Peter Sarsgaard on Playing Bobby Kennedy in “Jackie”
By Danny Peary
Last week, I posted a roundtable interview I took part in with Natalie Portman about playing Jacqueline Kennedy in Chilean director Pablo Larraín’s striking biopic, Jackie, which opened at three theaters in New York City. The link:
Portman is deservedly receiving a lot of Oscar buzz for her performance. Not receiving enough praise, however, is Peter Sarsgaard, who plays Robert Kennedy, the person Jackie best relates to following her husband’s assassination. Perhaps that’s because Portman looks like Jackie and Sarsgaard doesn’t look like her brother-in-law. (Similarly Paul Dano was lauded much more than the equally impressive John Cusack for Love and Mercy because he more resembled the young Brian Wilson.) Sarsgaard is at a disadvantage but I think he comes through admirably. Below is the roundtable I did with him just prior to the Portman interview. I note my questions.
Q: How did you get involved in Jackie?
Peter Sarsgaard: I’ve known Natalie Portman for a long time, so when they said that she was playing Jackie Kennedy, that was a large part of why I wanted to do the movie. I went, “Natalie’s playing the lead, Pablo Larraín’s directing it, and Darren Arnofsky’s producing it, and with Noah Oppenheim’s script, I think this will be something I should be in.” I would never ever want to be in one of those Kennedy biopics, but I knew this wasn’t going to be normal. I told my friends, “I think we’re making a post-traumatic-stress-syndrome thriller or a horror movie. I think we’re making a film that shows what’s in the mind of someone who has just gone through something similar to what soldiers in war might experience–like a head getting blown off of somebody they love right in front of their eyes.” Those were not normal circumstances that Jackie was prepared for, and even after watching the movie I’m not convinced that she did get it together and find a way to dealing with that. She put on a funeral for her husband that had an incredible effect on everyone, but it was a very odd thing to do.
Q: Natalie really captured the Jackie Kennedy we remember.
PS: When I first walked on the set and saw what she was doing, I said, “She’s got it.” She also looks right. At times, she looks almost like the most extraordinarily beautiful doll dressed up. It’s perfect.
Q : Was it strange to hear her replicating Jackie Kennedy’s voice?
PS: Not really, because they’re both from the East Coast. Natalie already had an accent.
It wasn’t like she was playing Molly Hatchet or someone like that. I was impressed with how good she was, but I knew she could do it.
Q: Did you know much about Robert Kennedy before playing him in the movie?
PS: I already admired him. I admired him and believed that would get in my way if I played him. I thought I was going to have to impersonate him in order to capture his public persona, and that’s not acting in my mind. But Pablo assured me he wasn’t concerned with my doing any of that. A lot of time in this movie I was trying to find a new way of doing what I normally do as an actor.
Q: How did you prepare for the role?
PS: I started out, at night before we were filming, by listening to a tape of his speeches that I’ve always loved, especially the one at Columbia University when the students asked him questions. Also there was the extemporaneous speech he gave after Martin Luther King was assassinated. His speechwriter was there, but he was thinking on his feet, and you can really sense what a strong mind he had. I got very excited about playing someone who was a really intelligent person, even if misguided at some points in his life and doing things he shouldn’t do for his family. He was a moral person who really knew the difference between good and bad and wanted to do good, although at times he did things that were perhaps unethical, especially before his brother died. For instance, in the fifties, he had worked with Joseph McCarthy. It wasn’t really his idea to work with him, but McCarthy was friendly with his father, Joseph Kennedy. I really got into researching all this. There was no stopping me. I also listened to a conversation Bobby had with John Kennedy on the telephone and heard the way they talked to each other. It was like code. Anyone else can’t understand what’s going on, but it’s the way two brothers talk to each other. I don’t get to talk that way in the film, because no one speaks to Bobby like that, but I understood their relative position with one another. The way I started to look at it was: upon his brother’s death, Bobby really came into his own. He stopped following someone else. What do you do when this person that you’ve been in service of for a large portion of your life dies? He’s dealing with that in the movie. He doesn’t even have time to deal with his own grief. In the limited amount of screen time that I had, I knew I had only a couple of pitches to swing at, so I wanted to establish that his mind was in every other place besides his own grief. He’s thinking, “Oh, my God. We’ve got to clear out the Oval Office. Also, Jackie’s freaking out, so I’ve got to make sure she talks to a priest.” After someone dies, sometimes you’re that person that doesn’t get to sit down on the sofa and weep. That’s what happened with Bobby.
DP: Was it awkward that Natalie looked like Jackie and you didn’t look like Bobby?
PS: I didn’t look in the mirror when I was playing Bobby because I knew I didn’t look like him. I didn’t worry about it that much, because I felt that if I spent a lot of time trying to look like him, it would have been “Peter’s trying really hard to look like Bobby Kennedy.” I did a couple of things. I did some stuff with my hair and wore false teeth for part of the movie to change the shape of my face a little. Sometimes when I’d be in the middle of a scene, the false teeth would get in the way, so I’d pop them out and then continue with the scene. Pablo didn’t even know that I was doing that. He actually said, “Oh, there’s a scene where you turn and I can see you adjust the teeth.” I was like, “I’m taking them out.” One reason I wore the teeth is that in many accounts it’s stated he was a bit self-conscious about his [prominent] teeth, Actually in so many pictures I would see of him, he was hiding them a bit. I wanted to feel like he did about his teeth.
