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Peter Sarsgaard on His First Regular TV Role and His Big Moment on ‘The Killing’: ‘I Actually Blacked Out’

Peter Sarsgaard on His First Regular TV Role and His Big Moment on 'The Killing': 'I Actually Blacked Out'

After a controversial first two seasons on the air, there weren’t a lot of viewers out there that expected AMC’s “The Killing” to get another shot. Despite being darker and more unflinching than most similar shows on TV, despite the critical praise and despite, perhaps, an unfair reception for her treatment of the Rosie Larsen case, series developer and showrunner Veena Sud stuck steadfastly to a vision that proved very different than most by-the-numbers procedurals. So when word came down that Netflix would help AMC finance the cost of a third season, fans of the show rejoiced.

Flash forward to this past Sunday’s superb tenth installment, and not only are critics hailing this season as the series’ best yet, but this particular writer would call the episode one of the best of 2013 so far. If this episode alone doesn’t garner Peter Sarsgaard an Emmy nomination for his role as death row inmate Ray Seward, there’s something seriously wrong with the system. The show that had once been written off is now back in the critical spotlight — a light that fans of the show hope is big enough to propel “The Killing” towards a fourth season pickup. Indiewire spoke with Sarsgaard about playing Ray Seward, why he decided now was the time to move into TV and what happens when you forget to breath. Spoilers through July 28th’s episode “Six Minutes” follow.

Had you seen the first two season of “The Killing” before you signed on to play Ray Seward?

A couple. I’d probably seen four or five episodes from the first season and maybe two or three from the second. I liked them. I just don’t follow anything religiously.

Did you know about any of the misconceptions or controversy surrounding the first two seasons of the show?

People told me about them when I was considering the part. They were like, “Oh, oh, that was the thing that had the big riff raff,” and that actually made me more interested. A show that was drawing people in enough to piss them off is always a good sign. I was pissed off by the finale of “M.A.S.H.” I remember watching it as a kid and just going, “What?! No…” It’s hard to say goodbye.

The emotional journey that you take throughout this season is crazy. You go from almost cocky to stoic to terrified and to resolved. How did you prepare yourself to get inside of Ray’s head for those kinds of emotions?

When I agreed to do the part, I think two episodes were ready. The whole arc had been described to me, but not in fantastic detail, so there were always surprises. I was really forced to just do it scene by scene. At the beginning, I knew that I wanted to project to everyone around me that I could potentially rip someone’s ear off — because, you know, I didn’t want to be fucked with. The best way to protect yourself in jail (if you’re not like Vin Diesel) is to be terrifying. Then it became a matter of letting things affect me — letting things knock around a little bit. There were punches that came out of nowhere. I’d let them land and let them turn me a little bit.

I was aware that I was putting something together that people (even if they binge-watched it) would view as taking place over 30 days — a reduced amount of time — and that they would feel the time also because the scenes would never be stacked on top of each other. We visit Ray here and there. I was able to film most of my scenes per episode in two consecutive days and then go back to New York. There’s no bullshit time with Ray. Every single thing had to mean something. I knew, in the end, that my son would have something to do with both the thing that cracks me and the thing that saves me — at least the idea of him.

That moment in episode 10 when you see Adrian (Rowan Longworth) through the window, the emotion on your face is fantastic. You go from this terrified man to this resolved man in seconds. Tell me about that moment was like for you.

All that episode, I was having to make sure I remembered to breathe, because every time I thought about the circumstances, I would actually have a little trouble — right up on the way to that walk, as I’m walking up to that window, on one take I actually blacked out, just being a bad actor. [laughs] I forgot to breathe and I think it was Aaron [Douglas] who pointed down at my mark to me. That was the thing that brought me back — I thought, “Oh, oh, I’m in a movie and Aaron’s telling me what I need to do. I’m supposed to stand there. Right! Shit, they’re filming this.” [laughs]

So I don’t know if that’s the take that they used, but the circumstances of the episode are so massive. I was hoping that my character would disassociate more. Before we did this final episode, I told the director Nicki [Nicole Kassell], “I’m not going to cry. I’m going to let the audience cry. I’m not going to feel the fear. I’m going to let them feel the fear. I’m going to be cavalier.” I had seen “Into the Abyss” where the prisoner was disassociating like mad and it’s so tragic. I saw that and I said, “I want to be like that!” And… I’m not.

The other moment that absolutely destroyed me was the one in episode nine where your neighboring cellmate breaks you down and you just kind of crumble.

That guy is such a cocksucker. [laughs] Okay, I mean, what is his deal? He’s the biggest psychopath in the entire place. I mean, ho-ly Jesus. Really crazytown, right?

Did Veena Sud give you a clear answer, going in, whether Ray did, in fact, kill his wife? We don’t necessarily get the answer. We get some good ideas, but nothing set in stone.

