Peter Sarsgaard on ‘The Looming Tower’ + How to Protect Yourself as an Actor

Photo Source: JoJo Whilden

On “The Looming Tower,” Hulu’s miniseries adaptation of the Pulitzer–winning book of the same name that highlights the behind-the-scenes CIA and FBI tensions that led up to 9/11, Peter Sarsgaard plays the fictionalized (but inspired-by-true figures) Martin Schmidt. Schmidt leads the CIA counterterrorism department, and as we soon learn in the series, he’s withholding information from his FBI counterparts, including John O’Neill (Jeff Daniels). For Sarsgaard (now an Emmy prospect for the limited series), effective acting is about embracing and honoring those at-times questionable points of view.

What has your latest role on “The Looming Tower” added to your acting skills?
It’s always hard to tell. It’s all very cumulative. I make a role have something to do with what’s going on in my own life, always…. There’s something very dangerous about Martin Schmidt’s isolation. A lot of us live in a bubble of information more and more these days, and they get reinforced by online things. I think my character is in a kind of bubble where he only can see things a certain way.

How do you bring life to characters that you perhaps don’t agree with?
I always think it’s a good sign when I feel scared about playing a character. The solution is very simple: ease yourself into a slightly different point-of-view. Acting is all about point of view—having the point of view of the character, not the point of view of the director. Not seeing the film from above but seeing it from within, subjectively. Even comedy works that way.

Especially on “The Looming Tower,” your character has differing opinions from other players. Did you have to start convincing yourself of what you needed to think?
I understand the way my character thinks. It’s not how I’d hope how people in the CIA would behave—or any job would behave. When you’re not being listened to for years about a threat like that, and you’re telling people this is a real problem and everyone else is more interested in Monica Lewinsky, it can start to feel like you’re not only the smartest person in the room or world, you’re the only person who understands the reality outside. It’s destructive, potentially, if you get into that myopic a view as my character did.

Have you used Backstage in the past?
When I was first starting in New York, I got every Backstage and read every employment opportunity or every class that was being offered. I sent out 100 headshots like everybody else.

What did those first headshots look like?
Nothing like me. [Laughs] I think that’s the thing about a headshot. You naturally gravitate toward the not-real-you picture, you’re more attracted to this fantasy version of you. Of course, if you want to be an actor that plays real people, it’s best to present your true, real self. What you actually look like—not the picture your mother would pick, either. Have your spouse pick it if you have a really great spouse that sees you as you are.

What advice would you give your younger self?
Defend your point of view. That’s what your job is. When you come in and you’re playing a scene and you’re asked to betray your character’s point of view in the interest of the story, dig your heels in. It doesn’t serve their story, and it doesn’t serve you. You can play the function of a villain in a movie without fulfilling all their fantasies of what a villain is, and [you can] actually be someone who has a point of view that’s at odds with the hero’s. It’s your dancefloor. No one else has a right to step on your dance floor. If you led them onto it, they’ll never get off. I think one of the ways that actors frequently let everyone else invade their subjective reality too much is by talking about it. I would say let them do all the talking. Hold your cards close.

Is that a self-preservation thing or an artistic motive?
I would say both. I don’t think it takes much for actors to get disrespected, especially when they’re first starting out. There’s nothing people like to talk about more than bad actors and bad acting—but, of course, we’re all bad actors here and there. It’s a way to defend your process as an actor to keep it close. No one else can help you figure out how to do it. And I’m not talking about not taking direction; taking direction is when they say something and it gets filtered through this point of view thing I’m talking about. It’s OK to take direction. Direction’s amazing.

How do you typically prepare for an audition? Does that differ from the process you bring onto set?
Yeah, 100 percent. An audition largely was seeing if you and the director were two people who wanted to hang out together for the intense period of making a movie together and collaborating. Do I want to work with this person? Do they want to work with me? It’s not about your acting in that audition, it’s about being an artist, being someone who has an idea in their head. Most great filmmakers respond to someone who has an idea in their head. I do think it’s great to think about it as if you’re auditioning them on some level, too. It goes both ways.

Because you could walk in the room and get a not-so-great feeling about it.
And walk away. There’s so much power in doing that. Even if it seems like an obviously amazing step forward—bigger role, bigger venue type of thing. I’ve made that mistake a number of times.

There’s this logical part of your brain that says “This is what I have to do next,” and then there’s the emotional, hard part.
Is this a part that would be good for me to play? It may be good for them, but is it good for me? Even at the beginning of acting when I had no right to turn down a job because I had no prospect of any other job, I just stuck with working at an outfitter downtown New York City and subletted.

Want to act on the streaming screen? Check out Backstage’s TV audition listings!