Peter Sarsgaard, who steps into Chekhov’s The Seagull this fall as Trigorin, the amoral writer who drives one character to ruin and another to suicide, is talking about his visit to a communal retreat in California not too long ago. He was doing research for “something I’ve been writing for a long time”—something “like a screenplay.” He came across a mission statement for the group’s school that instructed teachers, when breaking up a fight, to ask the victim a question they’d normally put to a bully: “Why you?”
It’s a question, implying that victims share responsibility, that Sarsgaard would like to ask Chekhov’s characters. “Nina, why you?” he asks, referring to the young ingénue corrupted by Trigorin, in a warm but slightly sinister Waspy drawl reminiscent of John Malkovich. “Does everything just happen to you, or do you make things happen in your life?” Trigorin, Sarsgaard insists, is “doing exactly what he wants. Some people pursue things they think they’re interested in, and they’re actually not. They’re living in a dream world.”
In a way, Sarsgaard, 37, is an exemplar of anti-ambitionism. He lives pretty quietly, in Brooklyn, with (as everyone knows) Maggie Gyllenhaal and their nearly 2-year-old daughter. He’s never tried to carry a blockbuster, saying “in order to be the lead in a $100 million movie, you have to want to be.” He concedes that The Dark Knight, in which his wife co-starred, is an exception: “You see Heath Ledger’s performance and you go, well, there’s somebody who shows that it’s possible to be an enormously amazing actor in the middle of a franchise.” Yes, but … “I see that movie and I see a man who is happy acting—it looks like he’s tap-dancing. The part does not destroy the actor, ever, if they’re good. That had absolutely nothing to do with what happened to him.”
Sarsgaard, meanwhile, likes playing his characters off to the side: the gung-ho sniper in Jarhead, the canny editor in Shattered Glass, the gravedigger in Garden State, the charismatic foil in the forthcoming Mysteries of Pittsburgh. He got the part of Trigorin, his first on Broadway, after co-starring in a Nick Hornby movie with Carey Mulligan, who is playing the victimized Nina. Mulligan had asked him to recommend possible Trigorins, which he did—whereupon director Ian Rickson tossed out Sarsgaard’s list and hired the list-maker, who is quick to add that he had not pulled a Cheney and suggested his own name. Rickson says he aimed to cast a younger and more energetic actor than is customary. “The virility of Trigorin, and his attachment to nature, his sexuality, his vibrancy, I feel is a really important thing,” he says. “Young actors who are very masculine and have that soulfulness are very hard to find.”
It’s a good thing Rickson is open to new interpretations, because while Trigorin comes off on the page as alternately oblivious, self-absorbed, and manipulative, Sarsgaard sees him much the way he sees himself: flexible, open, disdainful of convention. “I guess I have a tendency to take on a lot of orphans,” he says. “I feel like I’m protecting people—protecting maybe parts of myself that I think are valid, and that people could judge.”
By Anton Chekhov.
Walter Kerr Theatre; in previews September 16 for an October 1 opening.