Sienna Miller and Peter Sarsgaard
Explore The Mysteries of Pittsburgh
by Brad Balfour
Somewhat like her character in Mysteries In Pittsburgh – the alluring classical violinist Jane Bellwether – Sienna Miller is a compelling, straightforward person who makes no bones about what she’s about and how she handles her life in the spotlight. Her fellow cast member Peter Sarsgaard is also like his character, the seductive Cleveland Arning. Sarsgaard can be this wry – almost snarky – individual who, in a rapid-fire manner, replies playfully to questions as much as he answers them.
In a sense, they replicate the experience of meeting their cinematic alter-egos in this celluloid approximation of Michael Chabon’s debut novel The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. While novice director Rawson Marshall Thurber makes a valiant, though flawed, attempt to render this story of just-graduated college student Art Bechstein – played by Jon Foster [who wasn’t available for this interview] – the son of gangland boss Joe The Egg Bechstein (Nick Nolte), who struggles to break away from his father’s suffocating demands before he’s forced into a job he doesn’t want. During that summer in 1983, he works in a bookstore, repeatedly screws his attractive but clingy boss Phlox (Mena Suvari) and then meets the provocative Jane and Cleveland in this coming-of-age story set in Pittsburgh – all against his dad’s wishes.
Thanks to the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Chabon’s support, Thurber (who wrote Dodgeball) fulfilled a 10-year obsession to get this novel adapted as a film. For Sarsgaard, he got to play the meaty role of a doomed, off-beat provocateur; he understands such parts. After all, the 38-year-old Illinois-born actor has tackled such difficult, or even nasty, characters in Jarhead, Rendition and Boys Don’t Cry.
For Miller, this film’s release adds to a cycle of films she made one after another (Alfie, Layer Cake, Factory Girl and more), that she hopes, will deflect attention away from her celeb status and place it squarely on her career efforts.
In a world fraught with such dire events as the Taliban executing a couple for trying to elope, a film that offers a touch of enlightenment is worth talking about (with a small crew of journos) and writing about as well.
Peter, you have your beard – but this was shot more than two years ago.
Peter Sarsgaard: This is [because] I just went canoeing in the Everglades and just got back and I didn’t shave down there.
Does canoeing in the Everglades save the Everglades?
Peter Sarsgaard: Do you think it saves the Everglades if I canoe in them and talk about it?
Did you see tons of alligators…?
Peter Sarsgaard: And crocodiles and sharks and dolphins and bald eagles and spoonbills and flamingos. I saw two bald eagles.
Have you been to the Everglades as well?
Sienna Miller: I have not been to the Everglades, no. It sounds amazing, but I’ve been to Pittsburgh. We both have.
What was it like shooting in Pittsburgh?
Sienna Miller: It was great.
Peter Sarsgaard: Totally great. Pittsburgh is obviously a city that’s undergoing huge changes in the last couple of years since the mills closed. It’s really become this extraordinary city. It’s so clean. I was never there when the air was not clean, but it’s just this gorgeous city if you love green and rivers…
Sienna Miller: The bridge when you go in is stunning.
Peter Sarsgaard: It’s fantastic. It kind of opens up this whole thing.
Can you explain about your characters’ relationship in this film; is it doomed even before one of you is doomed?
Peter Sarsgaard: Well, it’s only doomed if you have expectations for what it might be, I guess. They’re doomed to get married…
Sienna Miller: It’s a destructive relationship.
Peter Sarsgaard: Oh, it’s not that destructive.
Sienna Miller: No, but the character of Cleveland is one of those people that’s very magnetic and very drawn to you, but ultimately can’t be tamed in a way.
Was your character conscious of that and just couldn’t let go?
Sienna Miller: Well, she talks about it.
But was she honest with herself about it?
Sienna Miller: I think she was very in love and very blinded by that.
What about his bisexuality? Do you think it really matters in their relationship? Is she bisexual, too?
Sienna Miller: I don’t think she is. I think from the scene where she discovers it, it’s obvious that she was hurt. I don’t think that I alluded to being bisexual in the film as a character or in life, but hopefully that scene says it all. Her reaction to seeing that is one of hurt.
Peter Sarsgaard: Cleveland’s bisexuality, it even seems like a funny word to call it that, but it is.
Peter, you can call it something else?
Peter Sarsgaard: It’s like he’s an omnivore. If someone else went and filled up my plate and put whatever they wanted on it, I would eat the entire thing. It’s about appetite. And the beautiful thing about him is that he doesn’t have any shame about any of it. It’s just the way he is and it’s just the way he wants to live. In his head, he might even think that all of his behavior, including his bisexuality, is pretty mythic, pretty awesome, pretty rock-and-roll because he’s living in his own fantasy of a thing. It’s like, did his heroes have bisexual relationships? Sure. Did they have heterosexual ones? Sure. They did all those things.
