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Originally published Friday, November 11, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Movies

Intense performances are Peter Sarsgaard's hallmark

Movie stars travel with entourages, assistants, publicists, friends or relatives. That's who the bearded dude answering the door to a Four...

The Orlando Sentinel

TORONTO — Movie stars travel with entourages, assistants, publicists, friends or relatives.

That's who the bearded dude answering the door to a Four Seasons Hotel suite looks to be. He says a polite "Hi," turns on his heel, runs back to turn off the tennis match on TV.

"This is Peter," offers a studio publicist, a step or two late.

Oh heck. It is Peter Sarsgaard. The chameleonic roughneck of "Boys Don't Cry," the withering journalist-scold of "Shattered Glass," the scary air marshal of "Flightplan" and the bisexual tease of "Kinsey" has transformed himself. Again.

"I've been off," he shrugs. And when he's off, he grows a disguise.

He did three movies in a row — "Flightplan," the fall's surprise action hit; an indie movie called "The Dying Gaul" (which opens today); and the grueling drama about Marines in the Persian Gulf War, "Jarhead," which opened last week. Sarsgaard, 34, figured he had earned some time to relax, to windsurf on Martha's Vineyard, maybe finish writing a script he has been fiddling with for four years.

"I'm taking enough time off after these films that a dramatic redirection in my career could come about without me even being conscious of it," he says.

Not that he doesn't love his job. That was him swiping "Garden State" from Zach Braff, charming and then menacing Kate Hudson in "The Skeleton Key," or lending a sympathetic ear to Jodie Foster until ... well, if you haven't seen "Flightplan," let's not give that away.

He does this by listening to everybody with an interesting opinion on the set. Sure, he gets directed by the director. But if the hairdresser suggests a look might be right for this part, he takes it. Ditto the wardrobe mistress.

"I know that my imagination of what I can do is limited by my experience, so I try to glean as much as I can from other people's experiences," he says.

But don't try to get too deep with him on the work or technique.

"It's like being a writer," he says. "If you talk about writing all the time, you never get around to doing it. Same with acting."

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He likes looking for movies with social relevance — sexual research in an age of Puritanism ("Kinsey"), the death of journalistic ethics ("Shattered Glass"). "Jarhead," a war story told in a time of war, fits that.

"Tell a strong story, but let the idea behind it be simple, so that everybody can get it," he says. "It's a powerful medium. Why not try to do something meaningful for our times?"

Cagey but pleasant in person, Sarsgaard carries some scary baggage with him into most roles. The way he narrows his eyes into an accusatory slit makes you wonder if he's got a knife with him to finish the job. Even in "good guy" roles, he gives you pause.

In "Jarhead," he plays Troy, the mentor to a young recruit (Jake Gyllenhaal) as they fight boredom in the desert in the 1991 war. It's a guarded, intense performance, a Sarsgaard specialty.

"The easiest way to steal something is to pick it up and walk out of the room with it," he says.

Oscar buzz-builder Jeffrey Wells of Hollywoodelsewhere.com predicts Sarsgaard will "score big with this performance."

Gyllenhaal was left in awe.

"I spent the whole movie going, 'Is Peter just lazy? Does he care to be here?' " Gyllenhaal says. "And in that remarkable big moment, the crux of the film, I sat there after three or four takes, all phenomenal, and I shook my head. You could see all the dominoes that he'd lined up, in his performance, up to then.

"He knocked them over, and I was like, 'Whoa. What? Can I go back and do my part over again? From the start?'

"You never know what he's doing. But he's just lining up the dominoes."

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