FLIGHTPLAN - Q&A with Peter Sarsgaard
Peter Sarsgaard likes to keep us guessing. An increasingly high profile career has been built on brilliant character studies and somewhat surprising choices. And that's exactly the way he intends to carry on. In the next few months we'll see him play an air marshal, Carson, in FLIGHTPLAN, who is desperately trying to help and subdue an anguished mother on board a transatlantic flight, and as a soldier in JARHEAD, Sam Mendes eagerly awaited adaptation of Anthony Swofford's best selling Gulf War memoir. This follows an acclaimed performance as an editor in SHATTERED GLASS and a sex therapist in KINSEY, opposite Liam Neeson. If you want diversity, Sarsgaard is your actor. "You know, it's great to get the opportunity to try different things," he says. "And I feel very lucky right now, because I've been working with some fantastic people."
Sarsgaard was initially drawn into the FLIGHTPLAN project by his friend, the writer Billy Ray. "Billy Ray was one of the writers on this and also wrote SHATTERED GLASS that's actually how I got involved in this movie. He gave me a ring and told me that they had been tossing my name around and introduced me to Robert Schwentke (director) and told me to watch this first movie which was I thought so good at creating an alternative world."
He was also, understandably, tempted by the opportunity to work with double Oscar winner Jodie Foster, one of American cinema's true greats who plays Kyle Pratt, a grieving mother trapped in the nightmare scenario of losing her young daughter aboard a plane. "Absolutely. Jodie was a big draw for me," agrees Sarsgaard. "And Jodie doesn't disappoint. She has a fierce intellect and a huge amount of talent. It was a real pleasure."
Sarsgaard, 34, was born in Illinois and studied history and literature at St Louis Washington University where he was a co-founder of the comedy group, Mama's Pot Roast. After college, he worked with the Actor's Studio in New York and appeared in off Broadway productions including Kingdom of Earth and Laura Dennis. His first feature film was Tim Robbins' DEAD MAN WALKING in 1995. Since then he has played a homophobic killer in BOY'S DON'T CRY, starred as John Malkovich's son in THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK, a Russian sub mariner in K-19: THE WIDOWMAKER and drug user in THE SALTON SEA. More recently, he starred in the indie hit GARDEN STATE and the thriller THE SKELETON KEY.
Directed by Robert Schwentke (who helmed the highly acclaimed TATTOO), FLIGHTPLAN is a psychological thriller set inside the claustrophobic confines of an airliner travelling from Europe to America. Kyle Pratt is a grieving widow travelling home to the States with the coffin containing the body of her husband and at her side is their six-year-old daughter, Julia (Marlene Lawston), who, like her mother, is still in shock after his sudden death. After Kyle drifts off into brief, fit full sleep, she wakes to find that her daughter is missing - assuming, at first, that Julia, is playing elsewhere on the plane. When she begins to get anxious and tries to find her, the flight crew and passengers claim that they never saw the youngster and Kyle begins to doubt her own sanity.
Sarsgaard plays Carson, a US air marshal on board the flight to protect the passengers and crew against terrorist attacks. He is then torn between subduing a near hysterical mother, protecting the other passengers, and trying to help her.
Are you a good flyer?
No. But you wouldn't know it if you saw me on a plane. But it's a combination of things including too many people. Just too many people are on one space you know, people are sick, people are sneezing, people are, you know, doing whatever.
But surely less of that in first class...
(Laughs) There are fewer of those but they are more obnoxious people in my part of the plane. Yeah, and you know, there's nothing like plopping down next to a studio executive because from New York to LA it is all industry people so it's like being forced to hang out with these people and also the thing about being a scared flier is, if you run into someone that you know, it makes it more difficult - it's a very private kind of pain and I don't really feel like sharing it with anyone - and then when someone starts talking to me I just can't even hear them you know, I just go 'yeah, cool...'
Did you meet some real air marshals to prepare for this role?
For an hour and a half.
How many flights are they actually on?
Not every flight by any manner or means. I can be totally wrong in this but I think there is a little over 3,000 or there were when I last heard, so they only go on high risk flights, New York/LA is one of them. They do sit in first class most of the time, they have a certain kind of a dress code, they have to look a certain way, not too slovenly, they have to look a little bit professional. You know they are not going to be drunk, or have kids with them, or be wearing a tight t-shirt because they have to conceal the weapon. So I have learned a lot about what they can't look like. Obviously in this movie certain liberties are taken will all of that because of the nature of the flight anyway.
After FLIGHTPLAN it's going to be interesting to see how the crew react to you on your next flight...
It's already happening (laughs). On the flight over they were like 'oh Peter, we're so excited for your next movie, when's it coming up?' I never know when my movies are coming up, I don't even know what month they are coming out in and so I was like 'I don't know..' and one came up behind me and she went 'September 23!' They're excited, so that's good.
