Peter Sarsgaard on 'The Killing,' Death Row and Woody Allen

'Coming up is some of the best acting I've done in my life,' says the actor

Peter Sarsgaard as Ray Seward on 'The Killing'
Frank Ockenfels/AMC
Peter Sarsgaard as Ray Seward on 'The Killing'
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"I have to tell you – coming up in a few episodes is some of the best acting I have ever done in my life," Peter Sarsgaard told Rolling Stone in a recent interview. He was talking about his role on the new season of The Killing, where he plays Ray Seward, a cold-eyed man imprisoned, perhaps wrongfully, for the brutal murder of his wife. He sits on death row, a month out from his execution, and the show's heroine, Mireille Enos, is on a timeline to prove him innocent or not. Unlike the typical movie trope of an innocent man sitting wide eyed on death row awaiting a call from the governor, Seward is not particularly likeable. Instead, he is darkly thorny, shifty and more than willing to get his hands bloody, and if he is innocent of killing his wife, he is surely guilty of something else.

Seward's riveting complexity is due in large part to the skill of Sarsgaard, a film actor who stepped back on to the small screen for the first time in 15 years to play the role. The star of films like Garden State, Jarhead, Shattered Glass and An Education returned to television to play Seward on the strength of not only the show's first two seasons, of which he is a fan, but because of the show's creator Veena Sud.

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"Veena is very daring," Sarsgaard says. "She's not very interested in satisfying expectations. She's an iconoclast." That works well for Sarsgaard, who wasn't initially hooked on the role, as he didn't want to play the typical innocent-man-behind-bars. "I am really anti-death penalty. I don't believe that even psychopaths deserve to be killed – not that I would describe [Seward] as a psychopath – I want to play someone like him, who still doesn't deserve to be put to death."

In Sarsgaard's hands, the character of Seward is a constantly shifting chameleon who would fit in on the set of The Shawshank Redemption one minute and Oz the next. "He doesn't stay the same – he really changes," Sarsgaard agrees. "There are many sides to the guy. There's the version of himself that he projects and the version of himself that he is. I found it like a constantly shifting target. There are significant things that happen to him during the journey that change who he is."

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"This season is so different than the other seasons. It took me a second to adapt to the tone of it. It's scarier. It's more graphic," Sarsgaard adds. To prepare for the role, he only watched one movie: "Into the Abyss is the only one. I was in Dead Man Walking, as the murder victim, so I watched Sean [Penn] first hand. But in Into the Abyss, the character – he's going to die in eight days. He's filled with fear. It's there, but he's able to carry on a conversation. My character does all kinds of things in which he's not thinking about it. It was very moving to watch that kid in Into the Abyss – he's not scared for himself."
 
Ray Seward isn't the only dark character Sarsgaard has been playing lately. His role in the forthcoming Linda Lovelace biopic, Lovelace, where he plays Chuck Traynor, Linda Lovelace's husband, is also painted in dark grey tones. To play those roles, Sarsgaard taps into universal feelings instead of specific criminal acts. "I'm not a rapist or a killer or anything like that. That's not what you need when you go to play something like this. You need injustice and anger. It's what I call The Unabomber's perspective of me against the world. Or in Lovelace, it's a guy who is so needy that he needs to hold her by the throat. These are all feelings that we all know. The feelings of jealousy and envy."

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Sarsgaard doesn't only choose dark characters, though. The father of two also has a part in Blue Jasmine, the forthcoming film by Woody Allen. "The character I play, well, he's a politician. That's pretty much all I need to say about him. He's a diplomat who wants to be a politician." The comedy, which costars Cate Blanchett, was Sarsgaard's first foray onto one of Allen's sets. "Working with Woody was very intuitive and easy," Sarsgaard said. "Not very many takes. He doesn't over work anything. It's very clear whether it works or not. I've worked with directors who try to get into what you're doing, who try to be you. He doesn't do that."

While working with Allen was a dream come true for Sarsgaard, so was working with director Kelly Reichardt on the forthcoming film Night Moves. "Years ago, Maggie [Gyllenhaal, Sarsgaard's wife] told me to write [Reichardt] a letter to tell her that I wanted to be in one of her movies. The way I like to act fits well in her movies. When I went to work with her, it was exactly like I wanted it to be. It felt real. In The Killing, there's a sense of timing that's in your head. You know it has to be edited to fit a length of time, and that everything needs to be sewn together. In a Kelly movie, that doesn't happen."

Not that Sarsgaard felt constricted by the confines of the hour-long drama. In fact, he compares it to shooting an entire independent film each week. "I really just enjoyed myself," he said. "We never had a frivolous scene. It was all small and juicy."