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Interview: Mr. Jones’ Peter Sarsgaard

by Charles Trapunski

Although he describes giving a performance of different characters at the end of this interview (a possible allusion to his role in the upcoming The Batman?), Peter Sarsgaard, is, well, let’s just say that he is a real character. Sarsgaard was on a Zoom call with Brief Take recently to promote his role as Walter Duranty in Mr. Jones, yet another in a long line of duplicitous characters in Saarsgard’s ouevre, but this is a little different, as he is based on a real person.

The accomplished actor also previewed for us an upcoming project that has not yet been formally announced and referenced how he is currently living in a remote house in Vermont (similar in nature to Tom Pelphrey and James Badge Dale – immersive actors living in out of the way places during quarantine).

The following is a condensed and edited version of our Zoom call with the highly intelligent Peter Sarsgaard.

Brief Take: So what did you make of Walter Duranty?

Peter Sarsgaard: Veeery difficult guy to get your head around. One of the more interesting things about Walter Duranty is that the last episode of his life was in Los Angeles, California, where he was helping out a young writer and interested in Hollywood and everything. The idea is that he always wanted to be a novelist and seen as a novelist and an artist and Bohemian, part of a certain select group and so much so that he would sacrifice anything to do that, you know? And once he got a foothold as the docent to Stalin and that world. For all of those people, apparently at the time being a Communist overlapped with being an artist. Many of the people who came were genuinely interested in Russia and he could throw an Opium party and have interesting people from the area come by, show them around the underbelly. And it’s nice to be the gatekeeper, I think that he was somebody that was always looking for power.

BT: What did you think of that scene with the Opium party? It is viewers’ introduction to the character.

PS: Ahhhh! I mean, look, I’ll do anything for Agnieszka Holland. There is nothing I won’t do for Agnieszka, I’ve been a fan since…before I was an actor. She’s somebody who’s always been on my radar from forever. I remember seeing Europa Europa from however many years ago and I’ve always wanted to work with her, so I wasn’t particularly keen on being in the outfit that I was in [laughs], I mean, I was totally nude with like a leather strap on and it’s the type of thing that doesn’t make me feel very comfortable. [chuckles] But you know, she’s Agnieszka and she comes up and she’s so protective of the actor, she was just making it alright for me every step of the way. Not by being excessively nurturing, but by being quite matter-of-fact. But also, I’m a real admirer of her politics and what she has done to stand up for human rights, and so I thought that movie was an extension of that and I wanted to be a part of it.

BT: What drew you to this piece in particular?

PS: It was offered to me. I saw that Agnieszka Holland was directing it and also Walter Duranty, a character who is so enigmatic to have to figure out. You know, he saw so much in his life and having experienced as a journalist the first World War. To think of what that looks like must have been…it’s absolutely gruesome. So much destruction. He was also a very interesting Bohemian character, basically. If I mention Walter Duranty to any American journalist now, he’s a pariah. But I actually got a lot of information about him through some of my friends who are journalists. I was always like: “Can you tell me something nice about him?” [laughs] Did he ever really redeem himself, like at all?”.

BT: Did you find anything to redeem him? You’re known for playing characters in the grey areas, but do you struggle with the ethics of this character?

PS: He’s ethically fucked, he’s a mess. I think he may have started off at some point as somebody who had a real reason for doing what he was doing. I’m actually really attracted to that part of him that wanted to be a novelist. To cover up the Ukrainian genocide, I think that he was able to ignore it because it was in another place far away, he didn’t watch the trains going by carrying everyone away. He probably was just able to put it out of his mind. Opium helps.

BT: This movie feels like there are many parallels in this climate. What do you think of the common themes with the 1930’s and how relevant they are to right now?

PS: Or with journalism in general, it’s like [laughs] how do we get at the facts of what’s happening right now? There’s so much punditry, without the information. [chuckles] I’m all for like an op-ed or analysis of information, but getting the information has become something that requires work and makes you feel a little bit like that the citizen part of your job is to be like a journalist.

BT: What do you think about that idea?

PS: I think it’s the death of democracy, certainly, in which we make voting decisions based off of information and having informed minds and everything, so it’s wildly destructive if we all have a different set of ideals about just what are the actual facts, or what is a fact? Or [laughs] you know, what is a truth? I do know the power of…for instance, a public figure, like being so attracted to one part of someone, that you will ignore the other sides to them. I used to have that happen to me as a kid with athletes, right? I would be like in love with a certain athlete and then you learn things about their personal behaviour and you’d be like: “oh, that’s fine”. There was this hockey player from St. Louis named Brett Hull. And I adored him. I was a Blues fan through and through. And I would hear him say things that sounded kind of messed up, sometimes, and I would be like this: “yeah” and I think there’s a lot of that going on right now. And it just makes it so that the information is just getting distorted all over the place since everybody’s got their agenda so strong.

The case with Walter Duranty, it’s a little bit like Stephen Glass, right, from Shattered Glass. Stephen Glass, both of them, this was about personal profit, on some level. Like being regarded as an interesting, smart person, somebody fun to be around, somebody interesting. It didn’t actually have a lot with being an ideological point of view. I would say Walter Duranty, I read two books about Walter Duranty, and I read nothing that really made it seem like in his heart he was pro-Stalin. He was in his heart pro-Walter Duranty. [laughs] Stephen Glass was, at his heart, pro-Stephen Glass. And it’s that self-interest on the part of a journalist that really destroys things. I don’t think a lot of those journalists that I see these days distorting the truth, either wittingly or unwittingly, I think that most of them are doing it for their own personal reasons, I don’t think it’s because they had a particularly strong ideological agenda. I think it’s because they wound up on this program, in which you’re supposed to say this stuff, and if you say it this way, your ratings will jump. And if your ratings jump, you have more money and job security and a good paycheque.

