Peter Sarsgaard Tackles LSD, CIA Mind-Control and Political Dissent in 'Wormwood'

Courtesy of Venice International Film Festival
Peter Sarsgaard in 'Wormwood'

The actor stars as bacteriologist Frank Olson in the new Errol Morris miniseries.

In 1953 bacteriologist Frank Olson plunged to his death from a hotel window after being unknowingly dosed with LSD by the CIA. The headline-grabbing story seemed sinister enough until a decades-long investigation revealed that the actual truth behind his death might be something much more nefarious: a government-order execution to get rid of a political liability.

Peter Sarsgaard brings the last days of Olson’s life to light in the new Errol Morris miniseries Wormwood, a 258-minute odyssey that is one part detective story and one part a history of government deception. The period flashbacks are contrasted with present-day interviews with Frank Olson’s introspective son Eric, who has spent his life trying to uncover the mystery of his dissident father’s death.

The series had its world premiere in Venice ahead of its debut on Netflix on Dec. 15. The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Sarsgaard about the challenges of playing Frank Olson, the dangers of living in a world where lying is acceptable, and that one Errol Morris interview where Trump thought he was the only one who understood the meaning of “Rosebud.”

What was it like to tackle such a complex character?

The thing about the role that was always the most interesting was that there’s very little talking. And also it was frequently about very small moments. Like a scene might be, they are over there, carving the turkey. Pick up the teacup; there is something in the teacup that shouldn’t be in the teacup. And that’s the moment that you are playing. As an actor it takes a lot of energy to invest that with meaning and specificity and all the things you are supposed to do.

Why was this particular incident in history interesting to explore in a miniseries?

I know that Errol was always interested in MKUltra [the CIA’s mind control program], the operation where they used the LSD. For me it was because it was a time in America we think of as being a time of such innocence and simplicity, men do this, women do that and it’s all going along very nicely, division of labor between the sexes, the lawn is perfectly mowed. So there is a real innocence combined with this thing that is certainly not innocent.

And I think Frank was innocent. He couldn’t have possibly understood what he was on at that time. If you gave LSD to someone in the '70s there is a 50-50 chance that they had done it before.

What do you think would happen to Frank Olson today?

Maybe the same thing? When someone becomes a security risk and you can’t stop them, because a wire has been tripped because it’s a chemical you gave them, I think that a lot of governments would go to any lengths to stop them. Look at these whistleblowers, it’s sickening. He certainly would be in jail.

Do you share your character's paranoia and questioning of the government?

I don’t have paranoia of the government because I know that it’s up to no good a lot of the time. They advertise it now; they don’t hide it. So at least my paranoia is gone. I’ve never trusted completely any government; I don’t think you are supposed to. Like at a certain point you are supposed to see your parents as people, not as mom and dad and be able to deal with them as people. I think a lot of people treat the government as parents that they aren’t allowed to criticize in any way.

How was it to work with someone who has been so integral to documentary filmmaking?

I knew that he kind of changes all the time too. The only similarity that I see across a lot of his films is the similarity of humor, what he finds amusing. And he’s willing to find something amusing in the middle of a pretty dire moment. I adore Errol and I am certain that we are going to do more things together; we were just talking about it.

What would you like to collaborate with him on next?

He has so many crazy ideas for movies. I’m not allowed to say any of them, of course, but I’d love to do something like the Gates of Heaven pet cemetery movie. That movie was so playful and so heartfelt at the same time. I love that combination: these kinds of extremes of our human circumstance, the ordinary in those moments.

What was most shocking to you about this story?

That Eric was still on it. Even last night when I talked to him, this isn’t the end for him. There is no end. And I haven’t met that many people that were consumed by one thing for their entire lives to the degree that he is. And you really see what being lied to does to you. We have a President right now who is lying to us every day; every day there is a lie and it will wear you down. We lose track of the truth. It’s actually mentally debilitating, because lying is OK now. And if lying is OK, I don’t know how to live in the world.

What’s the solution?

I think education. I actually think that real autonomous education, free from any government input is what helps.

What story today do you think most needs a thorough investigation?

President Trump’s finances.

Would you like to see Errol tackle that?

Errol did an interview with Trump years ago, that’s pretty fascinating, where it appears that Trump thinks he’s the only one who knows what “Rosebud” means in Citizen Kane. Because he is like Hearst you know, only the ‘elite’ class know. I guess there are people in Scientology who think they are an alien from outerspace and — I don’t really understand. But they think they have more cognitive space than other people. I think that he believes that, which is absurd.

And he thought Charles Foster Kane’s downfall was the result of a bad marriage. How do you think Trump would view that movie today?

I’m sure he would think the whole movie is about him, because everything is about him.

What do you make of him saying wealth doesn’t make you happy?

That’s just like something you write on a napkin. That has no meaning. I actually believe that wealth does not make you happy and wealth can be a challenge. But wealth certainly gives you a space where happiness is easier.

What makes you happy?

Physical labor that I am not mandated to do, so on my own time. I like doing very simple repetitive tasks. I stack an excellent woodpile.

You play a CIA agent in the upcoming The Looming Tower. Did this role help you prepare at all for that?

You know I had done a lot of research for Wormwood, into just understanding what the CIA was, how it has changed, what is has become. So I had read a lot of the material that was going to help me. I had talked to some CIA people. I didn’t do much of that for The Looming Tower.

It’s a different agency now than it was by a long shot. In the fifties, the agency was only ten years old. Really the Russians have had an agency like that for way longer than we have. We actually went "What are they doing?"

Will you be playing a likeable character?

Most people will probably not like him. The real life guy my character was based off of — my character’s name was changed because, other people have their real names, but the guy I’m playing, he’s quite litigious. But the real guy said some things that I actually really believe in that I say in it, that are hard things for Americans to hear.

The reason that Jihadists hate us, their hatred was initially at their own governments. The Wahabi and Saudi Arabia could have cared less about the United States had we not gotten involved in helping Saudi Arabia. And the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt could care less about the United States until we started giving tons of weapons to the Egyptians. Or giving money and weapons to the Israelis. He says if we just pulled out of that entire situation and packed our bags and went home, they wouldn’t continue hating us for our pornography, which I agree with.