Peter Sarsgaard: 'No Comic Book Villains for Me'


It's cold, it's rainy, and Peter Sarsgaard is the perfect stranger offering you a ride. Do you get in? That's the situation Carey Mulligan found herself in while shooting Lone Scherfig's An Education, and it wasn't just that she was channeling her character Jenny; Sarsgaard made Mulligan agree that if he couldn't charm her into the car, then she'd simply damn the stage directions and turn him down. Fortunately, like his supremely self-confident character David, the actor got exactly what he wanted.

In person, it's the reticent Sarsgaard who must be charmed, though I think I managed all right. Last Thursday, he sat down with me to discuss screen chemistry, the "golden handcuff" of a film franchise, and (prompted by two chairs slightly turned toward each other) his deeply ingrained fear of talk shows.

All right, where do you want to sit?

[Affecting a British accent] Shall we sit like gentlemen?

Or sit like we're sitting on the new Jay Leno show.

[Laughing] Exactly. Hey! I haven't seen it.

You're not missing much.

You know, I don't watch talk shows. It's plugging, that's all it is! I'd rather watch commercials.

But don't you have to appear on talk shows as part of your press obligations?

I have occasionally, but not with any regularity. I'm not made to.

Do you try to get out of it?

I used to, always. Then I realized that it was important, you know? Part of my responsibility as an actor is to sell the film. I did Conan O'Brien -- that's the only one I've done -- twice. Oh, and I did Charlie Rose once.

Do you feel like those shows are more on your wavelength?

No, it just was random. I like him, though. I like Conan.

Anyway, An Education! You're the sole American actor in the film, and you're affecting a British accent. I interviewed another actor recently who said he actually prefers acting with accents because the further away the character is from how he actually is, the more he can lose himself in the role. Is it like that for you?

Hmm. No, I feel the opposite.

You'd rather play a role that's similar to how you actually are?

It's "easier," not "rather." The more artificiality that's put on it, the more you have to reconcile as an actor -- that's work. The accent was work. Like, a Southern accent would be expressive for me because my family's Southern and I know that sense of humor. The things with accents, in the South, for example, people will sometimes talk in a certain kind of Southern accent if they're telling a joke. You know what I mean? They'll be like, [affecting a Southern accent] "Well, I don't know 'cause we jus' went down there and saw two chickens!" and whatnot. That's like their "funny voice" and every culture has that, and that's what difficult about learning an accent. Accents for an individual fluctuate depending on who they're with and who they're talking to. I talk to you differently and in a different manner and tone than I talk to my daughter, you know?

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