How Peter Sarsgaard Learned to Run For His Life

By Dorri Olds 10/16/15

Actor Peter Sarsgaard tells The Fix about getting sober, his anti-death penalty activism, and the power of snapping your fingers.

Peter Sarsgaard on Psychology, Sobriety and Running
Peter Sarsgaard Photo by Dorri Olds

Actor Peter Sarsgaard has been everywhere lately. His current movies are Experimenter, Black Mass and Pawn Sacrifice, and TV's The Slap miniseries. It’s obvious that giving up drinking agrees with him. 

In Experimenter, Sarsgaard stars as the controversial social psychologist Stanley Milgram who conducted a series of what were considered radical experiments about human behavior in 1961. He is best known for his experiment on obedience to authority figures where he tested subjects’ willingness to obey authority even when it meant causing physical pain to other subjects by administering increasing levels of electric shocks. The test was staged, using an actor (played by Jim Gaffigan) hidden in another room pretending to scream in pain from the shocks. Milgram’s test subjects seemed extremely distressed while doling out what they thought were real shocks, yet only a small percentage refused to carry out the instructions.

Written and directed by Michael Almereyda, the cast includes Winona Ryder as Milgram’s wife Sasha, and test participants played by Anthony Edwards, John Leguizamo, Taryn Manning and Anton Yelchin. Sarsgaard gives a nuanced performance as the intense Milgram. Sarsgaard himself is also intense, but with charm. He seems to possess determination and integrity. This is a guy who is so strong-willed he quit drinking by long-distance running. Sarsgaard went cold turkey six years ago and, as with his solitary sport, the actor/runner kept going despite the inevitable pain.

The Fix caught up with Peter Sarsgaard to talk about heavy drinking, Experimenter, and the evil in us all.

Peter Sarsgaard as Stanley Milgram in Experimenter. Photo credit: Magnolia Pictures

While snooping around about you online I found your video about eating healthy. Did you stick with that gluten-free diet?

That video was about the elimination diet by Frank Lipman. He’s a doctor and a friend of mine. I’m not gluten-free but I don’t drink and I’ve been vegan for six years.

Did you quit drinking because you were doing it too much?

Oh, yeah. Definitely.

Was it hard to quit?

Yeah, very.

Did you go through depression?

No and I didn’t tell anyone that I was quitting drinking so, for me, it was interesting just to see how many people didn’t notice. I’d quite successfully drank without anyone knowing.

Do you mean when you were on the road?

Yeah, when I was on the road, but even in the company of other people. I would drink and just not tell anyone that I’d been drinking. It’s like one of those things where you know you’re hiding it but you don’t really know you’re hiding it.

You mean fooling yourself?

Yeah, you’re just sort of doing it, and the people around you aren’t snooping so they’re not really noticing. I was always very good at maintaining a certain level.

You weren’t a loud, happy drunk?

I think I was a happy person but certainly it takes some time to getting used to being a happy person when you haven’t got that fuel behind you. I think I turned to Coca-Cola for a while.

I understand. I’m on Diet Cherry Coke. 

Luckily Coca-Cola is vegan. [Smiles]

How did you quit?

Just [snaps his fingers] like that. I quit smoking on the same day.

Winona Ryder and Peter Sarsgaard as Sasha and Stanley Milgram in Experimenter. Photo credit: Magnolia Pictures

Would you describe yourself as a really determined person?

I’m a long-distance runner, so I just started running farther and longer.

Was it first for weight reasons?

No, it was because drinking was killing me—as it does with anyone who’s doing it like that. I did get thinner, but what I lost was artificial weight. It was always just drinking weight. I was heavier than I am now by a fair amount, probably 20 pounds, but it just went away when I quit drinking. I was thankful for that, but, no, that wasn’t really the primary reason I quit. I didn’t even feel that uncomfortable being heavier.

You look great now and you’ve been busy! Are you currently filming the Magnificent Seven?

I just finished that. I’m the bad guy [Bartholomew Bogue] in the movie. It’s a really fun bad guy—truly diabolical.

Like Ray Seward in the TV series, The Killing?

Yeah, but in The Killing I played someone that you got to understand. This isn’t like that. In The Killing, at the end many people didn’t want to see me die. I don’t think anyone will mind if Bogue dies.

When you played Stanley Milgram in Experimenter you looked emotionless. Was that because he was a depressed or detached guy?

I always thought of him as somebody who had a dispassionate view of the world, not engaged but very interested—somebody who is intellectually connected with what’s going on, and keenly observant, but not letting it affect him. I think in that way he was able to see the way that people interrelate from a very interesting perspective, one that didn’t have his own emotionality behind it.

Did it make you think about the Holocaust differently?

