Peter Sarsgaard is accustomed to playing unsavory characters, but the role of Linda Lovelace’s abusive husband in Lovelace, which premiered last night at the Sundance Film Festival, almost stopped him in his tracks. Chuck Traynor masterminded his wife’s pornography career and years after Deep Throat, Lovelace would accuse him of beating her and threatening to kill her if she ever tried to leave him or the sordid business that made her famous. “Being in the place where I am in my life, the role just wasn’t appealing,” says Sarsgaard, whose wife Maggie Gyllenhaal was pregnant with their second daughter when he was weighing the decision. “At the same time, I was having trouble saying no, so there’s obviously some part of me that is attracted to it.”
Moping around his house, he took forever to read the script — to the point that the filmmakers were reluctantly about to seek a Plan B. Finally, his pregnant wife stepped in. “Basically, you’ve been thinking about it for too long,” Sarsgaard says she told him. “That means you should do it.”
“Thank god for her,” says Amanda Seyfried, who plays the beautiful but battered Lovelace in the film. “Because honestly, he’s the best actor of our generation and I got to work with him. I can’t believe it still.”
Even without seeing Lovelace, fans of Sarsgaard will have no trouble believing that he’s perfect as the menacing Traynor. Since playing the greasy, stone-cold killer in Boys Don’t Cry, Sarsgaard has brought his own brand of ominous intensity to suspicious characters in films like Garden State, Flightplan, and An Education. Like he said, there is some part of him that is attracted to these types. “I’m interested in what’s complicated, and complicated ideas don’t play very well a lot of the time when you’re the hero in a movie,” says Sarsgaard. “So there’s great freedom in playing a character that is the villain. But I didn’t enjoy playing Chuck most of the time, and I don’t feel the need to do it again right now.”
It’s not as if Sarsgaard can’t play nice; he was wonderful in Shattered Glass and Kinsey, and his grave-digger in Garden State did turn out to be noble. “Everyone who plays the villain says this, but I’m profoundly not like that,” the 41-year-old actor says.
But that’s his reputation, and there’s no denying that if he was cast in a movie version of Clue, the audience would immediately suspect him of the murder in the study with the candlestick. “This isn’t some trade secret, but it’s very hard to change peoples’ perception of you, especially if it’s a very strong one like it with me,” he says. “I understand it. Even my mother-in-law has me typecast.”
True. Gyllenhaal’s mother, Naomi Foner, directed another Sundance movie titled Very Good Girls that stars Dakota Fanning and Elizabeth Olsen. Fanning’s college-bound senior works as a tour guide on the NY Waterways ferry, and her boss has a leering creepy-uncle vibe. So who did she call in to play him? Exactly. “That character so easily could’ve turned into a one-dimensional villain,” explains Foner. “And I knew what Peter would bring with him was a great vulnerability and humanity.”
Sarsgaard isn’t proud that he’s somewhat infamous for playing brutish characters — no matter how vulnerable and humane he makes them — and he seems to be attempting to correct that image. He has a lot of scenes with Cate Blanchett in the next Woody Allen movie, he wrote the screenplay for an adaptation of Christopher McDougall’s book, Born to Run, and he’s set to star in a Western with Kurt Russell, Timothy Olyphant, and Richard Jenkins. “I’m not the heavy,” he quickly says, before a reporter can ask. “I’m the romantic part.”