Peter Sarsgaard on Experimenter’s Surreal Science (and Beard), and Why We’re All Jerks Sometimes

Photo: Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

The excellent Experimenter is, technically, a biopic: it tells the story of Stanley Milgram, the social scientist behind one of the 20th century’s most groundbreaking and controversial studies on obedience. But Experimenter, written and directed by Michael Almereyda, is more a biopic turned inside-out: instead of recreating a life on screen, it tries to become a part of the life itself. What this means is Peter Sarsgaard in the role of Milgram directly addressing the camera, being trailed by elephants down a long hallway, and talking about his own death with the casual tone of recalling breakfast.

Treating Milgram’s story this way is a risky move, but it works far better than a conventional telling would have. That success is attributable in no small part to Sarsgaard, who gives one of the best performances of his career as the alienated, obsessed experimenter. We caught up with Sarsgaard to talk the gnarly beard he wears as Milgram, how he preps for his roles, and what buying maple syrup can tell us about our relationship to authority.

The first thing I have to ask is about that beard you have in the movie. Milgram had that in real life, right?
He had that after he became famous. I think the reason that he wore it was because he wasn’t comfortable with his own face and he had become famous. He also wore those glasses. I always thought of it as a mask. We even emphasized that in the movie with the way the beard looks and by having that scene with Abraham Lincoln who’s got the same beard when it first gets introduced. I thought of it as his reaction to becoming a known person, which I think was something he felt a lot of different things about.

The second thing I have to ask is whether it was fake or real.
Oh, no, it’s so fake. It’s almost so fake that it’s like a different reality, you know? I was doing another movie at the time, Black Mass, so I would shoot a little bit on Black Mass, I only shot like a couple of days but I shot a little bit early on and a little bit later, and there was no way I could’ve had a real beard doing that. Then we started thinking about it in terms of, well, this doesn’t necessarily have to look super-real because then we could spend our whole budget on making it look super-real, or it could be its own thing.

Right, because like, it’s almost taking over your face — it’s practically growing on your lips.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. It was like that for him if you go and look.

With Milgram in general, you give such a distinctive performance: you walk differently, your posture is kind of slumped, you talk with your hands like he’s punctuating his speech. What kind of research did you do, and how long did you spend perfecting that character?
I’ve never been a very good student, so I researched Milgram for about a year. I met [his widow] Sasha, I talked to his brother on the phone, I read books about him, I did all that stuff. I almost never do that for parts. He had a lot of footage of himself filmed, some of which I actually performed in the movie as it was. When I went to start playing him, I always do this, I opened my mouth for the first take and that’s who the person is. I don’t spend any time in front of the mirror or alone working on it.

I had met with a dialect coach about working on his particular way of speaking, because he was trying to be hyper-articulate, partly because his own accent at the time indicated not being an intellectual, and which is what he wanted to be. So this is a man who had a very strong accent who was trying to cover it with this kind of hyper-articulate quality. I liked that. To me that’s a mask, just like the beard was a mask, and I’m interested in masks. I worked on the accent, I thought about the way I looked a little bit. But in order to have any kind of freedom within the character, I have to let it go completely. I didn’t watch any more footage of him as I was filming.

At that point you had inhabited him.
For better or worse. It’s just what it is. There’s no, oh my god, he performed him perfectly. That’s never the measure of a good performance anyway.

I’m curious about this process of becoming real people. Generally is your process similar to how you create fictional characters?
It’s exactly the same. When I played [his Black Mass character Brian] Halloran, who is a real guy, I looked at his image. They called him "Balloonhead." I thought, This guy actually wants to have a good time. He’s one of those guys in the Mafia who’s like, “No, seriously, can’t we use all this money and have fun? Instead of whacking people, instead of coercing people or twisting their arms? Can’t we take a holiday?” He was the guy who wanted to go on vacation from being a Mafia dude. [laughs] I got all that just from looking at a picture, I have no idea who this real man was.