BT: From where do you gather your news?

PS: Multiple places. I’m sure there’s many people that would say that it’s quite slanted, but I don’t. Just to get a general idea of the daily world news that’s not just strictly focused on American stuff, I’ll watch the first 15 minutes of Democracy Now! because Amy Goodman…and lot of times, that’s all I can take. [chuckles]. Be like: “This happened, this happened, this happened”, she won’t ignore Yemen, she won’t ignore countries that are outside of our immediate interest, even though they shouldn’t be. I do that and I read The New York Times sometimes, I read The Guardian sometimes. Some of my friends will be like: “Oh, I watch Fox News to see what is going on, what other people think”, and I’m like: “Well, I really don’t have time to do that”.

BT: I thought you’d say The Intercept.

PS: Well, yeah! The Intercept. I mean Jeremy (Scahill)’s program, his Podcast, Intercepted, I don’t think that I have ever missed an episode. But see that’s the thing, is Jeremy, to me, is somebody I could listen to a lot because he has a sense of humour, it is dire, he really, really cares. He cares like a Catholic worker cares. But it also doesn’t sound like…Armageddon. And it’s not full of anger all the time, although he can get quite angry. It’s just…yeah! I love the way he asks questions. I love, yeah, definitely The Intercept…yeah!

BT: You were a guest on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert in early March, the week before the pandemic. This movie is more timely being released at this moment. How have the last three months been treating you? 

PS: I would say by the way that the pandemic in New York started definitely end of January, early February, that was when we just started…I had been quarantining in New York since I got back from London. I had been shooting [The] Batman, my wife (Maggie Gyllenhaal) had been in Australia (shooting the movie Elvis alongside Tom Hanks), and we came back like end of February and I was like: [pauses] “If anyone has this, we have it”. We sort of isolated ourselves. I did Colbert, but I really scrubbed down. He must have handed me hand sanitizer like five times. And I think someone else who was on the show (Charles Barkley) got coronavirus after that.

I am in a very privileged position. I have a house that people (here) in Vermont call “remote”—so truly remote, I’m four miles from the nearest Grid Tie electricity, I’m living on solar power. I’ve had this place for a number of years, it’s all set up. I garden like crazy. My wife and I shot a short film for Netflix called Penelope, which is going to be on in two weeks, we were able to work a little bit. My wife’s about to shoot another movie in which I am going to act (The Lost Daughter, with Dakota Johnson, Jessie Buckley and Olivia Colman). We have work that is happening, my kids are happy, I have financial security, I have absolutely nothing about which to complain. [laughs] I miss human interaction. I’m a person that’s curious about people, so what I miss is observing and hanging out with people that I don’t know.

The Black Lives Matter movement has been really exciting to me because it’s positive. Even if it’s destructive and at times violent, it’s about changing for something better. It’s about moving from [raising arms] here to here and I think that came of out of being held back by decades and centuries, but also COVID-19, quarantine, and I hope that happens in many areas: artistically, financially, for people who care, that there’ll be a kind of rebound that is bigger and real change will happen.

BT: What do you think of the idea of the female gaze or the female voice, having shot for women many times in your career, including this time?

PS: I work with loads of female directors. I just work with the people who seem like the best people with whom to work at that moment. It’s not like I’m specifically choosing women. That said, I live in a house with two daughters and a wife and I haven’t found myself missing men. [laughs] I don’t know, it’s tough to generalize about women, but there’s definitely a point of view, from being on the flip side of things for so long. I think that this is a real time for a woman’s voice—whatever voice this is—to be heard. There are even female voices that can direct war movies. On K-19: The Widowmaker, she (Kathryn Bigelow) was like…I felt like I wasn’t tough enough to be in that movie a lot of the time because of what she projected. And Boys Don’t Cry with Kim Pierce, it was luck. A female voice, a female gaze, doesn’t mean a sweet, sensitive, passive voice. It’s like Kim Pierce, when I was playing that character, right at the very beginning, she came up to me and she was like: “I thought I hired a man. Like a real man. You’re the sheriff of this town. Be a man”. [laughs] Talk about having my masculinity questioned and attacked, and of course, she got this thing out of me in which I was like: “Do you wanna see a man? Do you want to see a fucking man? I will give you a man”. So…yeah!

I guess that what I am most looking for with a director is someone that is deeply intuitive…if it’s aggressive, if it’s passive, if it’s whatever, it doesn’t matter. The thing that I can’t stand are people that don’t see me; that just go: “Oh, that’s great!”, and I do it again and they go: “Oh, that’s great”, and I can go: “I just played two different characters, so I’m wondering which one…”, and if you cannot see that and if you aren’t listening on that level, then my tendency is to turn off the engine. Because there’s no sense in wasting gas on you. [laughs]

Mr. Jones is now available on Apple and the Cineplex Store, and will be available on VOD on July 3

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Brief Take