Peter Sarsgaard gets inside the head of a death row inmate on ‘The Killing’

Peter Sarsgaard is behind bars on AMC’s “The Killing.” Credit: AMC
Peter Sarsgaard goes behind bars on the third season of AMC’s “The Killing.”
Credit: AMC

The third season of AMC’s crime procedural “The Killing,” which premieres this Sunday, has a new storyline, and with it a new supporting cast. Among the neophytes is Peter Sarsgaard, a talented actor who’s been among the best things in “Boys Don’t Cry,” “Garden State,” “Shattered Glass” and “An Education.” In his first season-long television stint — which he was still shooting when we talked — Sarsgaard plays Ray Seward, a sinister death row inmate who killed his wife.

What are the challenges of playing a death row inmate?
So much of my story takes place in the same spot. In a lot of movies, there’s the car chase, the scene at breakfast, the sex scene. This is about always going to the same cell. You have to find ways of doing a different dance on the same dance floor.

How do you keep him fresh?
We all wear masks. I was interested in him having multiple masks, especially because I had to play him over a long period of time.

Were those challenges what drew you to ‘The Killing’?
Those, and also because the issues interested me. I’m very much against the death penalty. It’s very easy to do a piece about someone who’s been railroaded by the system, who’s innocent. If you don’t believe in the death penalty, you have to take an extreme circumstance — someone who’s indefensible — to see if it still applies. Otherwise, the death penalty applies in some cases.

Did you have your ideas about the death penalty challenged in any way with this role?
I just don’t believe in it at all. I don’t believe in killing people under any circumstances. Very few people could name the last ten people who were executed in this country, or even the last 20, or even in the last five years. It should be the top news story every time it happens. It’s only the top news when they’re found innocent. A country that’s so Christian is so not Christian.

What made you want to work on TV?
Just this show. I always really liked this show. There’s a couple shows I watch, just like everyone else. Being a father, nights out to see movies are pretty rare. I thought this material was better than some of the film stuff I was being offered. It seemed there was more of a role there.

There’s much less of a fear these days for serious actors to do TV.
So many of my favorite actors are on television. Whey you want to act with one of them, you realize, “Oh, they’re on TV.” If you want to act with them, you have to be on television.

How is TV acting different from stage or film acting?
It’s really fast. And because you don’t know the show as well as the showrunners or the writers, you’re more at their mercy. On a film you’ll know the whole story, and you’ll go up to the director and say, “Oh, this doesn’t seem right to me, this entire scene.” And we’ll work on it or they’ll tell me to shut the f— up. There’s more interaction about content. But on TV, with a series like this, you just have to trust them. There’s something valuable as an actor, going, “Alright, I’ll just go with it.” It’s weirdly freeing.

TV scripts tend to be given to the actors gradually. As a TV newbie, is that terrifying to you?
When you get the next script you read it quickly to see if there’s any information you might need. I once did a film with Wayne Wang and Paul Auster, who wrote it. The scripts came in as we went. There was something really cool about that. In the morning you’d go, “What are we saying today? What’s happening?” Then you get the scene one day where it says “He rapes her.” And you go, “What? They thought I was someone who could rape people?”

Do you think not knowing something that important ruins the character you’ve worked on up to that point?
To me, anyone is capable of anything at any time. You don’t have to set things up. I don’t like when actors try to set things up. If they’re playing someone who rapes someone in Act Three, and they’ll look lasciviously at women during the whole thing — that’s pretty simplistic. Sometimes these things are just dormant or unconscious, and just crop up at a certain point. It’s always more interesting that way.

You’ve played a lot of nasty, weird or even psychotic characters. Do you try to avoid nicer roles?
I don’t consciously avoid anything. I like to work. I like to work a certain amount each year. It’s always a matter of what’s on the plate now? Do I wait? If I do this will that make it so I can’t do what I really want to do? I’m also dealing with the fact that I have a wife [Maggie Gyllenhaal] who’s an actress, who needs to work. We don’t like to work at the same time.

There is one very nice character you play: Stephen Glass’ suspicious editor in “Shattered Glass.” But even there, he’s a character who seems cold and remote for most of the movie.
To me that part was all about envy. I think envy’s one of the most destructive and powerful of human feelings. There’s this guy [Stephen Glass] who’s really charismatic and everyone likes him. You obviously want what he has. When you find out that guy might be doing something wrong, it’s very complicated figuring out how to take them down, because you don’t want to give into desire to take them down just because you’ve always wanted them to lose. There’s a noble part of that character that I identified with, the idea that he was going to try to ignore his envy and just pursue the truth, the facts. And of course he’s not totally able to divorce those things, and he’s at war the whole time. I didn’t think about being cold. I did think about not giving into my feelings, because my feelings would have been to go “A-ha, caught you, you f—ing asshole!” The reason he seemed cold is because he was trying not to display that disgusting emotion. Sometimes people act in ways for reasons that are not always totally immediately obvious. The projected feeling is not always the true one. The character in “Shattered Glass” is acting kind of cold and distant, because he’s trying to be a scientist, and not an emotional being. And this character in “The Killing” is similar. He has so many masks. It’s crazy. It’s the most amount of masks I’ve ever played.


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