Borrowing from baseball terminology, Peter Sarsgaard is a utility man. If he was on the field, he could play any position. On the screen, he’s the go-to guy who can play any part. Although he’s been working regularly for more than two decades, he’s still going for range when he picks his parts. That’s made clear when you look at his characters in his three most recent films. He was a shady snitch in “Black Mass” and a heartless villain in “The Magnificent Seven.” With director Pablo Larrain’s “Jackie,” a look at the devastating week in the life of Jackie Kennedy just after the assassination of JFK, he gets to play his first well-known historical character, portraying the grieving, compassionate, and steadfast Bobby Kennedy, a man dealing with the loss of his brother while trying to get his sister-in-law through the ordeal. The 45-year-old Sarsgaard was recently in New York to discuss the film and the man he’s playing.
Q: How familiar were you with Bobby Kennedy before this?
A: I really have always liked him. When I was younger we had an album that had famous speeches on it. There was one he did at Columbia University, with a Q&A at the end of it, and I thought he sounded like such an interesting, smart, strong person.
Q: What was your initial reaction when you were approached for the role?
A: I said no way (laughs). I didn’t want to play a famous person, where I had to talk a certain way. I knew I didn’t look like him. I like playing different characters, but I like to do it intuitively. I don’t do it where I’m trying to edge closer [to the person]. But Pablo said I could do that with this movie.
Q: So it was Pablo who convinced you to do it?
A: Yes, but at first I didn’t even want to talk to him because I admired his work. So when I was offered the part, I was like I can’t do it because I don’t want to be convinced by a good artist/conman – because all good artists are [conmen] – to be in this movie (laughs). Then [the film’s producer] Darren Aronofsky contacted me and said you really have to talk to him. I was out in the middle of nowhere. I have a place that’s five miles from electricity. It’s solar powered and really remote. There’s only one spot on the property that has a phone signal. So I sat in my car and took that call with Pablo, and he was super-convincing. One of the things he said was, “You don’t have to look like him, you don’t have to sound like him. You just have to embody him.” So I said yes.
Q: Was it difficult playing a character who was trying to maintain composure while being pulled in so many different directions by the people around him?
A: What we explored a little bit in the film was that sometimes grief brings out unconscious feelings. Pablo would sometimes ask me to say things and I would go, “I could never say that to her.” Then Pablo would say, “Yes, but you might think it somewhere in your unconscious mind.” And I thought, “OK!” and the movie exists in that realm. Even while we were shooting it I felt like we were in a Roman Polanski movie (laughs), that it was like a claustrophobic, anxiety, horror movie, post-traumatic stress syndrome thriller.
Q: You mentioned that Pablo said you didn’t have to sound like Bobby, and you don’t. Was there ever any thought of going for his exaggerated Boston accent?
A: No, because his natural way of talking was rather unusual. I did it so that it felt comfortable in my mouth. I could do the accent. But it doesn’t seem like it’s coming out of my nasal cavities. It’s gotta have my own voice in it, you know what I mean? And my voice has its own characteristics. I was made fun of for my voice when I was young. I’d read that Bobby was, too. And my voice always sounded like it was changing, so I really identified with that thing of people attacking you for personal characteristics.
Q: So, do you now feel that you made the right choice by taking that call from Pablo?
A: Sometimes you pick a part because of the role, and sometimes it’s because of the people you want to work with. On some level, it’s almost like I did this movie in spite of the fact that I would have to play Bobby Kennedy. I was thinking, “I really want to work with this guy, and it’s gonna be a great movie. It’s gonna be a movie that I personally would want to watch.” I try to make as many of those as possible, so when I get to be an old man I can go back and not be bored by my own work.