Sienna, was your character aware that he was bisexual prior to seeing him with another man?
Sienna Miller: I don’t think she was or if she was I don’t think she chose to acknowledge it.
She’s trying to warn the other friend, Art, though, that he has an explosive persona.
Sienna Miller: Yeah, I think she warns him that you can’t change him, this is who he is and he’s very much staying with his own personality. But again, when the image she’s confronted with, that image of them in bed is, I think, [is of] massive hurt. Not necessarily because he’s with a guy, but [it’s] hurt because the two people she loves the most in the world have betrayed her. Also, he sleeps with other women. I think she’s not naïve [about that].
Peter Sarsgaard: If it had been another woman would Jane have been upset the same amount or more upset?
Sienna Miller: Well, there was also the scene where you [Cleveland] are sleeping with another woman. I don’t think it was necessarily about – I’m sure she was probably shocked that you two were in bed together – but it was more the betrayal of the two people she loved and trusted most [who] had done this to her.
Do you think we’re living in a time when it’s impossible to be shocked at anything we see onscreen anymore?
Peter Sarsgaard: Oh, if your goal is to shock people with your movie then, you know…like [see] I Stand Alone. Did you ever see that movie? I found it pretty harrowing and shocking.
Sienna Miller: Or Irreversible.
Peter Sarsgaard: Irreversible. That’s by the same director [Gaspar Noe], I think.
Sienna Miller: Yes, exactly. Oh, my God. I couldn’t watch it. I was traumatized. I think that people like to feign shock because it’s what you’re supposed to do, but actually deep down it’s not that shocking. Irreversible and I Stand Alone is shocking, brutal and brilliant. But two men in a scene is actually not shocking.
Did you find that you guys used the [Michael] Chabon book or that you wanted to stay away with it?
Peter Sarsgaard: My character had been so combined between two characters that the book was confusing to me. I read the book out of curiosity, but I read it after I’d read the script and decided to do the movie. So it was like, “Oh, I wonder if there is anything in there.” But sometimes I would think, “Oh well, I guess anything is okay to use.” But if you read the book, it’s unclear who Cleveland is exactly in [it].
Sienna Miller: After I’d agreed to do the film, I read the book again, and I loved it and I actually did get some more insight into who [Jane] was from Chabon’s point of view. But then he was very much involved in the film process and the script. So any evolutions that it made he’d approved and was content with.
What did you get out of playing this character? What was the appeal? Aren’t you doing a big summer movie like GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra too?
Sienna Miller: I’ve historically always been drawn towards and gravitated to the smaller movies, independent films. That’s kind of where I’ve always been and that’s my comfort zone. Doing something like GI Joe was just a new experience and after that I’m going on Broadway in the fall. I think for me it’s the ability to hop between all different types of genres to figure out what I love. I think honestly I’m more comfortable doing these roles and that they tend to be the films that I prefer watching personally, but the experience of making a film like GI Joe is so different and fun in it’s own way.
Do you play a soldier in that?
Sienna Miller: No. I play a villain.
So you’re a bad girl?
Sienna Miller: Well, I’m a villain with guns, rifles, black leather, black wigs and gadgets.
Peter Sarsgaard: I’m first [one] in line!
Did you work out your characters together before each scene or did that happen more spontaneously?
Peter Sarsgaard: There was no working out of anything.
Sienna Miller: We tend to approach [it] the same way. Show up and jump.
There’s a fourth character in the book. Did you find that the movie changed a lot by not having that character?
Peter Sarsgaard: To be honest with you the book is kind of a distant memory for me. Rawson [Marshall Thurber, the director] took liberties with the book. Michael Chabon, it’s huge of him; [he] was very agreeable to that. It really was about the script and not the book.
Sienna Miller: But in essence you come away from the film and the book with the same feeling.
Which is… sadness or astonishment?
Sienna Miller: Which is a nostalgia and sadness, yeah. I cried at the end of the book. I haven’t [yet] seen the film.
Peter Sarsgaard: I was about to go into a reverie that no one would find very interesting [laughs].
Peter, your character is described at the very onset as a lunatic and you’ve just referred to him as an omnivore. Did you take the hint that he’s kind of crazy and self-destructive?
Peter Sarsgaard: I didn’t take any of it that literally at all. To be honest with you, when I thought about playing this character the things that came to mind were like the image of Julian Schnabel holding onto like a big piece of chicken and sitting in front of a huge fireplace.
Sienna Miller: In like his dressing gown.
