'The Killing': Peter Sarsgaard on the Rosie Larsen Case, 'Contrived' Endings and Season 3

The actor, who joins the series as a death-row inmate, calls the new season "less contemplative." "It’s a lot speedier and dynamic. It feels a lot more dangerous," Sarsgaard tells THR.
Carole Segal/AMC
"The Killing's" Peter Sarsgaard

[Warning: Minor spoilers ahead for season three of The Killing.]

Peter Sarsgaard isn't shy about being a fan of The Killing.

The newest addition to AMC's one-hour drama, revived for a third season after getting the ax last July following two rollercoaster seasons, went against the current.

While the show was praised in the beginning, members of the media became increasingly critical when the season-long mystery of "Who killed Rosie Larsen?" failed to produce a substantive answer by the season one finale, though the reveal would be made by the end of its sophomore run. The uproar from season one also prompted creator/executive producer Veena Sud to reassure viewers that the main mystery in season three, revolving around a serial killer, will be resolved at the end of the 12 episodes.

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For Sarsgaard, who makes his series debut as death-row inmate Ray Seward, the season one finale was a highlight -- controversy and all. "The thing that pissed everyone off, I enjoyed," the actor tells The Hollywood Reporter on a break from filming in Vancouver. Why? "I just don’t think that there is a resolution," Sarsgaard says.

But the actor is feeling the pressure, likening viewers' connections with The Killing to his attachment with Breaking Bad, a show he says he just identifies with. One might call him an uber-fan. "I have a relationship with that show, just like people have a relationship with this show," he says. "You don't want to f--- it up for them."

In an in-depth chat with THR, Sarsgaard explains why he believes "endings are contrived" -- plus, the ones that are OK in his book -- and talks the Rosie Larsen reveal (hint: he wasn't too surprised), Mireille Enos' feet (yes, really) and what he didn't do to prepare for his role.

The Hollywood Reporter: You were a fan of the show even before you were cast. What was it about the story or the way it was filmed that you liked?

Peter Sarsgaard: I really liked Mireille [Enos, who plays Sarah Linden]. She was just a different type of female character that I hadn't seen in a while. I was interested because of that. I was also interested because the series is less about a body count and more about everything surrounding what happens in situations like this -- the repercussions. The thing that pissed everyone off, I enjoyed.

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THR: What was it about the lack of resolution in season one, which left viewers and critics angry, that was attractive to you?

Sarsgaard: I just don’t think that there is a resolution. A lot of times, when there is a resolution on a TV series or a film, if it’s not totally earned, I hate it. I feel like it’s a button that somebody put on there to make me feel better, like somebody gave me a sleeping pill to fall asleep, instead of [me] falling asleep naturally. It feels artificial to me. I have a real radar for artifice. It almost always feels contrived. Endings are contrived.

Lawrence of Arabia has my favorite ending. In that movie, he’s [T.E. Lawrence, played by Peter O'Toole,] f---ed. He drives by the Brits on the truck, and he’s not a part of them; he drives by the Arabs, and he’s not a part of them. He’s as f---ed as he ever was. Of course, we know he’s going to die in a motorcycle accident -- which we see at the beginning of the film. Or Sunset Boulevard -- great ending. The guy [Joe Gillis, played by William Holden,] dies in a swimming pool, and they’re taking her [Norma Desmond, played by Gloria Swanson] to jail and she thinks she’s in a movie. These are all endings that I believe in. The action just stops. We don’t see her getting prosecuted because she killed him. We don’t know she got away with it, or anything. Then, I can imagine where it goes from there. It doesn’t stop my mind from thinking about it more. A lot of endings now allow me to walk away and not think about the story anymore.

THR: When the Rosie Larsen murder was solved by the end of season two, how surprised were you by the killers' reveal? How did you react to it?

Sarsgaard: I don't think I was that surprised. I hadn't seen all the way to the end [of The Killing] when I got the part. So I caught up afterwards. Were you [surprised]?

THR: You could certainly reason why the Rosie Larsen reveal made sense.

Sarsgaard: I don’t think being surprised is everything. The thing that they go for in Hollywood all the time is "surprising, yet inevitable." It’s very hard to do. I don’t necessarily have to have anything be surprising. That’s like the birthday present attitude toward watching a movie, or TV series -- when I open it up at the end, I wonder what it’s going to be. I’m just not interested in things on that level. I know a lot of people are. I respect that people are.

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THR: Those types of reveals seem superficial to you? It seems clear that you're not into that stuff.

Sarsgaard: I’m not. I know that that’s definitely all over this season. There will be a lot of surprises for people. But I think that there’s also other stuff that I find more interesting -- the way people change or don’t change; people who get stuck in their ways and suddenly change. People changing I find more interesting then, "Oh my god, it was the donkey that did it!"

THR: How soon after news that the show was coming back did it become a very real possibility that you could possibly be on it? (AMC officially announced The Killing's renewal on Jan. 15.)

