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In Experimenter, Sarsgaard stars as the controversial social psychologist Stanley Milgram who conducted a series of what were considered radical experiments about human behavior in 1961. He is best known for his experiment on obedience to authority figures where he tested subjects’ willingness to obey authority even when it meant causing physical pain to other subjects by administering increasing levels of electric shocks. The test was staged, using an actor (played by Jim Gaffigan) hidden in another room pretending to scream in pain from the shocks. Milgram’s test subjects seemed extremely distressed while doling out what they thought were real shocks, yet only a small percentage refused to carry out the instructions.
Written and directed by Michael Almereyda, the cast includes Winona Ryder as Milgram’s wife Sasha, and test participants played by Anthony Edwards, John Leguizamo, Taryn Manning and Anton Yelchin. Sarsgaard gives a nuanced performance as the intense Milgram. Sarsgaard himself is also intense, but with charm. He seems to possess determination and integrity. This is a guy who is so strong-willed he quit drinking by long-distance running. Sarsgaard went cold turkey six years ago and, as with his solitary sport, the actor/runner kept going despite the inevitable pain.