Wednesday, March 20, 2013

In Character: Peter Sarsgaard

There are many facets to a perfect Peter Sarsgaard performance. To achieve greatness, you might see him play hopeless, you might hear him scream, you might see him charm – sometimes all at once, occasionally one at a time. He’s an actor that can do so little, but really be doing much more. For him, it’s all about restraint, which is difficult to accomplish. Sarsgaard always seems dialed in and aware of his characters’ motivations, even if we haven’t the slightest clue where they’re headed. He reveals himself with humility, which often leads those watching him to become fully entranced.

Five Essential Roles
Shattered Glass (2003)
Chuck Lane
Chuck Lane was a man trying to keep his head above water. Made editor of the prestigious DC-based publication, The New Republic, at a relatively young age, Lane was soon thrown into one of the most notorious journalism fabrication scandals in history. Shortly after assuming the title of editor, Lane caught one of his most respected reporters, Stephen Glass, in a lie. Which turned into another lie, which turned into a career of lies. And watching Sarsgaard thoroughly break Glass down, not with intimidation, but rather with logic and practicality, proved to be a star making effort.

Prior to Shattered Glass’ release, Sarsgaard was an actor trying to make a name for himself. He’d been great in a few worthy films, good in a few bad films, and everything in between. Few recognized his face, but fewer knew his name. Shattered Glass changed that, indefinitely.

Let me put it this way: I was in journalism school when Shattered Glass was released on DVD, and I’m pretty sure every one of my journalism professors showed the film at one point or another. I’ve seen it, a lot, and Sarsgaard’s performance has yet to lose steam.

Garden State (2004)
Mark is Sarsgaard at his most despondent. A literal gravedigger who makes ends meet by boosting jewelry off dead people, Mark sits around, smokes weed, goes to parties, threatens to kill his mother’s boyfriend – things that people with no ambition do. So, on paper, we have a typical slacker without a hell of a lot of depth. Hell, in his DVD director’s commentary writer/director/star Zach Braff said he was nervous about how underwritten the part of Mark was, and that he knew he needed to cast the perfect actor to make it work.

Mission accomplished. Sarsgaard takes an admittedly simple character and develops him into a man of complex resentment. There’s a certain amount of fear that Sarsgaard instills in Mark – we’re never exactly sure what he’s going to do, or why. Because of that, Sarsgaard gave Garden State the edge it was so crucially in need of.

Kinsey (2004)
Clyde Martin
Being the person responsible for making the world’s most famous sexologist comfortable in his no skin is no easy task, but damn if Sarsgaard doesn’t nail it with his trademark appeal. Through Sarsgaard’s sensibilities, Clyde Martin is revealed as a man of great control and compassion. Two scenes in particular speak to the flawless confidence Sarsgaard exudes here. First when he disrobes in front of Kinsey, revealing far more that his contentment, and secondly, when he says the only way to keep things balanced is by sleeping with Kinsey’s wife. Both moments surprise the characters on screen, and the audience watching them. But they never stun Clyde, for he is a man who kindly presents an option as if it’s the only one available.

Jarhead (2005)
Cpl. Alan Troy
Alan Troy is the poster boy jarhead: the latent fury, the pent up aggression, the complete willingness to commit. And Troy’s military dedication (which borders on mania) manifests itself remarkably through Sarsgaard. There are so many sequences to highlight in order to fully encapsulate the fearlessness of this role. The scene in which Troy confronts his sniper partner, Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) after Swofford pulls a gun on a fellow soldier, the way Troy reacts with utter adulation after being literally branded a jarhead, and on and on. But the one moment that tells you everything you need to know about Alan Troy is the scene directly following Troy’s closest would-be kill.

After Troy and Swofford are ordered at the last minute not to kill a member of Saddam’s Republican Guard, Troy completely fucking loses it. He initially pleads to execute the kill, and, when denied, Troy quickly becomes a man of uncontrollable rage. He screams and cries and wails in emotional pain – its man at his most primal, his most longing. And it is, make no mistake, a bit of damn fine acting.

An Education (2009)
Much of the conversation surrounding Lone Scherfig’s An Education was how perfect a relative newcomer named Carey Mulligan was in the film. Mulligan’s praise was well deserved and then some, but there has always been more going on here. In short, Peter Sarsgaard never got the full credit he deserved for his work in this film. It’s impossible to appreciate this performance (and discuss it in detail) without divulging a few secrets about David (so... spoilers ahead), but after all of David is revealed, it really puts what Sarsgaard was doing into context. Complete and remarkable context, that is.

Point in fact, David is not a good man. At all. But the fact that Sarsgaard plays him as anything but simply makes the performance that much more devastating. The most telling scene of An Education is when Mulligan’s Jenny visits David’s home, and instead of finding him, is confronted by his wife, Sarah (Sally Hawkins). Pay attention to the questions Sally asks Jenny here, and a true snake of a man will be revealed.

The Best of the Best
Boys Don’t Cry (1999)
John Lotter
This wasn’t an easy choice to come by. I could’ve made a case for any of the above titles as Sarsgaard’s best role, but in researching and writing this piece, the role I kept coming back to was John Lotter. And then I did something that I don’t like to often do, and that was rewatch Kimberly Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry.

And that’s not a slight against the film. Boys Don’t Cry is a modestly scaled movie that contains a handful of perfect acting performances. It’s raw, real, and unflinching, to the point of utter despair. I respect it, but I’m never eager to watch it. But in revisiting the film, I was reminded that Peter Sarsgaard’s work as John Lotter is one of the most terrifying film acting performances I have ever seen. It takes a particular set of skills to capture such a repulsive man, and to do it so considerately. Point in fact, Sarsgaard said it was his hope to play Lotter as “likeable and sympathetic,” so that the audience would believe that nice (if not na├»ve) people like Brandon Teena and Lana Tisdel would actually enjoy hanging out with him.

