This weekend in theaters, Ryan Reynolds puts on the green spandex and becomes Hal Jordan in Green Lantern. Though he’s charming as always, it’s Peter Sarsgaard‘s performance as Hector Hammond, the anti-charmer who not only steals many of the scene, but also many of Reynolds laughs. As with any film, a film is only as strong as its villain, and what makes this film worth watching is Sarsgaard’s performance which is both dramatic and insanely fun.
I had a chance to site down with Sarsgaard and talk to him one on one about bringing this role to life, playing “interesting” characters, adding in those delectable character moments that make the role so much fun and overcoming his fear of acting…
What is it about playing ugly that appeals to you?
Peter Sarsgaard: I’m not particularly drawn to it. Are you telling me I’m better looking than some of the characters that I’ve played? [laughs]
You’re definitely much better looking than this character.
PS: Well I don’t believe in absolute purity, right? I really don’t. I don’t think it exist. I think people who seem that way are pretending. I am drawn to characters that have a side that is ugly that is portrayed in the movie that is dark. It’s important that the characters lies, a lot of people lie. Or does something dishonest at some point, or does something wrong in some way. That’s so rare and it’s especially rare with the heroes in the movies, the characters that are portrayed as beautiful. It’s almost non-existent. They are totally scrubbed clean most of the time and any fault that they have is a little wink, ‘oh he drinks a tiny bit too much.’ That just doesn’t interest me.
Is that more appealing for you to be able to play the character that’s faulted but it trying to do good, than the good guy who keeps messing up?
PS: Well you get more room. Nobody cares. The people making the movie certainly do not care if the valid is a little bit more sympathetic. We like sympathetic villains. Some of the most successful villains in the history of cinema have been ones that people wanted to be or enjoyed watching or had a sense of humor.
How about the wonderful choice that you added to smell Blake Lively?
PS: She smelled really good.
Oh I’m sure she did…
PS: I was doing what every other man in the audience was wanting me to do.
Exactly. I always say that a film is only as strong as its villain, and I think that you made this film quite strong mainly because of the details you added to your character such as smelling or sipping your drink like a 14-year-old girl. Do you feel like you have that freedom to actually be able to play on sets like that?
PS: I did tons of things like that. That’s the thing also about playing this character, versus playing – Even Ryan Reynolds character, a lot more people have a lot more invested in what he’s doing. Martin Campbell just gave me absolute freedom. I didn’t do that every take. The thing that kept me alive was knowing that I fourteen always. Fourteen-year-old doesn’t have a strong sense of identity usually, especially one that has no parents like mine, so can be anything at any given time. A fourteen-year-old usually has a very unusual way of dealing with the world, like sipping a drink like that. That’s what drove me through the entire movie. That’s probably the thing that kept me alive and enjoying myself doing the movie.
You got the biggest laughs in the house. Which is funny because Ryan Reynolds who is known for bringing the laughs. It feels like you don’t always make the safe choice and those moments really paid off.
PS: I make some absolutely absurd choices. I mean, I figured he would do that to begin with to just clear the air –
…And they stuck?
PS: Yeah, some of the stuck. I definitely would come out of the gate just swinging. I use to yell “mother fucker” before a lot of the takes, and this is when I was doing Boys Don’t Cry. I think it was sort of for the same reasons, and I wouldn’t explain to anyone. After I had already done something kind of weird, then anything else I did was going to seem acceptable. I’m not a natural bright performer from growing up.
PS: I always dreaded standing up in front of the classroom and doing anything. I remember I had to do a speech from Caesar, and I was just petrified. I hated doing anything like that. For me, the process of acting has always been about trying to create a place where I feel comfortable acting. That’s my first job. Once I do that, it’s weird, I am a performer.
What gives you the ability? Is it just experience of is it a trick that you learn? What is it that allows you to be in front of a camera, be in front of an entire crew, have all this pressure on you and then just play?
PS: I think it comes from the fact that I am a scared performer.
That’s a little bit reversal.
PS: A lot of actors where it comes naturally, you know, and are natural performers, so often in their everyday lives, that they becalmed inured to their own perforce. They tell the same joke over and over again, in different ways and they are use to titillating people and being the center of attention in one way or another. When they go to actually do it, they are not alone. They don’t have the ability to be alone in a moment. They are just entertaining people all the time. In order to be alone in that moment I spend a lot of time conquering my fear of creating this little dime size space on the dance floor that is all mine. And once I get in there, I’m so much energy from being so nervous that I just go straight at the other actor and I zero in on them because I can’t spread my energy to the crew and everyone else and be the center of attention because it makes me feels uncomfortable.
Does it make you feel good though? Because you said you brought down the house, so when you have those moments…
PS: It made me feel good. I think what ended up happening is something similar to what happens to the character is I started to come out as the character and experience this kind of blossoming that happens to him and people started reacting. I started being like someone who was performing for the first time in that way. I had an experience, an actual experience and I would do, like when I did that sip and they called cut, I felt everybody react. It was like being a kid. Everybody is reacting for the first time. No one in my house ever reacted like that, I was an only child. I was outside playing by myself. No one in Dr. Hector Hammond’s life ever went like, ‘Oh wow.’
So, in a way, you’re kind of similar to Hector?
PS: I am similar to him, in that way.
Hopefully you won’t go crazy.
PS: Hopefully not!
Or evil won’t take over your body.
PS: Or dead aliens won’t show up and you know…
When you get yourself into that tiny little bubble, does it matter what others around you are doing?
PS: I try to bring them in. Well, the trying to bring them in into your point of view to convince them even if you are not successful and they stand in their own little wold and you never connect, the act of trying is doing is acting is what it is. Period. So you could be acting with the crappiest actor in the world, who is just like not paying attention to you, well that’s just a huge obstacle to me. It just makes me go like, ‘hey, hey, hey, hey.’ I have so much terror and energy that I’m like, you have to listen to me.
What happens when they put everything on you? Does it ever shock you?
PS: Yeah. I love that. When an actor comes right back at you, and gives you what you want or something different, or whatever it is. It’s like acting with my wife [Maggie Gyllenhaal]. I’ve done two plays with my wife and we were just, that’s the most alive I’ve ever been acting because it was being in a pinball machine. You’re just, you think you’re going that way and then you get slammed this way and then you come back and she’s the absolute best actor I know.
That’s so beautiful. I love that.
PS: That’s just the truth. I really do have everything I want. It’s interesting because I get the feeling, when people interview me, that they think I don’t have everything that I want. That there’s this idea that I should want more or I should want something different as an actor. In my life, acting, even just my career, I’ve had the opportunity to do everything I want. Not all of it has been made into a movie, some of them have been on stage but a lot of them have been movies that nobody saw. That’s okay too.
PS: That happens too, but I make a very good living.
I think you have a phenomenal career. One that is definitely worth admiration.
PS: That’s funny. Someone was interviewing me going, ‘It must like kill you with envy to watch like, Ryan play–” and I’m like, ‘that’s not me.’ Can you imagine me playing that role? It would be fucking crazy.
Well you nailed this one so thank you for that!
You can see Peter Sarsgaard in Green Lantern as Hector Hammond this weekend, June 17th!