Widely recognized as a consummate actor with an eclectic body of work, Peter Sarsgaard can now add a Horror film to his repertoire. He plays John Coleman, a man trying to keep his fragile family together, following the tragic loss of his and his wife, Kate’s (Vera Farmiga) stillborn baby. They decide to adopt another child, and are oddly attracted to a 9-year-old girl named Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), who they bring into their home with disastrous consequences.
What drew you to the material?
When I got it, Vera’s name was already floating out there. I remember seeing Vera in the first break through movie that I’m aware of that she did which was Down to the Bone at Sundance, and just going “Oh my God, we’ve been waiting for an actress [like this]’ And since then, I’d always wanted to do anything with her and when I read this, I thought “Well, that would be very interesting.” We’re friends and to be these dysfunctional lovers, I thought that would be very weird because Vera’s friends with my wife also, and I thought, “This is going to be bizarre.”
You’re a very intelligent actor. What was it like playing a character as clueless as this one?
I see his intelligence off screen. [he laughs] His intelligence is his work. John has had a fairly rich extracurricular life that you catch little glimpses of here and there throughout the film. I think he is mainly interested in what is positive around him, so when something bad happens, his first instinct is to try to assuage, or even ignore, the situation. Adding to that he has difficulty overcoming Kate’s past problems, so he doesn’t believe her warnings when it comes to Esther.
At its core, this is a family that was broken. Kate has extreme guilt over [their daughter] Max’s accident, the drinking, and even the stillbirth. Despite trying to get past all of that, John’s still not sure he can trust her, and even blames himself. Esther comes in and shines the light on these things, and uses them to her advantage. I think the best horror movies highlight the human condition and play on the fears and problems so many of us are faced with in our own lives.
Can you talk a little about Isabelle’s performance in the movie?
I have to say, I think a lot of the stuff that she did in the movie for any actor, no matter how experienced, doing it in dialect, talking ad nauseum, always playing at least three things, would have been [difficult for anyone]. I’ve have those days when I come to work and I see a scene like that and I get sick to my stomach when I realize “Oh man!” She had that almost every day [and she was great].
What makes a good Horror film?
They need a witness that’s in the movie that is witnessing the things that are going on and witnesses them in a believable way. Like Ellen Burstyn in The Exorcist is looking at it. We all talk about the image of Regan’s head spinning and throwing up, but that’s not what makes you scared. It’s seeing Ellen Burstyn go, “Oh my God!” I really think that sometimes in this genre people put either actors that are not up to it, or actors that are dismissive of it, and they don’t witness the stuff that is happening.
In the end, it’s not about all the goop, it’s about these witnesses to these events and that’s what always draws the audience in. Like I said, when I heard that Vera was cast in this, I went “It’s going to be great.”