That shocking man

Harold Takooshian on the real Stanley Milgram and Experimenter.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Winona Ryder and Peter Sarsgaard in Experimenter
Winona Ryder and Peter Sarsgaard in Experimenter

Michael Almereyda's thought-provoking and entertaining inquiry into the human condition, Experimenter, had its World Premiere at the Sundance Film Festival and was a selection in the main slate of the New York Film Festival. It stars Peter Sarsgaard as social psychologist Stanley Milgram and Winona Ryder as his wife Sasha, with Jim Gaffigan, John Leguizamo, Taryn Manning, Ned Eisenberg, Anton Yelchin, Dennis Haysbert, Lori Singer, Harley Ware, Tom Farrell, Emily Tremaine and Anthony Edwards. Milgram student Harold Takooshian was invited to join the cast, becoming a "Familiar Stranger".

Peter Sarsgaard as Stanley Milgram
Peter Sarsgaard as Stanley Milgram

No stranger to me, Harold met me at Lincoln Center, to discuss his role in the film and as Science Advisor to Michael Almereyda. On Tuesday, November 10, a public forum on Stanley Milgram: the EXPERIMENTER, will be hosted by Fordham University, in cooperation with the Manhattan Psychological Association, and APA Division of Social Issues. The panel includes I. Edward Price, David M. Mantell, Edward Erdos, Stuart Levine, Eugen Tarnow on Milgram’s work; Henry Solomon, Edward English, Florence L. Denmark, Kathryn Hahner and Harold Takooshian will talk about Milgram, the man, and Anne-Katrin Titze will speak on Experimenter, the film.

In tune with Milgram's playful spirit, Almereyda's actors have been cast because of their varying familiarity as the subjects. There is the well-known face of John Leguizamo, questioned after he went all the way with the "Learner" for mis-matching the words "wet duck" and "brave woman". "Why did you listen to that man and not the man in pain? Who bore the responsibility that this man was being shocked?" Milgram wants to know.

Another "Teacher" is played by Tom Farrell, who continues "with robotic impassivity." Each time he presses the button, "his lips draw back and he bares his teeth." Farrell's face could, possibly, for you, be that of a familiar stranger, someone you've seen in Wim Wenders' Until The End Of The World, sitting at a bar in Berlin, or maybe on a bridge in Paris, Texas, or chatting with Nicholas Ray on camera.

Winona Ryder as Sasha Milgrim
Winona Ryder as Sasha Milgrim

Anne-Katrin Titze: Seeing you on the screen and credited as "Familiar Stranger", as well as Science Advisor was a great surprise. Seeing you at the press screening in person was even better. You were one of Milgram's students. Did you ever get the assignment to sing your favorite song loudly on a public bus?

Harold Takooshian: Yes, but that particular one was the year before me, 1970.

AKT: When did you study with Milgram?

HT: I studied with him starting '71. I would say briefly, Milgram is known, I would say internationally as a magnificent researcher but there are a few of us who knew him as a teacher and he was even greater as a teacher. He was a brilliant teacher. Every semester he was doing something new that nobody ever thought of. My particular year, fall 1971, it was asking for subway seats. That wasn't mentioned in the film but it was quite a remarkable experience.

AKT: You had to go on the subway and ask people for their seats?

HT: Yes. Just briefly, Milgram was having supper with his mother-in-law and she asked him, "Stanley, you're a psychologist, why don't people give each other seats on the subway?" He said, "I don't know. I'll ask my class on Tuesday." So he came in and asked us and we didn't know and that became our project that semester. That's what a brilliant professor he was. He took daily life and taught us.

Sasha and Stanley Milgram (Ryder and Sarsgaard)
Sasha and Stanley Milgram (Ryder and Sarsgaard)

AKT: Do you remember this particular assignment?

HT: Oh, yes. That was a very painful assignment.

AKT: Who did you ask? Could you choose the person?

HT: It was a Methods Class so we had to design the experiment carefully. It wasn't casual. We spent several weeks designing the experiment. But singing on a bus loudly, any viewer of that film will find out how hard it is if they try it. That's why Michael [Almereyda] put it in there. Michael really knows Milgram's career very exactly. And that was a perfect example of Milgram. But the subway seat was even more difficult because it was very embarrassing. We had to interact with people. It was an interactive study. In my case, my assignment was to ask an elderly woman to stand up so that I could sit down without giving her a reason. It's a very hard thing to do.

AKT: Did she get up?

HT: I didn't ask her. Instead, I did something else. But, yes, people did stand up, about 50% and many of us felt upset. In fact, upset to the point where we got sick. Out of 14 people a few got physically ill. They vomited.

AKT: How did Milgram respond to that?

HT: It's a long answer. I'll say briefly that at the end of the semester he collected people's papers and he had a few of us read our papers. In my case, he had me read the passage how people got sick. And when Milgram asked in class, "well, if you got sick, why did you continue?" Well, the common answer was, "it was my job."

