Peter Sarsgaard on his 'Killing' character's end: 'I don't think he thought he deserved salvation'

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Image Credit: Carole Segal/AMC

In a bold move that shocked The Killing‘s fans, showrunner Veena Sud wrote the execution of strangely sympathetic death row inmate Ray Seward into last night’s penultimate episode, “Six Minutes.” Taking place three years after Detective Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos) was instrumental in convicting Seward, the Seattle police officer now believed she had the wrong man. Between fascinating conversations, they both hurtled through a taut 12 hours, trying to secure a stay of execution for Seward — even as unexpected evidence caused Linden to doubt her instincts seemingly by the minute.

Peter Sarsgaard, who’s delivered a string of consistently stunning performances this season as Seward, rode a razor’s edge during his character’s final episode. Between fits of rage, callous evasions, playful flirtations, even glimmers of uncontrollable joy, Sarsgaard delved so deeply into Seward’s emotional state that he literally blacked out at one point during filming. Below, the actor talks what surprised him most about Seward’s final day, tells the story behind his character’s meaty last words, and is somehow okay with getting called creepy in the grocery store because of the role.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You really had to hit every point on the emotional spectrum this week. I could go on for 10 minutes trying to identify them all. How do you prepare for that kind of emotional volatility as an actor?
PETER SARSGAARD: You can’t really. It’s mostly just about relaxing. If you get tense and try to force it, it won’t work, and you might miss some possibility you never thought of. There comes a point when your body knows better than your mind does.

Most of your scenes were either with Mireille or Hugh Dillon (who plays Seward’s nemesis/guard Becker). How do you approach those acting face-offs? Do you talk at all beforehand? Do you keep your distance?
We don’t talk about it at all, that’s what I prefer. Because of my [character's] relationship to everyone in the world, except for a little bit Mireille’s character, I’m in my own universe. It’s me against the world.

Even in an episode like this one, with so much dialogue, there still seems to be so much that’s unsaid with Ray. He’s constantly calculating his responses and reactions. Did you talk with Veena about what was going on inside his mind? Or does she leave it to you to create that part of the character?
It’s completely up to me. I knew the shape of the season for my character, but there were always surprises each week when I would read the script. I felt like she was watching what I was doing and adding things… it was like a little bit of a dialogue was happening between the two of us, but it was between my acting and her writing. It was never spoken at all.

What were some of those surprises you mentioned?
That Seward didn’t end up getting a chance to talk to his son. I think in my mind, the whole season I kept thinking, “One of these days, I’m going to have a scene with my son.” I really thought that would happen.

In the moments before Seward connects with his son Adrian, I read where you said you actually blacked out filming the scene walking down the hall to Seward’s execution.
That does not mean I was being a good actor. I think it actually means I was being a bad actor. [Laughs] Yeah, I didn’t breathe. I just forgot to breathe. If you put yourself in the given circumstance of what’s happening — and it doesn’t take a lot to be able to do that, you just have to allow yourself — things happen that you wouldn’t have predicted. You can find a sense of humor some of the time, a way of flirting. It was interesting, I felt like [as Seward,] I wanted to touch every part of my psyche to say goodbye to it, including my sexuality.

That final scene between Linden and Seward really did have an unexpectedly flirtatious vibe to it.
It’s very heightened. This is, like, “I’m dying here!” It’s interesting what really high stakes do. That’s why people write really high stakes — to bring out all the different parts of the character, especially a character like this one who would like to remain hidden. It takes a lot to unearth him. That’s what this episode was — a massive excavation of the guy’s mind.

Even the scene outside between Holder and Linden. Though you weren’t in it, Holder sort of dresses down Linden for running away from things, and you could see that very defense mechanism as a throughline for all of them.
I don’t know anything I’m not in. [Laughs] I would get a chance to hear the whole script at the cast read-through, [but] I really liked the idea of being totally myopic about the way I played this guy: “What I see is what I see. I don’t see anything else.” I think it gave me that quality of really being totally like a guy who thinks he needs to do everything for himself. He doesn’t trust other people to represent him. He doesn’t trust the world to judge him fairly. It’s a little bit like if you could imagine yourself being in a country like North Korea and being in jail. I think that’s what it felt to him like — there was no hope of salvation, no one would believe him anyway. He himself thought he was totally, completely guilty. I don’t think he thought he deserved salvation.

