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An Education - Peter Sarsgaard
An Education - David (Peter Sarsgaard) © BBC Films

Not many actors can play a 30-year-old shady businessman who seduces a 16 year old school girl and come off as charismatic and charming, but Peter Sarsgaard pulls off the impossible.

As David, a British con artist, in An Education he introduces the teenage Jenny (Carey Mulligan) to the exciting life of auctions, clubs, classical concerts and Paris for her 17th birthday, the day she has already decided she will lose her virginity.

When I saw you were in this movie I thought you were going to be an American in England – it’s one thing to do a British accent in an American film, but to play a British character in an English film must have been hard.

No, it’s easier. I did one on stage in America once and there was no one around to help me with it. It takes away a lot of the work. I had a dialect coach who helped me, there were words that were difficult here and there, but a lot of it was just walking around speaking with a British accent all the time.

Were you surprised to be offered this role?

Yes, I thought why are they offering me a Jewish Englishman, when I’m a Catholic Midwesterner – oh, I’m an actor! And actually having to play at a lot of those things, play acting English, doing an accent that’s not my own, all of that pretending that I was doing fit in really well with this character.

Who knows if the accent he’s speaking with in the movie is his real accent? It’s very common in England to put on an accent that is not your own, and pretend to be a class that you’re not a part of.

One of the things about David which was a balancing act for you is he’s a seducer but by the same token we don’t dislike you.

An Education - Carey Mulligan and Peter Sarsgaard
Jenny (Carey Mulligan) and David (Peter Sarsgaard) © BBC Films

Well, I’m not up to negative things, it’s not like what I want is to plant a dirty bomb in a hotel. What I’m after is positive, I want happiness, I want fun, and I don’t want to live in this city where there are no good cafes and there’s food rationing that was happening (in England) not long before.

He came of age in England, when he was sixteen in England it was an incredibly difficult time to be young in that country, and I think his youth got taken away from him in some ways. He’s Jewish in England, it’s 1961 and I’m 37, that puts it at the beginning of the fifties, which is right after the war, and it’s a bleak place, and I feel like he never got an education, he never got to be a kid.

Some of what his behavior is more strange than seducer, and I think it just comes from trying to act 14 to her 16, or just wanting to try to be a kid with her. He’d rather sit on the bed with her and talk than have sex with her. It’s not like he’s trying to get into her pants for the whole movie.

There’s a lot of talk about pedophile with the Roman Polanski arrest.

An Education - Carey Mulligan and Peter Sarsgaard
A Paris romance for Jenny (Carey Mulligan) and David (Peter Sarsgaard) © BBC Films

That’s a very different situation. The legal age at that time in England was seventeen, so we wait until she’s seventeen, and we have a relationship that goes over a period of time. It is founded under a fundamental false note, but I don’t think it makes it less true. It’s not that they’re in love, but they are simpatico, they both are trying to live extraordinary lives.

They find someone else who is not willing to settle for an ordinary life. I, to have an extraordinary life, sometimes steal things, she in order to have an extraordinary life is willing to break the mold and potentially drop out of school. That’s what really draws them together to me.

Any comparison to Roman Polanski, which I don’t know that much about, seems like it was one night many years ago with a thirteen-year-old, is a very different situation. But it’s good to have that answer out there because I did get asked that question before and I just think if anyone thinks about it for two seconds it’s like, it’s not the same.

What was it like working with Carey in this and then doing The Seagull with her on Broadway?

It was very different. Trigorin is a strong man and empowered by fame and talent, both of which he has, and money, and he spends a lot of his time daydreaming and writing, and periodically seducing her character (Nina), who wants fame so badly that she sleeps with him and has a baby him, and he just doesn’t realize that he’s throwing the person’s life away.

They do have some similarities but just enough to make it confusing, they are kind of similar, but not similar.