Peter Sarsgaard is an actor of incredible range, able to go from serious drama to big tentpole film without breaking a sweat. His latest film, part of the Blumhouse / Amazon anthology The Lie concerns him and Mireille Enos as parents faced with increasingly dark choices after an incident involving their daughter. We spoke to the actor about The Lie and his career.
Your role in The Lie is that of a father who has to help his daughter. As a parent yourself, do you often ask yourself questions like the one in this film?
Like, how far would I go?
Yes, would you go as far as your character goes, or is there a line that you won’t cross?
I think you don’t have to answer questions that are quite this large if you pay attention to your children in a way that’s more meaningful to begin with. I think one of the things, or the thing that everyone is suffering from in the film is something that happened long ago over the course of these relationships. It reminds me a little of, you know the movie The Exorcist? When Ellen Burstyn who’s like an actress in the movie has been distant from her child. So to me that movie is really about a mother paying the price for not being connected to her own child. So, I think in a similar way my character is paying a similar price. I don’t think I have to answer that question because, I do think I’ve been a very present, attentive parent every step of the way. I actually think I know what my children are capable of, and they’re not capable of this kind of thing.
You would hope so.
Yeah. It’s something that you plant the seed for at the beginning.
As a film, it’s not one that offers easy answers, in terms of “Are the parents correct?”, is that something that drew you to it, in terms of ambiguity of message?
Yeah, I was drawn to it for the questions that it asks, and this feeling of guilt on the part of the parents, that I think both parents feel, and it is guilt that is the driver of the plot of the movie. This feeling that you haven’t you haven’t done enough, and they haven’t done enough. And, that other thing that drew me was I’d done The Killing with Veena [Sud, the director], and the opportunity to work with her again, and with Mireille [Enos, his co-star] was one of the fundamental things that drew me.
As you mention the director, Veena Sud is a woman of colour, there’s been a lot of discussion lately about opening doors for representation for women, for directors of colour. Looking back at your career, you’ve worked a lot with women and people of colour as directors, is that something that you’re conscious of, or something that has just fallen into your lap, as an actor?
I like to think I’ve just pursued the most interesting material. I’m working with a woman right now, I’m working with my wife [Maggie Gyllenhaal, director of The Lost Daughter] who’s directing a movie that we’re doing in Greece. I’m interested in perspectives that are not the mainstream normal, the perspectives that you see all the time. So, yeah, that ends up drawing you to perspectives of people of colour, of women, anyone who’s been marginalised one way or another by society, that’s the part of you that the most interesting, right? I don’t need anymore of the stuff that you’ve seen over and over again.
Looking back at your career, and The Lie, you’re often cast as quite dark or serious figures. Real life characters like Chuck Trainor or Bobby Kennedy, also in big fictional films like The Magnificent Seven or Green Lantern. Is there something about darker characters that you’re drawn to?
I don’t know. I’m pretty funny. I think maybe it’s because most people who know me personally are surprised that I play those characters. It probably has something to do with expressing something in film that I don’t get an opportunity to express in life, or to explore safely. I can safely explore in life what I call the “Bourgeois Blues”. They don’t really interest me that much, the same kind of issues that I go through day-to-day, in my privileged white life. It’s pretty dull, I think. So, I’m more drawn to the other stuff.
My wife and I frequently talk about that expression, we had this great mentor Penny Allen who always used to say “stay away from the Bourgeois Blues!” You know, like your kids going to school, some nice looking school where all the kids look wonderful and then the big problem is you slept with the babysitter or something.
Given these times of isolation, people are away from their loved ones, it seems appropriate to say that Robot & Frank seems more pertinent now than it did, even in 2012. How do you feel about that film, and the themes of it coming back?
I’ve never done a film like that before, and I doubt that I’ll ever do one like it again. That was a situation where they shot that film without anyone really voicing the robot. Well, they had someone but it wasn’t an actor, and wasn’t someone they intended to use. So, when I voiced the robot I was looking at a complete movie, and I was trying to reverse engineer the acting, if that makes sense. I had to make it make sense with what existed.
It’s so lonely, right? What do we do with our elderly? I’ve always admired communities like the Amish, where you just have to get another room in the house going. I don’t personally want to do that, but I do admire it. You know communities and cultures that make a place for the elderly in their own homes. I don’t want to get a robot for my parents.
And finally, is there anything you can say about The Batman? Have you finished it? Are you filming it? Are you Two-Face?
I’m in the middle of filming it, it’s particularly challenging to shoot big movies now, because there’s more people coming from all over the world to do it. I’ll be headed out shortly after this movie to do it, everything looks good, everything is proceeding according to schedule. Well, not according to schedule, according to post-COVID schedule. And then after that I’ll be going to Virginia to shoot a series with Barry Levinson and Michael Keaton called Dopesick, I’ll be starting that in December. The issue with it these days is really if you’re someone like me that does a lot of different things, the scheduling is really hard. You have to allow for quarantine in each place, and you have to allow for things going wrong, occasionally people get sick, you just have to stop for a second. It’s just the way things are now, I think you’ll see actors devote themselves to one or two projects instead of four or five.
FilmHounds would like to thank Peter Sarsgaard for chatting with us.
The Lie is now streaming on Amazon Prime