Peter Sarsgaard recently earned rave reviews for his portrayal of death row inmate Ray Seward on season three of the critically acclaimed drama “The Killing,” a role he took, as it turns out, because of his intense anti-death penalty stance. The theme of affecting change extends into Kelly Reichardt’s latest film, “Night Moves,” in which Sarsgaard plays a recluse environmentalist with mysterious motives.
When I sat down to talk with Sarsgaard, he had opened up all of the floor-to-ceiling windows in his hotel room to get some fresh air and fiddled with a guitar pick throughout the entire chat, his fingers longing to play his favorite bluegrass music. But a love of nature isn’t the only thing he shares with his “Night Moves” character; activism is also an important part of Sarsgaard’s life. “Night Moves” opens Friday, May 30.
What drew you to the “Night Moves” script?
I was drawn to Kelly first. Before I had even read the script I already knew I wanted to do it because Kelly was directing it. And, it’s funny, it probably even took me a while to take in the script because I was so excited about working with Kelly. I’ve always been interested in her films, drawn to her films. I felt like I knew how to perform in one. I got what she was sort of after, acting wise, just in terms of tone. So much so that my wife, about a year and a half before I was offered this movie, said that I should write Kelly a note and tell her I wanted to be in one. I never did. So I was very much drawn to her.
I mean I am an environmentalist but I assume that everyone is. I don’t know how you could not be. I mean I don’t really understand what else there is. To me it’s to be into life instead of death, you know? I think that for the people in the film they’re there for one reason or another—and they all have different reasons for why they are interested in this—and they see it as an emergency in the world. That we are at a point that is an emergency. So it caused for acting like you’re in an emergency instead of like, well they say in 100 years we’ll all have to move to the top of a mountain or something! Like for them they see it as something like, if we don’t do it now it will never be done. And I think for the person I’m playing that kind of drew me to it was his reasons seemed really the most ambiguous of any of them. Like when he talks about the environment he doesn’t sound, on the page at least, as someone to me who knew as much about it as the other two. He was more someone who was interested in violence. He was a former marine and I started wondering about him and I found myself asking questions about him and how he got involved doing this, had he served where had he served, how much violence he had ever seen in his life. That kind of thing. And that’s always good when I start asking a lot of questions when I read something. I know it’s a part I want to play. Because if the answers are all there I get a lot less interested in the part.
Did you and Kelly come up with those answers together?
No. I think she assumed that I would come up with them on my own. I don’t think Kelly is that interested in seeing a lot of that traditional stuff. We don’t, any of us in life tend to show as much of ourselves as most actors do in movies. Actors in movies make themselves very transparent, readable for the most part. Then there are the ones that play villains that make themselves oblique. I knew that Kelly was never going to be wanting to see a lot of that. I thought about it, but I didn’t obsess over it.
You didn’t meet Kelly until the first day of shooting, were you anxious at all?
Yeah I had talked to her on the phone. I wasn’t anxious about it. I mean a lot of movies are like that. I take it as a good sign that people don’t wanna hang out and do a lot of stuff. When directors want to hang out with me a lot before we start I usually think it’s because they’re nervous. They need me to be around so they think we’re doing something when in fact most film acting, what is has going for it film, is spontaneity and that the camera can come in close and read your thoughts. You don’t have to formulate them and throw them out the way you do on stage.
You mentioned earlier that you are an environmentalist. Are you an activist in any way and if so what kind of activism do you participate in?
Yeah. I’m very anti-death penalty. I did an entire TV show to express that. My first film I ever did was “Dead Man Walking.” So for 20 years I’ve been involved in it. But not as much as I would like, it’s like when do you call yourself an activist? Dakota was like, “Oh I don’t really know if I’ve done that,” and I was like you know for me threshold for being an activist is pretty low. If you feel strongly about something and you tell other people, then there you go. There’s some people that I give money to, like Sea Shepherd, which is like these ramming boats in the Pacific. There’s Greenpeace, Amnesty International, lots of different ways of going about affecting change.
I have a real problem when people call all these characters environmental terrorists because to me that word has just gotten so thrown around. Terrorism is when you commit a violent act meant to terrorize people. So for instance, when people stop frequenting shopping malls because shopping malls are being blown up, you’re being terrorized. Your chances of being blown up are small, but because people have been you don’t go about your daily activities and you’re scared. What they’re doing in this movie, for example, is not that. They are not trying to scare anyone. They are trying to get rid of an object without killing anyone. A lot of eco-terrorism, as they call it, is like, you know, destroying a bunch of Humvees. There are no people in the Humvees, they’re just destroying a lot of property. So a lot of destruction of property, you know you look at the Monkey Wrench gang and stuff like that. Sort of the roots of it. There’s kind of a countercultural vibe to it. You know, pouring sugar into the gas tank so that they can’t operate the back hoe that will tear down the forest. That’s considered eco-terrorism. To use that word as being the same word of the people who blew up the World Trade Center, I have a big problem with. I don’t think the same laws post 9-11 should apply to these people that apply to other people that are trying to kill people.
