Peter Sarsgaard made his big-screen debut in 1995's Dead Man Walking as the murder victim Walter Delacroix, but his breakthrough performance was in 1999's Boys Don't Cry as John Lotter, one of the killers of transgendered man Brandon Teena. Since then, he's become famous for his nuanced performances in a wide variety of films like Shattered Glass, Kinsey, Jarhead, and the upcoming An Education.
If you have missed the ubiquitous and creepy posters for his new movie with Vera Farmiga, Orphan, let me give you a quick synopsis. After Kate Coleman (Farmiga) has a stillborn baby, she and her husband John (Sarsgaard) decide to adopt Esther, a deadly serious Russian orphan who wears ribbons around her neck and wrists and old-fashioned ruffly dresses played by Isabelle Fuhrman. But things keep going wrong when Esther's around... hence the tagline in those ubiquitous and creepy posters with the tagline "There's something wrong with Esther."
After a long weekend of interviews and roundtables, Peter Sarsgaard was kind enough to talk to me over the phone about his favorite horror movies, the Orphan protests, and much more.
How did you get involved in Orphan?
I got the script, and I heard that they were interested in [casting] Vera [Farmiga], and Vera and I have been friends for a long time and I immediately read it in a kind of different way. And honestly, first I was interested because it would be an opportunity to act with her a little bit. Then I met the director; he seemed like he was going to make it in a kind of interesting way. Obviously, it has excellent producers attached as well.
Had you ever been interested in doing a genre movie before?
I did Skeleton Key, so I've done it before. I've always sort of enjoyed those kinds of movies. I mean, you know, as a kid, just sort of like a good, fun, scary movie. I've always liked it.
What are some of your favorites?
As a child, there were all sort of like Friday the Thirteenths and actually I always loved Carrie. That one's so strange at the beginning. It's almost like an experimental film at the beginning. You know, even like a psychological thriller like Fatal Attraction or something, which I think this is sort of like, kind of in between genres in some ways. I mean, this is a horror movie, but it's also a psychological thriller, I think in some ways.
Do you think it's a descendant of or maybe an homage to The Bad Seed and the evil children movies -- Children of the Corn and The Omen and The Exorcist.
Right. I mean, some of the rest of those are... I think it's different when it's sort of like something religious or spectral or something like that. So I would put The Omen and The Exorcist in a different category.
Why do you think the idea of evil, sociopathic children is so scary to people in movies and literature?
I think it's because children aren't like that, and because we have such open hearts for them. I guess we feel vulnerable toward them. They are sort of little gurus when they come out of your belly, you know? They control everything that goes on around them in a lot of ways.
Your character is definitely more empathetic towards Esther, so that must have been easier than if you were playing Vera's character.
Absolutely. It felt completely natural to me to protect the child. I would never even... I think my character, there's almost no point in the story that I ever, you know, I almost come to a point where I think, she needs to go, you know? I spend almost the entire movie just believing in her, as you would; she's just a kid.
What do you think about some of the protests by adoption advocates of Orphan?
What are the protests exactly? What do they say?
Well, specifically the line that was in the trailer, that's also in the movie but ended up being cut from the trailer, where Esther says, "It must be hard to love an adopted child as much as your own." And also how easy it is for the Colemans to just sort of go in and adopt her from an orphanage and such.
Well, it's not that type of movie, right? I guess, if the idea is that it's going to scare people [away] from adopting a child, that seems like a silly argument to me, because anyone who has decided not to adopt a child after seeing this movie probably shouldn't have adopted one in the first place. If they're trying to protect, you know, orphans, I don't think it's going to affect the rate of adoption or something like that. Sometimes people do things for publicity, also.
Yeah, it definitely brings attention to your cause.
It never hurts the fortunes of a movie.
Warner Brothers definitely directly responded to the complaints...
But [if] their goal is to have people not see the movie or boycott the movie, that obviously always has the opposite effect. It must not be their intention.
Is it hard to shake off being on the set of a movie like this and just go home at night?
Not at all. I mean, you're acting with kids, and most of the time it's just everyone's goofing around and it's actually... you don't feel anything... the stuff that you're feeling watching the movie is certainly not something my character feels when I'm acting in the movie. My character isn't in a horror movie.
He has no idea.
Well, I just don't believe in any of that [about Esther, in the movie]. [laughs]... you know, I'm trying to make my wife happy and [I'm] really spending most of the movie trying to do things that will ultimately make her happy and our family happy and adopting a kid is unfortunately one of those things. If anything, the movie shows that the idea of adopting a child or having a child in order to make yourself feel better is a bad idea. I mean, that's ultimately the tragic flaw of the whole thing; that's what causes everything, is that we tried to make ourselves feel better by adopting a child.
So how different, maybe more exhausting, is it to promote a big summer movie like Orphan versus a smaller independent movie?
It's easier. I mean, it sells itself more. It's very tough to promote an independent movie. You're always trying... the doors are more closed.
The buzz is pretty big on An Education, which I saw and I thought it was amazing.
It's great, isn't it?
How did you manage to pull off making your character so charming so that everyone feels like it's okay for David to be in this relationship with such a younger woman?
Well, he's young, isn't he? I mean, he might be my age but there's something about him that's quite youthful. He's just a dreamer. I think that there's something attractive about that. It's an unusual relationship; it's just not the normal kind of... even if someone were to tell you what the movie was about, that it was an older man and a younger girl, your idea of how that might look is not what the movie looks like. So what I like about it is, it's a very specific story. It's not just the story of an older man and a younger girl. There's some real detail to it, and that's really from the writing. Nick Hornby is such an extraordinary writer. I've never been so faithful to the dialogue as I was in that movie... I don't think I changed one line.
Did you change anything in Orphan?
It's a different... you know, Orphan is a movie where the concept was really the bulk of the work with the writing of it. Just coming up with the idea of the story is the thing. It's like the movie that someone can get excited about in a pitch if you told them what it was about, versus An Education, if somebody tried to pitch it without having written it, you'd be like, "Eh, that sounds like a movie that I've seen before." It's different, the way they're made.
So what have you got lined up next?
I'm looking for something... My wife [Maggie Gyllenhaal] is working right now; we take turns... Actually starting about right now, because she's not done until the end of August, I'm starting to look at things I might do in the fall. But the way that we've got it organized in our family, we try not to work at the same time, so I'm just now starting to look around. I think I'd like to do a film. I've been offered a couple of plays recently... I guess I'm clear that I'm not going to do a play next. That's about all I know.