There was a profile piece on you the other day which described you as a 'sex symbol for the cultural elite...' Care to comment?
Ah very good. Well, yeah, that sounds like a good place to be to me. I would rather be a sex symbol for the cultural elite than like the cultural dregs. (Laughs) You know, that always sounds like a qualified version of sexy to me - all I hear is the qualified part. Why just for the elite?
Was FLIGHTPLAN a good experience for you?
Yeah I had a good time making that movie. Billy Ray was one of the writers on this and also wrote SHATTERED GLASS that's actually how I got involved in this movie. He gave me a ring and told me that they had been tossing my name around and introduced me to Robert Schwentke (director) and told me to watch this first movie which was I thought so good at creating an alternative world.
Is that TATTOO?
Yeah and the thing about TATTOO is the subject matter, it's so dark that it needed to be in a different reality. And I felt like the same thing was true with FLIGHTPLAN -it needed to have its own reality. To me, the plane would be like different parts of Jodie's character's mind - different parts of the plane that basically this world was just her head and we were all in her mind. Not that it is not real but for it to feel like a different, strange world. And because of Robert's work with TATTOO I knew he would do a great job on this.
Did you know Jodie Foster before?
No, I didn't. She's great. I mean, you know she is all the things that she is in her movies - she always has like a blazing intellect in everything that she does and an inability to control herself in the face of what's unfair or what's not right. Talking to her sometimes, I used to think she's just what politics needs. Wouldn't it be great if politicians said what they really felt?
Did it help that you had worked with Billy Ray before and would you like to work with him again?
I would love to work with Billy Ray again. Billy Ray and I are opposites - he is a linear thinker. He is very logical about what should happen and I always throw logic to the wind and it is nice to have someone who goes in a different direction, so we work well together. I think that's why we worked well together on SHATTERED GLASS. On FLIGHTPLAN, there was a lot of healthy discussion and I enjoy that. I always get upset if I say to a director 'this doesn't make any sense..' and then I try to explain it and then they cut me off and go 'I don't really care what you think..' Billy Ray never does that and neither did Robert.
Do you need that people to be like that in life also?
I try to surround myself with people that are honest and I try to be honest with them, if that's what you mean. Obviously I'm surrounded by a lot of actors in my private life and we all try to be very clear and honest with each other about our work and not dwell on the negative. Because the reaction to the movie to me is incidental to the craft of acting. I'm proud (of what I do) and I like it when people praise me and I do listen when people have negative things to say, but in a way, it's besides the point, unless it's constructive and interesting and you can use it for next time, it's meaningless.
You've played good guys and bad guys. Any preferences?
The thing with Hollywood is that they like to understand the hero, he has to be like an open book and we have to know every single thought that comes out of their head because we don't want to lose being inside of them for one minute. And I have to say that kind of hero I'm not particularly interested in playing. I like it when things aren't so black and white. Like Taxi Driver, is that guy a good guy or a bad guy or is he is goodish bad guy? And I think that to me is the thing I'm most interested in. I want to play a guy who may be heroic but also might cheat on his wife, who might try to apologise for that but then she dumps him anyway. All sorts of things exist in our world that are neither good nor bad, they just exist.
You've said that you believe that filmmaking should be a collaboration. What was Robert like in this way?
Robert is a great combinationist, Robert is obviously a very technical director. I am acting with some machinery here, we have like the camera goes round in circles, went around in circles so fast it, the dolly and camera came off from force so there is that aspect of it to deal with and he deals with it expertly. But then Robert also understands that being technical for me is a compromise you know and that following the camera instead of the camera following me is a compromise in some way for me. But he is a collaborator, we talked about everything and he made it such a joyful experience. He really was a joy to work with and I would definitely work with him again. And he has a lot of interesting ideas about other movies that he wants to make.
In FLIGHTPLAN, you get to act a lot opposite Jodie Foster. She's one of the icons of modern cinema so was that intimidating at all?
You know, she's just the smartest and nicest woman. And it was just great working with her. You know, with my character and hers there are the twists and turns of this plot, understanding what is happening at any point in the script. You know, what does her character know? What does my character know? And what does Sean (Bean) know? It was very confusing at times (laughs). I would have to have it explained to me. I would be like 'what happened?' Oh right! And then I would be like 'maybe I should read the script again!' It's story with these fantastic twists and turns but throughout it all, it was just great to be acting with such fine people, especially Jodie. She's brilliant.
What was the most difficult sequence to shoot in the whole movie?
The gas masks coming down. The reset on those gas masks was like forever and then you would have to have all of those extras organised again. And there were so many extras and when the masks come down all hell is breaking lose and one would forget to act or react too soon. So it was challenging to get them to do it right at the same time. But I give a lot of credit to those extras because they sat in the same seats for three months and we're not allowed to leave the plane - and yes they were in coach! (Laughs)
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