That’s what I like about it. In my mind, I’m guilty. To this day, when I think of playing Ray Seward, he’s a guilty man. What he’s guilty of is up to you. To me, it’s irrelevant whether or not I really slit her throat. I created the circumstances under which that could happen. There’s all sorts of other shit that I’m guilty of.

I don’t really, in my heart, think that I deserve to die, but a big part of Ray wants other people to suffer. I want to die because they’re going to make me die, but I want to die in a way that hurts other people. He’s just unable to stop doing that. So he’s not a totally reformed guy in the end. The thing that he comes to, in the end, is that he feels a human connection. In a way, the last day of his life was the first day of his life.

That moment, seeing Adrian, it’s like you were both just born again.

I was so psyched that they did not write a scene for me and my son. I couldn’t imagine what it was going to be without it just being the cheesiest thing imaginable.

This is the first lengthy television role that you’ve done. Why did you decide now to do TV while you’re still working heavily in film?

Because it was good! [laughs] I pretty much do whatever the best thing that comes along is, unless I get paid a lot — then I will consider knocking off something in exchange for paying for my kid’s education. That’s really only ever happened one time, where I picked something that was clearly not as good because it was a movie that paid well and the thing that it was up against was an off-Broadway play. The off-Broadway play was absolutely amazing.

My wife [Maggie Gyllenhaal] did a Tony Kushner play twice. The second time she went to do the play she was being offered several films and had just come off doing “Secretary.” She did the play anyway. Just very bold of her. But that was pre-kids. Kids change everything. I’m not much of a consumer in my life, but I have kids.

Did working on “The Killing” make you want to do more television work?

It did. I’m not prejudiced against it at all. If it’s good, I’ll do it. I don’t like the idea of being caught up in something for years on end and it being not that great. The same thing is true with a play. If I’m going to do a play, it better a really good play because I’m going to have to do it for a long time.

You got to work closely with Mireille Enos throughout the season, but this tenth episode really belongs to you two. What was it like working with her, especially since she was so ingrained on the series already? It was really her and Joel’s [Kinnaman] show.

I really like her acting. I like Joel’s acting too. When I first acted with her, early on, I could tell that she already had “who am I?” down. It was already flowing easily for her, and I was still putting it together. I actually think that my performance gets stronger as the series goes on because we shot it in order. In a movie, it’s all shot out of order so I’m not necessarily better in the last scene than I am in the first. But in this, because it’s all shot in order, you see me become me more over the course of the show.

And it works because Ray becomes more comfortable in jail as he’s in there longer.

Exactly. You get to know him more. He’s more removed at the beginning anyway. It worked out well that way.

You didn’t get to work with Joel at all though, did you?

I didn’t, and I really like his acting. I actually am going to check out “Easy Money” — I really want to see it.

Did you guys get friendly on the set though?

Yeah, he’s such a cool guy. Brendan Sexton (who was on previous seasons) was on “Boys Don’t Cry” with me and we were good buds on that, and he and Joel had become friends, so that was our segue into getting to know each other. I was actually not in town very often, though, and when I was in town, I was either filming or running — I run a lot, so I was in the mountains of Vancouver, trying to avoid bears waking up in the spring.

I really allowed myself to be a loner a lot of the time. I was staying with this Japanese woman who’s a friend of my mother-in-law’s. She’s in her late 70’s and she’s traditional, so I slept on a tatami mat and there was a river outside my window and she would make me Japanese baths. It was amazing. I lived like a samurai.

And then you got to go be in a jail cell all day.

Yeah, I didn’t mind being a cell and, actually, being in the one room in her house felt really nice to me.

Do you have a favorite moment or scene from your work this season, either on screen or off?

I don’t think it did show up on the screen, but that scene where Mireille first tells me that she thinks that I’m innocent. My reaction to her saying that felt very spontaneous and right. I felt furious. [laughs] You know, she’s one of the people that helped put me away! I’m in jail so I don’t get to have a scene with everybody. Same thing is true with the Woody Allen movie I just did [“Blue Jasmine”]. Everybody else gets to play with each other and I’m off in my own little private world. [laughs]

You’re also in “Lovelace,” which is coming out soon. How do you approach playing someone based on real life like Chuck Traynor as opposed to a fictional creation like Ray Seward?

It’s not different at all for me, in that situation, because Chuck Traynor’s not known in the world really, and also because the film is so subjective. It’s totally through Linda [Lovelace’s] eyes, so the film is not interested in all sides of Chuck Traynor. In that scenario, I’m going to play what suits the story. I’m not going to try to represent the real-life guy, because it would be hopeless. It’s easy to show the bad sides of someone like that.

The struggle in “Lovelace” was to show anything else but the scumbag. I wanted to play him as a little boy. I thought of him as 14 years old. A time like in “Boogie Nights” was a happy time in porn. It was much different than it is now. That was back when people watched it together in a theater. [laughs]

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