RENDITION directed by Gavin Hood, written by Kelley Sane, with Reese Witherspoon, Jake Gyllenhaal, Meryl Streep and Peter Sarsgaard. An Alliance Atlantis release. 120 minutes. Some subtitles. Opens Friday (October 19). Rating: NNN
Peter Sarsgaard is one of those brilliant young actors whose name you probably don't recognize; just for the record, no, he's not that guy from Breaking The Waves.
But a quick look at his face or listen to his nasal John Malkovich-lite voice and you can place him. In movies like Kinsey and Shattered Glass, he's stolen scenes as the top-of-the-class smart kid, the character who's determined to get to the truth.
"I've also played a lot of rapists and drug addicts," he laughs during an interview at the recent Film Festival. (No kidding. His first big role was as Hilary Swank's rapist in Boys Don't Cry.)
"But I do like piecing together information and using my mind in a role. I don't particularly enjoy playing characters who are just emotional beings without being intellectual beings."
In Rendition, he stands out as Alan Smith, a senator's aide who tries to uncover what happened to the Egyptian-American husband of his college girlfriend (Reese Witherspoon). The man seems to have disappeared while flying from South Africa to Washington, DC, and Smith discovers that he's likely been hauled away for interrogation as a suspected terrorist under the U.S. government's policy of extraordinary rendition.
"We obviously all agree to give up our personal freedoms every day, a little bit here and there," he says on the controversial subject. "I needed a passport to come to Canada. But at what point do we say, 'No more'? Shouldn't that be a very out-in-the-open conversation we have with the people we elect?"
Sarsgaard, now a member of the ultra-liberal extended family that includes fiancée Maggie Gyllenhaal, her brother (and Rendition co-star) Jake and their filmmaking parents, says he was drawn to the film's timely subject.
"It was made by people who obviously think this is not what we should be doing," he says. "But there's a real interest in understanding what the other side believes. They've tried to be as balanced as possible. It's brilliant to cast Meryl Streep to articulate that other side."
Streep plays the CIA's head of anti-terrorism, the Southern-accented Corrine Whitman. In one of the film's strongest scenes, Sarsgaard's aide ambushes Whitman in public. How intimidating was it to go up against the best female actor of our generation?
"I think it was exactly how it was for my character," laughs Sarsgaard. "It was something I really wanted to do. The power was clearly hers. But I felt like I could grab a lot of it, just like my character did. And I think it made the scene very easy to act. I thought I could go up to this woman and have a discussion with her and win the argument."
He giggles as if he can't quite believe his cojones.
"Listen, I get excited to work with actors who are good," he says. "I'm more nervous trying to act with someone who's not gonna, you know, hit the ball back."
Additional Audio Interview Clips
On playing his ambitious Rendition character:
On an actor's responsibility to do politically challenging material:
RENDITION (Gavin Hood) Rating: NNN
Passionate, politically timely and boasting a cast that includes three Oscar-winning actors and an Oscar-winning director (Gavin Hood helmed Tsotsi), Rendition is obviously being positioned as awards season bait. Too bad it's not a bit more artful.
Reese Witherspoon plays Isabella, the wife of an Egyptian-born American (Omar Metwalley) who disappears on a flight from South Africa to Washington, DC. With the help of a former college friend (Peter Sarsgaard) who now works for a senator (Alan Arkin), she discovers that her husband is likely being held in a Guantánamo-style compound as a suspected terrorist.
Meanwhile, Jake Gyllenhaal's stone-faced CIA analyst gets a first-hand look at the country's interrogation techniques. "This is my first torture," he says, one of the script's few clever lines.
The performances are solid. Sarsgaard in particular adds subtlety to his political climber, and he more than holds his own against Meryl Streep's secretive Southern-accented government official who's endorsed the interrogations.
The strongest elements are the bluish-grey tones of the interrogation sequences and the clever narrative structure.