They did in real life, and they did in the film. That is, until everything changed. Once Lotter and his cohort, Tom Nissen, discovered Brandon was indeed a she, they beat, raped, and killed her, and they had a damn fun time doing it. I’ve seen rape depicted in a number of films, and rarely do I appreciate what the filmmaker is trying to achieve. If a director feels it is necessary to include a scene of such cruelty then it has to be for a purpose. Well, Peirce’s intention is certainly clear. She wanted to show humanity at its most depraved. It’s most uselessly vengeful and flawed. And she picked the perfect actor to do just that.

Other Notable Roles
In Orphan
Dead Man Walking (1995)
Another Day in Paradise (1998)
The Center of the World (2001)
Empire (2002)
The Salton Sea (2002)
The Dying Gaul (2005)
Flightplan (2005)
Rendition (2007)
Elegy (2008)
Orphan (2009)
Knight and Day (2010)
The Killing (2011-present)

Previous installments of In Character include:
Steve Buscemi
John Cazale
Don Cheadle
Patricia Clarkson
Cliff Curtis
Jeff Daniels
Viola Davis
the Cast of Django Unchained
Laura Dern
Michael Clarke Duncan
Chiwetel Ejiofor
William Fichtner
Ralph Fiennes
Brendan Gleeson
Bruce Greenwood
Philip Baker Hall
Woody Harrelson
John Hawkes
Philip Seymour Hoffman
Richard Jenkins
Erland Josephson
Elias Koteas
Heath Ledger
the Cast of Lincoln
Delroy Lindo
William H. Macy
Margo Martindale
Christopher McDonald
Alfred Molina
David Morse
Emily Mortimer
Gary Oldman
Jason Patric
Guy Pearce
Kevin Pollak
Joe Pantoliano
John C. Reilly
Sam Rockwell
Campbell Scott
Michael Shannon
Peter Stormare
David Strathairn
Tilda Swinton
Danny Trejo
Stanley Tucci
Emily Watson
Shea Whigham
Ray Winstone
Jeffrey Wright
Steve Zahn


  1. Man, what does he have to do to get an Oscar nomination? Dude's been overdue for, like, a decade now.

    1. Yeah no kidding. He should have 2 or 3 by now. I really thought he'd nab a nom for Shattered Glass, but that was a tough year. Maybe replace Ken Watanabe in The Last Samurai...?

      Thanks for recommending Sarsgaard for this column! He's a great addition to the series.

  2. He is SO overdue for an Oscar nomination. Hopefully his time will come soon. The guy's fantastic.

    1. I hope so as well. His time as come and then some. Hopefully there will be no more Green Lantern-type roles.

  3. Good call on Boys Don't Cry. It's been many years since I saw that film, but I have a visceral reaction thinking about that character. I think that's as strong a tribute to his performance as you could ask for.

    There was one scene, fairly early in the movie, where his little girl climbed on his lap, and the way he touched her made my skin crawl. Wow.

    1. Oh god, I know EXACTLY the scene you're talking about. So damn creepy. But effective. Very effective work there.

  4. I only saw Boys Don't Cry a couple of weeks ago and was terrified by Sarsgaard’s performance. He's so great at playing really dislikeable characters.

    Although his performance in K19 was pretty hilarious just like everything else in that film.

    1. He is really damn good at playing disgusting men. He gives them a humility that is very rare.

      K19...saw it once and never again. Hilarious indeed.

      Thanks for reading and commenting Matt!

  5. I adore this man! An Education, Jarhead and Garden State are some of his best work.

  6. Peter Sarsgaard. Truly love the dude. Plus, he's married to one of the best actresses out there in Maggie Gyllenhaal!!! That's a plus!

    My top 5 Peter Sarsgaard Performances:

    1. Garden Stage
    2. An Education
    3. Shattered Glass
    4. Jarhead
    5. Boys Don't Cry

    He's pretty much good in nearly everything I've seen him in. The only performance that I don't think worked though I fault both the direction and the script was Green Lantern. He spends part of the film in bad makeup, not given much to do, and having to scream like a girl in the film. What a waste of his talents.

    1. Definitely a plus that he's married to Maggie! Great pair there.

      Love your top 5 performances (obviously, ha). I also agree that one of his few less worthy roles was in Green Lantern. That's just a shit movie all around.

  7. He is a great actor but for some reason I can't remember him in Rendition and Elegy. I remember the outrage when he wasn't nominated for Jarhead, I'm not a big fan of the movie but it was a fantastic performance.

    He was great in An Education but for me the most underrated work there is Rosamund Pike's brilliant performance.

    1. In Rendition (which I think is a really dull film) he played Reese Witherspoon's old friend who now works for Alan Arkin. Kind of a throwaway role. In Elegy, he plays Ben Kingsley's slighted son. Very good performance there.

      I really liked Pike's work in An Education as well. She really elevated the typical "ditzy" blonde role.

  8. Humility is definitely the word that always comes to mind when thinking about Sarsgaard. I love his work, all of it.

    1. Nice! Love to hear that. A damn fine actor, this one.

  9. Perfect. I wouldn't change a thing. Boys Don't Cry would easily be my #1, but I can see why you'd be tempted to go for another performance. He's given several great ones.

    1. Awesome, good to hear you're a fan of his Boys Don't Cry work. He's such a damn monster in that movie. A white trash monster.