The Killing Post-Mortem: Peter Sarsgaard on Ray's 'Cosmic' Guilt, 'Flawed' Sense of Heroism — Plus: The Scene That Made Him 'Black Out'
Just when you think The Killing can’t get any more harrowing, along comes “Six Minutes,” a stark, meditative episode focusing on the countdown to the (possible) execution of possibly innocent death-row inmate Ray Seward (Peter Sarsgaard), and the effort to exonerate him by Det. Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos), the very woman who helped convict him.
Before we get to our in-depth Q&A with Sarsgaard, let’s do a quick recap of the action:
The entire installment takes place within the walls of the prison, opening with a shot of a hooded figure being draped with a noose and plummeting through the floor of the gallows — but it turns out to be merely a test run with a plastic dummy. “We’ve got 12 hours, gentlemen,” bellows prison-guard Becker. “The clock starts now.”
Linden arrives at the jail shortly thereafter, asking Seward to examine the four unidentified rings found in the Pied Piper’s trophy collection to see if any match his murdered wife’s. Sure enough, our dead man walking identifies the used wedding band he bought for Tricia for $30, and Linden uses the new bit of circumstantial evidence to try to convince the attorney general to postpone the execution. The catch is, if she leaves the prison grounds, she won’t be able to return and probe Seward any further. Also in the bleak waiting room are Seward’s son Adrian and his foster mother, hoping for an audience with Ray before his sentence is carried out.
Seward and Linden engage in a pas de deux that ranges from confrontational to tender, from twisted to philosophical. Primarily, Linden tries to convince Seward to meet face-to-face with his son, while also trying to get more answers about whether he killed his wife or if he’s somehow protecting the guilty party. At one point, Seward declares himself a monster — he beat Tricia in front of Adrian; he crushed the prison chaplain’s jaw, so the man will have to feed through a straw the rest of his life — but Linden argues otherwise. Still, when Linden runs into Adrian and the boy admits that, in fact, he did see Seward in the apartment the night his mom was killed — the boy had lied earlier to avoid getting his dad in trouble — Linden is sent into a freefall*. “Why were you in that apartment that night? Why can’t you just tell me?” she pleads to Seward. “If you didn’t kill her, then what are you hiding?” But Seward remains enigmatic as ever. He says he’d planned to skip town, but went back to the apartment to get Adrian — wanting his child to have a boundless and happy life. But upon arrival, he found Tricia dead, and that’s as much as he’s willing — or able — to share.
Linden uses her remaining time with the convict to make the case for why he needs to take an audience with Adrian. “Don’t leave without letting him see you, know you. He will carry that with him every time he looks in the mirror — the broken parts of you. Because you never let him see the best part. I know what it’s like to never have that,” she says. But right after Holder helps Adrian fix his cowlick in the bathroom, the clock runs down, and Becker announces that it’s too late for any additional visitors. Seward roars with rage and anguish, but Linden reminds him that Adrian is right outside the door, that the boy can hear them, and that he should focus on the thought of the trees outside his window.
We cut to a scene where the prison guards outfit Seward in a diaper, slippers and a jumpsuit, then lead him down the hallway toward the execution chamber. Seward begins to collapse under the horror of the moment, and it’s babyfaced Henderson who becomes the bulldog: “I will put you on that board! Is that what you want? Get up and be a man. Walk! Walk!” But then, right before they reach the gallows, Henderson stops the procession, Seward looks out the window, and there are Linden and Adrian, staring up at him like lights in the limitless darkness. And then it’s up the stairs of the gallows, where Henderson places the hood over the panicked prisoner (because Becker freezes up and can’t do it). Asked for any final words, Seward declares, “Salisbury steak’s not steak. It’s ground beef.” Then, he turns serious. “No, let’s get this show on the road, warden.”
Levers are pulled, the floor opens up under Seward, and he drops. Except he doesn’t die instantly. He hangs there, writhing, guttural sounds emanating as he struggles against death, until eventually, silence falls.
(*When Linden learns that Seward was present at the scene of the crime, she races to leave the prison, but an inebriated Holder snatches her keys and demands she see the situation to its conclusion, wondering what happened to her in her life that always makes her hit the exit before there’s a chance to get hurt. And then, using humor to wash away his near-miss kiss attempt that Linden deflected last week, he adds, ”I’m not gonna try and kiss you again, Linden. Keep dreamin!”)
And now, for a Q&A with Sarsgaard…
TVLINE | Did you know Ray Seward’s full arc when you took this role, or did you base your decision on the Season 3 premiere script alone?
I knew the whole thing. I didn’t know all the details, but I knew where it was going.
TVLINE | I kept thinking, or at least hoping, that Ray was going to get a reprieve, or an extension, because it’s pretty clear he was not guilty of murdering his wife. But no, they actually end up hanging him!
One thing I liked about [the story arc] was that nothing was going to be perfectly solved. For Ray Seward, in his heart, he believes he’s guilty, even though it appears that he’s not guilty of this crime. On a deeper level, he feels like he’s guilty — guilty of being a terrible father and a terrible husband and a terrible human being. And that was something [executive producer] Veena [Sud] and I talked about from the very beginning. One, I didn’t want to play the character forever. But two, in terms of the issue at stake, it’s going to affect people very strongly — knowing that a quote-unquote innocent man is being killed. That’s the thing everyone always gets upset about with the death penalty. For me, I’m also upset that guilty people are killed via the death penalty. I don’t believe that anyone should be killed. Period. By the state or by people.
TVLINE | Tell me about the pivotal moments of the episode: Becker telling Ray that, because of a state mandated guideline, he’s not going to see his son before he’s executed; Ray walking down the hallway to the gallows; and then Ray ascending the platform and being hanged.