On the Experimenter set
On the Experimenter set Photo: Harold Takooshian

AKT: … you [Milgram] are the man in the grey coat!

HT: Yeah. He liked that.

AKT: Did the film get it right with the grey coat [in the Obedience Experiment]?

The original staging details were already cinematic in nature. Sarsgaard's silky Milgram voice-over lets us in that they decided to "make the lab coat grey" for the person explaining the procedure, because a white one would look "too medical."

HT: Yes, it was not a white coat. Part of the film, which, I'm afraid, will be lost on viewers is how precise it was. He just knew every detail. Michael seemed to be, I don't want to say obsessed, but absorbed with Milgram's life. The grey coat was accurate.

AKT: There were certain moments in the film where I felt this going beyond me. This detail is now for another audience. For example, in the Asch [Ned Eisenberg as Solomon Asch] scene, Asch's wife [Lori Singer] comes in and holds the dog like a baby. Why is that in there? Can you solve that mystery?

HT: You have a sharp eye! That's something I also noticed.

AKT: Another one of those moments - my question is triggered by the coffee we are having right now - was when the three women return to re-examine the experiment. There is a big point made about what kind of coffee each one of them has. Again, I thought this is a detail placed there for a purpose.

HT: I didn't even know that he called people in individually one year later. I didn't know the name of the psychiatrist. I knew there was a psychiatrist. I thought it was all by mail. So, yes, I think there's a lot in that film that's very inside. And an alert viewer like yourself will pick up things that are kind of hidden in the film.

President of the Manhattan Psychological Association Harold Takooshian with Anne-Katrin Titze:
President of the Manhattan Psychological Association Harold Takooshian with Anne-Katrin Titze: "He [Almereyda] wanted Milgram's students to be involved." Photo: Anne Takooshian

AKT: What are some of the things you noticed? You mentioned to me that there were points that really jumped out at you because you knew Milgram.

HT: Well, the one with Solomon Asch. Although I didn't sense that there was any distance between Asch and Milgram. I thought they were quite close. Another thing was I didn't think Milgram had a marital problem. The implication in the film was that there was a stress but I never saw that. I guess, Sasha knows better than I do.

AKT: Sasha was also consulting, I suppose? She is in the film.

HT: Yeah. I think it all comes from her.

AKT: The scene you are talking about was the one in the diner. It starts with a Piaget quote: "We choose our reality when we choose another person." And that is used as a segue into their marital problem. That was beautifully done.

HT: It was brilliant! Those were the things that struck me because I didn't know about them and I assume they are accurate.

AKT: You are credited as Science Advisor. What did that entail? How did you and Michael Almereyda meet?

HT: Milgram does not have many alumni because his classes were very small. He passed away at age 51 quite early.

On the Experimenter platform:
On the Experimenter platform: "Michael really knows Milgram's career very exactly." Photo: Harold Takooshian

AKT: In 1984.

HT: In 1984 and there really weren't many students, so we are in contact with each other. And when Michael was talking about this film a long time ago, almost ten years ago, we asked him if we could be of service. And we met with him a few times.

AKT: He contacted you?

HT: Yes, he received a grant to develop the film for Sundance, although it took many years. There was a fellow named Thomas Blass who wrote an excellent biography of Milgram [The Man Who Shocked The World: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram]. All of us were in contact, we have a network and I'd say several of us helped him with the film. He wanted Milgram's students to be involved because as a Milgram admirer he knew that Milgram was a great teacher. I don't think he met him personally but he sensed it and he is accurate about that.

AKT: What were specific questions he asked you?

HT: Oh, he sent me the screenplay and asked me to review it. Not just me but several people and we made small points. But there wasn't much to say.

AKT: Can you give an example?

HT: Some of it wasn't in the film, actually, which surprised me. The small points were about Alan Elms for example, who was always helping him. He didn't use Alan's last name for some reason.

AKT: Who is he in the film?

Producer Fabio Golombek with John Leguizamo
Producer Fabio Golombek with John Leguizamo Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

HT: He called him Alan [Harley Ware] in the film. He was the student who was sitting next to Stanley at Yale. He was watching the scenes with Stanley. And both of them were finding out, one by one, what was going to happen. Just small details that were easy to give, to not say anything wrong.

AKT: Michael placed you as the "Familiar Stranger" on the train. It's funny, just now, saying it to you, do I realize that it's Strangers On A Train. That it's a Hitchcock reference!

HT: Isn't that something!

Harold Takooshian is the President of the Manhattan Psychological Association. Stanley Milgram: the EXPERIMENTER will take place on Tuesday, November 10, 2015, 7:00 - 8:45 pm - Fordham University, Lincoln Center, 113 West 60 St., Room 1022

Experimenter is in theaters in the US and will be screened at the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival on November 14.

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