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Whether it’s real-life people like Walter Duranty and Bobby Kennedy or a fictional character like The Batman’s Gil Colson, it’s all the same to Peter Sarsgaard. The 49-year-old actor has to pretend his non-fictional characters don’t exist in order to find his own way into each role. Sarsgaard is currently making his return to the screen in Agnieszka Holland’s Mr. Jones as Duranty, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Moscow Bureau Chief of the New York Times who denied journalist Gareth Jones’ report in 1933 that Joseph Stalin was starving millions of people in the Ukraine. Since then, three attempts have been made to revoke Duranty’s Pulitzer due to his lying and misreporting.
“I’ve never liked or wanted to play people that are known,” Sarsgaard tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Right out of the gate, everyone’s sort of going, ‘How’s the accent? Eh… 7. How’s the hair? Eh… 5.’ Especially if you’re not the lead in the movie, you don’t have time to work past all of that stuff and into something meaningful. Duranty almost certainly didn’t sound like I did… I just was able to have fun with it; it was nice. And also, the real reason I did the movie was to work with Agnieszka Holland, who is somebody I’ve admired for a long time.”
When the coronavirus shut down the entire world, Sarsgaard was nearly finished with his work on Matt Reeves’ The Batman. He plays Gil Colson, a Gotham City district attorney, who, like Duranty, has an aversion to the truth.
“God, I’m just hoping that we can go back soon and finish shooting it,” Sarsgaard vents. “It’s much harder with a big movie — to get back to it and finish it. It’s hard to even think about anything else with it… I’m about 80 percent done with my part, so I would just like to do the last 20 percent.”
From what he’s seen of Robert Pattinson’s take on Batman, Sarsgaard is beyond impressed.
“He looks amazing. I have to say, he really, really does,” Sarsgaard shares. “The work he was doing was really cool. I really dug his Batman, and I can’t wait to see it [on-screen]. I think he’s a very interesting actor, and… I loved him in the Safdie brothers movie [Good Time] that he did. And I actually really liked this one he just did… the comedy movie with Willem Dafoe. The Lighthouse. He’s just an interesting, interesting actor.”
The day before his The Batman casting was announced, Sarsgaard’s partner, Maggie Gyllenhaal, posted a photo of him with half his head shaved. Naturally, this photo created quite a storm across the Internet as Harvey Dent casting speculation was rampant. Sarsgaard can’t help but be amused by the whole thing.
“I think my kid might’ve even taken that picture. Yeah, it was just random,” Sarsgaard explains. “I enjoyed it, though. The more people are just talking about it and thinking about it, the better, right? It doesn’t make any difference. I mean, in terms of ‘fake news,’ it’s pretty benign.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Sarsgaard also discusses whether he’d revoke Duranty’s Pulitzer or not, his approach to playing John Lotter in Boys Don’t Cry and his fondness for bats.
Compared to Bobby Kennedy, did you feel like you had more freedom with your take on Walter Duranty since the general public doesn’t have a frame of reference for him like they do Kennedy?
Yes. Absolutely. I mean, my first reaction when Pablo (Lorraine) offered me Kennedy was, like, “Absolutely not.” (Laughs.) He really helped me through it. He was like, “Don’t worry about all the superficial stuff too much.” I was such a fan of him as a filmmaker, so it wasn’t too hard to say yes in the end, and that’s why I did. But I’ve never liked or wanted to play people that are known. Right out of the gate, everyone’s sort of going, “How’s the accent? Eh… 7. How’s the hair? Eh… 5.” (Laughs.) Especially if you’re not the lead in the movie, you don’t have time to work past all of that stuff and into something meaningful. With Duranty, I worked with a dialect coach who gave me these tapes of journalists from the radio that were really great and really interesting. But Duranty almost certainly didn’t sound like I did because he was from Liverpool originally, and he probably had a really odd accent that was kind of continental, Liverpool, early 20th century speak. I just was able to have fun with it; it was nice. And also, the real reason I did the movie was to work with Agnieszka Holland, who is somebody I’ve admired for a long time.
Since you’ve played a lot of lesser-known real-life people such as John Lotter (Boys Don’t Cry) and Chuck Lane (Shattered Glass), do you typically approach each role as if they don’t exist?