I think these people are really–at least two of them–extremely naive about the actual violence of what they are doing. And the other one is a former Marine and he has seen so much violence that he is, in a way, able to disassociate from it. Dakota’s character is an REI environmentalist and is extremely naive and Jesse’s character is probably the most aware. He holds all of the anxiety. He holds all of the stakes of the whole thing. I mean he had the most relentless, tiring job of any of us. So yeah, it’s primarily just a piece about three people, very different people united under this one cause.
Obviously, your wife, Maggie Gyllenhaal, is in the industry. How do you guys balance your working schedules and your home life?
It’s chaos! You know we have children so we try to–especially during the school year–make it work. But especially with the way film has changed since I started doing it. It used to be a lot easier to kind of organize. But so many films come together last minute these days, fall apart last minute. It’s a lot more Wild West precarious, craziness. So I’m doing a film this summer. My wife is doing a play in the fall. I’m doing a play next February. My wife is doing Tom Stoppard and I’m doing Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” And you know at some point one of us will have to do a movie to make some money because you don’t make a lot of money doing theater. So presumably while the other one’s doing a play, the other one will have to go in. I mean, it’s hard. When I do a movie nobody comes with me. Like when I did this movie I was by myself. When my wife does a movie, if my wife had done this Kelly Reichardt movie in Oregon, the family would have come out. That way I’m never home, but my family is frequently at home.
I guess for me my family is more important than my career. And for some people their career is more important than their family. And I don’t actually judge them for that. I think it’s just the way it is. We all have different ideas of what our priorities are. I think just be true to what you actually want. Don’t pretend. I mean Shakespeare left his family and pursued his dream for the benefit of the rest of us. Thank god he did. So you could tell someone the opposite: “Oh, keep your priorities straight.” I don’t know if the same thing is true for everyone.
Can you tell me a little bit about what drew you to “The Killing” and how your foray into television went?
That’s my first foray in 20 years. And it was really great. I mean, I had some idea going in. When she first offered me the part I saw it as real opportunity to act a great part. I kept saying I just don’t want him to beg for sympathy in terms of like, “this poor man.” I want him to be guilty. If he’s not actually guilty then at least the type of person that we think should be behind bars for the rest of his life. That was always something really important to me about it. I thought that, I think because I believe that the death penalty is wrong, even if the person is the most heinous killer around, I wanted to be the type of person that people thought was the most heinous killer around. Then I wanted to be able to take them 10 hours through this thing, over 10 episodes. And hopefully have some of those same people that thought that I was not only deserving of my fate, but were terrified of me, were feeling something for me. Even if they still believe that I should be killed. But that I could bring out the humanity in a snake. That I could really use that time of all those episodes to bring the audience into a character. I could never do that in 2 hours.
When I think of doing serious television I always say that I’m not that interested in doing the same thing that I do in movies. I wanted to take advantage of the form somehow. Or like do a half-hour comedy. Eight episodes or something. That would be way more appealing to me than just playing the same sort of thing I do. Not playing someone who changes a lot, because a lot of times in series only one or two characters are really undergoing significant change. The other ones are pretty stagnant. So I’m interested in all things. I mean I’m about to do a play next year to a house of 200. I like acting. One of the things about doing a Kelly Reichardt movie is you don’t do that much acting. Literally. She doesn’t do that many takes, it all goes by very quickly. She doesn’t have that much money to make it so it’s very short shooting and I really enjoy it because she is trying to capture little magic in the bottle and I like doing that. But I also would need in my life to implement that at like playing Hamlet, doing something where I get to actually do it every night and do a lot of it. I’m greedy that way.
The dearth of female directors has been the focus of a lot of media attention recently. As someone who’s acted with so many, what is your impression of the issue?
I mean Kathryn Bigelow is one of the toughest directors I’ve ever worked with. Tough. Kim Pierce too. But Kelly is not. Kelly is very open. I don’t think you have to be tough in order to do it. But Hollywood actors, directors, everyone has to find a way to be heard. Sometimes that could be by whispering, sometimes it’s ripping someone’s head off yelling. And so you have to find your own power and get people to hear it, respect it. That’s what being a director is. I think for a woman it’s a lot more complicated in terms of how you get power. How you get heard in the world in general. So it’s the same as it is in the rest of the world. I have always been more comfortable around women than I am around men. So I like a feminine energy, you know. I wouldn’t mind just being directed by women for the rest of my life. Even Kathryn Bigelow and Kim Pierce have very feminine qualities. They’re also just like, no bullshit. Both of them. It’s not that I have to have someone be, like “mothering” to me. I just like intuitive powers that are stronger in general. Also, with a guy, there’s like a little bit of a direct competition… especially if the director is like my age and we start seeing who could piss farther.