Uh, tell about the rabbits — and the al-faal-fa! We goan have us, uh, a little place! That’s Peter Sarsgaard at lunch, running through his impression of John Malkovich’s dim-witted Lennie in Of Mice and Men. He does a straight Malkovich, too, and Sarsgaard tried it out on Malkovich himself when he played the thesp’s son in 1998’s The Man in the Iron Mask. ”When he gets angry,” says Sarsgaard in funny Malkovichese, ”it gets vaar-ee oh-VER-arr-tick-uul-ated!”
Actually, Sarsgaard’s regular silky-soft speaking voice sounds a lot like Malkovich’s (”We’re both from Illinois”), and he exudes a palpable young-Malkovichian vibe — intensely quiet here, downright explosive there — in ”Shattered Glass,” a lean drama starring Hayden Christensen as Stephen Glass, the real-life New Republic journalist busted in 1998 for making up — Jayson Blair-style — 27 of his 41 attention-grabbing feature stories (see review on opposite page). Sarsgaard is Chuck Lane, the withdrawn editor who unveils Glass’ deception in a slow-burning performance that’s already boosting his profile — and maybe even his Oscar chances.
”A bunch of names were thrown on the table for that part, people who were never going to say yes in a million years, but who you have to go to because it makes the studio more comfortable,” says Shattered Glass director Billy Ray. ”I’m very hopeful that Peter Sarsgaard will be the sort of guy the studios will feel more comfortable betting on, because they’ll see how good he is.”
If so Sarsgaard might have a difficult balancing act ahead of him. On the one hand, ”I have every intention of hiding who I really am,” insists the 32-year-old actor, previously seen in Boys Don’t Cry and K-19: The Widowmaker. Sarsgaard doesn’t have — and doesn’t really want — a personal publicist who might help transform him into what he calls a ”public’s confidant” kind of actor. On the other, he recognizes that he needs some exposure if he’s going to win the kind of parts he has lost in the past, like Joaquin Phoenix’s in ”Signs” and Mark Ruffalo’s in ”You Can Count on Me (”I begged for that role”).”
Because he was starring opposite the superfamous Christensen, Sarsgaard grappled with this conundrum firsthand in ”Shattered Glass,” and it fired up his performance. ”I’ve been in this business for eight years,” explains Sarsgaard, first seen on the big screen as Sean Penn’s murder victim in ”Dead Man Walking.” ”Hayden’s been in Star Wars. But you should see the kind of car he drives…. Of course I was jealous! Those aren’t okay feelings in life — you’re supposed to ignore them. But the beauty of film is you get to let it bleed. So a lot of the self-righteous rage that comes out of me in the movie, a lot of the grabbing him by the lapels and going ‘Have integrity! Be a good journalist!’ is easily translated into ‘Have integrity! Be a good actor!”’
As it happens, lately Sarsgaard has been specializing in movies featuring ”Star Wars” royalty. He counts them off on his hand. ”I’ve got Liam Neeson, Natalie Portman, and Hayden Christensen down,” he says, referring also to the upcoming comedy ”Garden State” opposite Portman and the dramedy ”Kinsey” opposite Neeson. ”All I need is Sam Jackson and Ewan McGregor. I’ve only got a couple more to go!” Also in the can — and likely to stay there — is ”In God’s Hands,” a low-budget feature produced by Steven Soderbergh that wrapped before anyone realized that the whole movie was shot out of focus. (”We didn’t screen dailies,” Sarsgaard shrugs.) That film costarred his girlfriend of the past two years, ”Secretary” star Maggie Gyllenhaal, whom he’s happy to discuss (”I’m very in love with her”), although he swears they’ll never, as a couple, court the press, never circle around the block in the limo until the crowd at the red carpet swells.