Peter Sarsgaard: In his dressing gown. The jazz musician Ornette Coleman wears these blazers that always have primary colors on them. He just has this style that I’ve always been fascinated with. I don’t wear things like that in the movie though I did wear one blazer in honor of that. But I was searching for this guy that had transcended even what it meant to live in Pittsburgh, that there was no relationship between him and that time. The way that I look in the movie came from something that he had really dreamed up, that he was trying to become something that was in his mind. There have been a lot of great artists like that. It’s too bad he didn’t play an instrument or something because a lot of great artists are like that. Like Andy Warhol came from Pittsburgh, but where did he get the whole thing? It came from his mind.
Sienna Miller: Do you know actually, about Warhol, that his mother used to feed him on Heinz baked beans and in every cupboard there were rows and rows of beans. This is true. I’ve studied a lot [about] Andy Warhol. He got inspiration from the mundane.
Peter Sarsgaard: His hair. Where did he come up with the style and the whole thing? That’s from his mind.
You’ve both played bohemian characters before. What’s your attraction to that type of character?
Sienna Miller: I don’t know if Jane was that bohemian in this film. I think she’s in love with someone who’s very bohemian and she’s experimenting as people do when they’re growing up and discovering things about themselves. But in essence she plays the violin. She wants to go to college. She’s trying to setup her own life and isn’t a bohemian. I have played bohemians.
Peter Sarsgaard: I wouldn’t call her bohemian at all.
Sienna Miller: No, I wouldn’t either, but maybe we just bring an element of being bohemian into our characters because we are.
Your bohemian-ism seems to inform the characters.
Peter Sarsgaard: With internet isn’t everyone bohemian now? Everyone knows everything. I mean, my dad grew up in West Point, Mississippi, a town of just a few thousand people on the border of Alabama and my dad has been doing this photo project of people in the East Village that he calls bohemians. So my dad says, “I’m photographing bohemians.” To him it’s like going to the zoo. It’s like amazing. It’s like, “A bohemian. A poet. Look at this person.” You would have to be that sheltered to not have ever been exposed to that stuff and think that it was other. I think it’s been so incorporated into the way that we live that every kid knows of Allen Ginsberg if they want to. But it’s not even Allen Ginsberg. Look at their heroes, they’re all bohemians.
What was your attraction to this role?
Sienna Miller: I went through this year of working back to back to back and I didn’t want to stop.
What did you start that year with?
Sienna Miller: I started that year with… Oh, God, I can’t even remember. I just know that I think I’d done, or no Factory Girl was done.
Peter Sarsgaard: You’d just done Factory Girl or it was just being cut as we were filming.
Sienna Miller: Was it? Oh, yes. I’d done Factory Girl, Interview, something else I don’t remember, this and it was just this crazy year of work and I just wanted to keep on working. I’d always really admired Peter. I had actually read an interview with Peter in The New York Times Magazine and thought that he was extraordinary as an actor and as a person. So I really wanted the opportunity to work with him.
Peter Sarsgaard: And I respond extremely well to that kind of flattery.
What about the erotically-charged film you did with Keira Knightley?
Sienna Miller: That was after, yeah. I think that I did something after this. The Edge of Love was a year and a half ago. This was two and a half years ago.
Was Casanova before GI Joe?
Sienna Miller: It goes… Layer Cake, Alfie, Casanova and then Factory Girl into something else, this [I think]. I’m just trying to work it out. I can’t remember. It’s awful.
Peter Sarsgaard: It’s not awful. Nobody remembers anything.
Do you feel like you’ve gotten the focus back on you, Sienna Miller, the actress, rather than the tabloid stuff?
Sienna Miller: It’s very hard for people. I think the media comes up with what they want you to be and there’s very little you can do to change that. I can do several other things in my life that won’t be documented because it doesn’t sell newspapers. So they will document or create [what they want].
Peter Sarsgaard: They won’t take pictures of me being an ass. They just won’t print them. It doesn’t matter. I can walk down the street, pushing the baby carriage, smoking a cigarette, propositioning a hooker and no one takes a picture of it.
Sienna Miller: Your irony or sarcasm will actually translate to print. Mine somehow gets very lost in translation.
To change the subject, both of you have done theater. Do you have a ritual before going onstage that you superstitiously do?
Peter Sarsgaard: No. I have a practical one. I use the toilet, but every actor does that.
Sienna Miller: I generally just sort of quiver and shake going into a complete, “Why have I done this? I can’t do this” moment.
Do you cry every performance or just on opening night?
Sienna Miller: I get incredibly nervous, but that’s something, a quality in some actors that you like putting yourself through hell like that.
