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Take Three: Peter Sarsgaard

Craig here with Take Three. This week: Peter Sarsgaard

Take One: Garden State (2004)
Including Garden State as a Take Three take meant two things: watching one of Sarsgaard’s very best supporting performances again and watching the actual film again. The charm of the former outweighed the task of the latter. Despite essentially disliking the film, Sarsgaard makes it worth seeing. You get no sad, woe-is-me moping from him, nor do you get “original” moments of screechy-unique arm waving. His character, Mark, a grave digger, comes from the ‘insta-best friend’ vault of movie characters, but it’s what Sarsgaard does with it that makes all the difference. He’s essentially present to take a face full of Braff’s woefulness. During an abysmal rainy shout-a-thon into a large pit, he's on gooseberry duty, forced to awkwardly stand around whilst Braff and Portman snog each other’s faces off. But Sarsgaard lingers with style.

Mark still lives at home with his mother, parties hard with booze and pot and steals jewelry from dead people. Like everyone else in the film he has additional personality traits that, per Braff’s MO, make each and every character come across as utterly original. But Sarsgaard’s the only actor who doesn’t make a self-examining show of them. Instead he absorbs the quirks of character into performance and makes Mark both likeable and grounded. 

Take Two: Boys Don’t Cry (1999)
Boys Don’t Cry is the first taste many of us got of Sarsgaard’s acting prowess. He’d been in a few independent movies beforehand (including Another Day in Paradise and Desert Blue for example) and he had played a murdered teen in 1995’s Dead Man Walking but Kimberly Pierce’s film was his first real flag planted firmly in the movie map. He was rightly lauded for his part in the story of murdered transman Brandon Teena (Hilary Swank in Oscar-winning form). As John Lotter, the central hateful antagonist, he couldn’t have been more charismatically devious.


John is a dead-beat, small-town jerk, but one that the whole social cliques revolve around. To get the part right – and not let the acting sink into lazy cliché – Sarsgaard has to draw us into John’s world, before revealing his truly despicable nature. Sarsgaard makes Lotter a raffish, oddly magnetic guy before incrementally darkening his personality. He’s instrumental in much of Boys Don’t Cry’s urgent increasingly uncomfortable power, as she shifts from amiable to repugnant, from wayward trash to hateful psychopath. He should’ve nabbed his first Oscar nomination -- yes, the one he's still waiting on -- for this film.

Take Three: Green Lantern (2011)
The lazy-eyed slyness that Sarsgaard has cultivated in the duplicitous roles he’s played over his career – Flightplan, The Skeleton Key, Knight & Day, etcetera– came to full and absurdly heightened fruition with his role in Green Lantern. He’s Dr. Hector Hammond, science boffin son to Tim Robbins, thus an immediate sparring “brother” to Ryan Reynolds’  Lantern. After being infected by the being called Parallax Hammond essentially becomes The Psionic Man, teleki-fucking up any lightly superheroic actions Reynolds wants to do.

Sarsgaard attacks the comic-book villain role with spirited abandon, exmploying a vast bag of eccentric tricks: loathsome twitches, clammy-faced grunting and mad-as-a-box-of-frogs hysteria. Acting wise, he easily lurches away with best-in-show honours, bringing a small yet unexpected element of poignancy to the role. To believe in Hammond's highly indignant revenge tactics, we have to see the personal despair and feel his inner turmoil. Sarsgaard’s a pro and carries it off with wicked bravado. It’s a great example of why talented ‘name’ actors should never be afraid to essay their craft in journeyman blockbuster fare like this. Anyway, enough for now. All this praise might just go to Sarsgaard’s enlarged head.

Three more key roles for the taking: Shattered Glass (2003), Kinsey (2004), Jarhead (2005)

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Reader Comments (16)

I actually wrote a piece on Peter Sarsgaard a while back, touching mainly on his brilliant performances in Boys Don't Cry and Shattered Glass.

One thing I found especially impressive about his John Lotter were the hints of self-loathing that he injected into the character, especially near the conclusion.

July 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRobert Hamer

i really discover him in AN EDUCATION and it's weird because i saw him in many movies

July 31, 2011 | Unregistered Commentercaro

He is such a good actor. How has AMPAS neglected to give him a nomination?

July 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAnna

Indeed, An Education was a great role for Sarsgaard. It was where I first really discovered him, too, though I'd seen him in Garden State before that. Now I find he's a very underrated actor.

