Peter Sarsgaard has played all over the place, from shy (“Shattered Glass”) to manic (“Green Lantern”) to killers (the third season of “The Killing”). But he says he’s closer — in a sense — to Stanley Milgram, the noted and controversial social psychologist he plays in the experimental biopic “Experimenter.” Milgram’s most famous work found himself exploring obedience to authority by having average test subjects administer what they believed were shocks to strangers. In fact, it was all fake, there to see how far they would go. Sarsgaard would never do anything like that, but he did relate to the way Milgram was detached and cerebral, which also describes the film.
This uses a lot of unusual techniques. For one, there’s old-timey rear-screen projection when people are driving. What were those like for you as an actor?
I’ve acted on stage. [Laughs] When you’re on stage you’re used to a different kind of reality. It’s like actors who’ve acted on green screen. They get used to that. Obviously the most easy to understand form of acting is two people in a room with working everything. You don’t see the camera and you’re having a conversation the way you’d have in life. That’s fun to do and actors always enjoy doing that. A Cassavetes film is like that, although there’s a kind of poetry in that. It’s not the reality you and I are sitting in.
It’s a heightened reality.
Yeah. Actors typically like doing that kind of thing. This I really enjoyed doing. I’m a cerebral person, but I always knew the film needed something else beyond the ideas that surrounded it. I was really interested in a guy who could be — by everything I read — so dispassionate about what he was observing. This is a guy whose background was a Jew who grew up in New York in the ’40s. Certainly some of the experiments of obedience to authority were influenced by what happened in Nazi Germany, for sure. But he never made that absolutely clear. He never said that was the point of his tests. There was never a political agenda. There was the dispassion of a trained scientist. I thought that was interesting to play as an actor.
He’s often literally cut off from the people he’s studying. During tests he’s observing from behind a two-way glass.
When he would come in at the end of a session he would say he’s the personal assistant — because he didn’t believe he was enough of an authority figure, so he would have someone else do it. Then he would ask questions. I thought about how those were moments of confrontation for him, and how difficult they would be for someone like him — to be in the same room as them, to ask them questions. There’s a safety to being on the other side of the mirror. That’s a metaphor for his life.
How deep a dive did you do on the real Milgram?
When I’m playing someone who was a real person it’s not like I’m cracking them. I think about what’s most interesting in terms of the movie or the scene. In “Black Mass,” the character I played, I looked at his picture every day. That’s all I did. [Laughs] Because it doesn’t matter. But with Stanley, I did a lot more research on [Milgram], even more than I’ve done with other roles, even other real people. In scenes where he’s interviewing people, I would feel the anxiety that he had about personal confrontations, even simple ones. Even with his wife [played by Winona Ryder], the one little fight we have is so massive in his mind. But he doesn’t express any of it. As an actor it’s a challenge to play someone who’s not expressive. But it’s fun. And I think it’s interesting. I know a lot of people need to have characters who reach across the screen and pull them back in. But I knew this movie would never be like that. I thought for the story and for the experiments, it was more interesting to go the other way. It’s more similar to me, to be honest. I’m not a wildly emotive person. [Laughs] I watch other people who are emotive and go, “Wow, that exists.”
You have to talk to the camera sometimes. On stage that’s a bit more common, but in movies it must seem particularly unnatural.
Well, he had done it. There’s a ton of footage of him doing that. I was interested in how he did. Because as an actor it would be very easy to turn that into a certain type of performance. But I wanted him to still be a scientist and have a different kind of relationship to the camera, to put on a certain attitude. I didn’t mind it having a certain affectation to it. In terms of breaking the fourth way, there are all these things that break the fourth wall. Kellan Lutz playing me in the movie [in a scene where he plays William Shatner, who is playing Milgram in a TV movie] is breaking the fourth wall. My beard [in the second half] breaks the fourth wall. The elephant [in a playful, early scene] breaks the fourth wall. That’s what keeps the movie alive. That’s what keeps the movie fresh. It’s not about wildly emotive scenes, and it’s not even about the ideas themselves. This is an experience that all of you know about, so we’re going to speak it directly to you.
A lot of critiques of his methods are expressed in the film, but the film itself remains agnostic.
There’s certainly a lot of criticism. There’s even social scientists today who say they can’t do certain experiments they would love to do because of what he did. In the landscape we live in, what he did seem pretty trivial in terms of his obedience-to-authority experiment. If you life was really ruined by realizing you were capable of doing something awful — to me the whole point of religion is to realize we’re capable of doing awful things, and then coming to terms with that and trying to do it. That’s part of life.
His experiments, though, do say a lot about not only human nature at its most base, but even about today.
It’s not so much these days that we don’t realize the intentions of authority figures are wrong. It’s not like we condone them. It’s that we feel powerless to do anything else. We’ve all thrown in the towel. I ask people who they’re voting for in the next election, and frequently their answer comes with, “Well, I’m going to vote for this person because I think they can win.” What would happen if everyone voted for the person they thought best represented their own personal credo, their own way of seeing the world. I don’t think the same people would get elected. Most of the time it’s what we think is practically possible.
Although in this election there’s a greater disdain for “typical politicians.” Everyone’s almost rebelling against the old type of authority figures.
The Republican party is certainly a lot of people saying their own personal truths. [Laughs] For better or for worse.
One last thing: You have a scene where you’re walking down a hallway, talking to the camera while an elephant walks behind you. That must have been terrifying.
There was a lot of trust, because I never once looked back. He was right behind me. I just thought, “I am protected. He’s not going to step on me.” [Laughs] There was one take where his trunk came down as I was singing and he put it up to my mouth, almost like a microphone. I kind of leaned into him. My kids were there that day too. I think it made me a hero in their minds for the next couple years.