“You’re trying to create a sense that everything is really still fresh, in the present, and alive, and trying to piece together a narrative based off of lots of disparate things.” – Peter Sarsgaard on Acting
On the CBS All Access series Interrogation, actor Peter Sarsgaard stars as a homicide detective that interrogates the principals involved with a brutal murder. As the title suggests, the show takes place almost entirely in interrogation rooms, meaning the show has a non-linear structure (except for the finale, episodes can be watched in any order). It makes it a challenge for an actor to portray a character who isn’t acting in a series that has a traditional beginning or order. In an interview about the series with Assignment X, Sarsgaard speaks about the challenges of playing a homicide detective in the series and how it differs from his performance as a murder in one of his most famous roles in Boys Don’t Cry.
Sarsgaard explains that he did not meet with the person who inspired the character, but he did meet with homicide detectives to do research on them and their profession. He says:
“It’s interesting to be somebody who comes in when [the murder] is still fresh, but there’s still some kind of running around after the people. There’s something about that that felt very interesting in terms of acting for me. Because that’s sort of what it feels like to be an actor. You’re trying to create a sense that everything is really still fresh, in the present, and alive, and trying to piece together a narrative based off of lots of disparate things. I remember one of the first things that I told everybody I wanted was a really nice pair of shoes. I was like, ‘I really love the idea of wearing a nice pair of shoes, and walking through a crime scene, and what that would feel like.’ So obviously, I wasn’t thinking much about anybody that this was inspired by, even when I was doing that. I wasn’t thinking, ‘Oh, because So-and-So wore a nice pair of shoes …’ I really spent, I would say, zero time thinking about anyone else other than the story that we were trying to create, what would serve that best, and what would serve me best.”
The interviewer references Sarsgaard’s role in the 1999 drama Boys Don’t Cry as John Lotter, who raped and murdered a trans character portrayed by Hilary Swank. Sarsgaard points out that as awful as a person Lotter was, he enjoyed performing as him because it represents someone who is so different than he is. He explains:
“The character in Boys Don’t Cry felt just very animal to me, so it was actually really fun to play, because nothing ever went through my brain, do you know what I mean? I was talking to someone about this cat that I have that’s dying, and he’s just so needy, and they were like, ‘Yeah, because people when they’re dying, there’s still an element of like, ‘I don’t want to put you out. But a cat when it’s dying is like, ‘I need it, and the food, and you,’ and won’t get off of you.’ And I think that’s what the character of John Lotter felt like to me, he felt like an animal that was sinking, and was just grabbing at anything. Now [Russell], yeah, everything does go through his mind a bit more. I wouldn’t call him an intellectual, but he’s thinking about it a lot more. Yeah, it is more difficult. The brain gets in the way of acting a lot of the time.”
Speaking of that dying cat (sadly) and portraying a character that feels “animal,” Sarsgaard points out that he sometimes looks to animals for inspiration in his acting. He explains, “All the time. Many actors do. That’s a thing you do in acting school. I’d say there have been characters where I only thought about animals” [Laughs]
When it comes to acting on a non-linear series, Sarsgaard says that even if he can’t read the scripts for the entire series or know when events happen in sequence, he needs to be aware of his character’s arc. He says that he needs to know “Character stuff and relationships between other people. And I would know the whole script, although it was frequently being written as we went. But I would know the basic outline of it, so I my relationship with Kyle is one that I obviously kept track of. My relationship with my wife, I kept track of. My relationship with my father. I’d be like, ‘How much has my father lost his mind at this point, or not? How much of my daily routine is spent taking care of him, or not?’”