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Barry Koltnow, Published August 05 2013

Actor Peter Sarsgaard shines in August

SANTA ANA, Calif. – When Woody Allen called, Peter Sarsgaard didn’t even bother to ask which role the director wanted him to play in “Blue Jasmine.” The actor said he was interested.

But then Sarsgaard was asked to play the abusive husband of the world’s most celebrated porn star in “Lovelace,” and the actor hesitated, even though it was a much bigger role than “Blue Jasmine” and could put him into awards contention at the end of the year.

It wasn’t until his wife, actress Maggie Gyllenhaal, insisted that he take the role that he changed his mind.

As a result, Sarsgaard has two movies opening this month – “Blue Jasmine” and “Lovelace.”

The 42-year-old actor explains why he jumped at the chance to work with Woody but was terrified to accept the juicier role in “Lovelace.” Sarsgaard, who works steadily in films such as “Shattered Glass,” “Boys Don’t Cry” and “Jarhead,” also will tell us why he suddenly made a career departure by taking the role of a death-row inmate on the cable TV series “The Killing.” Finally, the actor will attempt to make us understand how someone with such an innocent-looking face can play so many monsters.

In “Blue Jasmine,” Sarsgaard isn’t a monster but he’s still not the most pleasant fellow, playing a career diplomat who falls for Cate Blanchett, a woman on the verge of a breakdown after her marriage falls apart. She was the wife of a Bernard Madoff-like character (played by Alec Baldwin) who not only swindled his clients but stole his wife’s comfortable life.

“Lovelace” tells the story of Linda Lovelace’s ride to the top of the adult film industry, and is based on the porn star’s memoirs. Obviously, her memoirs have not been kind to her controlling and often-violent husband and manager Chuck Traynor, who died in 2002. Amanda Seyfried plays Lovelace, and there is very early Oscar buzz for a nearly unrecognizable Sharon Stone as Lovelace’s unforgiving mother.

Q: When did you realize that you could play bad so well?

A: Probably in “Boys Don’t Cry” (he played a killer). I’m not sure why I was cast in that film. Previously, I had been cast mainly as victims.

Q: How did playing a violent psychopath affect you?

A: There was something really empowering about doing it. It was my first taste, and I felt the power of being someone who demanded things of other people, who pushed people around and forced them to do things he wanted.

Q: Did that role change your career path?

A: In Hollywood, there are three categories of actors. You’re the victim, the perpetrator or the person who’s looking to solve the crime. To get to play the lead or hero takes in all sorts of economic factors. They bet on you like a racehorse. But when you play a villain, you’re given such enormous freedom because there are less people in your pocket trying to figure out what you’re doing. If you play a straight protagonist, you have to have the audience in your mind. There is an enormous responsibility there, and I really respect actors who do it well. There aren’t that many who do it well.

Q: Speaking of villains, what are you doing on TV?

A: It’s a great role, and I don’t really care about the medium. Adults watch TV; they don’t go to the movies that much anymore, so if you’re going to be doing adult stuff, you have to go to TV.

Q: Is there any difference for you as an actor between working on a TV set and working on a movie set?

A: The only difference in this case is that they’ve all worked together. There is this core of people who know each other really well. They barbecue on the weekend together, their kids know each other and there is a community there. They’ve done two seasons together, and I walked into a well-oiled machine. My job was very clearly defined. I did what I was told.

Q: And how is that different than working on a Woody Allen set?

A: Woody is really open to invention. He only says this once, but when I arrived, he told me that I had all the freedom in the world to do and say what I want.

Q: I’ve heard that he doesn’t say that much when he is directing.

A: He’ll come up to you and say, “That was not good. It sounds like actors saying lines. Make it sound right.”

Q: Were you saying his words or your own words?

A: We were saying his words but decorating it up in our own style. To me, that’s the ultimate in freedom. That’s why he gets these wild, off-the-wall performances out of actors.

Q: OK, that role is relatively small, but the role of Chuck Traynor in “Lovelace” is much bigger and showier. How do you view these two distinct roles?

A: I look at it like I’m a guy who makes furniture. Sometimes I make my own gorgeous chair, and sometimes I pound a nail into someone else’s chair. If Woody Allen wasn’t directing this film, I may not have made the same decision to take the role. But the fact that he was directing meant everything. You want to work with one of the great directors of our time, so you do it. With “Lovelace,” I had a lot of reservations.

Q: Why?

A: There was so much violence and sex in it, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to go there. It seemed too gnarly to me. I didn’t want to put my head into that world.

Q: So, serial killers are OK, but abusive husbands are not OK?

A: It’s more personal. The guy in “The Killing,” for instance, is a violent dude and he probably hit women, but he’s long past the point where he’s going to kill anyone or hit any women. That’s what made him so interesting. But, with “Lovelace,” I’d be pretending to make love to Amanda and pretending to beat her up, and that is so intimate. You make these bizarre connections, from one actor to another, and I didn’t want to do that. It takes a toll on you. It’s pretty unpleasant.

Q: And what changed your mind?

A: It was Maggie. She hadn’t even read the script, but she saw how conflicted I was. She tried to help me with my decision. She asked what appealed to me about the role, and I said it was the bravado. I miss playing a guy with this kind of expansiveness.