And he says that to Linden in a purposefully cruel moment: “This is what you’re saving. What you’re doing is not noble.” Where do you think that guilt stems from?
Well there’s one thing that he very much feels guilty for having done, which is nearly destroying his son’s life. They had the beginnings of maybe the first relationship he’d had with any person in his life that was not completely f—ed up, and then when [as Ray] I show up [at his wife's apartment after she's been murdered], and there’s the body there, and I leave, I’m leaving my son with a body. I mean, that’s a very specific thing that he feels like he deserves to die for.

Is it that he gets in the way of himself? He had come back to the apartment to sort of rescue Adrian, to right his wrongs.
Yeah, but I think it was too much. I think he realized he’s somebody who does not handle that type of thing well.

Now that Seward’s life and arc are complete, how do you ultimately feel about him? Was he powerful? A failure? A pragmatist? Did you find that key into him as a person?
He changed a lot of the time. When he first arrived in prison, he’d been used to being in general population; he had his own version of strength, which was quiet and deadly and “I might rip your ear off.” It was a real way to protect himself. Over the course of the season, you see more of the coward and more of the man. Sometimes he’s a pragmatist, and sometimes he’s a romantic. He was a guy who hadn’t had someone reflect back at him the “Who am I?” That’s what a parent does — your parent says, “Oh look, you’re good at this. Oh look, this seems to be who you are.” If you don’t have people like that, you have no idea who the hell you are, and you try on a bunch of different things. That was one of the great freedoms of playing someone who was really in search of an identity.

And yet his final words were distinctly Seward. Were there any alternative lines? Did you talk with Veena about that line?
When it came up, I told her I loved it. We had been on the same website, Veena and I. She just told me this the other day because I said, “I go on this website,” which has a bunch of last words from people on death row. You see all the different things that people talk about. There was a quote on there that had inspired her, where somebody had talked about something not romantic and not accusatory. There are lots of different things that people typically do in films and TV at that moment, and I think what she gave me in that moment was the way that Ray would try to connect with Linden, by throwing out this thing that only the two of them knew. It was a way of connecting through this bureaucratic space of death.

Did you consider what you’d have for your last meal? Not Salisbury steak, I’m guessing.
I don’t think I could eat. I really imagined all parts of this. I kept thinking about like, “What would I do?” I could not imagine eating.

Seward is just one of the many bad guys, for lack of a better term, you’ve played in your career. Does that impact how people react to you day to day?
When I first started doing The Killing, I definitely had reactions. This one woman, maybe in her mid-50s, turned around in the grocery store and just whispered, “You are so creepy.” [Laughs] Everyone in line heard her. I think one of the things that’s happened is, I’ve had more people caring about Ray Seward than I can imagine even from having played a straight hero. I think it’s because his flaws are so massive. I mean, he says he beat his wife in front of his kid — glaring, horrible flaws. He’s a very, very flawed man. I think that’s easier to identify with in a lot of ways than a superhero. People live flawed lives.

And Seward lives completely in the moment, in the most extreme way, justifying whatever he needs to do for what means he needs to achieve…
He’s used to being on the offensive. When he first meets somebody, he puts them down so that he’s got his hand on their throat so that they can’t attack him. It’s like he gets someone in a submissive position because he’s used to being attacked. He’s somebody who doesn’t know how to just kind of meet [another person] and have an equal conversation.

But that’s exactly what made his exchanges with Linden so fascinating — in no small part thanks to your performance, too.
I truly enjoyed it. And I really, really, really could not be more against the death penalty. Part of me did take on the role because I think it’s easy to read about things and not feel them.┬áIt takes work to see something that’s so difficult. It’s easier to watch things and not feel anything or want to learn anything. I just hope that it gets people talking about an issue that I think is very important.

The Killing‘s two-hour season finale airs Sunday night at 9 p.m. ET.

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