Are you watching The Looming Tower on Hulu? If not, you should be: the miniseries — adapted from the incredible Lawrence Wright book — traces the rise of Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda in the late ’90s and how clashes between law enforcement might have helped contribute to a path that led us to the events of 9/11. Peter Sarsgaard stars as Martin Schmidt (a pastiche of different real life people), chief of “Alec Station,” a part of the CIA Counterterrorism Center.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This is a pretty daunting project to tackle.
PETER SARSGAARD: Obviously it’s the type of thing you want to make sure is really good [before signing on] because it would be such a disservice to history, to this important moment in the United States, if we f–ked it up.
Were you familiar with the Lawrence Wright book before this project came along?
I had read the book when it came out. I was here on 9/11, on West Broadway and Canal Street. When the book came out I was hungry to understand how and why and if, in some way, we participated in this happening and in what ways.
What’s so fascinating about the book and the series is the way it contextualizes everything that led up to the events of 9/11.
Yes, think about how things are now, too. So back then, our attention was on this sort of internal political scandal and all of this was going on, and then you think about the issues that are going on today with the agencies and the government and everything and it’s all internal and political scandals while who knows what else is going on. We should be paying attention. It’s terrifying. History absolutely repeats itself all the time.
What kind of research did you do to prepare for this role?
I had just done the Erroll Morris series Wormwood where I play a biologist who is working with the CIA which helped. And I read this book Legacy of Ashes which is also incredible. It gives you the sense that CIA is something that changes all the time. It’s shrouded in secrecy yet even if you understood it 10 years ago it wouldn’t be like it is today. I also talked to a woman who is an operations officer and familiar with a lot of people on Alec station and told me all about it — it was very, very interesting. I think for a lot of people on Alec station there’s this idea that they were on to something that no one was paying attention to. [Martin] knew something that no only does no one know but even when I tell them they won’t listen. It was very easy to play a character that even in the service of the script seemed like an a–hole. But I really understood why! [Laughs]
That’s the thing you see in the show — everyone believes they are right.
No one is trying to bring down the U.S., they’re all trying to help — it’s that idea: I’m right. Not only are you wrong, but if I let you in on what I know, you’re going to corrupt the source or mess up the investigation.
In your own research did you find truth to the clashing between the FBI and the CIA?
One hundred percent. Absolutely. It’s why after 9/11 they changed the way they did things — there’s more communication and oversight.
A lot of this information is sort of upsetting to learn. It’s so much easier to tune out.
Not only that, but I think people get very angry thinking about the ways in which we might have been able to stop this, might have been responsible in some ways by our position of supporting Saudi Arabia and Egypt and Israel. We pissed off some people. My wife [actress Maggie Gyllenhaal], post-9/11, said something along those lines. And it shows that it was too soon. She said something like, I think enough time has passed that we can think about the ways we are responsible. Luckily we were in Costa Rica in the middle of nowhere and avoided a lot of [the backlash] but when we came back people were like yelling at her out of their car windows!
Martin is a composite of a few different people — is it easier or harder to play someone you can actually study?
There’s great freedom in not playing someone based on a real person. I’ve done that before. And it’s very very hard because I don’t like feeling any sense of responsibility towards another person. I just want to be responsible to myself. I have played famous real people. And that’s even worse! Actually, that is the worst.
Your costars are a pretty impressive bunch: Jeff Daniels, Bill Camp, Tahar Rahim, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Alec Baldwin…
It was a really fun group. It’s nice to be able to rely on other actors. It’s not every day that it’s like that — sometimes you feel like it’s your responsibility to drive a scene, you know, as opposed to shared driving. This was a great luxury. Some of it was filmed within walking distance to my house. It was a great experience.
It feels like the series is deliberately very careful about not seeming partisan one way or another.
I felt like it was just telling the story — I mean, certainly my character comes across less well than Jeff Daniel’s character. The hero of this story is Ali Soufan which is fantastic. That was one of the things I loved about the approach of this — that the hero and biggest patriot is someone not born here and from a country and background which, who knows if he’d even be allowed in the country today. My biggest hope is that the series sends people back to the book.