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.
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!
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?
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…
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…
[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.