Every great Western needs a great villain, and Peter Sarsgaard delivers an outsized one in Antoine Fuqua’s “The Magnificent Seven.” In the remake of the classic 1960 feature of the same name (itself an Americanized remake of the 1954 Akira Kurosawa feature “Seven Samurai”), Sarsgaard plays the power-hungry (and just plain mean) Bartholomew Bogue, who has taken over the tiny town of Rose Creek, all the better to capitalize on its rich local mines.
Bogue’s methods for keeping Rose Creek’s citizens in line are vicious and brutal, and he’s clearly not used to being opposed by anyone, especially small-town folk who are just trying to carve out a living for themselves during the heyday of the American West. In an attempt to stifle an uprising, Bogue sets into motion a much bigger problem, led by Haley Bennett’s Emma Cullen, who takes matters into her own hands and hires on a group of (somewhat magnificent) hired guns, including Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt, to dispatch with Bogue once and for all.
Sarsgaard has played villains before — from Dr. Hector Hammond in the maligned “Green Lantern” to John Lotter in “Boys Don’t Cry” — but even he admits that Bogue is a baddie of a different stripe. For Sarsgaard, playing Bogue posed the precise kind of challenge he always looks for when taking on roles: Not just something new, but something that he could really bite into. As the actor tells it, acting is the only thing he knows how to do — and something he truly still loves doing — so why not have a little fun with it?
IndieWire sat down with Sarsgaard before the film’s world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival to chat about creating his larger-than-life bad guy, why he still gets a rush from acting and the one role he regrets not taking.
You’ve become somewhat known for your more villainous roles, but in the earlier part of your career, you often played victims. Why do you think that is?
For the first part of my career, I played mostly victims: “Dead Man Walking,” “Man in the Iron Mask,” there were a number of movies that I played the victim.
I think it’s because if you’re not an A-list actor you’re either going to play the victim, or the killer, or the wife, or the damsel in distress, or whatever. Those are the roles that are not the most coveted.
What appeals to you now about playing a villain or a bad guy?
The thing that’s nice about playing a villain, for someone like me, is I don’t do a lot of thinking about the audience as I’m acting. To me, everyone is constantly doing things every day – one thing that an audience would find morally reprehensible and one thing that a lot of people would think is really great. That’s a villain in a movie.
For me, this isn’t a real human being style villain, I’m camping it up and having fun also. In terms of a lot of the other ones, to me I’m just playing people.
Bogue is like a large-sized misanthrope. I thought, since I was in a PG-13 movie, I couldn’t slit throats in this room and then walk into the hallway and talk nicely. I needed to have the violence be implied. It had to be something that you thought, “Oh, the stakes are this. He’s going to put the person on the rack and pour tar over them for fun. Flay them as they slowly die.”
Was Bogue so larger than life on the page?
I think everybody thinks this, it wasn’t totally defined. People define it with you, as you go. People don’t realize how you just start walking in a direction.
I flew down, I went to the costume department, we started walking through, I started putting on different things, I started feeling it. I say, “Wait a second.” I go back, I go to the hair and makeup people. We start cutting my hair, I’d just been playing Hamlet and I had a shaved head, so I said, “I guess I’ll just let a little grow back and we’ll see what we got.” That’s why my hair’s that way.
We started playing with the facial hair that I had and I said, “I want this to be a person who looks in the mirror.” Men who look in the mirror and have a lot of free time on their hands, like guys in jail, frequently play with their hair.
This was reportedly a physically demanding shoot. Was that your experience?
I filmed over the course of the entire movie but just in a little bit, and a little bit, and a little bit. It looked hard. People were overheating. There were 800 horse falls in this movie.
Anyone who tells you that this is just fun is out of their mind. I don’t think that it’s necessary for you to have fun to make a movie, not only that’s good but has the quality of looking like people are having a free time. Free time, freely expressive. That’s what the actors are in this movie. They felt like they could do anything on any take.
How far do you think you could have taken it?
I could have walked in in a G-string and stood on top of the podium and started doing Shakespeare and Antoine would have filmed it and then maybe asked me what else I had.
That’s the thing when working with Antoine – you’ve got that. It’s a really crazy, wild way to do a big movie. It’s like 52 card pick-up every day. If you’ve been doing enough movies like he has, and working with the same people, he’s got it dialed in. You know the shots are there, you know he’s creating something with you, he’s thinking on his feet. It’s incredible.
Do you like being around other actors?
I don’t hang out with other actors at all in my life. Socially, it’s not my group of people. I don’t avoid them.
Obviously, I do run across them sometimes and people I’ve worked with, I’m friendly with, but when you go to work, it’s like summer camp. Those relationships may feel like they’re going to last forever and, in a sense they do, you can see each other 20 years from now and, “Hey.” It doesn’t mean that now they’re on your speed dial.
Is it important for you and your own career to go back and forth between a bigger movie like this and something smaller? You have never seemed like someone eager to get into blockbusters and leave indies behind.
There aren’t enough good ones. Even if I had all the power in the world to pick whichever ones, there aren’t enough good ones. I guess if you didn’t care about content and you just wanted to be rich, and wealthy, and famous, and all that shit, it’s possible.
I never expected to make a dime in my life. I truly didn’t. I felt like acting was my only resort, it was all I had. I’m a writer but I knew that I was not motivated enough to make a living at it. It felt like my only option. When I realized that, I imagined living a life of regional theater and stuff like that. It just all started going a certain way. I really love doing it.
You still love doing it?
I still love doing it. Yeah. I don’t feel like I do it that often anymore because I’m not willing to do— I have a wife that works also and, between the two of us, we can earn enough money.
There are things that come along sometimes and I think, “God, if I did that then I’d be able to do this and this and this.” It would give me power. But I would have to do it. It’s like Marlon Brando said on “The Island of Dr. Moreau,” “Why can’t they just give me the money?”
Has there ever been a part or a movie that you turned down that you later regretted?
Can you tell me what it was?
My wife was doing a movie in London and I just had fired a nanny for drinking on the job, so I had a young child and my wife’s working in London and I got offered this movie by a great director. The actor went on to get nominated for Best Supporting Actor in it. I really knew I could do a great job and I wanted to do it. It was a great director and a great role, and it was a flattering role. But you can’t introduce your child to a new nanny and leave them in a week.
I had no choice. I’m very proud that I made that decision. I didn’t have to. I could’ve had the kid go back and forth with a relative and done all that sort of shit. I wouldn’t have been nominated, necessarily, you know? Whatever that means. I remember, when I saw him get nominated, I thought, “Well, that’s because he did a fucking great job.”
That’s just the way it goes. I do think if you behave that way in life, not that karma will reward you with what you think it’s going to reward you with, which is like maybe another great job, it’ll reward you in some way. It has. I feel lucky.
Are you at all interested in awards?
I’m interested in the power that they give you. Greatness is arbitrary, and people need to be told what’s great, very few people think about it for themselves. To have a committee of people whose responsibility is – however lame they are, and I’m one of them, and however irresponsible they are about actually even watching the movies – it’s nice to have everyone gently point it in a direction.
A lot of times I do think that the movies are really good. I think we have this time of year where all these great movies come out, people point to the best of them, and everyone gets interested in value and meaningful stuff. And those movies go on to make enough money to be able to do another one. I’m into awards.
“The Magnificent Seven” premiered at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival as the festival’s opening night film. It opens in theaters on September 23.