Peter Sarsgaard on ‘Mr. Jones,’ ‘The Batman,’ and His Real Life Passion for Real Life Bats
From director Agnieszka Holland and screenwriter Andrea Chalupa, the dramatic thriller Mr. Jones follows ambitious young Welsh journalist Gareth Jones (James Norton), as he travels to Moscow to uncover the truth behind the propaganda that Hitler and Stalin are pushing on the eve of World War II. Willing to go to any lengths on his life-or-death journey, Jones sets out to uncover an international conspiracy that ultimately inspired George Orwell’s Animal Farm.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor Peter Sarsgaard (who plays Walter Duranty, the New York Times Moscow Bureau Chief) talked about why he wanted to be a part of this project, the experience of working with director Agnieszka Holland, how he feels about the debate over whether Walter Duranty should be able to keep his Pulitzer Prize, and the impression that he got from the research that he did about his real-life character. He also talked about what it was like to read the script for The Batman for the first time, how making The Batman compares to when he did Green Lantern, making a quarantine movie with his wife (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and their kids, and whether there’s a genre that he’d still love to work in.
Collider: This is such an interesting story, especially because we’re looking at journalism with such a microscope right now.
PETER SARSGAARD: Yeah. A journalist won the Pulitzer Prize for committing an act of journalistic malfeasance. I don’t think you need a microscope to see how fucked up journalism is right now. It’s partly because there are so many sources. There’s just so many different things going on, and it’s just impossible to be on top of all of them and pay attention to all of them.
And it’s certainly takes a very specific kind of person to be willing to risk their life in the search for truth. There aren’t a lot of people willing to do that.
SARSGAARD: No, absolutely not. And there was no social media, so there was no other way that this story was gonna come out. Even now, if you were to mention this Ukrainian genocide to people where millions of people starved to death at the hands of Stalin, surprisingly few people know about it. So in a way, he was somewhat successful.
When this script came your way and you read it, what was it that struck you about the story? Had you known anything about this?
SARSGAARD: I didn’t know anything about it, which is part of the reason that I was interested in it. Another reason was, obviously, the director [Agnieszka Holland], who is not just a fantastic director and I really rate her as highly as I do anyone, but she’s somebody who speaks truth to power. She’s somebody who has put her neck on the line for what she believes in and gone to jail because of it, and I have so much respect for her as a citizen and not just an artist. So, I thought she was just absolutely the perfect person to be doing it. We shot it in Poland, which has a lot of political issues that, in some ways, reminded me of ours, like how you get in trouble for telling the truth and the martial law vibe. To shoot it there, with her and with all of these people on the crew that really look up to her, telling this story that really has a lot to do with the people that are there. There were Ukrainians on the film set. Also, they have dealt with their history in a way that doesn’t always elucidate the truth, so I thought it was an interesting place to make it.
What was it like to actually work and collaborate with Agnieszka Holland as a director? How does she command her set, and what is the atmosphere like during the shoot?
SARSGAARD: The actor is everything. She’s very direct and incredibly commanding, in her easy way. She’s a very small woman and she just has a way of not taking any bullshit, but it’s not aggressive. It’s just the way that some people assume power. There are a lot of parts of filmmaking that I really respect, but it’s binary. Either the light is on and focused, or it’s not. With acting, what are we there to point the lights and cameras at, if it’s not the acting, and hopefully something interesting will happen. In order for that to have a chance, you have to create the environment where it’s possible, and she’s all about creating that environment where it’s possible. That’s what she focuses all of her attention on.
You talked about this guy getting a Pulitzer Prize, and there had been calls to revoke that prize, but it never was revoked. Do you think that it should have been?
SARSGAARD: In a way, no. I have second thoughts about Aung San Suu Kyi right now, with the Nobel Prize. We can look back, and it highlights our errors. It’s whitewashing it to take it away, if you look through the list and he’s not there. Maybe leave it on the list with an asterisk that points you to some reading that you might do. I got really interested in him. I’ve read this book, Stalin’s Apologist, and thumbed through some of his own literature. He really wanted to be a novelist. He saw a lot in World War I, enough to make him crave the cushy job that he ended up with, which was basically the docent to Moscow. Rich, famous, Bohemian artists would come to Moscow, and he was the one that would show them the cool, wild side that was that city at that moment. It was a pretty interesting place, if you could ignore the suffering. He could hold people’s hand and drag them through the city in a way that made it seem marvelous. Lenin and Trotsky were very popular amongst artists at that point. I don’t think they knew so much about Stalin at that moment because not much was coming out. And he had a child with a Russian woman that I think was his maid. He would have been kicked out of the country had he really became a proper journalist, and what’s what he told people. He said, “I won’t have access if I tell the truth,” which is what a lot of journalists say.
With all the research that you did into him, did you get an impression on what he might have thought of himself and his own actions, and if he justified them to himself?