Of course. He was Jewish and grew up in New York in the ‘40s, so I know that he was influenced by that and wondering how this could happen; how an entire culture of people could follow someone so morally bankrupt as Hitler. But we see that all the time in various degrees. It doesn’t have to be Hitler. There are people out there that are as malevolent, but I think even in subtle ways in society all the time we see it. We’d rather just go along and say “yes.” Sometimes, like in [Milgram’s] other experiments, we’ll even disregard our own senses that tell us things are one way and see it the way the group does.

Peter Sarsgaard as Brian Halloran in Black Mass. Photo credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

Following along blindly?

Yes. I work with Death Penalty Focus, an anti-death penalty group—especially recently with the case of Richard Glossip in Oklahoma, who is going to be executed. I think it’s November 6. He was due to be executed a couple of days ago but it was delayed because they didn’t have the right drugs to give him, or there was some confusion about it. That happens to be a man that I believe is innocent. He definitely did not personally commit the murder. The man who did that is serving a life sentence. That man said that he was hired by Glossip. It’s very easy to say, “Glossip doesn’t deserve to die because he’s innocent.” Right? If you could see the information about him, I think most of us in this society would say, “It is wrong that he is being killed.” But a lot of people [think], ‘Authority figures Governor Fallin and the DA say he does [deserve to die] so we don’t question those people.’ [Glossip] deserves to be set free. He has not taken plea deals because he knows he’s innocent.

I don’t believe the guilty should be murdered either. I’ve been really focused on that since my first movie, Dead Man Walking. I was radicalized on that movie by Sister Helen Prejean and Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, and Susan Sarandon. It’s stuck with me for all this time. I would say the death penalty has been my primary focus, the way we’ve adopted it as a culture, something that is so abhorrent. I don’t think the majority of Americans would be okay with sitting in that room and watching the number of people we’re killing each year.

Glossip didn’t kill anyone, but [he supposedly] hired this other guy [Justin Sneed] to do it. Maybe, [but Sneed] was a crystal meth addict who was 19 and trying to get out of a death-penalty sentence. He managed a plea deal because he pointed the finger at [Glossip, in order to have his sentence commuted to] life. That’s not the way that I believe things [should] work.

There is evil in all of us. There’s a part that’s capable of doing something that is—“evil” is the wrong word—that is abhorrent, that is wrong. Definitely it makes sense to punish someone for that or for there to be consequences but I think that we’ve all just gotten really carried away with this idea that it [only] exists in the people in prison. “It’s not me.” So we get those people away from us.

It’s in all of us, all the time. Given the right situation, the wrong way of being raised in this world, all of us are capable of doing things that are punishable by death in this society. We should think of it as every time someone is killed, we all put the drugs into him.

Half the people couldn’t tell you what drug it is. Sometimes it’s a drug where the guy gasped for breath for an hour and a half before he dies. Sometimes we give him the wrong drug and it’s incredibly painful. Sometimes we give him the right drug and they go down easy. Would you be comfortable giving them the right drug? The guy who administers the drug, that’s just his job but every time someone is killed, we all kill him because we’ve agreed that that’s okay, either tacitly or directly.

Peter Sarsgaard as Father Bill Lombardy in Pawn Sacrifice. Photo credit: Bleecker Street

It’s no wonder we’re having all these shooting sprees, like the latest one in Oregon.

Yeah, [killing] is celebrated in movies like, “Isn’t this cool?” It’s usually revenge, right? We go, “Wouldn’t it be nice to rub out the life of the person who did that?” That same feeling is what made the first person kill. Then when you rub out a life, someone wants to rub out your life, and there’s a pleasure in doing that kind of thing. It’s something to recognize in all of us.

One of the main things I got out of being raised Christian is that all [good and evil] are in me all the time. I grew up believing in the devil. I didn’t believe that it was in a hole in the ground. I didn’t believe it was out in the sky somewhere. I thought it was in me, and in you, and in all of us, and I thought Jesus was also in me, so I thought I had both things. It comes in really handy for acting. It comes in handy for being a human being.

How so with acting?

Because heroes that don’t do anything wrong in their lives are represented far too often in movies, right? We see these people who, if they lie to their wife in the movie, it’s the hugest event that ever happened. How many men and women are lying to their spouses every day? It doesn’t make them evil. Then you have the villain, who’s not capable of doing one good thing. We know that if you were to meet the kid who later that day shoots people in the afternoon, and he’s drinking a cup of coffee and you’re drinking a cup of coffee, it’s perfectly normal that you might have a decent conversation with him. Then some other part of his life takes over and he kills people. In the movie, he’d be twitching and acting weird in that scene. We know that it’s the banality of evil. It just happens [snaps his fingers] like that.

Experimenter opens in theaters, on demand and iTunes on Oct. 16. Rated PG-13. 108 min.

Watch the trailer for Experimenter.

Watch a video excerpt from this interview.

Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in book anthologies and numerous publications including The New York Times. She last wrote about Laila At The Bridge.

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Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, Marie Claire, Woman’s Day and several book anthologies. Find Dorri on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.