Sex and the Kinsey guy

While sexual fluidity may attract talented actors like Kinsey's Peter Sarsgaard, it seems to frighten away audiences--and Oscar voters. The actor and his openly gay directors speculate on why

BY Advocate.com Editors

March 01 2005 1:00 AM ET

To understand
Peter Sarsgaard’s attitude about sex on the screen,
look no further than the central scene from his most recent
role, bisexual graduate student Clyde Martin in
2004’s highly acclaimed but Oscar-snubbed
Kinsey. In the sequence in question, Martin
tenderly seduces his mentor, Dr. Alfred Kinsey (Liam
Neeson), the postwar pioneer in sexual research who
discovered that people have more sex with more
diversity and less monogamy than anyone had previously
believed. After the two men have spent an evening culling
harrowing stories from the patrons of mid-1940s Chicago gay
bars, Martin casually undresses in front of Kinsey
back at their hotel room until he’s standing
before him completely, full-frontally nude—as
Kinsey talks to his wife, Clara (Laura Linney), back home at
Indiana University. (Martin will eventually bed her as well.)
Now, some male actors whose careers are just
starting to really take off might seriously brood for
days on end over the decision to bare it all;
Sarsgaard loved the idea. “It makes so much sense
that I would not only be nude but just be nude a
second too long,” the 33-year-old observes with
real pride. “It doesn’t mean I’m
hitting on him, but if I just do it a second too long,
I can check and see [if Kinsey is interested]. I liked
that it would have a dramatic meaning, that it would
be active nudity.”
And if audiences thought the fiercely passionate
kiss Sarsgaard shares with Neeson at the end of the
scene was gutsy—again, no big deal. It was a
bit strange, he admits, kissing a straight man he’s
known long enough to be drinking buddies with (they
had already worked together on the Soviet-submarine
thriller K-19: The Widowmaker), but really,
“You just look for qualities that are
attractive in [your on-screen partner], and Liam has a lot
of attractive qualities. Kissing is kissing.”
It’s not that Martin’s a predator,
just blissfully open-minded about sex and insatiably
curious to explore it. “I wanted to treat him
like he was embryonic, in a way,” says
Sarsgaard, “like [he] had somehow avoided any sort of
cultural stigmas in regard to sexuality, a person who
was willing to learn and was willing to accept
whatever his sexuality might be. Like, Oh, here’s
this girl, she’s nice. This feels good. Oh,
here’s a guy. Cool.”
This is not a character one sees that much in
American cinema, or, for that matter, in American
life. Although Sarsgaard calls Martin “probably
the healthiest person, sexually, I’ve ever
portrayed,” the idea of an unsettled, changing
sexuality is—let’s face it—still
a threatening prospect to the status quo, both gay and straight.
“I think it’s one of the
unfortunate things you see in the gay community, this
kind of insistence on defining yourself,”
laments Bill Condon, Kinsey’s gay
writer-director. He recalls the time he asked Clarence A.
Tripp, a former colleague of Kinsey’s whose
controversial book about Abe Lincoln’s possible
same-sex affairs was just published posthumously,
about what Kinsey, who died in 1956, would have made of
today’s gay rights movement. “He said,
‘Oh, he would’ve been horrified.’
[Tripp was] a provocateur, so I think he was partly
kidding, [but] the point that he was making is that
anyone defining themselves by their sexual acts [alone] is
in some way limiting themselves.”
In his lifetime, Kinsey kept his and his
staff’s extramarital sexual explorations a
secret; they were revealed only recently in new
biographies and, of course, in Condon’s film. But it
seems the public is just as averse to such sexual
adventurousness now as when Kinsey released his widely
condemned study of female sexuality in 1953.
Kinsey has grossed less than $10 million in the
United States and was nearly shut out of the Oscars, which
overlooked Kinsey’s real-life gay
writer-director and on-screen bi-dabbling male leads
in favor of a single nomination for Linney, playing
the stalwart, strictly hetero wife.
“Given that Neeson and Condon have been
smiled upon by the academy before [Neeson with a
nomination and Condon with a win],” observed
Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan,
“and that Kinsey is impeccably made in a
traditional way, the most plausible explanation [for their
snub and for Sarsgaard’s] is that Alfred
Kinsey’s wildly unconventional, self-mutilating
bisexual lifestyle was too much for enough academy
members to keep the honors away.” (In contrast, the
