Reconnect and reminisce
This HERO Winter Annual 2021 interview took place the day after the Gotham Awards 2021 and Peter Sarsgaard is recovering from a celebratory evening, having attended with his wife Maggie Gyllenhaal, who picked up four awards for her debut directorial feature The Lost Daughter, starring both Sarsgaard and Jessie Buckley. In the wake of this achievement, the two actors reconnect: Buckley in London where she’s currently performing as showgirl Sally Bowles in an adaptation of Joe Masteroff’s classic Cabaret; and Sarsgaard in New York, whose role in Hulu series Dopesick places him at the epicentre of America’s struggle with opioid addiction.
Jessie Buckley: Hi! You just won a Gotham Award!
Peter Sarsgaard: Oh my god, hi! I’m a little bit bleary. [both laugh]
JB: So you should be. Was it fun?
PS: You know, those things are always really surreal unless you’re winning and then they feel very real. [laughs]
JB: You’re like “Don’t call my name, call my name, actually don’t call my name.” [laughs]
PS: It’s great we won four but I look around and I start having a lot of empathy for the other people because I don’t win awards, I’m used to being the other person.
JB: A successful underdog, I’m like that. [both laugh]
PS: So you’ve started [Cabaret], you guys are up and running?
JB: Yeah we’re in week three of previews.
PS: Wow, what a fun part. Have you always wanted to play this part?
JB: I didn’t think I’d be allowed to play the part to be honest, who gets to play this part? But it’s been really fun, it’s so mad to be doing theatre again, I got such a shock on the first night, just being with an audience again. In an amazing way where you’re like, “Woah!” Have you been back to the theatre since everything’s opened?
PS: No, I mean I stood up on a stage the other day for one of the first times since I did Hamlet. I felt very uncomfortable, I must say.
JB: It’s fucking terrifying. [both laugh]
PS: They were like, “Isn’t it wonderful to welcome everybody back?” and I was like, “I was sort of used to isolation.”
JB: Yeah. [laughs]
PS: For me, if I could make the same living being in film as I could on stage, I would only be in film occasionally. It’s fun to do a movie, but it’s a rock concert the other way.
Coat and knitwear
by Fendi FW21
JB: Did you start in theatre?
PS: I started in soccer and then I moved onto theatre.
JB: It’s a natural progression. [both laugh]
PS: I started out as a fan of film and actually I hardly saw any theatre growing up. The only play I ever saw was The Wiz, it came through St. Louis. I thought of theatre as something that the silly kids in my high school did. [both laugh] I had a teacher Father Garrarelli who showed me all these old movies in high school that were incredible world cinema and I sort of fell in love with movies like that. I remember we would take turns going to Blockbuster video to get the movies, I’d gone with another guy to choose a movie and my friends were all waiting – I got The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover by Peter Greenaway – I was not allowed to pick movies anymore [laughs]. So I was sort of like an elitist movie snob in high school and then I started acting in college.
JB: Do you remember seeing a film where it was like an out of body experience, where you were like, “What is that?”
PS: I think The Night Porter with Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling.
JB: Love her.
PS: I mean that movie for a young man is really confusing. [both laugh] I was really fascinated with Dirk Bogarde, I thought he was so strange. I couldn’t place him from life at all, you know sometimes you go, “Oh I know that guy that he’s playing”? It’s never like that with Dirk Bogarde for me, it’s like, “Who is that?” So interesting, such mystery.
JB: The first film I ever saw was the highly acclaimed Darby O’Gill and the Little People, which is an Irish classic. [both laugh] We didn’t have a TV in our home until we were about nine or ten and I remember staying at a family friend’s house, she put it on and I was so terrified. There was a banshee in it and I just remember crying for hours and hours, it was just terrifying, it was too much. And I remember going to see Jesus Christ Superstar in the local town hall in Killarney and I genuinely thought a man from Killarney had been crucified at the end of the show. [both laugh] I had to be brought backstage to be shown that he was alive and well!
PS: Did you see many plays when you were young?
JB: I didn’t see plays, I saw musicals.
PS: That’s like Maggie [Gyllenhaal], you and Maggie both have that. You both speak musical.
JB: Yeah, people who did plays or films were in a far-off distant land. My dad loves film and he would always – he still does – stay up until three o’clock watching something I don’t know what or where he’s found it. I think the first film I saw was a Vincente Minnelli film, a Judy Garland one he brought home, but there was no Shakespeare or anything, that belonged to other people.
PS: Before Father Garrarelli made me a film snob I liked really wild movies like the Village People movie [Can’t Stop the Music]. I think being in the Midwest and seeing people like that… maybe to a New Yorker that would’ve seemed like people they’d seen before, but for me in the Midwest it seemed really wild. I was always into music and I didn’t really pay attention to movies or plays that much, music is still the thing that inspires me the most.
