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Jarhead - Peter Sarsgaard interview

Peter Sarsgaard in Jarhead

Interview by Rob Carnevale

Q. You have a service history in your family. Was that the lure of this role?
A. I was born in 1971 so everyone in America was in the service. My dad was in the Air Force because that was the safest place to be. He was an air traffic controller in the Air Force at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois.
Also, the Air Force put him through college and my family comes from Mississippi and didn’t come from much money, so that’s how people went to school and still do. I think that’s how a number of people wind up in the military.
My uncle also served in the military for similar reasons although he intended it as a career, but unfortunately he died in Vietnam so I never knew him. And my grandfather served. But it’s also where I’m from in the country, I’m from the middle and that’s where most of the people who serve come from.
When I was filming in New Orleans it was like every day I would read about a local guy dying. It’s not like that in other places, so it’s a combination of things.

Q. Can you now understand the terror that young men must feel going into war?
A. I can’t imagine what it would be like, no. We didn’t have real bullets, that’s the difference, a major difference. We’re walking around carrying machine guns that are plugged on the ends.
It gave me some insight into what happens in boot camp, what they are doing to them. A lot is made in many movies of the physical training and the technical training that they experience in boot camp but I really think boot camp is to turn you into a jarhead. It’s to remove that little section of your brain that would make you hesitate before you even think of killing someone who was about to kill you, or someone next to you.
Hopefully, they don’t remove so much of it that you start killing people who aren’t about to kill you. It’s a very delicate thing that they are doing to their minds. I think the one thing that’s interesting about this movie, after you watch the movie and you watch them go back home, you hope that they put that part of their mind in an envelope somewhere, so they can put it back in.
That’s the thing that the movie put me most in touch with but the fear of dying in war is just such a hard thing to imagine.
We definitely got attached to our weapons, especially after one us – neither Jake nor I, but another guy on the movie – managed to completely trash his M-16 during boot camp.
Jake Gyllenhaal: We still hate him; it really upset us and I never thought I would be upset at someone for trashing a gun of any kind but I really was.

Q. Was your off-screen friendship with Jake a hindrance or a help?
A. I really believe this but one of the greatest things I got out of the movie was that beforehand, Jake was Maggie’s brother to me. I knew him well but he was Maggie’s brother. Now I really do have a direct connection to him, he is Jake to me.
Seriously, it’s a very simple thing. If you’re married or you date someone and you know their brother then unless you have really had an experience like this together, you sort of know them like this [indicates right angle] and now we know each other like that [indicates straight line]. We got lucky.
I told him before we started there is a famous story in our family of an aunt who had my uncle do landscaping on her property in Arkansas and he fucked it up and they didn’t speak for two years.
I said before we started that I wanted to make sure this doesn’t happen.

Q. What was it like working with Jamie Foxx so soon after his Academy Award? Did he try and lead in the same way as his character?
A. He kept us laughing. Hhe had to go to LA and do all the promotional stuff for Ray and when he was away we would all kind of sit around and be quietly angry at each other and laugh a little bit. But then Jamie would show up and the set would immediately come to life. He would tell all these stories, he’d get games going, he’d get the ping pong table out, he’d get the chess board out, he would get us going. I guess that’s a form of leadership.

Q. What’s next for you?
A. After I finished Jarhead, not only was the tank empty but the engine was cooked. So I have taken a nice long leave from acting and it has been I guess seven or eight months now.
Just recently I have seen other actors giving good performances, which might be what inspired me to return – finally when the Fall comes, we get to see actors again. I’m like ‘okay, maybe I want to start acting again’. I had just done too many things in a row and I was burnt. So I’m just now starting to look around.

Q. What was your worst experience of boot camp?
A. I got lucky, I was doing another movie at the time. I was promoting Kinsey, shooting Flightplan and rehearsing this movie all simultaneously for a spell there.
So I was the jackass who showed up and went, ‘it’s cold’. I had long hair, I was smoking cigarettes because I had to keep my hair for Flightplan. If it was watered down for them, for me it was like very, very watered down.

Q. What were the war movies that inspired or really affected you in some way?
A: It’s a fairly common one. I guess I just think of my favourite scene from a war movie and I was just realising that it’s not a war scene. But it’s something that defines their relationshgip so quickly and sometimes I use it when I’m talking to someone about a script – I’ll say ‘this script needs one of those scenes when De Niro won’t give Cazale his boots and he looks to Christopher Walken and Walken makes him give him the boots. I would say it needs one of those scenes where you get the relationship like that – like he’s this to him, and he’s this to him. So that scene from Deer Hunter has always been a scene that I love.