I frequently do that with other roles. For Stanley Milgram, one of the things that influenced me more than anything was a self-portrait I have of him where he’s wearing sunglasses. He has this beard and everything. It’s like the most iconic-looking self-portrait you could draw. I thought, he’s drawing his own mask. But I don’t know that these things are ever true about the people, I’m just looking for inspiration; leads. I don’t really care when they were born and where.

Experimenter is an experimental movie. It reminded me of a one-man play: the monologues, the direct-camera address, the fantastic elements, the obviously fake sets. When you learned about Michael Almereyda’s plan to make the movie that way, how did you react, and why do you think it’s so effective?
The film itself feels like a social experiment of some kind, just as you pointed out. I would never have been interested in doing a traditional biopic of Stanley Milgram. You know, where we tracked him through his life and his disappointments and blah blah blah blah blah. When I read this, the parts that excited me were the ways in which he was dealing with fragmented reality.

We all live in a kind of social experiment that has different levels of reality. In his most famous experiment, the person pulling the switches thinks that they’re electrocuting someone. The person being electrocuted is pretending they’re being electrocuted and has their own kind of reality going into that box by themselves. The person pretending to be the doctor has another one: he’s being judged by the real doctor who’s behind a two-way mirror. That’s another reality. Then we have the film being made and the people watching it and Michael standing there. I included all of that when I was making it, so that even when I was talking into the camera, it was like I was being in a room with a camera, filmed, talking about these ideas.

Even though it seems fabricated, those talking-into-the-camera scenes, because of the style in which it was done it felt very real to me. It’s not candid reality, it’s not like you captured me doing something I didn’t know I was doing, like picking my nose. It’s a different thing, and that’s the kind of thing actors are interested in all the time, right? You have entire movements of acting, like Marlon Brando where he’s just, like, living. You’re watching a man breathe. Then you have Johnny Depp, some of his greatest performances, constructing entire characters out of his imagination. They’re another kind of reality.

As an actor, you don’t want to always have to play sincerity. Or, like, a certain type of family-drama reality. Oh my God, my sister’s pregnant with a baby from a drug dealer, we’re going to have to arrest the drug dealer. You know, complicated plots that have to do with soap-opera family conditions, and that involve a kind of sincerity about emotional stuff. I like that this dipped in and out of that. It was more … not just cerebral, because it’s not just cerebral, but it’s got a trippy quality.

Since you spent all that time thinking about Milgram’s experiments, and the man himself, have you started noticing the effects and results of his experiments, and his general line of thinking, in the real world?
Oh, it’s just everywhere. It’s in every interaction that you have. You walk into a store and you experience it. You’ll say like, “This jar of maple syrup had a lid that was loose, could you maybe give me another one?” Oh no, you’ve already paid for it. “Yeah, I paid for it, but the lid was loose, and I’m not comfortable with that, I’d like to return it.” Yeah, well, store policy says that you can’t return it. “Yeah, but you as a person, if you bought something, and the lid was loose, and it was something like maple syrup — I just don’t want this jar, I want a different one.” And you go, store policy. It’s like, what are you obeying right now? Not what you think.

This is constant. Store policy, or anything like that, just following orders, it’s all the stuff my character says in the movie. The shit that doesn’t make sense. It just makes life more complicated, all because of some voice in the sky and not what we really think. It’s like when Americans are polled on political issues, and you see that the majority of them are against the death penalty, for example, but you just know it’ll never get overturned. It has to do with complicated things like the way districts are set up with maps to chunk up the vote with Congress, and less-populated places getting an equal vote and all that shit. These are things that we see happening around us, and we all go, That guy is being killed in Oklahoma! That’s horrible! Oh well, they … are doing it. I guess that’s just the way it goes. You ask people in Oklahoma about Richard Glossip, and I think most of them would say, Well, there must be something we don’t know! It’s a deference to authority that just exists everywhere.

It certainly seems relevant with Trump right now. I just kept thinking of him watching the movie.
Oh my God. Yeah. He’s certainly got the Republicans talking about very juvenile things.