Peter Sarsgaard is one of those actors who is so accomplished that it’s a genuine surprise when you realize they haven’t earned an Oscar, Emmy or, in this case, a Tony Award nomination yet. That may change with his performance in Hulu’s critically acclaimed limited series (currently), “The Looming Tower.”
READ MORE: 2018 Outstanding Mini-Series Contenders
Based on Lawrence Wright’s non-fiction novel, the 10-part program chronicled the events leading up to Sept. 11 and the competitive intelligence battle between the FBI and the CIA in regards to Al-Qaeda. Most of the characters in “Looming Tower” are real historical figures such as the former Chief of the FBI’s Counterterrorism Center in New York, John O’Neill (Jeff Daniels), Ali Soufan (Tahar Rahim), an agent who reported to O’Neill and Richard Clarke (Michael Stuhlbarg), a member of President Clinton’s the National Security Council. Sarsgaard is the outlier. He portrayed Martin Schmidt, a composite character who runs a secretive section of the CIA’s Counterterroism Center although it’s hard not to see the similarities to controversial former CIA Officer Michael Scheuer (we’ll get to that in the interview).
In the running for a Supporting Actor in a Limited Series or TV movie nomination, Sarsgaard jumped on the phone a few weeks ago to talk about why he decided to take the role and the possibilities of a second season.
Gregory Ellwood: What convinced you to jump on board when it came your way?
Peter Sarsgaard: Well, at first, I wasn’t. It took a while for me to come around to it. I think, at first I said, “No.” And then five months went by and then I said, “Yes.” I think it went something like that, just because it’s a such a delicate subject, you know? And it’s kind of scary to go near it at all. And the only kind of movies I saw being done that had anything to do with 9/11, were not critical in any way of any U.S. behavior. So, I just wanted to make sure I was getting into something, and it was obvious from the people involved, [where] they cared about the truth and about the nuances and detail from the actual events. Because I think what people are really missing from 9/11 are answers. You know, “Why did this happen? How did this happen?” and “In what ways did anything we do precipitate this happening or not do precipitate this happening? How can we avoid it in the future?” I said this to someone the other day, it’s like when someone in your family dies. You don’t necessarily talk about their heroin problem right away as having contributed to their death Maybe times goes by before you’re able to [suggest], “Well, this person had something to do with their own demise.” I think it is extremely delicate, and it took me a while to come around to it.
I think one of the things I’ve taken away from watching it is that people might remember the 9/11 commission report, books and different documentaries afterward, but I never remember anyone suggesting it was because the FBI and the CIA couldn’t work together. Do you think that was lost to history? Do you think that’s a fair assessment?
Yeah. Yeah. And I also that as a society we took our eye off the ball. We were more interested in Monica Lewinsky than we were in Osama bin Laden. He was a totally known character. It wasn’t a secret. I remember the day of 9/11, I was downtown and when it hit. I was like, “This is Osama bin Laden.” I remember knowing who he was, but it just like we weren’t focused on it and we have a very small attention span for problems outside of our country. Things that are far away, and of course, when they come home to roost, like 9/11, then it’s shocking. And we look back, and I think there’s some sort of cognitive dissonance that settles in where people just don’t want to think about anyway that we could have avoided this, participated in it or anything like that. I think that it’s worth thinking about, even if it might make some people mad.
Out of the main characters in the series you play one of the few that’s not implicitly based on a real life person. I’ve read you’re based Martin on someone else. Was that another reason you hesitated or was it always going to be an amalgamation of someone else?
No, I was glad that my character was a composite character because I get really nervous when I’m playing characters where I share their name, and everything and I’m somehow supposed to be them. Of course, I’m not. I’m just an actor and I don’t make much of an effort to be other people when I’m playing them. It’s more self involved than that.
What was your inspiration for this character then? What was your motivation for him?
I thought about him as honestly, first and foremost, a guy whose mind was never in the present. Who was always thinking about the past and future. He’s putting together a narrative about what people very far away might be up to. That’s necessarily somebody who is going to be more concerned with what’s not around him. And there’s some element that reminded me of being an actor so I started there. The idea of what I do, which is take these very disparate scenes in a script combined with my own personal experience and things I’m interested in exploring, and I make a character out of it, you know? I use other things. I look at people in life as you do just consciously and unconsciously. This was very similar. It sounded like we had the same job.
Am I guessing correctly that you sort of ignored anything that you could find out about Michael Scheuer, who I believe he’s sort of based on?
