Peter Sarsgaard Talks Winona Ryder's Nickname & The Women Behind 'Experimenter'
"I think in general, if you’re going to talk about women in film, they’re completed underutilized," says Peter Sarsgaard, star of the new film Experimenter . In the movie, out Oct. 16, Sarsgaard plays social psychologist Stanley Milgram, with Winona Ryder as his on-screen wife, Sasha. Although the film revolves around Milgram's infamous experiments on obedience, it also places a heavy emphasis on the experimenter himself, especially his relationship with Sasha. Sitting down with Bustle, Sarsgaard opens up about the movie, the man, and the complicated Milgram marriage.
"I think there could be a whole other movie about their relationship," the actor says. "[Milgram] and Sasha loved each other and everything, but he had a very old-fashioned idea of what it meant to be a man in a family, and the movie is certainly told from his perspective."
Sarsgaard himself is a family man— he has two daughters with wife Maggie Gyllenhaal — but his own views of the world are quite different than those of the famed psychologist. In one scene, Milgram dispassionately remarks to his wife, "We choose our reality when we choose another person." Sarsgaard, though, sees things a little differently.
"To me, my wife is the reality of the world," he says, with a smile. "So I can’t think of any other reality. When I talk to my wife about life, and what’s going on between us, and us and the rest of the world, it absolutely feels like reality to me."
And it's not just with Gyllenhaal. "I do believe that in my experience with men and women, I’ve always gravitated towards hanging out with women," Sarsgaard says. "Luckily I have a household of women— three of them."
Also luckily for Sarsgaard, his role in Experimenter meant that he got to spend time bonding with Winona Ryder, an actress he has known for "a very long time." He speaks of Ryder in high regard, both as a performer and a person. "I call her Winona 'Ellipses' Ryder," he says, laughing. "Winona has a mind that is so active that she’ll get going talking about some amazing idea...then she’ll go off on another direction and talk about another one. [She's] just a naturally inquisitive person."
Just like her character in the film, apparently. "I think that in many ways the Sasha that’s in this movie is very close to the Winona that I know," Sarsgaard says.
The actor also spent a lot of time with the actual Sasha in preparation for the film. The late experimenter's wife lives in Yonkers, New York, and she provided Sarsgaard with home movies, photos, and stories to help him grasp the character of Milgram. The star says that this was the most material he has ever been given to prepare for a role, and he spent a year poring over everything he received. He struggled with understanding the couple's intimacy, though, since Milgram and his wife truly had such different lives.
"We're almost like very closely put together parallel lives; like, these are not people that were intertwined," says Sarsgaard, speaking of his and Ryder's characters. "I don’t think that he [Milgram] actually spent that much time thinking about what he really wanted."
Sarsgaard himself seems to have no doubts about what he wants, though. He devotes himself to a variety of roles— including an appearance in the upcoming Twin Peaks remake (which he couldn't speak about when we met, sadly) — and spends time with his family in Brooklyn in between films. Sarsgaard's daughters even visited the set of Experimenter one day to see the elephant that makes a cameo in the movie. And despite the kids' appearance resulting in the film's sound being messed up "many times," the actor says, it's clear from the smile he has when he recalls this that it was worth the interruptions. Sarsgaard has chosen his reality, and it's different from that of Stanley Milgram in all the best ways.
Image: Magnolia Pictures