing this scene, and I guess I just wasn’t intimidating enough or something. She came up to me and was like, “You are such a fucking wimp! You’re the sheriff of this town. You own this town. I look at you right now, and you have no balls.” And she walked away. (Laughing.) I was like, “I’m the sheriff of the town. Okay.” I was asking for permission like a nice person would. Once she told me that, the shackles were off. It was the only thing I needed for the rest of the movie. I was the sheriff of the town. Sometime I had to mete out discipline to do what was right. And I didn’t like the taste of blood more than any more than anyone else.

SM: I’m speaking with Pablo Larrain in an hour. What can I look forward to?

PS: Pablo Larrain is an amazing talker. He’s an artist. You’re going to be talking to a guy who…ask him about how the water changes the quality of the film stock. He gets rapturous when talking about film.

SM: Honestly, for once I’d rather talk video cassettes than film. The guy shot No entirely on U-Matic ¾ inch videotape. The man is either insane or a genius. Or both. And you know, the same can be said of a lot of your performances. I’m thrilled that the two of you hooked up. Any chance of an American remake of Tony Manero with you in the lead.

PS (Laughing): You know…I’m going to start working on it.

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