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‘Experimenter’ Star Winona Ryder on Why She’s Freaked Out by YouTube and What She Loves About Peter Sarsgaard

'Experimenter' Star Winona Ryder on Why She's Freaked Out by YouTube and What She Loves About Peter Sarsgaard

READ MORE: Peter Sarsgaard and Winona Ryder Stare You Down in Exclusive ‘Experimenter’ Poster

Michael Almereyda’s uncluttered film “Experimenter” stars Peter Sarsgaard as psychologist Stanley Milgram and Winona Ryder as Sasha, his wife. The story details Milgram’s contentious experiments in the ’60s, inspired by the Holocaust and ideas about the destructive potential of obedience. During Milgram’s trials, a participant was convinced they were delivering painful electric shocks to a stranger in another room; even as that stranger begged for mercy, subjects continued to administer possibly fatal electric charges. Most participants were uncomfortable harming somebody — but a polite authority encouraged them not to stop. With these tests, Milgram attempted to prove the plasticity of human nature; suggesting it is obedience to authority, rather than innate cruelty, which allows something like the Holocaust to unfold. 

Seeming to grow more wide-eyed with age, Ryder is lovely as ever. Her tone lowers conspiratorially when she speaks about something frightening or horrible. Like many film stars, Ryder has been transitioning into television, recently starring with Oscar Issac in HBO’s “Show Me a Hero.” Lately, Ryder been living in San Francisco, and sticks to a couple projects a year, flying below the radar with small parts in huge films like “Black Swan” and “Star Trek.” She has spoken openly about her struggles with depression and anxiety, but she is not thick-skinned — instead, she’s passionate about art and film, and her sensitivity and introversion is a hallmark of her acting. 
Indiewire recently spoke with Ryder about her role in “Experimenter,” her long-time friendships with both Almereyda and Sarsgaard, along with the weird way she first learned about Stanley Milgram.
What’s your selection process for a project like this?
This one was a no-brainer because I’ve known Michael Almereyda since I was sixteen. To me, he’s a true artist in the sense that he’s completely uncompromising. He makes these films and books, and he would rather teach than make something he’s not passionate about. I think a lot of us actors want to work with people like that.

And then Peter [Sarsgaard] is one of my favorite actors. I’ve known him for twenty years and we’re friends, but I’ve always wanted to work with him. I think he’s one of our greatest. And on top of that, I was fascinated with the subject matter. I remember the first time I heard about Milgram, it was on that Peter Gabriel “So” album, there was that song “We Do What We’re Told.” I asked my dad, and he explained it to me, and I was like, “oh, my God.” I’ve always been interested in questioning authority, and I had family who died in the Holocaust. I think as actors, we explore psychology in a very amateur sense. I appreciated that.  

It was a completely imaginative way of telling this story. It wasn’t a classic biopic, when you’re trying to cram in 20 years. Michael worked on the script for six or seven years, and each scene was very precisely chosen. In biopics, it’s like okay, they fight, then this, then that, then it’s 10 years later and then they lose the baby. But this was an untraditional way of doing things. I think a lot of that had to do with Sasha [Milgram’s wife] being around. And Michael’s admiration for Milgram.

I had read “The Banality of Evil,” and I’m sort of…I feel like it’s weird to say that you’re a “history buff” or a World War II history buff, but I’ve always been very fascinated with that. Probably because my grandfather died, he was an American fighting in Guadalcanal, and my dad’s family was killed in the camps. “History buff” makes it sound like something good. But I’ve read all of those…I’m using “The Banality of Evil” because it’s a good example. I do think that Milgram was directly affected by Adolf Eichmann and following orders, and how can normal people do this kind of stuff? If it wasn’t for WWII, I don’t know if these experiments would’ve happened. I’m sorry, I think I’ve probably gone off topic! 

Milgram’s experiments explored the malleability of human nature and how we’re so easily influenced by authority. It’s a little reminiscent of how people react to the media, what they hear on the news, or even in Hollywood, when a trend or a person is hot and then suddenly it’s not. The tide turns and everyone follows. How do you think these experiments are still relevant today? 
That’s such a good question, I almost wish — because I know we have only a little bit of time — but it’s true. I’m not on social media. It’s the mob mentality. You obviously see it with police brutality, and that awful thing that happened in Texas with Sandra Bland. Michael and I email all the time when something happens, like, “can you believe this? This is our movie.” It’s unfortunately incredibly relevant.

There was a PBS show about this troop in Afghanistan that was tried, because I mean they were like [whispers] chopping off heads. But it was this following, you almost…I don’t want to say I feel compassion for them, because they did horrifying things. But when they were being interviewed, in prison, they seemed genuinely horrified by what they did. And they said, “something happens, and you just…” I’m not excusing it. But it was fascinating. And then, today…you were saying something about what’s hot or what’s not?

Just the way it’s so easy to be influenced. Like when there’s a trend, or people love something, and then all of a sudden they don’t love it anymore because other people don’t. 
It would’ve been interesting if Milgram did a lighter experiment about that. For instance, I wear a lot of my own clothes. Like all of this stuff is my own [gestures to chic, all-black outfit], and I have a lot of vintage. I wear them over and over. I remember seeing something showing a photo of me ten years ago in the same clothes. That whole part of it, I don’t know if it’s media or the fashion industry, but we’re living in this era where there’s so much hardship and squalor. I don’t know if you saw “The True Cost,” but literally people are expected to not re-wear a dress. It’s unfathomable to me.

I’m sorry, I guess I don’t really have a point there. But it’s interesting, in terms of what technology was available to Milgram. God, we always talked about if he were still alive now, what he would be doing, what he would think of social media? That’s such a great question, and I would love to think about it more. I just feel like the crux of the obedience experiments is so completely relevant to so much, not just police brutality, but what’s going on in other countries. You can apply it to everything, on a daily basis.

What freaks me out the most is YouTube, the stuff that is available to watch. I don’t watch it. But I have a fourteen-year-old niece, and a nephew. And you can watch… When I was young, there was an urban myth VHS called “Faces of Death.” Maybe my brother’s older friend had it, it was like [whispers] people really getting killed by a bear. I never saw it. But now, you can… 

I’m sure you can find it easily. 
You can see people dying. It’s crazy. [nervous laughter]
You’re smart to stay off social media. And I didn’t realize you and Peter have known each other for so long. You’ve got good chemistry. How important is it to click with another actor? How does it affect the performance? 
Oh, it’s crucial. I have worked with actors that I didn’t click with, but they were so good, it worked. When you’re working with someone — what I love about Peter is that you never ever see him act. It’s a performance, but you never catch him acting. I remember I said that to him once, and he was like “oh, my God, if you ever catch me acting…” You know what I mean, he’s so natural.

He also goes way outside of his comfort zone. Like in this one, he was talking directly to the camera. That’s hard. I was like, “is that gonna work?” He’s such a good, decent, kind, incredibly intelligent person. I just got the great pleasure of working with Oscar Isaac… 

Those are two pretty amazing co-stars. 
And I don’t want to say the same things about both of them. But if I could just make movies with Peter for the rest… I’d be happy. We’re so comfortable with each other, we look out for each other. I think we both have this admiration and trust for Michael. 
You and Peter remind me of one another, a little. You both gravitate toward characters or projects with darkness in them. He obviously loves to play the villain. 
[whispers] I just watched “The Killing.” You should watch Peter in that. Watch seasons 1, 2, and 3. He’s in season 2. I watched it on Netflix, and oh, my God.

[to PR person who has walked in to break up the interview] Have you seen Peter in “The Killing”?

“Experimenter” hits theaters on Friday, October 16. 

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