iconoclastic Independent Spirit Awards, which will
hold their irreverent fete for indie cinema on the day
before the Oscars, tapped Neeson, Sarsgaard,
Condon’s screenplay, and the film itself as a
potential Best Feature.)
For his part, Condon thinks the clinical nature
of Dr. Kinsey as well as a skittishness about seeing
any movie that deals frankly with sex in a darkened
theater filled with strangers had as much to do with his
film’s unhappy box-office returns as any aversion to
the notion of a married man with kids who also happily
sleeps with other men. “I hope,” he
adds. “At the same time, I’ll tell you that
even at a [recent] Writers Guild screening there were groans
during the kissing between Liam and Peter, and that
surprises me. It just emphasizes Kinsey’s last
line in the movie: ‘There’s a lot of work
to do.’ ”
So what does Sarsgaard make of his
character’s happy embrace of a sexual identity
that’s not nailed down? “The question is, At
what point are you supposed to nail it down?” posits
Sarsgaard, who’s been happily coupled with
indie-darling actress Maggie Gyllenhaal since 2003.
“I hear people say that all the time, straight
and gay. If we decide, ‘Oh, you should really have
[your sexuality] nailed down by your 30s,’
doesn’t that seem arbitrary? Isn’t it
all just arbitrary, then? Can’t you have
searched your whole life and never have figured it out? If
we lived in a world where there weren’t these
ideas about what it means to be straight and gay, if
we were all just free and open, then it seems like it
would be easier. But I’m not sure that exists.”
If it seems like Sarsgaard has given the subject
more thought than your average actor, well, he notices
it too: “I think sex is something that
I’ve definitely been interested in for a long
time.” No kidding: In his 10 years as an actor,
he has pretty much run the gamut. He has committed
rape (on Hilary Swank’s character in Boys
Don’t Cry,
his breakout film);
he’s been raped (by Sean Penn in Dead Man
Walking,
his debut). He’s had straight sex
layered in hot-sauce-and-ice-cubes kink (in The
Center of the World
). Most recently
he’s had gay sex tied fast to knotty Faustian
bargains in The Dying Gaul, which made waves at
January’s Sundance Film Festival.
Sarsgaard certainly has mastered roles that
haven’t required him to doff his boxers and
make with the hot-and-sweaty. In this year alone
he’s starring in four major films, including The
Dying Gaul,
the supernatural thriller The
Skeleton Key
with Kate Hudson, and the
paranoia-in-a-jet-plane thriller Flightplan
with Jodie Foster. There’s also the highly
anticipated Jarhead, an adaptation of Anthony
Swofford’s best-selling Gulf War memoir that
Sarsgaard is currently filming in the desert in
California and Mexico with American Beauty director
Sam Mendes and costars Jake Gyllenhaal and Jamie
Foxx—hence his hip buzz cut.
As an actor, however, Sarsgaard’s
fondness for sexually adventurous parts in sexually
adventurous films represents a mature, open-minded
attitude about sex that has become increasingly rare in,
well, just about every facet of mainstream American culture.
“I think sex is a very big issue
that’s tied in with so many different
things,” says Sarsgaard. “It’s not just
that I’m obsessed with sex, like I want to hump
everything. I guess I’ve always been trying to
understand it, not in terms of even
heterosexual/homosexual, [but] what is this charged
situation that we always live in? For me, it’s
every day—the everyday drama that’s
happening all the time.”
A sentiment after Kinsey’s own heart,
it’s probably what allows Sarsgaard to lure in
his audiences with little more than a flicker from his
sleepy-eyed stare. “There’s something very
seductive about every part of his being,”
agrees Condon. Sarsgaard’s Illinois-born
Midwestern roots were in line with Kinsey’s decision
to hire blue-eyed, all-American corn-fed types for his team
(all the better to keep interviewees at ease and
appearances on the up-and-up), but Condon says he was
just as drawn to the actor’s “sense of
being very comfortable with who he is and very open to
everything,” an essential factor to capturing
the fluid sexuality of his character.
“He’s the one in this film who goes out and
seeks [sex] from people. He’s our sexual catalyst.”
Of course, as Sarsgaard himself points out,
“you’re not allowed to be like that now,
to go into it in a way that [is] totally naive without
any social or political ideas.” If anything, men like
Clyde Martin have been supplanted in today’s world by
something more precarious. In writer-director Craig
Lucas’s enthrallingly tangled The Dying
Gaul,
Sarsgaard plays Robert, a struggling
screenwriter circa 1995 who enters into a high-wire