Coat and knitwear both by Ermenegildo Zegna FW21; trousers by Prada FW21; boots by Alexander McQueen FW21
JB: You have the best taste in music! When we were in Spetses [Greek island] it was just a case of me going over to you and Maggie’s house or Maggie sending me a song vicariously through you. Actually I put on my Lost Daughter playlist on my cycle into work this morning and I was like, “This is just such good music!” You’re also a great dancer and you’re shameless.
PS: I will proudly say I’m a great dancer. I advertise it and then do it, most people are like, “I don’t really do this,” but I say, “This is what I do.”
JB: What is the song that if you heard anywhere, you’d just be like, “This is my dancing song”?
PS: Oh my dancing song. [sighs] Okay, Toots and the Maytals, 54-46 Was My Number, this one. [starts playing song]
JB: Oh yeah, here it comes. [both start dancing]
PS: Listen to the way he starts it, that’s the intro, come on! [laughs]
JB: Send that to me for my Cabaret warm-up.
PS: I’ll send it to you. For me music is about tension and release, which is the way I release myself in life anyway. My kids and I frequently lay on the floor and we’ll go through hands, arms, tighten and release. That’s the thing about music, it creates tension and it gives you the release, for me it makes my brain feel really good.
JB: When Maggie was writing the scripting or doing the editing, did you just have an endless playlist of tracks?
PS: Yeah, I’m always collecting music and organising it, usually in terms of what I’m listening to at that moment. I would actually say the little group of music I make for myself is quite eclectic and I sort through it, I don’t ever put music on and walk away particularly. I’m always DJ-ing, breakfast, dinner and then we have Dance Party USA after dinner. Maybe that’s because I grew up on records. I was a kid that went to the bookstore and pretended to be a reader but I always struggled with finishing books, I loved them but I would get lost in my own thoughts at some point. But with music I would go and get a new album when it came out, I would bring it back to my house on my bike – it’s like an awkward thing to carry – and then put it on, you put the needle on and you make sure everything is clean, you know you have to be like OCD. Then you listen to it, it finishes and then you have to flip the record and do the other side. And it’s only 35 or 40 minutes, it’s not like you just hit the thing and walk away.
JB: What was the first record you bought?
PS: My first memory of really collecting a certain band was The Who but I was also really into The Clash at that time because this is right before MTV, in 1980 or so. When MTV came, The Clash who had been around for a while at that point, everybody knew them from Rock the Casbah but now you could put a face to it.
JB: Do you make playlists for jobs or characters?
PS: I’m sure you understand this, nothing is conscious for me. I’m always collecting things and I think if you were to take a snapshot of my areas of collection while I’m playing a certain character they probably reflect them. Occasionally I will go, “This character should have this,” and endow the character with something, but I can never remember what those things are a month later. I really, really loved acting with you.
JB: I loved it too.
PS: I wish we’d had a whole movie, you’re just my absolute favourite kind of actor. Maggie always says she never knows if you’re going to pick up the phone with your left or right hand. [both laugh]
JB: She’s mentioned that a few times, I’m basically a continuity nightmare.
PS: You’re really in trouble if you want to work with [David] Fincher, he’s listening and taking notes. I’m sure you can pick up the phone with the right hand if you were told you had to.
JB: I don’t want to, that’s my problem. [laughs]
PS: Neither do I, luckily neither does Maggie.
“For me, if I could make the same living being in film as I could on stage, I would only be in film occasionally. It’s fun to do a movie, but it’s a rock concert the other way.”
JB: Have you and Maggie ever acted together?
PS: We’ve done plays together. A really good one we did was Uncle Vanya because those two characters want each other really badly but can’t be together, that is the perfect part to play with your lover. You don’t want to play like where it gets consummated and they’re supposed to be in this wonderful place, because then you’re coming short every night.
JB: And you have to go home and make eggs, which is the end of all relationships. [both laugh] When you start making eggs with your partner you know you’re in serious trouble.
PS: When Maggie and I worked together doing Three Sisters, after the show I would run home while she’d take a cab, and because there was traffic sometimes I could, not beat her, but come in really close – it was like three-and-a-half miles away. I liked that because it kept us from talking about it right after downloading the evening, which I don’t like to do, “Wasn’t it great when…”
JB: Yeah, “You were so wonderful last night, the night before you were a little bit shaky but last night you were great.”
PS: “The way you handled the tea cosy was so interesting,” you know, the crap you could go into as a couple.
JB: It’s a disaster.
PS: Have you ever worked with a lover?
JB: I worked with somebody who became a lover, which is always thrilling but can be a disaster if it burns out before the end of the situation.