(Laughs.) Yeah, that’s the way I do it. With John Lotter, I remember — ah the poor guy. He was on death row when we were going to do the movie, and he really wanted Christian Slater to play him. I remember having that in my head and going like, “Is that because he thinks he’s like Christian Slater? Should I be thinking about Christian Slater when I play John Lotter?” In the end, the John Lotter that I played more closely resembles a couple of people I knew in Oklahoma City when I lived there. And I would say that’s true even of Bobby Kennedy. When I played him, I listened to a lot of speeches that he gave and thought about him a lot in terms of his family and where he was with his family and everything. But in the end, I was thinking more about a couple of kids I had known in Connecticut that went to Choate and had very international lives with parents that had really interesting, unknowable jobs doing all kinds of things. One of the things about Kennedy I always found interesting is that I was told that they were made to listen to Winston Churchill when they were kids, like on album and tapes. (Laughs.)
Sometimes, actors resist doing exhaustive research on a real person because it can potentially create a conflict between the actual person and the script’s version of that person. How do you handle those moments when your research and the script oppose each other?
Yeah, if it’s more interesting, I’ll fight for it. Sometimes, I’ll go like, “You know, this person’s attitude toward this was actually more complicated than what we have here, and is there a way that we can have some of that?” In the case with Duranty, there were a couple of little moments like that. We had the writer (Andrea Chalupa) with us and she was really quite amenable to hearing my point of view. I always thought of Duranty as someone who was not particularly ideological. I just sort of thought he wanted what he wanted. He wanted to have the life of an artist. He wanted to be a novelist. He wanted to be respected by interesting, famous people. He wanted to have his parties, and he was willing to sacrifice almost anything for it. He’s not the one that killed millions of people in the Ukraine; Stalin was. And I think he was like, “It’s not my thing. It’s not my responsibility.” Instead of making him somebody who was actively supporting Stalin — I just don’t think he was like that. I think he was just like, “Well, if I call Stalin out, then the next thing that happens is they’re going to give me a ticket out of the country. And then, there will be no one reporting on this.”
You performed with a cane in this film, and I’ve actually heard a few actors say that it can cause some pain after a while. Did you deal with any of that?
I have so much experience with canes and couches; I played sports. So, you just have to use your core. You can’t slouch into the thing. You want to sit up straight. I was also playing someone who did sit up straight.
As far as why Duranty chose to deny the famine, was it really as simple as being in too deep with Stalin at that point? Or did you uncover more potential reasons?
I think there’s several possible explanations. One of them is he did have a child with a Russian woman that I think was his maid. And I think if he had been kicked out of the country, he would have lost his relationship with that child. If you want it to be, that’s sort of the sentimental version of what it might be. That’s one explanation that I saw in a book that I read. I think access is what he would’ve said. “I’ll lose my access and then we’ll have nothing.” I also think he really loved it there, and he really loved being the gatekeeper. He really loved the respect that he got from all of these people, and he just got to a place of total cognitive dissonance about it. Opium will do that. Opium really helps with cognitive dissonance.
There have been a few attempts to revoke Duranty’s Pulitzer Prize. Do you think the black eyes of history should remain like this in order to learn from them, or would you revoke his Pulitzer if the choice was yours?
Oh, my knee-jerk reaction is to say that I would keep them because then we’re sort of whitewashing our own history, but I would like to have them highlighted. Like, “we gave this guy a Pulitzer Prize for basically not telling the truth.” (Laughs.) And examine that and really think about it. In my mind, like Aung San Suu Kyi right now with the Nobel Prize. Like, what the fuck is she doing? You know what I mean? I don’t want to take it away from her, but I do think we should go, “This is someone that we really thought was doing the right thing and wanted the right thing. What made her stop? Was it that way all along? What’s the deal?” It should sort of direct our attention. The actual awards that go to the right people, that’s all well and good, and that’s cool. I think that we should actually specifically focus on these people, and if I were teaching history in school, this is what I would specifically focus on. Because there’s more to learn than from the obvious Mother Teresas, right?
I hate to be a cliche, but I have to ask you about Mr. Gil Colson. You’ve described him as a district attorney and politician who has trouble telling the truth. In the time since production was suspended, the actions/inactions of our civil and public servants have been rather illuminating to say the least. While I’m sure this was on your mind to some degree already, do you think this magnified behavior will influence or inform your performance even more once you resume shooting The Batman?