affair with a bisexual Hollywood executive (Campbell Scott,
star of the Lucas-penned Longtime Companion 15
years ago). It’s a dangerous game even at the
outset—Robert’s still deep in grief from
his lover’s recent AIDS-ravaged death—but
it’s not until the exec’s wife (Patricia
Clarkson) accidentally learns of the affair that all
three relationships become truly ensnarled and,
ultimately, tragic.
Nothing quite as brutal has befallen playwright
Lucas, who wrote Reckless and Prelude to a
Kiss
and makes his directorial debut with The
Dying Gaul,
but it is an equation he understands
quite well. “I have known an inordinate number
of bisexual men,” Lucas says matter-of-factly.
“I’ve had relationships with men who have
been married for many years and who have gone back to being
married after being with me. I think it happens all
the time; it’s just not talked about.
It’s a very, very hard way to be in this world.
There’s no room for it in our culture.”
That cultural hush when it comes to the sexually
atypical is also what Sarsgaard feels fuels his
character’s rage at an establishment that
won’t really acknowledge what AIDS has wrought upon
so many gay men: “He sees it as
‘us’ and ‘them,’ and I
think a lot of gay people I know see it as
‘us’ and ‘them.’
I’m fascinated by that.” How so?
“I’m included in the big ‘we’
more of the time, you know, the presidential
‘we.’ I think if you look at literature
and movies, the most interesting stuff is always [about] the
people who don’t feel like they’re part of the
‘we.’ Those are the best characters, the best
novels, the best everything. Opposition, a little
friction, creates the pearl, I guess.”
Sarsgaard left a childhood spent moving around
the Midwest and South to attend Jesuit high school in
Connecticut; he actually feels less a part of that
presidential “we” than he initially lets on.
He and Lucas became good friends while working on
The Dying Gaul—the 53-year-old
playwright even had to cut his interview short lest he
be late for dinner with Maggie Gyllenhaal’s
mother—an amity Lucas traces to Sarsgaard’s
affinity for the “them.” “He has
a sense of being an outsider in certain ways,”
Lucas observes, “and so I think other outsiders are
drawn to him. He’s become one of my dearest friends,
and I don’t have a lot of friends. I think the
world of him.”
“I guess as a white heterosexual man
living in the United States, I should feel like
I’m part of the big accepted group,”
concedes Sarsgaard, who earned his greatest
pre-Kinsey acclaim for portraying buttoned-down
New Republic editor Chuck Lane, who uncovered the
pathological fabrications of journalist Stephen Glass, in
2003’s fact-based Shattered Glass.
“But I’ve always felt more like an
outsider, which is fortunate because intellectually
I’m more interested in them also.”
He doesn’t appear to be the only one
either: Sarsgaard is part of a small but heady cluster
of talented, well-respected, relatively well-known
male actors who seem far less abashed about taking on
clearly gay or bisexual roles than their predecessors
were even 10 years ago: Colin Farrell in A Home at
the End of the World
and Alexander;
Gael García Bernal in Bad Education (from
writer-director Pedro Almodóvar, another Academy
favorite and past Oscar winner who was overlooked this
year); Joseph Gordon-Levitt in this May’s
Mysterious Skin (which also made a splash at
Sundance), and most notably Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger
in the hotly anticipated gay romance Brokeback
Mountain,
due from director Ang Lee (The
Wedding Banquet
) in the fall.
Sarsgaard is dating Jake’s sister, and
they’re making a movie together, so of course
they’ve talked about Brokeback Mountain,
right? “I don’t want to talk too much
for Jake, but I think Jake first and foremost looks at
that movie as a very tragic love story, gay or not
gay,” Sarsgaard says. “I think
that’s just from having been in it. You
don’t really label it when you’re in it.”
These straight actors are all company Sarsgaard
is quite happy to keep, but he’s not about to
start patting himself on the back for his bravery.
“Wouldn’t the more interesting thing
be,” he asks with a knowing laugh, “for
an actor who is actually gay to be allowed to play the
role? I mean, great, we’ve come this far. We
have me, Colin Farrell, Jake Gyllenhaal—all these
people playing these roles. Cool. Now, can you imagine
a world where gay actors, out gay actors, were playing
these roles in these very interesting movies? Sure,
we’ve moved an inch…” He trails off,
leaving Kinsey’s final admonition unspoken:
There’s a lot of work to do.

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