Social psychologist Stanley Milgram’s experiments—especially his famous “obedience to authority” test—hold as deep a fascination today as they did in the 1960s when they were originally conducted. The obedience test premise: the subject is required to deliver increasingly severe electric shocks to a stranger in the next room when they answer questions incorrectly. The stranger, we know now, was an actor and the shocks fictional, but Milgram observed that most people will continue to obey authority despite the cries of pain from the next room. An underlying theme of Milgram’s experiments that continues to resonate is: what would you do?
Experimenter, in theatres and available on iTunes download today, examines the life of Milgram (played by Peter Sarsgaard) and his wife Sasha (played by Winona Ryder—we missed you!), with whom the public was equally fascinated. FLARE spoke to the film’s stars about the modern applications of Milgram’s work, the layers of reality in the film, and why in movie wardrobe, it all starts with the shoes.
How would you describe your characters?
Sarsgaard: He’s somewhat dispassionate. I felt like I was playing somebody that was from another planet, that could see this planet, that had been aware of this planet for quite some time, but was a visitor. He would make very mundane observations that would seem quite simple to you, like that people are very critical of pictures of themselves. But I think what makes many of them quite popular, is we go like “Oh yeah, I know what that feels like.”
Ryder: I got the opportunity to spend some time with Sasha and she’s an incredible woman who I think really kept [Stanley] grounded, but not in the traditional homemaker way. She was there working with him and was very encouraging. She was also very strong herself and experienced when they met. During that time, usually you were a virgin, but she had been to Paris and Vienna and she was a little bit worldly. I think it was a real, true love story.
How did you build the rapport required to play a married couple?
Sarsgaard: I’ve known Winona for a very long time so we had a baseline of communication, but this married couple as we played them and the ways in which they were close were pretty unusual. You’re dealing with a man who has a quality of not quite being among us, and also being totally, keenly aware of people. I think that would be a very interesting person to be married to.
Ryder: Peter is not only one of my favourite actors, but one of my absolute favourite people to be around and work with. He’s a friend; I’ve known him for 20 years, and he’s just an incredible presence to have on the set. I think we had really great chemistry.
What would you say stretched you the most as an actor in this role?
Sarsgaard: He had a certain style in front of the camera in the videos he made. His delivery had a kind of ease but he was also quite stiff on camera. So, I wanted to honour that. I liked that these scenes were another kind of reality that we were establishing in the movie, like there are many levels of reality even in the obedience to authority experiment. You have a person behind a machine that they think is a real machine to shock people, flipping switches when the other person gets it right or wrong. That person has another version of reality because they’re an actor pretending. Then you have Stanley Milgram behind the two-way mirror watching the whole thing and the interaction between all those people and that’s another version of reality. And in the movie, I thought that talking to camera was an opportunity to go into a kind of other alternate reality.
Ryder: I had it very easy not only because of working with Peter, but because it’s a relief for me to to be able to play my own age. I’m turning 44 this month, but on social media and Instagram, which I don’t have, there’s a real nostalgia for these old pictures of me, which is very sweet and they put up very nice pictures, but I’m like “Geez, like I don’t look like that anymore!” I think that was a problem I had for a while because I’d go up for things and they’d say “Oh, she just looks too young” even though I was the right age. And now I feel that with [last summer’s HBO series] Show Me a Hero, this film, and a show for Netflix I’m doing right now, I’m finally able to play my age, which is a relief.
How did the period costumes and grooming help you get into character?
Sarsgaard: I’ve always treated wardrobe as a nuisance so when I did The Killing, I was so happy that I was in jail because I could wear the same outfit all the time because it’s prescribed. To me, that’s the dream role when you don’t have to pick out your clothes. But with this it was almost the same way that your wife would pick out your clothing—I let the wardrobe department totally pick it out. So, I wasn’t somebody who thought about my clothes but I did think about my personal appearance way more than I normally do. I really wanted to wear these glasses that he wore all the time, but they didn’t quite look right on me. They didn’t look the same as they did on him. But he had various masks he was putting on, like the [Amish-style] beard, and I liked that.
Ryder: It’s tremendously helpful. There’s a saying about creating a character, and especially period pieces: you literally start from the shoes up because whatever shoes you wear, you walk differently in them. You walk differently in high heels than you do in flip-flops. It determines how you carry yourself. When I did a bunch of period pieces with corsets and I got some acclaim for that, I always wondered how much of it was due to the fact that I literally couldn’t breathe therefore looked very repressed! [Laughs.] But, yes, it’s tremendously helpful because of the way you carry yourself and also just feeling like you belong.
What about Milgram’s obedience to authority experiments speaks to you in terms of what’s going on today in the world?
Sarsgaard: Certainly his experiment about blind obedience to malevolent authority where we obey people that are in charge even if it goes against our own conscience and beliefs simply because they’re in a position of authority, you see everywhere, all over the world. Our fates, our childrens’ fates, lie in the hands of very few people sometimes, and resistance seems, not just difficult, but impossible. It’s like almost like a parental feeling.
Ryder: It is so incredibly, unfortunately, sadly relevant to what’s going on today. If you look at police brutality, for instance, and this idea of “just following orders.” I feel like what’s really frightening and just totally unfortunate is that you can apply this to so many cases—it’s just terrifying how painfully relevant the obedience experiments really are.
One of the temptations with these types of films is to wonder what you would do in these scenarios, so what do you think you would do if you were in Milgram’s experiment?
Sarsgaard: In terms of the obedience to authority experiment, I really think it’s impossible to know unless you’re doing it. I do know that no one went and opened the door and stopped the experiment. There were people that refused to continue, people wept and continued, very few people went through the whole experiment shocking the guy without some level of discomfort gleefully, but no one opened the door and I’ve always thought surely I would have opened the door if the guy screamed but you never know. No one did.
Experimenter opens in Toronto theatres, and is available on VOD and iTunes release today, and hits screens in Vancouver on November 1 and Saskatoon on November 20.
With files from Briony Smith.