July 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterHannah M

For the life of me I cannot understand how such a talented actor and who gives such layered, deeply emotional and richly complex performances in 'Garden State', 'An Education', 'Shattered Glass', 'Kinsey', 'Jarhead' and 'Boys Don't Cry', mesmerising in a few moments in 'Elegy' and ever so interesting in 'The Dying Gaul' and even 'Flightplan' IS NOT A HUGE STAR BY NOW.

He's even married to a freakin' Gylenhaal and is brother-in-law of one of the most famous movie stars of today.

He could be a three time nominee by now if I ruled the Academy nominations (2005 for 'Kinsey' instead of Alan Alda; 2000 for 'Boys Don't Cry' above the winner, Michael Caine; 2004 for 'Shattered Glass' instead of everyone in the category except Tim Robbins). And I could even make a case for his performance in 'An Education', much better than Plummer, Damon or Tucci.

August 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJorge Rodrigues

Except wasn't he the LEAD of An Education.

August 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

I don't know about Boy's Don't Cry, though. It was good, but there wasn't "a moment" where I knew I loved the performance. (Unlike Magnolia (hooked from the opening scene)...or Office Space ("Um........Yyyeah" and "I could set the building on fire")...or Rockwell in The Green Mile. (Faking a coma and coming across as more alive then the guy they nominated from that film.) Shattered Glass...yes and Kinsey...haven't seen, though Tom Wilkinson is the winner that year for me. (And I think he's nominated for Garden State, which I overall thought was an A-. Braff is no Mike Nichols, but he has a confidence in actors carrying the frame at least, even if all the characters are obtuse oddball types.)

August 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

I totally get what you're saying about his work in Green Lantern, Craig, but I still found his performance utterly repulsive just because the conception of the character and the film's beauty facism were just so repulsive.

ugh, i hated that movie!

August 1, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Loved him in AN EDUCATION and KINSEY.

August 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAlejandro

I love Peter Sarsgaard, especially in Kinsey. Although I hate Garden State. I love the take three features, they might be my favorite. I'd love to see one on Liv Ullmann, Amy Sedaris, Martha Plimpton, or Sandy Dennis.

August 1, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterty

Please do one on Illeana Douglass.

August 1, 2011 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtfu11

Nathaniel - Oh yes, he was often horrible to watch in the film, but he really sank his teeth into the unsavoury bits of playing such a creep. He's so good at getting under the skin of his 'bad' characters and revealing plenty about them. I guess every aspect of him has to be horrid for it to work? But there were indeed problems in the film, outside of Sarsgaard, that weren't all that on the money. Although I didn't mind some of it.

Ty - Thank you for the kind words. Much appreciated, always. Those are great suggestions, I esp. like Ullman, Plimpton & Dennis ideas. I'll add them to the -to-do (to-"Take") pile and hope to feat. one or more asap.

/3rtfu11 - That's a great suggestion, I'll add her into the mix (and research on what films etc). Thanks.

August 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCraig

/3rtfu11, I love Illianna Douglas as well Grace of My Heart was on HBO the other day. She's so funny in Ghost World "mirror father mirror father". I don't think I could ever get the image of Robert De Niro chowing down on her face out of my head(yikes).

Craig, Thanks I'll look forward to that(I didn't mean to give you homework). I just went and looked at the previous ones you wrote. Anjelica Huston's and Harry Dean Stanton's might be my favorites so far. I could read take threes all day.

August 1, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterty

ty, GOMH was a film I always wanted to see based on the usage of "God Give Me Grace" in their commerical campaign. At the time I knew I wouldn't see this R rated film theactrially. As fate would have it we'd get cable and HBO during the late 90s and when GOMH came on I made sure to tape it. Having no idea whether it'd be good or bad -- turned out to be one of my personal favorite films of the decade.

I haven't seen it in ages and when it came on HBO again, I thought I'd give it a peek to see if I still like it, well, I still love it. The Music, the use of these actors -- I don't understand why movies of this quality about female subjects aren't made or just movies of this caliber aren't made often.

August 1, 2011 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtfu11

He's very handsome, one great thing he has besides his obvious acting talent.

Would love to see him more often.

August 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPablo (BOG)

Sarsgaard is definitely among my favorite, that speech he gives in Shattered Glass, the intense hatred look he has on his face in Boys dont Cry, the aloofness of his Mark in Garden State, the master of zen and mystery he exhibits in An education, I love it when he interacts with Molina y Seymour....Sarsgaard will get his day Im sure he will!

August 2, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterjjablo
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