Interview with Hamlet actor Peter Sarsgaard

Scott: This will be your third project at CSC. What is it that keeps drawing you back to 13th street?

Peter: Brian. Mr. Kulick has taken this great space and made it a space where you really can feel completely free to explore classical text in any way that you want, with the people that you like, and take different approaches and generally have freedom. I really, really love that space. It just feels like home to me.

S: Is it correct that you studied a lot of Shakespeare in college? You were an English major, right?

P: I was an English major with a Shakespeare concentration, so my main area of focus in college was Shakespeare.

S: And how have you been preparing for this role?

P: I read it every day. I mean, I read it a lot every day and I’ve been doing that for about a year.

S: Does speaking the verse change the way you approach a role?

P: You know, it’s interesting because this is such a particular kind of verse for Shakespeare. It’s verse mixed with quite a bit of prose, and even the way the verse is laid out has got not quite as strict a quality to it as some other bits of Shakespeare verse. I find verse incredibly liberating. I’m not somebody who’s verse averse. I really could imagine doing something entirely written in verse. One of the things that is nice about HAMLET is that going back and forth between the verse and the prose gives you an opportunity to create various kinds of reality and fantasy in performance within performance because so much of this play is a thing within a thing within a thing and a performance within a performance within a performance. I think for Hamlet, the reality includes the audience that is there that night, that actual audience, the heat, the pressure and form of that audience. I think it’s something that Hamlet feels more than any other character in the play. And he’s a performer. All of that really makes it incredibly freeing as an actor. There’s no such thing as being too poetic. He’s a poet. Then you also have moments where you’re totally mundane and spoken. As long as you’ve got that all built in there, you can do anything. I mean, you can do anything when you play Hamlet. Any part of you that you’ve ever been in your life can be in this role.

S: What made you decide to tackle Hamlet?

P: It’s actually because of Penny, who’s playing Gertrude, who’s been quite a mentor to me for twenty years. I had a bunch of conversations with her about Hamlet and my relationship to Hamlet. I’d almost played Hamlet about ten years ago and for a number of reasons didn’t end up doing it, so it had kind of floated around in my head for a while. I started to have a very strong feeling about the role after talking to her and then when she wanted to play Gertrude, that relationship really made sense to me. That’s one of the relationships in the play that people take so many different stabs at and have very strong opinions about. I knew that I wouldn’t be creating something totally abstract. I thought of Penny, thought of this twenty-year relationship that we have, this very strong relationship, and I suddenly understood how to play the role through that relationship really.

S: Many people talk about the panic that sets in after you take on the role of Hamlet. Has that panic happened to you?

P: I guess not. So much of what I’ve been asked to do as an actor over the course of my career has been either take something small and turn it into a little diamond or take a sow’s ear and turn it into a purse. It’s really nice knowing for certain, the only part of this equation that could fail is me; the text is not going to be a problem. I know that I’m going to fail on some level. I think I could only feel a lot of pressure if I thought I was going to stick the landing or be the greatest Hamlet of all times. I feel very strong things about the role and I must be more connected to it than I am to most things.

S: I understand that one of your informal Shakespeare tutors has been Brian Cox. What has that dialogue been like?

P: Pretty minimal. We sit around and talk stories, we’ve talked about the verse a couple of times; it’s very like chatting. Actually, I did have someone that I sat down with at more lengths that talked about the more technical aspects of playing Hamlet according to a traditional model, which I know from having studied, but I just wanted to refresh in my mind. There’s this guy named Rob Clare, somebody who has worked on a number of RC productions, a guy in town, and over the past year I’ve met with him about 15-20 hours and just remembered the technical aspects of doing it.

S: What do you mean by technical aspects?

P: I mean, if you wanted to do verse in a Peter Hall way, what would that sound like? Not that I’m going to do it that way. What are the various conventions? What are the various devices in a literary sense that Shakespeare uses? Where do you hear an echo; there would be all these echoes throughout HAMLET. Having somebody who’s very knowledgeable to sit around and chat about it with basically. Not like it’s anything I’m going to plug in. I’ve always had a total love of Shakespeare since I was a kid. I have my own intuitive way of approaching it. It is a particular song to me that is not the same song that it is to everyone else. I do appreciate the language – I’m not somebody who’s going to throw the whole thing under the chair. I also appreciate the simplicity of a lot of the language. Also, with Shakespeare, if you haven’t done it in a while it’s slightly like learning another language. You have to get it into your head, “Oh right, that’s what that means and that’s what that means”. After a while you stop asking yourself what it means because you speak the language of it. Brian also helps with that. You forget what a knave is. It’s not like the audience will specifically know, but it’s important that you know.

S: This is your third collaboration with Austin. Can you talk a bit about your collaboration over the years and what attracts you to Austin’s way of working?

P: Austin doesn’t really have a way of working. I think people assume he works a certain way, a kind of loose way. He really respects the actors and that is his primary focus. He talks to every actor in a different way. I’ve never had somebody whose opinion I’ve trusted as much as his. It’s mostly like, when Austin is watching me I know someone’s listening in a way that very few people do. I’m acting for that type of listener. I feel like Austin traces exactly my most deep, inner, personal monologue that I have going on as I’m talking, which for me a lot of the times isn’t exactly what I’m saying or has nothing to do with what I’m saying. It’s really that set of ears more than anything else for me; that he listens in a way. It’s not about what he’s saying; it’s about the way he’s hearing. He was really the only person I could imagine doing it with. The nice thing about Austin is whether the ship is sailing or sinking in the public’s perception makes no difference to him. Some directors, after the review comes out, the way they talk to you noticeably changes. With Austin, the ship is really steady. I wanted to have the safety of having my work protected because it is such a vulnerable thing to do, having my mind protected as I work. I don’t see any reason to work with anyone else.

S: In terms of stage roles, what would be next after Hamlet?

P: I’d like to play Iago. That’s pretty specific! Iago is actually the role that I’ve always wanted to play. Hamlet, I never knew I wanted to do it before I started working on it. Now that I’ve worked on it so much, I have to do it. Iago, just from reading it, I first read Othello when I was in high school, an all-boys Jesuit high school where we read a lot of Shakespeare and had to do it aloud in front of class. I was immediately taken with that character. I love that relationship with the audience. I think it’s incredible for me, as an actor who so often asks the audience to be a voyeur to what I’m doing. With Hamlet and Iago, the nice thing is that it makes someone like me who doesn’t like public speaking, doesn’t like thinking of the fact that there’s an audience there do both. It forces me to do something that I am reluctant to do, which is play to the audience. I think with Hamlet, you can play to the audience at any moment you want, on any line, anywhere.