In Woody Allen’s new film, Blue Jasmine, Peter Sarsgaard delivers an engaging performance as Dwight, a diplomat who is quickly smitten with Jasmine’s (Cate Blanchett) beauty, sophistication and style. Jasmine sees him as a potential lifeline, but Dwight is no knight in shining armor. Sarsgaard, who is noted for his range and ability to access what is behind the often complicated facades of the characters he plays, admits that Dwight is not interested in what’s going on with Jasmine but rather how she might serve to further his political ambitions.
In an exclusive interview, Sarsgaard talked about how he was returning from a search and rescue effort in the Gila Wilderness when he got the call that Woody wanted to meet with him, how he only read his small part but never knew the rest of the story, why he had to let go of his ego to play the role, how he wondered why Blanchett was acting so strangely in their scenes together, why he appreciated Allen’s economical approach to directing that kept the performances fresh, how they bonded as musicians, and his favorite Woody Allen movies. He also discussed the final The Killing episode, his upcoming films: Lovelace, Night Moves, Bone Tomahawk and Lady Grey, and why he likes working with first time directors. Check out the interview after the jump.
Peter Sarsgaard: It was an odd moment in my life. I had just been part of a search and rescue team in the Gila Wilderness area looking for the body of a guy I knew who had gone missing. Another group had found his body. He was a guy that I was researching for a project, and his name was Caballo Blanco (long distance runner Micah True, born Michael Randall Hickman). That was his pseudonym or fake name. So he had died. I got on the plane. I came back. When I landed, I got the call that Woody wanted to see me that day. And I was like, “I can’t see him today.” My wife was also very pregnant and probably three weeks away from giving birth to our child. So I had this kind of life and death stuff going on and I said, “Well Woody is going to have to wait until tomorrow because I just needed a day to settle my mind.” And I went in and I felt very calm. I had met him once before years ago for another project and he immediately was like, “I think you’d be great for this.” They sent over the pages to my house. I read just my part. I knew that I wanted to do it before I even met him.
What made you want to say yes?
Sarsgaard: Just working with him. It was just working with Woody. Just to experience a Woody Allen movie. It seemed like a good opportunity.
Can you talk about working with a filmmaker that works very fast and often doesn’t do a lot of takes?
Sarsgaard: I liked that. That’s the way that I wish everyone would work. I mean, repeating things as an actor necessarily makes them dull, and it’s tough. It’s one of the things that we have to do as an actor, but sometimes you’re required to do the same shot, not even the same scene, one shot from a scene fifty times, because they’re trying to get some camera move down. Woody is never trying to get some camera move down. If a camera move would take him fifty shots out of fifty takes, he just would never do it. What he’s looking for is lightening in a bottle. He wants it to seem like, to have the not-too-performed quality, not of everyday life, but of a Woody Allen movie, something that’s sort of bubbling along.
Does he give you any sense of what he’s looking for, or does he just let you follow your instincts as an actor?
Sarsgaard: He totally trusts in you to go with it. Maybe occasionally, very rarely, I’m trying to think of a single note. Mostly it’s binary. It’s either yes or no.
Were there any special moments on or off set where you had an opportunity to bond with Woody and share some special moments together?
Sarsgaard: I went out to lunch with him when we were filming one day. He and I talked about music a lot. One thing he talked about that I thought really had explained him as a filmmaker to me was he asked me what instrument I played. And I said, “Oh, I play the guitar. But I didn’t bring it out here with me.” And he said, “Well you have to practice your instrument. I mean, you must not really play the guitar if you didn’t bring your instrument with you.” So I said, “No, no. I play the guitar. It’s just that I’m only out here for a week so I didn’t bring my guitar. It’d be a hassle.” He said, “Well, I play the clarinet every day because if I don’t, I’ll lose my aperture.” That’s the sort of pad that forms when you play one of those instruments. And I thought that’s sort of like him making movies, too. He makes a movie every year. Otherwise, he loses his (laughs)…
How was it working opposite Cate Blanchett?
Sarsgaard: It was unusual because I didn’t know the story so I really didn’t know why she was behaving so strangely. (laughs) And I didn’t really ask her. I didn’t say, “You’re acting really odd. What’s going on?” She’s incredibly elegant and strong, and I guess that’s one reason why it was so alarming to see her so weak. But the person I’m playing is not really interested in anything that’s going on with her. So there was kind of a distance that I had with her all the time as an actor. We didn’t have a scene where we’d wake up and talk about Schopenhauer, even though that sounds like the love scene for a Woody Allen movie. There was no scene like that in it.
Was it difficult to work as an actor when you only knew your role in the film, and you didn’t have the opportunity to read the entire script, so you weren’t familiar with the other characters or the full story?
