“I once saw an actor kiss my wife in a movie and it drove me crazy, because he had his hand in his pocket,” explains a disbelieving and elegantly bearded Peter Sarsgaard. We are, of course, talking over Zoom, but we could well be at a lavish cocktail party with Sarsgaard cupping a Martini and regaling a rapt gaggle of pals with yet another fabulous anecdote. He continues to reveal his shock upon seeing fellow actor Maggie Gyllenhaal – his spouse of 12 years – smooched without her co-star’s full attention. “I was like: ‘That’s my wife’ and he had his hand in his pocket, like he was looking for his keys while he was kissing her! This woman is incredible, show it!”
Our discussion about the emotional intricacies of watching your partner get frisky on the big screen has come about due to Sarsgaard’s latest role, as that of wise and horny academic Professor Hardy in The Lost Daughter. A scintillating, unsettling adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s acclaimed 2006 novel, it isn’t just Netflix’s best chance of Oscars glory this year, but also Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut. In it, Sarsgaard’s character has an all-consuming affair with Jessie Buckley’s twenty-something Leda – a role shared with Olivia Colman – in a series of steamy flashbacks as Colman’s middle-aged Leda remembers the early days of parenthood with a mixture of guilt and glee while developing a whole new set of precarious relationships on holiday in Greece. Though his screen time is brief, there are definitely no lacklustre hands in pockets when it comes to the fireworks-inducing scenes of sensuality Hardy and Leda share. So what’s it like having your wife direct you in the most intimate of moments?
“I’ve been recommending this to absolutely everyone,” beams Sarsgaard. “I don’t think there’s any relationship that wouldn’t be helped by it!” Really? Sarsgaard chuckles. “The nice thing about it is seeing someone else adore your spouse. The way that these two characters connect is not just about sex, it’s about the mind. That’s really gratifying.”
Turning 50 at the start of 2021, Sarsgaard’s been a cinema staple now for more than two decades after spending much of the 1990s in off-Broadway plays and minor TV roles. His big breakthrough came in 1999’s Boys Don’t Cry. Playing real life killer John Lotter with a chilling normalcy, it led to a reputation for playing somewhat sinister characters and kick-started a series of solid supporting roles in everything from Zack Braff’s indie smash Garden State to war drama Jarhead and coming-of-age flick An Education. But it’s now that Sarsgaard seems to be truly entering his prime.
As well as his deft turn in The Lost Daughter, he’s just finished impressing television audiences in the real life drama Dopesick, in which he plays Rick Mountcastle, a no-frills lawyer trying to make big pharma accountable for the US opioid crisis. Sarsgaard also recently worked with another Gyllenhaal, Maggie’s brother Jake, on Netflix thriller The Guilty. And then there’s his upcoming appearance in The Batman, where he stars alongside Robert Pattinson’s Bruce Wayne as Gil Colson, Gotham’s district attorney. If ever there was a time to be Peter Sarsgaard, it’s now.
Speaking from the home he shares with Gyllenhaal, their two kids and pets – including Babette, a wire-haired pointing griffon who makes a cuddly cameo at the start of our conversation – Sarsgaard also seems to be pretty damn happy with being Peter Sarsgaard at the moment. Working with a wife whom he so obviously adores was a career highpoint, keeping him on his toes and helping him do some of his best work to date. “I knew that she would be aware of when I was phoning it in,” he confesses. “Maggie would know the difference between me really connecting and me sort of connecting.”
“I knew Maggie would be aware if I was phoning it in”
Filmed on the Greek island of Spetses, from the shore and set of The Lost Daughter the cast could see Hydra, the remote community in which Leonard Cohen made his home in the 1960s. Sarsgaard admits to being a fan of Cohen and not just for his music, but for the way he managed to turn being a ladies’ man into a high art.
“I’ve always thought of him as one of those guys who was a lover of women in the most deep, spiritual way that he got away with being a playboy,” he says with a smirk. “He’s the most admired playboy, the most revered playboy, but this is essentially a guy who had a lot of relationships with a lot of different women! It’s also the way he would take a knee during the concert, and he’d sing like you were two feet away from him. ‘You’re a matador!’” he adds with a cheer.
Above everything else, it’s music that drives Sarsgaard to create. “Music is my absolute favourite form of art,” he says. “I like it more than movies, acting, sculpture…” A personal hero is Woody Guthrie, the American songwriter who flawlessly wove activism into his output, managing to excel at both. “It’s the persona of the guy,” says Sarsgaard of why he loves the folk iconoclast. “He created a character that is Woody Guthrie, a vessel that could contain all these things. I’ve always admired people that did that. I think that’s why Bob Dylan went and did it the way he did. It was because he was thinking: ‘Oh, that’s cool to create a whole thing.’ A lot of musicians do that more easily than actors because, I think with actors, especially now, authenticity and sincerity has become so valued, that the illusion is less interesting to people. Our obsession with reality has gotten to the point where we’d rather see non-actors play parts some of the time.”
