"Sorry, I was underground on the subway," apologises Peter Sarsgaard, 47, reconnecting from a dropped call. Considering he's amassed 40-plus films on his resume, not to mention a high-profile marriage to actress Maggie Gyllenhaal, it's surprising this critically-lauded actor can navigate public transport without incident. "Well, I only use the subway. It would be a travesty not to as a New Yorker," he explains.

Sarsgaard has lived in New York since 1993 and considers himself a native. He has a deep, personal connection to the city - which is at the centre of his latest project, playing CIA analyst Martin Schmidt in The Looming Tower.

Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Lawrence Wright, the miniseries is inspired by true events and examines the build-up to the 9/11 attacks.

"I was on the corner of West Broadway and Canal St at the time of 9/11 [less than 10 minutes' drive to the World Trade Centre]. I was in utter and complete shock. Not even grief-stricken because that took a while to set in," he says.

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"I found the book helpful, especially when I thought about the relatives of those on the plane, in the Pentagon, and in the World Trade Centre and the questions they'd want to be answered."

Peter Saarsgard was a huge fan of Lawrence Wright's Pulitzer Prize-winning book long before he signed on to the role. Photo / AP
Peter Saarsgard was a huge fan of Lawrence Wright's Pulitzer Prize-winning book long before he signed on to the role. Photo / AP

Sarsgaard didn't think twice when he was asked to come on board, starring opposite Jeff Daniels. "Listen, I read the book when it came out and I handed it out for people to read. So when I learned that Larry [Wright] was involved, and Dan Futterman was the showrunner, I barely even knew who I was playing, and it didn't matter."

While Sarsgaard was distributing Wright's tome to friends, Daniels, who plays FBI counterterrorism expert John O'Neill, was oblivious to the book. "I had no idea," he admits.

"Not just the story but I was unaware of John O'Neill," says Daniels. "I didn't know anything about him. I signed on after reading the pilot. I just read it and committed," he shrugs. "I'd never played a character like John. Everything had such an intensity to it. He was belligerent, he blasted people when he didn't get his way, he screamed and yelled. But in the end, he was right," he says.

In real life, O'Neill spent the final years of his FBI career chasing Osama bin Laden but left the bureau in 2001, in disgrace, before he could get his man. After that, he became head of security at the World Trade Centre, where he was killed on 9/11.

The twisted fate of his tragic end was the impetus for Wright's book. Shortly after the attacks, Wright was sifting through obituaries of the victims, trying to put a human face on the disaster, when he stumbled on O'Neill's.

"It made him sound like kind of a failure because they said he had been head of counterterrorism in New York and had been washed out of the bureau because he took classified information out of the office," said Wright. "And I thought, wow, he didn't get bin Laden; bin Laden got him."

Wright's book is a sweeping and highly detailed look at the birth of al-Qaida dating back to the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1950s Egypt, but the series, which Wright adapted alongside documentarian Alex Gibney, zeros in on a tighter timeline.

It begins in 1998 with the US Embassy bombings in East Africa and focuses mainly on the rivalry between O'Neill at the FBI and Martin Schmidt (a composite character played by Sarsgaard) at the CIA. The men despise each other and sometimes refuse to share information, even though secrecy may not be in the best interest of the American people.

The Looming Tower, like such recent series as The People v. O.J. Simpson, revisits a well-publicised tragedy that people think they know well, only to subvert our expectations. For those who haven't read Wright's book, the show will be a shocking look at government dysfunction at its most dangerous.

The series is also a chance to revisit O'Neill, not as the failure his obituary painted, but as a prescient and astute - albeit still highly flawed - individual who "would go to the mat for his guys," according to Daniels.

Working on the show wasn't only an education about his character; it gave Daniels a deeper understanding of 9/11.

"I had no idea that there was this much conflict leading up to 9/11 within our own government," he said. "I think it was a situation where both agencies felt that the way they were doing it was right. Then you add on the personal animosity, which O'Neill could create just by walking into a room."

For him, the series poses a question about the present while looking back at the past: Is America better off now?

The answer is up to the audience to decide. The story makes it clear, though, that being correct can only get you so far. Diplomacy is crucial, too.

"In the end, way after the fact, he's the one who was right," Daniels says. "He went about it in a way that didn't help him, but it was the only way he knew. And he was not afraid of a fight."

- additional reporting by Washington Post

LOWDOWN:
Who: Jeff Daniels
What: Looming Tower
When: Tonight, 8.30pm
Where: Sky SoHo