Sarsgaard: I don’t know. I was in Ireland -- my wife [Maggie Gyllenhaal] was doing a film. I got a call that they were interested in me doing it, and I was like, "Oh, I didn’t think it was on the air." But, obviously, it is. That was at some point in January. [Creator] Veena [Sud] and I Skyped. I wasn’t positive that I wanted to be on the show just because I liked it -- it’s two different things. It was really the character and the issues surrounding my character that made me want to be on the show. It’s hard to get into it because everyone is into surprises, and you don’t want to ruin everyone’s birthday. I would say that the fundamental issue around my character this season -- even though it’s in a way that’s entertaining -- is important to me.

THR: During your conversation with Veena, how did she ultimately hook you? Was there anything specific that she said?

Sarsgaard: It was just very important to me, as an actor, that if I’m playing someone bad, I don’t have to play bad. And if I’m playing someone good, that I don’t have to play good. In other words, the good characters don’t have to beg for sympathy, and the bad ones don’t have to rub your face in s---. I was very interested in playing someone that seemed like it had potential to be a fully-realized person on some level. A lot of people ask me, "Are you a 'baddie'?" It’s seriously not like that. I think in the end, no one will be able to peg which one I am.

THR: Did she inform you of where Ray would end up at the end of the season, or were you flying blind?

Sarsgaard: She told me the arc of the character in general, not specifics. I was definitely surprised week by week. I would get the scripts and read the pitches before they got edited and changed because I wanted to know. Sometimes I didn’t know how something happened plot-wise -- that maybe I would’ve known character-wise -- and I would find out in retrospect. Veena only tells you what you absolutely need to know.

THR: That seems to be how some serialized dramas go about their business.

Sarsgaard: I found that interesting about doing a series. I don’t know if all series are like that -- the way the information is controlled. I once did a film [2001's The Center of the World] with [director] Wayne Wang, and I really had no idea where my character was going. The character had changed everyday. He was shooting digital, and it was right at the beginning of digital, and he was taking advantage of the idea that it was looser.

THR: Your character is seen primarily in a prison setting. What tricks or methods did you employ to introduce variety into your performance? I imagine it was challenging.

Sarsgaard: Yeah. I felt like I was asked to do a lot of different dances on the same, very small dance floor. Obviously, there are not a lot of scenes of me running down alleyways or climbing down fire escapes or love scenes. It does get to be challenging, in terms of how to create variety. You’re asking me how I did? I hope that I did. I felt pretty good about the work that I’ve done on the show. I think that because of the focus on the person that I’m playing -- the way that the story is divided, whenever it’s my section, I feel like I’m the focal point of it. It’s nice for an actor that plays a lot of supporting parts to feel like the camera is always searching for me; the camera wants to know who I am; the camera is curious about me.

THR: What sort of things did you make sure you didn’t do in your portrayal of a death-row inmate?

Sarsgaard: I try not to think about that kind of thing. I didn’t go and watch a lot prison movies, or anything like that. I didn’t even do an enormous amount of research. I’ve been in prison before for other movies; I’ve been around prisons; I’ve known and talked to people who are in prison; but I didn’t do any specific research to inform what I was doing. The one thing that I did watch was Werner Herzog’s movie about the justice system, Into the Abyss, which is so great. But that’s it. I try not to overthink things.

THR: How would you characterize Ray's interactions with Linden?

Sarsgaard: It wouldn’t even be a simple thing to describe if I were allowed to really get into with you. Suffice to say, it’s difficult to describe. It doesn’t fit into any specific category. I really enjoy acting with her [Mireille] -- especially lately. We’ve done a lot of work together that is really nice. She’s so strong and small. She’s like a little powerhouse. I noticed today [May 30] that she has very large feet for a small woman. I looked down, and I was like, "What size shoe are you?" and she’s like, "I’m an eight, not even an 8-½." And I’m thinking, God, my wife is just a nine. You’re much smaller than my wife, but your shoe size is … It’s difficult to talk about [Ray and Linden] since there’s a whole other thing that people expect from it because of the relationship that they have with these shows.

THR: How do you think viewers are going to react to the new season?

Sarsgaard: I think it’s going to be very emotionally gripping. This season -- having seen the other ones -- is a lot less contemplative. It’s a lot speedier and dynamic. It feels a lot more dangerous.

THR: Your character certainly plays into the danger part of it. From the first two hours, he covers the gamut in terms of descriptors: frightening, slightly endearing, sympathetic ...

Sarsgaard: That’s what drew me to him. I’m allowed to be all things. It’s not a gradual arc in becoming more of a demon or a savior. From scene to scene, the character is so dynamic that I never have to play continuity, in terms of my mental state. Like in life, if people go away for two hours and then come back to my cell, I might be doing something completely different.

Watch a scene from The Killing below:

The Killing returns with a two-hour season premiere at 8 p.m. Sunday on AMC, which will debut The Killing: Story Sync in conjunction with the return.

E-mail: Philiana.Ng@thr.com
Twitter: @insidethetube