As a denizen of New York, Peter Sarsgaard knew all too well the overwhelming emotions associated with the tragic 9/11 attacks.
"In an emotional event like this, everyone's first reaction is just to lick their wounds," Sarsgaard said when he visited the L.A. Times video studio this week. "It's completely understandable. But it's just like if you have a relative who died of a drug overdose, not everyone wants to talk about the heroin problem on the day of the funeral. So, I think for a long time, I, like a lot of other people — I was scared a little bit, too, but also just not interested in talking about the hows and whys of what had happened."
Then came the 2006 release of Lawrence Wright's nonfiction book "The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11," that unpacked all the questions "that we had all been too afraid to ask or people weren't providing the answers for one reason or another," Sarsgaard said.
Even so, the idea of starring in Hulu's adaptation of the book took Sarsgaard five months to consider. Because to get involved in anything related to 9/11 still seemed too emotionally charged nearly two decades later.
"My wife [actress Maggie Gyllenhaal] said something about 9/11 after it happened that offended some people," Sarsgaard recalled. "She said, enough time has passed since 9/11 that we can start to think about the ways in which we are responsible. She didn't mean 'our fault,' she meant 'responsible, take responsibility, figure it out so it won't happen next time.' And the backlash was so major that I thought, God, how is anyone going to talk about this at all?"
So what got him to ultimately sign on?
"I hadn't stopped thinking about it."
In the series, Sarsgaard plays one of the show's few composite characters, Martin Schmidt, the head of the CIA's Al Qaeda unit who is pitted against his FBI counterpart John O'Neill (played by Jeff Daniels). Much of the series explores the tense turf wars between the CIA and FBI in the lead-up to 9/11.
"I hope and I think it would be behavior that was familiar to audiences," Sarsgaard said. "This is the way our relatives act with each other; this is the way we act with each other … no one was doing anything that was malicious. It was more out of arrogance."
Sarsgaard also talked about what it was like playing a composite character and working opposite Daniels. Check out what he had to say in the video below: