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Peter Sarsgaard Rejects Hipsters, Embraces Chekhov On Broadway

MARK KENNEDY | 09/30/08 07:17 AM | AP

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In this image released by Boneau/Bryan-Brown, actor Peter Sarsgaard is shown in London on Aug. 28, 2008. Sarsgaard is making his Broadway debut in an adaptation of Anton Chekhov's "The Seagull" alongside Kristin Scott Thomas, Mackenzie Crook and Carey Mulligan. (AP Photo/Boneau/Bryan-Brown, Colin Bell)

NEW YORK — Peter Sarsgaard wants to meet in a coffee bar in Brooklyn, but balks when he gets there.

It's crowded with 30-somethings in carefully rumpled hair, funky glasses, sleek laptops, expensive jeans and oh-so-cool graphic T-shirts. The flavor of the day seems to be smug.

He ducks in for a cup to go, a blueberry muffin and a pound of coffee beans.

"It's too trendy in there for me," Sarsgaard says, emerging unrecognized with a laugh.

Sarsgaard has a better place in mind for an interview, leaving behind the sort of over-caffeinated hipsters most likely to have reverentially cleared a path for the indie prince.

He walks a few blocks to the brownstone building he shares with his wife, actress Maggie Gyllenhaal, and 2-year-old daughter, Ramona, and plops down on the stoop.

Sarsgaard then proceeds to be perfectly normal. He points with pride to healthy looking potted plants he's cultivated. He confesses that he aches to see his daughter, having only seen her twice over the past month. At one point, a neighbor with a baby stroller passes by and waves hello.

It's a picture of domesticity far from the on-screen Sarsgaard.

The 37-year-old actor is known for playing hard, uncomfortable roles with a weird sort of laconic intensity since making his debut in 1995 as a Sean Penn murder victim in "Dead Man Walking."

He graduated to being a killer in "Boys Don't Cry," a rich guy with a fetish for a prostitute in "The Center of the World," a stoned gravedigger in "Garden State," Liam Neeson's lover in "Kinsey" and a disturbed sharpshooter in "Jarhead."

"I think sometimes I've been told that I play a villain sympathetically. I don't think that's actually what I'm doing," he says. "I'm just trying to get at the undercurrent of something."

Sarsgaard these days is plumbing those undercurrents on stage, making his Broadway debut in an adaptation of Anton Chekhov's "The Seagull" alongside Kristin Scott Thomas, Mackenzie Crook and Carey Mulligan. He's a newcomer to the production, which began last year at London's Royal Court Theatre.

He's got a typical Sarsgaard role _ Trigorin, a tortured writer who drives a rival to suicide and a young lover to ruin. He's grown a lush beard for the part and radiates both charisma and sleaze.

On the stoop, Sarsgaard is still buzzing about his debut deployment of an English accent the night before. He had previously been using his natural American voice, which made him the odd man out in the show.

Why did he abandon the Yankee accent? The answer illustrates a little bit about Sarsgaard's approach to his art: He simply wanted to be less liked by an American audience.

"It kind of creates an immediate connection between the character most likely to be hated and the audience," he says of his natural voice. "I feel like I immediately have a little leg up before I go down and beg for their sympathy."

The accent switch, which came as a shock to those he didn't warn before attempting, was applauded by Ian Rickson, the show's director.

"It can be such an understandable and commonly held default position of any actor to please an audience _ to be liked. So how refreshing when an actor thinks, 'What is the best thing in service of the play as a whole?'" he says.

"He just brings this kind of virility and openness to the process, which is very involving to others. He knows that a spirit of play and a spirit of risk is a really important part of the business."

Trained at Washington University in St. Louis, Sarsgaard is no stranger to stage work, having appeared in "Kingdom of Earth," "Burn This" and Horton Foote's "Laura Dennis" all off-Broadway.

Even so, he didn't initially jump at the chance to play the Chekhov rogue on Broadway. He was shooting a movie with Mulligan _ "An Education" from a Nick Hornby script _ when she mentioned that the original Trigorin wasn't joining the show in New York. She asked who might be good as a replacement.

"I literally went down the names of all of my out-of-work actor friends that I thought would be good in New York. I had no thought of doing it myself," he says.

The main reason was that it wasn't his turn to act. He and Gyllenhaal like to alternate the times they work, and she was off filming "Crazy Heart" with Jeff Bridges in New Mexico. Plus, there was the issue of cash _ not really a factor for stage actors.

"It's a decadent thing to me for some reason. I guess because it doesn't nourish my family directly as much as me going off and doing a movie," he says. "If a father's job is to go out and bring things home for his family _ and grab as many things as he can grab _ then that's not particularly the way to do it."

Eventually, he realized it was an opportunity he couldn't pass up. The role, after all, allowed Sarsgaard to explore his favorite material, the strange unconscious feelings we all have.

"Some people can watch a movie where somebody gets dismembered and sit there and eat popcorn while they're watching it," he says. "I try to wake up the side that actually gets horrified by somebody getting dismembered. Real feelings about real things that people actually have are my territory."

That yearning for realness has landed Sarsgaard respect and a quirky career. The fact that he traded Manhattan a few years ago for a modest home in a tree-lined, family neighborhood in Brooklyn's Park Slope is another stab at keeping it real.

He's passionately political and does public service announcements to encourage young people to vote. It doesn't take long to identify his own blue-state leanings: On this day he wears an American Civil Liberties Union baseball cap with the slogan "Freedom Can't Protect Itself."

Sarsgaard, who says his favorite performances are in movies that no one saw, seems to relish the fact that he's mostly only recognized in certain demographics. As the coffee bar incident shows, he's usually left unmolested.

"The type of thing that I love is walking down the street and when someone comes up to me and says, 'I saw one of your movies the other night and it affected me,'" he says.

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On the Net:

http://www.seagulltheplay.com

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