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Presumed Innocent


Peter Sarsgaard tells TV Week about his role in courtroom thriller Presumed Innocent

The narrative in Presumed Innocent is not an unfamiliar one, especially to those that once read the 1987 best-selling thriller from author Scott Turow or saw Alan J. Pakula’s 1990 film adaptation starring Harrison Ford. Yet, if there is an argument for reviving a good murder mystery, it is when that mystery happens to be in the hands of David E. Kelley and J.J. Abrams. “At its base, these things are about storytelling,” says Peter Sarsgaard, who portrays one of the lead characters in the series version of Presumed Innocent. “It’s about the audience telling the story. After episode one, you tell your friends what you think the story is, and then a week later another episode comes out and it’s a different story. The way that it involves the viewer has always made this type of thing very, very popular. And the source material is obviously pretty excellent.”

Presumed Innocent on Apple TV+. Pictured: Prosecutor Rusty Sabich (Jake Gyllenhaal) and former DA Raymond Horgan (Bill Camp).
Apple TV+

Set in present-day Chicago, the thriller centres on reasonably happily married Rusty Sabich (Jake Gyllenhaal), a prosecutor and the right-hand man of the city’s former district attorney Raymond Horgan (Bill Camp). When Rusty is accused of brutally murdering his colleague Carolyn Polhemus (Renate Reinsve), with whom he has also had an affair, the case exposes dark secrets both private and professional. But is Rusty guilty of murder, or is he being framed?

Presumed Innocent on Apple TV+. Pictured: Jake Gyllenhaal stars as a Chicago prosecutor on trial for the murder of a colleague.
Apple TV+

Tasked with bringing Rusty to justice is Tommy Molto (Sarsgaard), a fellow prosecutor who has aligned himself with the new DA, Nico Della Guardia (O-T Fagbenle). As the case evolves, there appears to be no love lost between Molto and Sabich. “Would it not be antagonistic if your coworker, your partner, may have killed your coworker?” poses Sarsgaard. “There’s a lot of evidence that really makes it seem like he might have, so it’s going to be difficult to have anything but an antagonistic relationship. But I reminded myself that when people fight like this, they also care about each other.”

Presumed Innocent on Apple TV+. Pictured: New DA Nico Della Guardia (O-T Fagbenle) faces off against Jake Gyllenhaal’s accused attorney.
Apple TV+

In support of his theory, Sarsgaard recalls filming an interaction between himself and Gyllenhaal that, despite possibly not making the final cut, informed his character. “We were shooting a scene at a bar and both of us said, ‘Why don’t we just point the camera on us sitting here for a minute.’ It was nice to think — even if it’s not in the show — that they respect each other and seemed to like each other well enough,” he says.  “I would remind myself a lot about how much I respected him and liked him and how I didn’t actually in my heart want to bring him down.”

Used to being the character audiences root against, Sarsgaard is similarly no stranger to stories where justice for the victim is sometimes trumped by victory for the antihero. “In some ways, [Tommy] reminds me of this character that I played in Shattered Glass, who runs the office, is a very moral person, but is not involved in the glad-handing or the parties. Hayden Christensen’s character, in that movie, is the most popular person in the office — and he makes up stories,” says Sarsgaard. “To take down the person that you have envy-slash-jealousy over is a complicated process. That’s what I felt I was going through here. Jake was the most popular guy in the office. He is the handsome, gregarious guy. Then, every piece of evidence is pointing to the fact that he did this thing to a coworker. I actually think I’m trying, under very difficult circumstances, to do the right thing.”

Presumed Innocent on Apple TV+. Pictured: Prosecutors Nico Della Guarida (O-T Fagbenle) and and (Tommy Molto) Peter Sarsgaard.
Apple TV+

Diving deeper into complicated relationships is something a series version of well-known source material can offer. But more than just room to breathe, Sarsgaard found that it was the dialogue written by Kelley that thrilled him. “You’re used to getting pretty bland dialogue as an actor, especially for series television. A lot of the time it feels repetitive,” he says. “With David, it’s always so imaginative and funny. Sometimes I wouldn’t realize it was funny and I would read it quite literally — maybe that’s because I’m a literal person — and then I would realize how funny it was when we went to go do it.”

Presumed Innocent on Apple TV+. Pictured: Rusty Sabich (Jake Gyllenhaal) is accused of killing colleague Carolyn Polhemus (Renate Reinsve).
Apple TV+

Also adding to the joy for the actor, who in real life is married to Maggie Gyllenhaal, was being able to work with his close friend and brother-in-law. “Jake invited me to a wonderful party,” he says. “I don’t know how the idea got formulated, but the messenger was Jake. It was nice to get a call from your brother-in-law to say, ‘Hey, you want to come do this interesting project together?’”

Presumed Innocent on Apple TV+. Pictured: Rusty Sabich (Jake Gyllenhaal) with wife Barbara (Ruth Negga) and the couple’s children, Jaden (Chase Infiniti) and Kyle (Kingston Rumi Southwick).
Apple TV+

Having, to this day, neither read the book nor seen the film, to Sarsgaard the collaboration was a true exercise in creativity. “The beauty of doing one of these shows where one episode is given to you and they’re going to write the rest of them is that they tailor the part to you and you’ve got the best in the business at doing that,” he says. “I started playing it, they started writing it and we bounced off of each other — I created the thing I wanted to do as I was doing it.”

Presumed Innocent, streaming Wednesdays on Apple TV+

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