It’s the deeply professional Sarsgaard however that various nooks of the internet are keen to play a hero of American culture. There’s a theory going back over a decade that suggests Sarsgaard would be perfect to play Stephen Sondheim in a biopic of the composer’s life, due to their physical similarities. Sadly, at the grand old age of 91, Sondheim dies just days before we speak to Sarsgaard, so he suggests it’s a little too soon to be stepping into the great man’s loafers just yet. “It’s hard to even think of that right now, but I’m a huge fan. My family go around singing his music all the time,” offers Sarsgaard. “When actors play famous people, I’m thinking of, like, Val Kilmer playing Jim Morrison – that was who Jim Morrison was to me when I was a kid. I was like, well, Val Kilmer is the guy who sings all these songs. Right now I would rather see a documentary about Sondheim – a really good one.”
Like Woody Guthrie before him, activism is deep in Sarsgaard’s bones. Before the pandemic he and Maggie Gyllenhaal would regularly volunteer at a local Brooklyn food co-op, a rare, bracingly public move for even the most philanthropic of stars. “I love doing that type of thing,” he says. “I like these incidental things in a community that make it so that we interact with each other. Like, ‘I wouldn’t normally talk to you, but we’re both putting these boxes away or putting the lettuce back into the cold storage’ and it’s not going to be someone who’s necessarily from the same demographic that I’m from.”
The issue at the top of Sarsgaard’s political agenda right now though is women’s reproductive rights, with access to abortion currently under threat due to the US Supreme Court’s regressive and right-wing supermajority. “We’re just hoping to live in a country where women will be able to make choices for their own bodies and that’s totally on the line,” he states. “That’s a big deal.”
Sarsgaard might currently be smashing it on screen, but there’s an alternate reality in which he was never an actor, but rather a Premier League footballer. The beautiful game was his first love and he competed at the highest possible level in the US until a repetitive concussion at the age of 19 saw him bow out of the sport completely. “Growing up I always envisioned my whole life would be playing [football], like every kid, but I really meant it. I put everything I had into it,” he admits. He quickly became a fan of Liverpool FC and remains utterly obsessed, still considering former star midfielder Steven Gerrard his favourite ever player. Did then, the fact that The Batman filmed key scenes in Liverpool – which was standing in as Gotham City – totally blow his mind? “I didn’t get to go!” he sighs. “I was so bummed out.” He still hasn’t ever made it to a home game, but is at least now happy to admire the sport from a distance instead of taking part. “I would rather watch them play than be on that team, because it looks so exhausting,” he states. “That type of high pressure, high intensity stuff? Those guys are all just unbelievably quick and [have] so, so much endurance.”
Like the rest of us, Sarsgaard was addicted to the Euros last summer – where he was supporting England, of course – but was aghast at those who complained when the team took the knee as a show against racism within football. “How in the world is that controversial?” he says, shocked. “I think we should all be taking the knee all the time. I have no problem with it.”
Sarsgaard’s passion for protest was also in part behind his decision to appear in hit miniseries Dopesick, where he could share information about the sinister rise of OxyContin as well as the damage it continues to do to America’s most neglected communities. He first covered the opioid crisis back in 2016 docuseries America Divided (his episode was called ‘The Epidemic’), which had its roots in his own family’s battles with prescription medication addiction. During our conversation, Sarsgaard also reveals he once had a close call with opiates himself.
“I’ve had a near miss with opiates”
“I’ve had a near miss with it, where I was offered it once at a time in my life where there was a 50/50 chance whether I was going to put that thing in my mouth,” he reveals, once almost taking the pills that so many Americans are currently addicted to, as show in Dopesick. “Luckily, I didn’t. I grew up with everybody saying ‘don’t touch anything that is in this family of drugs ever’ and that was very effective. So there was for me, no cocaine, heroin, PCP… anything like that. Nothing that has been refined to the point where it’s like a chemical. Things in nature tend to grow at a potency that if you happen to eat it, you’re not going to die immediately!” Is there light at the end of the tunnel for Americans in thrall to opiates? Sadly not, thinks Sarsgaard. “I think for right now, we’re in a pretty terrible place,” he sighs. “It is not getting better.”
Staunchly liberal, Sarsgaard isn’t too positive about the future of American government either, expressing real concerns about the possibility of Donald Trump – who he calls “a destructive force on humanity” – returning to power in 2024. “Oh, that’s a worry,” he says. “I think it’s quite likely. The difficulty is that people’s expectations of what their government can do in terms of changing their lives are like people’s expectations in The Lost Daughter and what they think their mothers should be.” Sarsgaard shifts in his chair, the actor making way for the advocate. “The government is always going to be a deeply flawed thing that works way too slow and doesn’t address their problems immediately. But if you stick with a government that has empathy for long enough and cares about all of its citizens, 10 years down the road, you might notice that there are fewer homeless people on the street.”
Doomy future notwithstanding, Peter Sarsgaard bids us a cheery farewell with a wave and grin – not just one of this generation’s most vital actors, but one of its most compassionate, too.
‘The Lost Daughter’ is streaming now on Netflix