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Peter Sarsgaard, Best Actor at Venice, Reflects on Acting, AI and the Actors’ Strike

Sep 25, 2023 | AI, Culture

PHOTO CREDIT: Denis Makarenko 

Peter Sarsgaard (Garden State, The Lost Daughter, Blue Jasmine, Jarhead, Jackie, Shattered Glass) won Best Actor at this year’s Venice Film Festival for his performance in Memory, the new film from the director Michel Franco, starring Sarsgaard and Jessica Chastain. In his acceptance speech, sanctioned by an interim agreement from his union, Sarsgaard poignantly captures the artist’s conflict with the limitations of artificial intelligence, one of the key issues in the actors’ strike against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. 

Peter Sarsgaard: Okay.

Caterina Murino: Take your time, you can breathe.

Peter Sarsgaard: Oh I will, yeah.

Caterina Murino: Yes, you can. (audience laughter) It’s your time.

Peter Sarsgaard: For me, a moment like this has always been about connection, right? It’s a communion. And everything is amplified up here. This space between us is alive. And, I guess for me, like a beehive, we can catch a glimpse of the notion that we really are one entity.

So when I was very young, as a Catholic altar boy, if you can imagine, I found that feeling in the church in the quiet time after I had tucked the Eucharist away in my pocket for safekeeping to look at later. And I felt at least some of the people around me were thinking of this, something outside themselves. Which was mainly the elderly, and other children looking at the elderly. I lapsed, like many Catholics. But I discovered it was in other places, this hum of humanity. I found it in the library. I actually found it on the soccer pitch occasionally. And in the music halls, and most profoundly in the theater. And, not in being onstage and having people watch me, but in the theater, out there, in the moment when the lights go down, before the play or film starts, our minds are in unison. It has something to do with silence, collective silence. If I were brave enough right now, I’d stop talking for a full minute, or long enough that we might get past the worries about time and performance, and perhaps all the communal joy and anxiety and all the more complicated feelings would have a chance at least to become animated in this space between us. The shared human experience, it’s a simple idea, but it’s an essential sacrament of humanity.

So as I’m sure all of you know, my union of actors, SAG (Screen Actors Guild)- along with the WGA (Writers Guild of America)- are on strike. (applause) Thank you. So all of the issues regarding fair pay are important. But the issue that’s really struck a chord with me is AI, artificial intelligence. And it’s hard to prioritize it as it really does seem the stuff of science fiction. But I think we could all really agree that an actor is a person, and that a writer is a person. But it seems that we can’t. And that’s terrifying, because this work we do is about connection. And with that, without that, this animated space between us, this sacrament, this holy experience of being human will be handed over to the machines and the eight billionaires that own them. So if we lose that battle in the strike, our industry will be the first of many to fall. Including perhaps the way we treat medical patients, to the way we fight wars. And disconnection paves the way for atrocities.

So I really want to put this out there, because they say love your enemy. I appeal to the humanity of the members of the AMPTP (Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers) to make the future for their own children hum with the hive of humanity.

Okay, so with that, the thank yous. Thank you, Venice Film Festival, Alberto, Julia, Angela. This room contains a very rich past for me, present, and I hope future. Thank you to the jury. I really am just bowled over. I think there’s no better feeling than to speak quietly and be heard.

Thank you to all these other magnificent artists who have moved me this week, made me think. It’s been extraordinary. Thank you to Michel (Franco, the writer/director of Memory). For having the bravery to just let the silence be. And I guess so that we could connect, you and I. And I think the bravery to let this film have hope, and love. Thank you to Jessica (Chastain, the film’s co-star) who’s not here tonight. While I guess people talk about losing themselves in roles, I think we found ourselves, so I share this with you.

Thank you to my children, Ramona and Gloria. I swear I will bring you here next time. And Maggie (Gyllenhaal, Peter’s wife). I wrote something, but that’s ridiculous, where the holy space really rests. And where I can — where I’ve really learned to find myself. I love you.

One last person. So I played someone with dementia in this movie. And during COVID, my uncle Bubba passed away. Who had — he had dementia. And he was a beekeeper. So this is for Bubba, I love you.

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