Scheuer? I mean, I didn’t ignore stuff about Scheuer and Alec Station and all of that, but it’s … I wasn’t playing him. They were not interested in that. Nobody was ever like, “You’re actually playing Michael Scheuer.” He was definitely a central guy there. It was worth thinking about. I didn’t not think about him just ’cause I wasn’t playing him. And I think they wanted to be able to do that because it gives us possibility for things he might end up doing. For instance, in Season Two, if we end up doing that, and we can take license here and there because the events of this story are so complex that they barely fit into Larry’s book. To compress them into a series, I think it’s nice to make some nod, even if it’s just with a character changing the name, and stuff like that. That this is not literally what happened. It’s not a docudrama. It’s different than that. Although, it does have a lot of detail, it’s never gonna be verbatim everything. These are conversations that were in private, that people didn’t see happen. We’ve re-imagined scenes, what people saidand all that stuff.
I hadn’t heard that it might possibly turn into a traditional series. Was that something you were always pitched at the beginning, or was it always “This is a limited series and we’ll see where it goes from there”?
A limited series, but I guess it’s been very successful. And so, whenever something is very successful everybody starts talking. I mean, there certainly is a lot more story to tell here. It’s not like we’re gonna run out of material. They could either go backward in time from where we were, or they could go forward in time. The day after 9/11, Al-Qaeda has never been weaker. It was not a universally popular decision even within Al-Qaeda, that they do what they did. They didn’t spike the football. They actually recruit more easily under adversity. Being the underdog. Being attacked. When we bomb them, they recruit. When they bomb us, they recruit a lot less. Al-Qaeda, the day after was quite weak, but then with Guantanamo, and the torture program, and the wars that we got involved in. Now, it’s stronger than it was pre-9/11. It’s worth thinking about why, and certainly that cycle would be worth exploring in the rest of the series. Either whether you go before it, or after it.
Did it turn out to be a creative experience you enjoyed participating in?
Totally. I always knew it would be creatively fulfilling. I wasn’t ever questioning the talent of the people involved. It’s just, “Wow, does anyone dare touch this?” was more the feeling. And also for the people whose lives were fundamentally altered that day who are directly effected by it. The people in the building, or trying to save people in the building, buildings. You want to be sensitive to what they’re ready for, you know? At least I did.
This might seem like a flippant question, but I have to ask. You have some great scenes with Jeff Daniels in the series, and you guys are really sort of going at it. It’s fun to watch as a viewer. Especially for people who appreciate both of your talents. Is it fun to be in a scene with someone of that caliber, sort of going back and forth?
Oh, yeah. I mean, they’re hitting the ball back with pace. You know what I mean? If you’ve ever played a racquet sport. You’ve played against somebody who is a beginner, and the ball comes limping back to you. It’s actually very difficult to play. You use the speed that the other person puts on the ball back at them, so, it’s very similar when you’re acting. You can only make a scene so interesting if you’re acting by yourself basically.
Alex Gibney, directed the pilot, and was one of the producers, but he had never done a narrative project like this before. He’s a well-known documentary filmmaker. What did you think he brought to the pilot, that maybe another director might not have?
An obsession with detail and the truth. I think he was always more interested in the natural narrative. The narrative that existed before we came there and finding that as opposed to imposing something on it and that’s the way a documentarian hopefully works. A many great documentaries have been made where people just got into a subject matter, started working around, and discovered it. Obviously, you can’t really do that when you shoot a feature film or a TV show, but you can do it in some small ways. Not have everything be too preordained.
Before I let you go, I just was curious, do you have anything else in this works?
Oh, yeah. This movie I did with Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem called “Loving Pablo” and I did a movie with Veena Sud with Blumhouse, [“Between Earth and Sky”] with me and Mireille Enos. Kind of all reuniting from “The Killing.” And then a film I wrapped up Saturday night which is a kind of surreal comedy. I play a guy who tunes people’s houses, like their toasters and appliances, so, that they feel better. You know, like, tuning the whole kitchen to a C minor to aid in their depression. And I’ve also mapped out the entire of New York City, what the predominant tonics, and tones are in certain places. So, I did that and then I’m about to go to Poland tomorrow to start filming this movie that Agnieszka Holland is directing, about the Ukrainian famine. Yeah, I’ve been doing a lot of different things. I’m gonna take the summer off and regroup.
Do you know when you’ll hear if “Looming Tower” will officially get a second season?
I don’t know when they’ll say that. I’m not that experienced with that type of thing, but all indications are that everybody is very happy.
“The Looming Tower” is currently available on Hulu.