Sarsgaard: I had no idea the tone of the movie at all. But I think if you were way off, he would correct it. I don’t think he wants everyone trying to be in the … I think he really is more interested in people being in the present moment. That’s something that the entire way that he has of making a movie is set up to do. It’s like you don’t need to be thinking about the whole movie. You don’t need to think about anything else except for what’s happening right now. And so, he’ll say, “You can improvise if you want.” But he doesn’t mean like go off talking about your uncle’s refrigerator. He just means if you need a couple of lines to do [the scene], like [demonstrates by offering me a cup of coffee] “Oh, you want some more?” And you say, “Yes.” Those aren’t scripted lines, but you continue talking. You could say that as we were talking about the scripted stuff. So he’s looking for that kind of thing.
Does the fact that he moves quickly give you a greater sense of continuity as you go from one scene to the next?
Sarsgaard: Yes, there is that. And he has got such confidence, just the way that he operates. I always knew that in the movie it would be fine because he’s Woody Allen.
Sarsgaard: I was just so curious. It wasn’t really about enjoyment. I mean, it was perfectly enjoyable to be on it, but it was like every day I came to set, I was just curious to see how he worked, the way things were set up, the way that information was communicated. To me, one of the main things that a director does is create the tone of his movie. I mean, words are words, but the way an actor says them, the way it’s framed, puts you either in the world that looks a lot like ours or one that doesn’t seem a lot like ours, one that can be farcical or one that can’t. Woody’s movies have had so many different tones. People describe a Woody Allen movie and we have sort of an idea of what they’re talking about, but a lot of them are pretty different in terms of just style.
How does your stage experience inform your film acting?
Sarsgaard: One take, one angle, all of that really. That’s one reason I probably like that. I tend to lose my performance energy the longer things go on for, so I’m always best on the very first take. I remember telling a director once, when I did this movie called The Dying Gaul, and there was a big scene that required a huge event to happen emotionally, and I just knew that that story needed that. I said, “You know, I don’t want to have to do this a bunch of times so why don’t you set up two cameras and shoot it?” We set up two cameras. We shot it one time, and that’s the only time I did it. It would have been very hard to have matched what I did a bunch of times. It just was too hard. And so, I think that that’s what Woody allows for. And that way he doesn’t have to worry about continuity that much. Like, “Oh you were a little bit more freaked out in this one or a little bit less in this one so when we cut back, it doesn’t look the same.” He hasn’t shot that many takes so it’s all going to be about the same. It makes it easier to edit, I bet.
What did you learn about yourself personally in the process of making this film?
Sarsgaard: Well, I think I had to let go of my ego a little bit just in terms of playing the role. I was not playing a soulful person. You always want to play somebody who’s – at least I do – I frequently gravitate toward characters that have some urgency or soul. There’s something really vacuous about the character – something kind of elitist and vacuous and not intuitive – and that was tough for me. Even the way I look in the movie was tough for me to inhabit. I felt uncomfortable at first looking the way I did in the film. There were lots of things about it that were difficult. But I think just that Woody is so straightforward and so unsentimental that the one thing that I was sure I didn’t have to worry about was that my character would only be an idealized sort of thing. That was my concern after I got a sense that I was like a dead end and perhaps… I thought about what I might serve in the movie. I thought, “Oh, I must be like something where the audience hopes that she will be with me, but she’s in this crazy state where she can’t see reality or something.” And so you start to get a sense of who you’re playing. I liked that it was so unsentimental, and that I just drop her off at the curb. (Laughs)
That was a great scene. Was that difficult to do?
Sarsgaard: That was the hardest scene to do because driving like that is tough, too. It’s like I find it uncomfortable to drive and do a scene like that, just like it would be uncomfortable to be in a big argument like that while driving anyway. I would normally pull over.
Can you talk about what you have coming up next?
Sarsgaard: Yes, I have a film called Night Moves. It’s a Kelly Reichardt movie. It’s going to be in Venice and Toronto. She’s one of my favorite filmmakers. Lovelace is coming out next week. And then, the final Killing episode, the episode that deals with my execution, is this Sunday. And then, I’m doing a Western, Bone Tomahawk, in September and then I’m doing a French film directed by Alain Choquart in November.
Bone Tomahawk has been described as a Western/horror film which sounds like an interesting hybrid genre.
Sarsgaard: Yes, the writer is really incredible. It’s a very, very well written script and a very unusual cast and genre. Everything about it is really wild. I’ve been attached to that movie for a long time. And he’s a first time director (referring to S. Craig Zahler). It is cool. I like working with a first time director. I’m more likely to work with a first time director than I am a second time director. A second time director, first of all, it means their first film did well because they’re getting another shot at it. But a lot of times they have a kind of sense that they know what they’re doing which comes from one movie (laughs) and that’s difficult to deal with.
What’s the name of the French film that you’re doing?
Sarsgaard: Lady Grey.
And who is in it?
Sarsgaard: The actor was in L’Enfant. He’s a French actor. Alain is his name. I’ve not met him yet. There are two French actors who are the main characters in it, but I don’t have to speak French. (laughs)
What’s your favorite Woody Allen movie?
Sarsgaard: Broadway Danny Rose. I really like that one. I like Manhattan a lot. I also like Vicky Cristina Barcelona.