PS: I think it’s kind of great if it burns out before it’s over, you have to be in the clouds together, it’s wild for half of it and then there has to be the fall.
JB: My boyfriend is training to be a therapist, which is really exciting. It’s so interesting talking to him about it.
PS: I’ve been in therapy for over twenty years, I’ve actually been through more than one therapist because I had one that passed away. It’s interesting with a therapist, they’re the person you know the best in the world and they’re also the person who is a complete mystery to you.
JB: It’s mad. I met a group of his professors for the first time on Monday and I think I was the first partner to be brought into the fold. [laughs] I sat down and it was all very exciting, and then they started going “So are you the second child?” and I was just like, “Fuck off!” [both laugh]
PS: Look what I have here, I found these komboloi on my desk [holds up beads to camera] Maggie got me these from Greece.
Knitwear by Alexander McQueen FW21; necklace Peter’s own
JB: It was such a magical place, I think every job should be in Spetses or a hot island. [laughs] We had the best time.
PS: We had the best time, I actually remember telling Maggie after, I said, “If good movies come from good times this is going to be a fantastic movie.” I’m always sure that’s right, I’ve definitely done at least one movie that was fun for myself and maybe three other members of the cast and for everyone else it was absolute hell. But we had our own little unit, inseparable.
JB: I don’t know if you were there on the first day of shooting but Maggie gave a speech and she basically set the tone, like let’s make a great movie with great fun and jump off the edge of the cliff.
PS: Or jump in the water in our underwear at the end of the day.
JB: Every day! Which is the best way to let everything go.
PS: Spetses looks like Spetses – inside, out, no matter where you are. So, to have it look like another place is wild. Speaking of another place, the scene with hitchhikers, you, Alba [Rohrwacher] and Jack [Farthing]. That looks like a party I want to be at, even though it’s got all sorts of complicated things going on between you guys. It’s interesting, I used to have a pretty poor view of humanity when I was younger and single, as the role that got me the most female, or male attention, from an audience was Boys Don’t Cry, where I played a rapist. It made me so sad, I used to think, “God, people like this guy?” Now I feel like, with this character, I’ve redeemed myself by playing a halfway decent person.
JB: I remember after we showed in London a few friends’ fathers came up to me and were really affected by it. Two different fathers came up and one was like, “I need to go home to my kids,” and one was like, “Woohoo!” [both laugh]
PS: I like that reaction.
JB: What did you feel as a father, a husband, a lover, an actor and a man?
PS: Well I had so many different moments with the project. For me it’s this very large thing that’s bigger than acting in it or watching it. I have so much affection for the film, from the minute Maggie walked into the room and told me, “I’m thinking of adapting this book,” – I might’ve just made a noise, I think I said, “Oh,” and that was it [laughs] – to this moment. I love the conflict that your character has because it’s something so positive and the way you played it, we’re rooting for you to fly.
“Nothing is conscious for me. I’m always collecting things and I think if you were to take a snapshot of my areas of collection while I’m playing a certain character they probably reflect them.”
JB: What scares you?
PS: Stand up comedy.
JB: That’s my worst nightmare.
PS: I did comedy improv in college. I actually started the comedy improv group at Washington University where I went to school, but it was because I’d just started acting. These other people in high school were funny all the time and wanted to do it but they needed a guy who never laughed, I was that guy. I was beyond a straight man.
JB: I would say you’re funny, you’re a cheeky man.
PS: I’m a cheeky man, for sure, but not around people that are absurd. I get absurd around people that are very straight, I find I’m always the type of person that makes sure there’s another dose of something that’s missing.
JB: They’re the most fun because it’s like drawing blood out of stone and the more serious they become the more naughty I become.
PS: Oh 100 percent. These guys were so crazy, I would do the cardinal sin of improv where they’d be like imitating a leprechaun or something, “Get on the magic bus,” a Midwestern guy with some fucking ridiculous fake accent, and I’d say “What bus?” “Get on the bus” [sings] and I would be like “What are you talking about?” [both laugh]
JB: I really would love to play a clown though, I love clowns but that’s a different kind of comedy.
PS: I think you and Maggie should do a clown movie together.
JB: Let’s all go back to Spetses!
Interview originally published in The HERO Winter Annual 2021.
HAIR ADAM MARKARIAN; MAKE-UP CAROLINA DALI AT THE WALL GROUP USING LA PRAIRIE; MANICURIST LOLLY KOON AT THE WALL GROUP; PHOTOGRAPHY ASSISTANTS ROMY KIRCHAUER AND WILLIAM EADON; PHOTOGRAPHY INTERN REGGIE DESILUS; FASHION ASSISTANT GABE BASS; EXECUTIVE PRODUCER RUTH LEVY; CREATIVE PRODUCER COCO KNUDSON; PRODUCTION INTERN PAIGE MILLER