Q: Was that the most challenging part of playing Bobby?
PS: Maybe, but I like having restrictions. For me, the more obstacles I can create, the better I’m going to be. I work for that. I’m not into doing stuff physically that declares itself. I thought the teeth would just give me a little something to work with.
DP: You played Bobby Kennedy in 1963 after John’s assassination, but were you thinking, he’s going to be assassinated, too, in another five years? Could you stop yourself from thinking that?
PS: I didn’t think it when I was doing the movie, but I think it when I watch it. I think it as a viewer. It’s difficult to play scenes in which your character expresses regret. Regret is a pretty passive, not very active thing to play, and I played a decent amount of regret in this movie. What activates it, I think, is my knowing that there isn’t a lot of time ahead. There’s going to be no time to attain any of his goals. It was a real challenge for me as an actor to have Bobby say, “We could have done this, we could have done that, we could have done this.”
DP: A scene that interested me was when Bobby laments what could have been prior to Johnson abruptly taking over the presidency. Johnson screwed up Vietnam, but he did pass the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and Voting Rights Act in 1965, and carry on John Kennedy’s domestic agenda. John Kennedy might not have been able to get those bills passed, right?
PS: Absolutely, absolutely, partly because Johnson appealed to some people that Kennedy was never going to appeal to. Johnson was a massive compromise for Vice President. He got that job because Kennedy was forced to take him to win the election. No one was every happy about him. I think Johnson was always on the other side. Bobby’s like, “Oh my God, now he’s in position to replace Kennedy, so why did we choose him for Vice President in 1960?” He wanted to protect the Oval Office from outsiders like Johnson, just as a lion protects its pride. Circle the wagons around it, man. Jackie was protecting President Kennedy’s legacy. I think Bobby saved his brother’s legacy. There was plenty on JFK that could have come out –which we know about now—but didn’t because of Bobby.
Q: It seems like even though dealing with his brother’s death, he’s trying to seize control of things.
PS: This is a guy who helped get his brother elected President. We all know that. Again, when his brother died, it became an opportunity to be his own man. I see it as just a guy who’s suddenly saying, “It’s just me now. There’s Teddy, but I am the one who can do it.” When I listen to him talk, I think Bobby could have been a great President. A great President takes the ordinary and elevates it into a metaphysical, spiritual lesson or a bigger, more thoughtful idea. If you go back and listen to some of those speeches, you can follow along on some of them only if you know the Greek philosophers he brings up, but most of the time he speaks in a very plain way about abstract ideas of being connected.
Q : As Bobby, you get to tell President Johnson to sit down.
PS: Oh, that was so gratifying, yeah. I would love to tell Johnson to sit down. I think I had the same attitude toward Johnson that my character does. I can’t imagine that Bobby would have said that to him in front of a bunch of people, but it’s in his mind almost.
DP: Bobby would say that. He was tough. He didn’t look tough but he was really tough.
PS: I know he was tough. Especially when he was young he was physically tough.
Q: Talk about working with Pablo Larraín.
PS: I was in the hands of someone who didn’t care about just playing nice. I’m happy that some of the stuff that we did didn’t make the cut, because he really, truly had us explore every possibility of what our characters might be feeling and the connections that might have been– even Bobby’s relationship with Jackie. We shot scenes where their connection went to an almost romantic place. Grief could bring them together and they could find themselves being really close to each other and suddenly thinking, “What are we doing?” Pablo deprives you of information. That’s what it is. I’d be like, “What’s going on? What’s the scene?” And he’d say, “Just get in there and do it.” I was working with a Chilean director who only has a distant idea of these events in 1963. What’s interesting is he comes from a political family. He knows that they were just human beings, so he was always just stressing, “All this stuff that I barely know about doesn’t matter, this shell of a mythology. But what’s actually going on here? What are the things that they wished they could say, but don’t say?” He was like, “Speak the unconscious mind.” A lot of the times he would say to me, “Tell Jackie that she’s losing her mind and you’re afraid of what’s going to happen to her.” I’d tell him, “I can’t say that!” He’s be like, “Say it. Because that’s what’s going on!” I said it. Often what I said isn’t in the movie. So he works in a very unconventional way. You had no idea of what exact story he was telling, because the action wasn’t accumulative. It wasn’t where one plus two equals three. It was just deeply rooted in a sense of the place and time and people and the grief they feel is both hallucinogenic and sad.
Q: Does this film give you any thoughts about what is going on nowadays politically?
PS: It reminds us that there have been times of tragedy in our history when the whole country came together, like 9/11. Following the assassination, there was total unity and you see everyone coming together. What needs to happen is for us all to come back together, but I don’t see any way other than a national tragedy for it to happen. There’s just such immense divide in our country that it takes a tragedy to bring unity, right?