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Sitting in a vegan cafe in his Brooklyn neighborhood, Peter Sarsgaard says that he’s not quite a loner. He just understands them.
“I am very used to this point of view,” he says, citing a childhood that, owing to his father’s Air Force and then corporate career, saw him move again and again and again. “I have always identified with loners, not because I am one. I am just very socially adapted.
This story first appeared in the June 20, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“I was always living in a different place and meeting new people.…It doesn’t mean that I’m incredibly social or anything like that,” he clarifies. “It just means that I don’t have a problem with walking up to a stranger on the streets and shaking their hands. I just might not call them again. It might just be that one time. Maybe maintaining it might not be my strong suit.”
The subject at hand is ostensibly Sarsgaard’s character in the upcoming film adaptation of DC Comics’ Green Lantern. Dressed comfortably in brown shoes, light jeans and a navy blue sweater, with aviator-style sunglasses hanging from his collar, Sarsgaard explains that Hector Hammond, the film’s sort of tragic villain to Ryan Reynolds’ Green Lantern superhero, is a definite loner.
Sarsgaard, who turned 40 in March, is into the second decade of an acting career that now has him in the territory between best-in-class character actor and something a little more. He followed his breakthrough performance in 1999’s Boys Don’t Cry, with a string of standout roles in indies (Shattered Glass, Garden State, The Dying Gaul), the occasional detour into bigger-budgeted fare (K-19: The Widowmaker, Flight Plan) and at least one or two that straddled the line (Jarhead). Offscreen, he’s probably best known as one-half, with wife Maggie Gyllenhaal, of a sort of Park Slope acting power couple.
If loner is too strong a word for Sarsgaard himself—and it probably is for a guy who’s married and raising a four-and-a-half-year-old daughter in the heart of yuppie Brooklyn—magnetic outsider should do. When the conversation turns to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute gala in early May, which the couple attended, Sarsgaard sounds at first like a perceptive wallflower.
“It’s always wild to see that, this collection of people who in high school would’ve never spoken to each other,” he says. “The only sense of commonality is some degree of fame or wealth. It makes for, I think, an interesting evening because it is less homogenous than you would think it would be.”
Then he mentions that he saw his Green Lantern co-star Blake Lively at the party. The actress had recently dyed her hair red.
“I don’t notice things like that,” Sarsgaard says. “Maggie said something like that. She didn’t recognize her because of her hair. I recognized her instantly. I mean I didn’t notice.…Is her hair normally blonde?”
He laughs easily at himself.
A former co-worker’s dye job isn’t exactly an issue of life and death, but the fact that Lively is usually a blonde, in 2011, seems to the rest of the world a truth universally observed. In someone else, the detachment might seem a bit affected. Yet it’s easy to believe coming from Sarsgaard, who can alternate between engaging and inscrutable from sentence to sentence. Whether it’s the voice that seems almost always about to crack or the perpetual smirk in his eyes, you really want to know what’s going on in there. It may help explain how he’s made a career out of playing characters that come from isolated places.
“In a lot of my best roles, I’m simmering along for a lot of the movie,” he says. “I’m asking people, if they care, to come to me. Because I’m not going to them.”
This was of course true of 2009’s An Education, in which Sarsgaard literally played aloof seducer to Carey Mulligan’s British schoolgirl. But it was also there in his turn as a stoner tour guide to the hidden world of the Jersey burbs in Garden State in 2004 and, most unsettlingly (and maybe only in the first reel), as the Nebraska tough who eventually rapes and murders Hilary Swank’s transgendered protagonist in Boys Don’t Cry.
Though he’s done big studio fare before, Green Lantern is an altogether different look for Sarsgaard. Physically speaking, it took three to four hours of makeup a day to get him into Hector’s growing series of prosthetic heads, the largest of which topped out at five pounds. And to hear him tell it, his performance is an emotional full boil. (It’s worth noting that despite a June 17 release date, the film was being tinkered with well into May, which prevented press screenings.)
“The magnitude and the expressiveness required was like nothing I’ve ever done before,” he says. “In this one I come to them.”
Martin Campbell, the veteran action director who helmed Green Lantern, says that despite the makeup and hyperbole, Sarsgaard still manages to pull the audience into that prosthetic head.
“Somehow he evokes sympathy through all this because essentially he’s a kind of, he’s a minor villain of the piece,” Campbell says. “And that’s a hell of a feat given the task.”
Sarsgaard explains that he tried to create and maintain an emotional logic for the character. He lost more than 30 pounds for the role and had wardrobe dress him a size too big to contrast with the ever-fit Ryan Reynolds (“He looked like the David,” Sarsgaard says), who plays the film’s titular hero.
“I look at it almost like a writer…because before I was an actor, I was a writer,” he says. “I’m writing now.”
Between Green Lantern and a late-winter stint onstage with his wife in Chekhov’s Three Sisters, Sarsgaard has been working with screenwriter Marshall Lewy on adapting Christopher McDougall’s bestseller Born to Run. The book is a sort of 21st century treatise on distance running that traces the sport back to its tribal roots. Sarsgaard grew up an athlete, playing soccer at his Connecticut prep school and then at Bard and Washington University in St. Louis. It was only after giving up the game, he says, that he truly got into acting. Now a reformed smoker he rekindled a love for running about a year and a half ago and is logging between 30 and 60 miles a week.
Though he has entered races at the invitation of McDougall as part of his research for the project, which he also plans to direct, Sarsgaard says that for him it’s an almost exclusively solitary pursuit.
“Chris would say it’s in our nature to run in a pack because of persistence hunting and all that,” Sarsgaard says. “I guess it’s me. I like running alone. I don’t even like running with one other person. It distracts me.”