Peter Sarsgaard: ‘My generation was fixated on legends like Pacino and De Niro, so we were imitating others’

Golden Globe and Emmy-nominated American actor Peter Sarsgaard, 52, made his debut in the 1995 film Dead Man Walking. His credits include The Batman, An Education, Jackie and The Lost Daughter, directed by his wife, actor-director Maggie Gyllenhaal, with whom he has two daughters. He plays Saul, a character with early-onset dementia, opposite Jessica Chastain in the forthcoming Michel Franco film Memory, for which he won the Volpi Cup for best actor at the 2023 Venice film festival.

Congratulations on winning best actor at Venice. Is awards season a fun part of your job?
No [laughs]. It’s a necessary part of my job in the way that there are parts of everyone’s job. It’s especially good for bringing attention to a small movie like this one. But I’ve learned that it’s a machine that is well beyond my control, and it’s never been about the best thing. These days, the movies that are getting the attention of awards already have probably made a billion dollars, and have people campaigning for them to win.

In your best actor speech, you talked about the threat of AI to your industry, in light of the writers’ strike. What are your biggest concerns?
AI has a place in everyday life, I just don’t think it has its place in art. For example, I know a guy who kept trying to show me how great AI was by saying: “Look, I can go: draw me a Cézanne-style painting of my dog catching a Frisbee!” And now I have that drawing, but it has nothing of the human touch, which involves somebody learning how to do something. And, you know, the process of doing things is why we’re alive. I genuinely think humans want to be engaged. AI disengages.

Peter Sarsgaard and Jessica Chastain in Memory. Photograph: Landmark Media/Alamy

Your character in Memory is a man your age with early-onset dementia. Your uncle lived with the condition. Did that influence your performance?
I know that dementia is a condition where friends and family are almost more affected by it long-term than the person that has it. I also wanted to play a person and not a disease, as dementia was a big part of Saul’s life but it wasn’t who he was.

Who was your uncle?
He was really smart and ebullient. I’d love walking into a room when he was in it when I was a young boy – he was a fireman, he played football and was always up for a rumble. After his diagnosis, he still greeted everyone as if he knew and loved them, just in case he did. We think he had CTE [chronic traumatic encephalopathy] which developed into dementia from playing contact sports.

You played competitive soccer when you were young too. Are you still a fan?
I quit playing at my university because of head injuries, but I still love it. I support Liverpool – I love Big Dom [Dominik Szoboszlai] and Trent [Alexander-Arnold], who’s really fallible and then he does something incredible. I’ve often made the mistake of working out while watching a game, and suddenly I’m imagining myself on the field. Sometimes on the weekend when I’m having breakfast with the girls, I also listen to games in my ear, then if everyone looks like they’re up to something else, I’ll run off and watch them on TV.

Which actors do you admire today?
Paul Mescal. His sexuality is powerful and cool, and I believe him so much on the screen. He’s very real. That film he did with the daughter, Aftersun, was a Mount Olympus of acting. Saoirse Ronan is great, too. I think that the actors coming up in that age group are so different to my generation.

Sarsgaard with his wife, Maggie Gyllenhaal. Photograph: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

How?
Perhaps growing up watching real things on YouTube or Instagram feeds has given younger people a taste for reality. My generation was fixated on male legends like Pacino and De Niro, and actors used to base a lot of their acting on other movies, so we were imitating others, which made what we did less real. That’s not the case any more, which is great.

Your wife, Maggie, directed you and Jessie Buckley in a sex scene in The Lost Daughter. You’ve said you’d recommend that to anyone. Why?
It wasn’t like it was sexy. It just took away the power of this thing that we all think is driving us all the time. It felt intimate, but not sexual, the three of us working it out together. I love working with Maggie. She encourages me to speak up, both professionally and personally. I’m making a film with her directing again next, The Bride – an epic love story, where there’s a couple on the run – where I get to act again with Penélope Cruz.

What do you do to relax?
Writing. I’ve written screenplays before, but lately have been writing little things that make me laugh, little bite-size stories. I also love ice skating. I want to go to Scandinavia, where they have thin ice skating after everything first freezes. You wear long blades and skate really fast and the ice cracks as you’re going – they have to go in groups in case somebody falls in.

You’ve been vocally political in the past. What are your thoughts leading up to the US presidential election?
Terror. We have to start attracting young people to politics by making politics look like something that works. The job looks ridiculous right now, like a joke. When I was growing up, there were politicians that we liked and didn’t like, but there was the idea that they were fundamentally decent. Politics needs to attract idealists a little bit more, rather than, you know, kleptomaniacs.

What roles would you still like to play?
I’d love to play a musician, or I’d love to sing and dance. When I first came to New York, I did a show with Meredith Monk, American Archeology, on Roosevelt Island. At this point in my life, I would probably play the older choreographer, sure, but I’m still up for that!

The Guardian