SARSGAARD: I think he spent very little time justifying them to himself, but I think if he did, it would be that. He might’ve even said that Gareth Jones wouldn’t have been able to do what he did had it not been for his access that made it possible for him. He thought that the world needed someone like him to be close to Stalin, but who knows how close he really was to Stalin. At least, he was given some information. It was about access. It was about being embedded, as a journalist, versus somebody who actually goes out and finds the story.
Without revealing specifics, what was it like the first time you read the script for The Batman?
SARSGAARD: I find those scripts really hard to read because they’re visual. And so, when they describe what’s gonna happen, I’m like, “What?”! And it’s actually denser, harder reading than an Alexander Payne script, which you can like rip through because it’s just a bunch of people saying stuff to each other, with back and forth dialogue lines. This was long description action. I was really into the idea that Matt [Reeves] was gonna direct this movie. He’s somebody that I think is incredible at this kind of thing. And I really enjoy watching movies that have long action sequences. It’s funny, I’m an actor who’s rarely in them, but I actually definitely consume them. So, I was just psyched. There’s a young version of me that I put in the audience and I perform for him. When I did Green Lantern, I put a 15-year-old Peter Sarsgaard on the set sitting in a chair behind the monitors, and I made sure that he was understanding what was happening, having a good time, believing me, feeling me, laughing at me, and all that stuff.
When you do read or get a script to read for a major film, like The Batman, do you have to actually sign an NDA before reading it, or is there just like an unspoken agreement that they’ll kill you if you say anything?
SARSGAARD: A lot of times, you do. With a Woody Allen movie, they sit outside while you read it, and then they take it back. I don’t remember, with this Batman. I actually remember, when my wife did Batman, somebody sat outside. With this one, it was on Embershot, or one of those things, and it self-destructed. I did a talk show, right before COVID, and they were asking me about Batman, and I just ended up talking about my bat house, which I have up here. I actually have a house for bats on a pole, that has a lot of bats in it. You just segue into other things. I’m really, really interested in letting people see that bats are not something to be scared of. They’re dying out in great numbers, and nobody’s gonna like the world without them. For one, they eat tons of bugs, in an enormous number. This is a mammal that flies. There are squirrels that glide, but it achieved the dream. Come on, the thing flies. It’s amazing. It has sonar.
Does it feel very different now doing something like The Batman compared to when you did Green Lantern?
SARSGAARD: Well, it’s very different. With Green Lantern, the character was mythic. I’m playing a person in The Batman. The guy that I was playing in Green Lantern was as big as my imagination would let me make him. So yeah, it feels different. It feels different having kids that will watch it. Neither of my kids have seen Green Lantern because they were both too young when it came out and daddy looks weird. My wife wrote, over the course of an evening, an 11-minute movie, which she directed and I acted in, that we shot at our home here in Vermont. My kids actually did a lot of the other jobs, so they’re really into making little movies right now. They’re making a movie about climbing Mt. Everest, with the talk beforehand about being scared and not knowing how it’s gonna be, with little clips of them climbing. My kids don’t watch a lot of the movies that my wife and I do. I think Nanny McPhee is the only one that really gets any play, but they were inspired by this one. It’s actually on Netflix and it’s called Penelope.
Are you encouraging your kids to explore the craft of filmmaking?
SARSGAARD: Honestly, I’m just encouraging them to use their time in interesting, fun ways because every day is like, “What are we gonna do now?” Quarantining for us was something that came quite naturally. We actually have a house in Vermont that people in Vermont say is quite remote. We’re really, really, really far away from everything here, and we’re lucky that we have really good wifi here. There’s a part of us where we wish we were in New York participating, but at the same time, it’s scary. It’s all very scary, and it’s hard to know how to lend your voice right now and how to participate. So, we made this little movie, and it is a quarantine movie. We know people that have died. The dialect coach on The Batman died of COVID. I have a relative that died. We know people that are sick. We’re feeling it, and maybe it feels this way for a lot of people ‘cause we’re all in our homes and watching so much of it on television, but it seems so far away.
Is there a genre that you love to work in that you haven’t had the chance to do, or that you don’t feel like you’ve gotten to do much?
SARSGAARD: It’s funny, my initial impulse is to say science fiction because I like it. That’s a genre that’s not often made in a way that I would want to be in it. There’s not a Tarkovsky, Russian sci-fi thing going on these days. That’s my jam. I like sci-fi where it’s believable, and you can like step into it and it’s magical, but it seems plausible. And of course, I’d like to do comedy. I started off doing comedy. The nice thing about being typecast is that the second part of that word is cast. I get to work. So I don’t spend a lot of time, actually, thinking about what I don’t have. But it would either be science fiction or comedy, and it’s just rare that I see one where I think I’d want to be in it. Maybe a science fiction comedy, like Spaceballs. I just watched the Fellini movie Nights of Cabiria, and Giulietta Masina and I wouldn’t be up for the same parts, but I would have loved to have played that part.
Mr. Jones is available on-demand and on digital.