Peter, you’re going to do a benefit for an organization that works with children who stutter?
Peter Sarsgaard: I am because I just worked with Austin Pendleton, who’s a stutterer and has used it to fabulous effect in his career. He talks about getting jammed on a word and how freeing that can be. Do you know his work? He’s an incredible, incredible, incredible actor and director. Just a ferocious director. Honest, [Sienna] you would love acting with this guy. I’m going to it, honestly, because he asked me to. He directed Uncle Vanya. And he teaches acting.
And what about Broadway?
Sienna Miller: I’m doing a Patrick Marber play in the fall with The Roundabout Theater. After Miss Julie. The adaptation is from [August] Strindberg’s Miss Julie that’s been done at The Donmar in London. Me and Johnny Lee Miller at the moment. It’s [just] three people in the cast. I’m playing Miss Julie in that.
Sienna Miller: The dominatrix? No. I think it’s far more complicated than that. She’s absolutely not a dominatrix.
Peter Sarsgaard: She’s a dominatrix. He’s bisexual.
When do you start the run?
Sienna Miller: We start rehearsals the 20th of August. We open the 22nd of October and I’m doing it until the 14th of December, but I think just extended.
What characters have you not played that you would like to play?
Sienna Miller: There’s nothing specific. I don’t have a list of things. There are eras that I’m fascinated with. I know when I’m doing a film I really research the time. I’d love to do something in the ’20s around Scott and Zelda [Fitzgerald]. All of that I’m fascinated by. I’d love to do a real period [film], but way back, a medieval type thing. I’m a big fan of history.
Peter Sarsgaard: When I’m a little older, I really want to play Col. Vershinin from Three Sisters by [Anton] Chekhov. Maggie [Gyllenhaal, Peter’s wife] and I did Uncle Vanya this year and we’re talking about it. It was so nice performing together in a theater that only has two hundred people max, one hundred ninety nine that there’s no effort to sell. It will never be something that transfers. It will never be a commercial product and we’ve always wanted to act together, but it’s hard to do a movie together as a couple and then watch it bomb. How many couples have you seen do that and how horrible that must feel for them? For us, we didn’t know whether people loved it or hated it. We just knew that it was filled every night and they clapped and we didn’t read the reviews. We just went home and we felt fantastic and we just want to do that as much as possible.
Do you prefer the stage more than film?
Peter Sarsgaard: I do like acting onstage more, but there’s a craft to acting on film and it’s very cool. I really like acting. So when you’re doing a stage play you do tons of acting. Every night you act straight for two hours straight, plus and then you do it again. It feels good.
Sienna Miller: I think there’s nothing like the feeling of live theater, but people then, if you do a play, say, “Oh, that’s real acting.” And I’ve done work in film where it felt very much like real acting. It’s just a different technique. But the buzz of being onstage with a live audience is kind of unbeatable. Anything can go wrong. I’ve gotten terrible giggles onstage and incorporated it somehow into a Shakespeare heavy scene and it worked. You just have to absolutely jump and go with your instincts. Anything can happen and I get a kick out of that.
What happened to you playing Maid Marian in Robin Hood?
Sienna Miller: The script has been evolving and changing and it often happens in films. They’ve been trying to make this for a couple of years. They’ve rewritten the script and needed someone who was older. I think now the husband, the person who plays the husband has been away for ten years at war and comes back and it’s feasible. So Cate Blanchett is doing it. But this happens everyday. It’s just the media doesn’t make quite as much of a meal of it as they do when it happens to me, but this happens all the time. I’m sure it’ll be a wonderful project and this is not an absolutely shocking thing to happen in the movie industry when scripts evolve. Casts change. Other people have also been changed in that cast, but they just were not documented.
Were you disappointed?
Sienna Miller: No. It happens everyday. I would obviously love to work with Ridley [Scott], but I hope to in the future.
Peter, In the Electric Mist only came out in English as a DVD?
Peter Sarsgaard: In the Electric Mist has two versions. It does. It has the European version and the American version. The European version is the one that Betrand Tavernier, the director, wants everyone to know is his version. It is one that would not appeal to most American audiences, or might not. Who knows? But there are two versions of the film. I’ve seen neither.
You’re good as the alcoholic movie star, Peter. You’re poking fun…
Sienna Miller: See, with him it’s good. With me it wouldn’t be poking fun.
Of all those movies what’s your favorite role that you’ve done in this period?
Sienna Miller: I loved doing Edie [Sedgwick, in Factory Girl].
Is there a place in the world that you want to visit?
Sienna Miller: So, so many. Easter Island – I’d like to go see it before I die.
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Copyright ©2009 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: April 17, 2009.