That’s interesting. It’s not been much of a surprise, though, you know. When we were shooting, I think I already suspected many of the things that have become really obvious, including not just the President but everyone. (Attorney General William) Barr, for example. God, I’m just hoping that we can go back soon and finish shooting it. My wife (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and I just shot a movie here at our house in Vermont, and it’s going to be on Netflix starting on the 30th. It’s an 11-minute film. She wrote and directed, and I act. We did it in a day and half. And then, I’m going to be in a movie that she’s directing with Olivia Colman, Dakota Fanning, Jessie Buckley and a bunch of other people. So, I’m just hoping that we can get back soon, and I can get back into it. it’s just something I want to get back to and finish. It’s much harder with a big movie — to get back to it and finish it. With my wife’s movie, it’s small and we can all just quarantine together. The process on that is everyone goes to the location, quarantines for 14 days and we get together — assuming no one gets sick — and all shoot together, quarantined, shooting six-day weeks for a month and then you’re done. On these big movies, this goes on for months and months. There’s hundreds of people on set at any given time. It’s just so hard to understand how we do it, and so, I just want to get back to do it. It’s hard to even think about anything else with it other than, like… I’m about 80 percent done with my part, so I would just like to do the last 20 percent.
When your significant other learned that you were becoming the second Gotham City DA/Assistant DA in the family, did she josh you in a competitive or territorial way at all?
(Laughs.) Well, you know, the funny thing, when Maggie did The Dark Knight, it was pretty soon after she had given birth. I mean, Maggie was breastfeeding when she shot that movie. So, she had one hand behind her back. (Laughs.) Like, in between takes, she was breastfeeding. So, I think for me, the hardest part was I just always find it hard to be away from my family and do anything. I just want to shoot down the street from my house, but that’s not going to be happening anytime soon.
I was rather intrigued by your impassioned case to have Batman personify actual bats a bit more than we’ve seen over the years. You also mentioned that bats like to be up high to protect themselves from predators. Does that mean a Batcave is the wrong dwelling for a Batman and his bats?
That’s where they hibernate in the winter. So, unless he’s hibernating, that would be the wrong place, yeah. I have bats here now in Vermont that are outside and will be coming out in about an hour. But, yeah, they like to be up high, really close together — really close together — and they like to be hot. So, you put them in a black container very up high, near water, facing south, and you’ll probably get some. They are much maligned, especially with COVID and everything, but they are, to me, the mammal that achieved the dream of every other mammal. They’re the one that can fly. (Laughs.) So, more power to them. And they don’t bite people — unless they have rabies — and I would say you get more rabies bites from dogs than you do any other animal. Actually, my kid was asking me the other day about this. She said something about a friend of hers that said bats bite people because they have rabies. And I said, “The number one killer from nature in the world are mosquitoes. Number two are humans. Number three are snakes. And number four are dogs. Bats are not in the top 50.” (Laughs.) So, chill out on the bat.
What nickname are they using more often on set: Battinson or R-Batz?
(Laughs.) I have not heard either. He looks amazing. I have to say, he really, really does. The work he was doing was really cool. I really dug his Batman, and I can’t wait to see it [on-screen]. I think he’s a very interesting actor, and I’ve liked him in a number of things. I loved him in the Safdie brothers movie [Good Time] that he did. He was so good in that movie. And I actually really liked this one he just did. It’s crazy, to me, the comedy movie he just did with Willem Dafoe. The Lighthouse. It’s so strange and awesome. He’s just an interesting, interesting actor.
The day before your casting was reported, a photo of you with half your head shaved was published online. The world then speculated that you were playing Harvey Dent. Did you guys have any idea that this photo would cause such a stir online?
(Laughs.) No, I think my kid might’ve even taken that picture. Yeah, it was just random. I enjoyed it, though. The more people are just talking about it and thinking about it, the better, right? It doesn’t make any difference. I mean, in terms of “fake news,” it’s pretty benign. (Laughs.)
By the way, I thought you were incredible on The Killing. I love when a heavy hitter shows up on an existing show for one season and just wrecks shop.
Oh, thank you so much. I really, really had a great time doing it, and I loved being in Vancouver. I lived up in the mountains, and I was running a huge amount. I loved showing up for work, and all the scenes were so nicely, perfectly set up by Veena (Sud). It’s really easy to do that when someone’s giving you scene after scene that is meaningful and not just what I call the “Bourgeois Blues.” You know, when you get some script where it’s like, “Okay, be home from school. Time to watch the movie. Here’s a cheese plate.” I can’t. (Laughs.) That’s the stuff that I just avoid and can’t handle.
Mr. Jones is now available on digital HD and will be On Demand on July 3.
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