Oh God. The first thing we shot [for the episode] was the hanging, actually. But the part where I find out I’m not gonna see my son, it’s honestly a mixture of feelings. I know in the episode it looks like anger and grief, but there’s also a part of Ray that’s too scared to see his son. What’s he gonna say to him? Would it even be good for his son to see him after all these years?
TVLINE | Based on Ray’s interaction with his own dad a few episodes ago, it’s easy to understand the reluctance.
Exactly. Ray is thinking, “You don’t need to be touched by this at all. I want this to never have been a part of your life.” But of course it’s going to be. And as far as the walk down [to the gallows], he’s just trying to find the strength to do what he needs to do. It felt like I was in a Greek tragedy at that point, that this was some trial by fire I had to go through. I wanted to do it in a way that was strong, in a way that I kept my humanity, that I didn’t just turn into a f****** quivering mass of emotion.
On the walk right up to when I see my son [outside the window] — I was working a lot with my breathing, because your breath is obviously one of the first things that gets to be dysfunctional in a situation like this. It’s the thing that brings out a lot of feelings, and it’s a thing you can use to stifle a lot of feelings. So it turned out I was holding my breath quite a bit during that time, and I blacked out during one take — moments before we got to that window. I was holding my breath being a very intense actor. [Laughs] I definitely approached this episode with the idea of how we as a society execute people — and to honor that, I wanted to really, fully play it. I figured, “It’s a sprint — I’m not gonna have to do this but for a couple of days,” so I really tried to go for it, really put myself in the given circumstances, and be there absolutely 100 percent in every single moment. And it turns out I’m somebody who would’ve held his breath and blacked out for a moment. [Laughs] But after I finished that take, I was like, “All right: You’ve got to settle down! A good actor is not someone who actually hurts himself while he’s working. That’s not a sign of good acting. Nobody cares.”
TVLINE | What about the moment of seeing your son out the window, standing there with Linden?
My son emboldens me. I get a lot of power from him. But none of that is filmed in sequence, so the thing about this episode is knowing that you can be emboldened one moment and be weak the next. It’s not a perfect arc of any kind. And I knew that in reality, my feelings would be flying off the wall the entire time we filmed anyway, so I didn’t worry a whit about emotional continuity.
TVLINE | With the actual hanging, our worst nightmare gets realized: It’s not an instantaneous death. What was your reaction when you read that in the script?
I really thought Veena was going for the jugular in a great way. [Laughs] It’s a fantasy to think we can kill people in a way that’s painless. A lot of people who want the death penalty might not care if a person experiences pain; they might even want the person to experience pain. So I don’t know how many hearts and minds this episode changes — and it’s a different situation if it’s your daughter who was murdered.
Obviously the anti-death penalty movement focuses on innocent people being killed rather than guilty ones. But even when you “euthanize” people through lethal injection, it’s not a perfect, fun-filled fantasy ride. The truth is, there’s not a humane way of doing it — mainly because the buildup to it is inhumane. The idea that you’re going to die on such-and-such a date, that someone is going to kill you, it’s inhumane. For people who haven’t had that drilled into their heads, maybe that last little beat at the end [of the episode] will do it.
TVLINE | And like you pointed out, the fact that the person knows he’s walking to his own death is a pretty brutal reality.
It’s horrible. I remember seeing, right before we filmed, the Chinese executed this guy and they filmed a lot of it for national television. He was a drug dealer who’d been convicted of killing people on the river. They steady-cammed him down the hallway toward the execution chamber — and I actually watched a little piece of that. What was interesting about that guy was how contained he was. That’s the other kind of person, the one who can’t believe what’s about to happen.
TVLINE | Did you do a lot of research into the experiences of death-row prisoners, watch a lot of that kind of footage?
Just a little bit — because at a certain point it becomes just like voyeurism. I just wanted to touch base with it. The first movie I ever did was Dead Man Walking, so I visited death row on that movie and stood outside during an execution and met families on both sides. I’ve got some experience with it, but in the end, as an actor — we talk about our research — but the real research comes from your own heart, your own body, your own mind.
TVLINE | The frustrating aspect to Ray’s death is the complete lack of answers. He never truly explains to Linden why he was in that apartment, why he’s been reluctant to speak the truth, whether he’s protecting anyone and if so, who it is he’s protecting. What’s that about?
Story-wise, why Veena does it is that it leaves open the question of whether this person is in some way guilty; he’s apparently not guilty of having killed his wife, but he may be guilty in other ways. Does it matter in terms of us killing him?
For Seward, he feels he’s guilty on a cosmic scale. With him not answering those questions, it’s a form of anger and futility. He has the wrong idea of what it means to be a hero and a man: You don’t plead, you don’t beg for forgiveness, there are no excuses, and if you’re going to be grand inquisitor on me, you can absolutely go f*** yourself. “I’m guilty!” It’s like a child — that’s the best way to understand Ray: “But if you didn’t do it, why are you acting like you did?” It doesn’t make adult logical sense. It’s emotion-driven.
TVLINE | Do you have an urge now to go off and do a light comedy?
I have a deep urge to go do a movie where I shoot the right people. [Laughs] No. I have a deep urge to do a movie that’s not rooted in reality too much. That sounds very appealing.
For more on Peter Sarsgaard’s journey playing Ray Seward, including what it was like to work opposite Mireille Enos, click here.
What did you think of Sarsgaard’s final act as The Killing’s Ray Seward? Are you shocked that his character was put to death? Any theories on how Season 3 will wrap up next week? Sound off in the comments!Follow @MichaelSlezakTV