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The Education of Peter Sarsgaard

The education of Peter Sarsgaard The education of Peter Sarsgaard

From cool stoner to marine grunt, he never stops exploring new characters. An Education continues that Journey.

We never know what to expect from Peter Sarsgaard. He’s like an Eddie Haskell for the 21st century. One minute he’s beguiling and charming; the next, he’s pointing a loaded gun in someone’s face or seducing your underage sister.

When Sarsgaard was a seemingly innocent young boy, he took his Haskell act on the road as a budding con artist. Going door-to-door soliciting funds for a sick and dying —and fabricated—elephant, he fleeced his neighbors of their spare change, milk money, whatever he could get his hands on. He promised to donate the cash to the local zoo, where it could help care for the ailing pachyderm. When his parents got wind of his scam, they made young Peter return the money and apologize to each person he scammed.

“It was absolutely humiliating,” Sarsgaard recalls.

That early flair for theatricality showed a hint of a personality that can both seduce us with charisma and then slap us across the face with reality. Over the past 15 years, Sarsgaard has blossomed as an actor. Award nominations are common, and no less than Tom Cruise has called Sarsgaard “a remarkable talent.”

Sarsgaard is no longer a junior shyster but a consistent, loyal, and outspoken actor with ready opinions on both politics and the media. He and his wife, the Oscar-nominated actress Maggie Gyllenhaal, have been a couple for the better part of a decade and are raising their 3-year-old daughter, Ramona, in a quiet area of Brooklyn.

Low life, high ambitions

Sarsgaard made his big-screen debut in 1995’s Dead Man Walking as the murder victim Walter Delacroix, but folks first took notice of the boyish and sleepy-eyed Midwesterner in 1999 after his startling turn as a homophobic, uberviolent redneck in Boys Don’t Cry. In the latter film, he befriends Brandon Teena, sharing beers and shooting pool; he then coldheartedly murders when Teena’s sexual identity is revealed. In 2002’s The Salton Sea, he portrays Jimmy the Finn, a sweet speed freak on the verge—of what, we don’t know, and that’s the point. Audiences felt both empathy and repulsion by his turn as the grave-robbing stoner in Garden State (2004). His pathetic character collects Desert Storm trading cards, lives with his MILF-ish mom, gets his cat stoned, but then ultimately returns a friend’s dead mother’s prized piece of jewelry that he had stolen off her corpse. Awww.

Zach Braff, who directed Garden State, says Sarsgaard was his first choice for the film but never really expected him or Natalie Portman to say yes to the offer of being the leads. “Peter and Natalie were our art type that we thought we’d never get,” says Braff. “We hoped they’d say yes,” but, Braff admits, they also came up with a Plan B list of actors to turn to when the expected turndowns arrived.

Braff had admired Sarsgaard’s previous performances as lowlife types and was a fan. The actor did not realize that he was apparently being typecast as a low-rent good-for-nothing until it was pointed out to him.

“Maybe we’re all trailer trash deep down,” he laughs. “It is something I am familiar with. My grandparents lived in a trailer park outside of Memphis, and I used to go there during the summers. My character in Garden State is really low-income suburban.”

Peter Sarsgaard and Carey Mulligan from the movie An EducationPeter Sarsgaard and Carey Mulligan from the movie An EducationHis aspirations to play a role in which he got to “wear cashmere sweaters” was finally realized in 2009’s An Education, which received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. Sarsgaard’s performance as a smarmy middle-aged cad (David) who begins a relationship with 16-year-old Jenny (Carey Mulligan) won him critical accolades and reconfirmed his ability to seduce and destroy. The film also won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival.

When he is not filming, Sarsgaard cares for his daughter and supporting his wife’s career. The husband-and-wife team has also starred together in an off-Broadway production of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. Sarsgaard, who grew up primarily in the St. Louis area, knew early on that he wanted the security of family life and a home early in his career. “I think a lot of actors have that feeling of homelessness for a long time, unless you consciously try to develop [something otherwise],” he explains. “I know I eventually want to be somewhere with acreage, maybe in upstate New York. I want to be like Ted Turner.”

His efforts to find the perfect property have proven futile so far. The Catskills were “too Buddha Belt. It’s all the ex-supermodels, actors, yoga instructors,” he laughs.

Until his dream of that perfect property is realized, Sarsgaard, 39, leads a quiet existence in a leafy Brooklyn neighborhood, carrying Ramona’s stroller up and down the subway steps, lunching in outdoor cafés, and stepping up for liberal causes when asked. Sarsgaard filmed public service announcements in an effort to get out the vote prior to the 2008 presidential election and is not afraid to voice his opinions on the right-wing media, keeping his enemies close. “I have to get my news from a lot of sources. I read opinion pieces of people who have other views than I do,” says Sarsgaard. “I think it’s important to sample all the different views. Even if you think they are the devil, it is important to know what their thoughts are.”

He’s no idealist, though, when it comes to the attention span of the average American. “The real news is a much drier thing and harder for us to pay attention to. It requires effort, and I think that most of us are too lazy,” he says. “I don’t think that Fox News has the highest ratings because people think it is the best newscast.”

On the contrary, Sarsgaard does not see some of today’s so-called media as journalists at all. “I think people have a genuine disinterest in the news,” he says. “Most people would rather read about Siamese twins than the deficit. If you asked most people to define what deficit means, they wouldn’t even know what to say. Most people can’t relate to it.”

As a result, the news media is awash in entertainers. “Like Bill Maher; he’s an entertainer. He has a show on HBO. He calls it entertainment, and what those other folks—Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly—do is the same thing,” he says with conviction. “They’re not journalists. Really they’re celebrities, and they deserve to be in Us Weekly, photographs on the beach—all of it.”

And when the name Howard Stern is mentioned, Sarsgaard pulls no punches: “He’s an idiot.”

Cruising with Cruise

Sarsgaard’s next project will be seen Fourth of July weekend, when he performs in the action comedy Knight & Day alongside Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz. Cruise and Sarsgaard have been crossing paths for a while now. Cruise’s production company was responsible for Shattered Glass (Sarsgaard received many awards and a Golden Globe nod for best supporting actor in the story of Stephen Glass, the New Republic reporter fired for fabricating articles, quotes, and sources). And when paparazzi staked out Cruise and Katie Holmes’ New York neighborhood, Sarsgaard and his wife were caught in the cross fire. The couple was in rehearsals for Vanya nearby and encountered the throngs of photographers every day; alas, Sarsgaard says the shutterbugs “could care less about us.”

The new film promises to add another fascinating entry to Sarsgaard’s resume. Director James Mangold (3:10 to Yuma and Walk the Line) cast Sarsgaard in the role of a federal agent hell-bent on capturing Cruise and Diaz, a glamorous couple of fugitives whose crime spree takes them across the globe. Shooting took place in Massachusetts, Spain, Austria, and areas of the tropics. The film also stars Viola Davis (Doubt), Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood), and Olivier Martinez (Unfaithful) as a ruthless arms manufacturer.

Sarsgaard received some inside acting information from a relative, whom he says is a narcotics agent in Peru. The tip: “Make sure you have a machine gun.” Not bad advice when playing a heavy who is chasing bad guys. In Hollywood, or any town.

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Last modified on Wednesday, 01 June 2011 20:57

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