NEW YORK (AP) — Peter Sarsgaard arrives for lunch at a restaurant near his home with the one thing that has been nearby him for months — a copy of "Hamlet."

To prepare for the title role at Classic Stage Company, he's been thumbing through the play every day and is on his second paperback, having destroyed an earlier one. He's been muttering lines so much that his kids have started to as well.

"My youngest one came up to me one day — she's like 2½ — and she said, 'Break your own neck down,'" he says, laughing. "It's not always nice what goes into their ears. But there's a lot worse stuff out there."

To learn that Sarsgaard has added William Shakespeare's moody Danish prince to his gallery of complicated characters makes a certain sense. The actor, one of the best of his generation, has always radiated moodiness, intelligence and intensity.

Sarsgaard has prepared for the role by avoiding all other productions. He has never seen "Hamlet" onstage and only has heard audio recordings with Richard Burton and John Gielgud.

"I feel remarkably happy and content and tired but excited about doing it. A lot of actors I tell I'm playing this and they just immediately say, 'Oh my God, are you terrified?' I'm not," he says.

"I'm not going to stick the landing, throw up my hands and everybody's going to say, 'You did it!' It's not like that. I admit defeat before I start."

The 44-year-old actor is known for playing hard, uncomfortable roles since making his debut in 1995 as a Sean Penn murder victim in "Dead Man Walking."

He graduated to being a killer in "Boys Don't Cry," a rich guy with a fetish for a prostitutes in "The Center of the World," a stoned gravedigger in "Garden State," Liam Neeson's lover in "Kinsey" and a disturbed sharpshooter in "Jarhead."

He lives on a tree-lined, family neighborhood in Brooklyn's Park Slope with his wife, actress Maggie Gyllenhaal, and daughters Ramona and Gloria. He is a vegan and a runner, lean and with his hair shaved.

Sarsgaard most recently starred in NBC's series "The Slap" and admits he spent his downtime on the set brushing up on "Hamlet." There's even a scene in the show when Sarsgaard is seen reaching for something under a bench as the camera pans by. Naturally, that's his paperback copy of the play.

Sarsgaard was on the way to becoming a Shakespearian scholar at Washington University in St. Louis when he fell in love with acting and gave it his full attention, even though he was often only auditing the theater classes.

"I guess everyone feels like they're uniquely suited to playing Hamlet," he says. "But I do now feel I'm uniquely suited to playing Hamlet."

The actor says Hamlet's endless mulling of what to do after his uncle murdered his father and married his mother makes him a bit different than the usual anti-heroes he plays.

"He asks the questions," he says. "A lot of people that I've played that have murdered or raped or killed or been up to no good one way or another, it's not deeply thought out."

The director is Austin Pendleton, who has directed Sarsgaard twice before in Anton Chekhov plays, and this time has crafted a more ensemble-minded "Hamlet," cheering Sarsgaard's magnetism and creativity.

"He's utterly responsive to you plus he's going on his own trip," Pendleton says. "His own trip is brilliant and it's not a trip you would ever think of or that anybody else would every think of."

After "Hamlet," Sarsgaard plans to take some time off, having worked a lot recently. His upcoming films include "Black Mass" with Johnny Depp and Benedict Cumberbatch, and "Experimenter," with Sarsgaard playing famed social psychologist Stanley Milgram.

But, for now, the moody prince remains firmly on his mind. He has lately begun to memorize the parts in the play other than his own, which gives him an even deeper understanding — and revealed contradictions.

"I think it was written over a cocaine-fueled weekend," he says, laughing. "I like that. The discrepancies, the contradictions, all that kind of stuff, even if they're unintentional, excite me."

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Online: http://www.classicstage.org/season/productions/hamlet

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Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits