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Words by Mr Tom Shone
The actor Mr Sarsgaard recently attended the 40th birthday party of a guy from his high school - an all-boys Jesuit school in Connecticut. "One of them said the wildest thing to me. He said, 'we all knew you were like artistic, but you also looked like you were really out of it. Were you actually thinking about something interesting or thinking about something? Were you thinking about, like, us?'"
He laughs - more of a giggle, girlishly high. "I told him, 'I was probably just spaced out.'"
Mr Sarsgaard gets this a lot. With his low-lidded, almond-shaped eyes, and sly, insolent manner, he often plays men honeycombed with secrets - a killer in Boys Don't Cry, an editor in Shattered Glass, a sharpshooter in Jarhead, the seducer of Ms Carey Mulligan in An Education - parts which instil in the audience a similar paranoia: what is that guy thinking? Is he thinking about us? If so, is it nice or nasty?
"I do think a decent amount of what I do as an actor comes from my ability to not express," he says. "I just smoulder. I combust internally."
We are in a West Village café not far from the pre-school of Ramona, his four-year-old daughter with actress Ms Maggie Gyllenhaal. He is shaven-headed, lithe, having recently lost 30 lbs for the part of the villain in the new Green Lantern movie - or was it that the movie coincided with a health-kick
he'd gone on for the sake of his daughter? "I wanted to become a better parent, live a long time with my kid, be active with her," he says. "I started exercising more and eating better, basically. And then I went like, 'Oh wow: you know what I should do, I should keep going...'"
A few years ago he heard himself saying that he would "never play a villain in a superhero movie". Funny then that he should star as Hector Hammond in Green Lantern, the upcoming sci-fi film based on the comic of the same name. The film follows the protectors of the galaxy, the Green Lantern Corps, as they meet a new enemy that threatens the fate of the universe, and planet earth. When director Mr Martin Campbell described the part of Hector Hammond, a xenobiologist and an enemy of the Green Lantern Corps, Mr Sarsgaard "could tell that he really liked the character. He defended him and I thought, 'You're defending the villain in this film. That's cool.' That was what sold me on it."
He pauses to order tea and an asparagus and proscuitto frittata ("Is the frittata good?" "It's ridiculous") then continues his train of thought. "I think the thing that's liberating about playing one of those parts is: these movies cost a lot of money, everybody gets really nervous about the way that everything is handled, everyone obsesses on the hero but the villains are allowed much wider range. Take-after-take Martin just set me loose like a dog."
Mr Sarsgaard came to movie acting relatively late, having studied ballet, history, then improv comedy, before acting in his own off-off-Broadway show, The Greatest and Most Exciting Gratuitous Exhibition Ever Exploited. "I had big plans when I arrived in New York," he says. "I got to grow in the dark. Nobody had to see me suck. Well, I've sucked before, but nobody got to see
the worst of it." In 2001, fresh from his breakthrough in Boys Don't Cry he met his future wife at a dinner party in the Pacific Palisades. "We immediately hit it off," he says. "The minute we started talking, we were immediately drawn to one another."
On one of their first dates, Ms Gyllenhaal put on a screening of her film Secretary, in which she plays a young woman who has a sadomasochistic relationship with her boss. By way of response, Mr Sarsgaard screened his film, The Centre of the World, in which he has graphic sex with a Vegas prostitute. "She told me what Secretary was like and I said, 'Oh I know of a good film that I have to screen with that one'," he says smiling. "It was a conversation."
That conversation has now broadened to include prams, pre-schools and juggled movie schedules. There's also a couple of stints on stage together: in Mr Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters, they, both times, played people trapped in their respective marriages who have an affair with one another. Mr Sarsgaard laughs at the whispering gallery. "People like to bring couples down. 'What does it mean that they're playing relatives...or lovers - that's disgusting...' It's better than doing Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and throwing the kettle at one another..."
"Better than having an actual affair," I say.
"Right. We get to have an affair with each other. I feel very fortunate. I've found pretty much everything I desire in a person. She's a phenomenal actress, she's intelligent, and sooo hot..."
Mr Sardsgaard's new film, Green Lantern, is out on the 17th of June