Jessica Chastain, Oscar Isaac on Friendship, ‘Scenes From a Marriage’

Adapting one of Ingmar Bergman’s famous works for American television was an ambitious and difficult task. But writer-director Hagai Levi brought a contemporary twist to his HBO limited series based on popular 1973 Swedish novels. Scenes in a marriage: He swapped genders between roles, when Jessica Chastain’s Mira left her husband, Oscar Isaac’s Jonathan. (In the original, it was Johan of Erland Josephson who asked for a divorce from Liv Ullmann’s Marianne.) It is believed to be the cause of the increase in divorce rates in Europe. Chastain and Isaac talked to CHEAP about how they learned to let go of their long history as friends in order to create a bond of sharing between on-screen mates as their marriage fell apart.

How familiar are you with the source material and are you nervous about the project?

OSCAR ISAAC I watched the original, and so when this happened, I was really curious about it. And then witnessing what Hagai did and how he really found a different angle to it, a way of modernizing it, I just thought it was fascinating – but really frustrated because of the theme. This is too heavy.

Jessica, I know you’re in a relationship with Liv Ullmann, starred in her film adaptation Miss Julie. Did you feel the need to be allowed to play this role?

JESSICA CHASTAIN I definitely emailed her when I was approached. I wouldn’t do it if it was a remake that is closely connected to the first. It’s interesting that they’re transgender. I found Liv’s performance in the original extremely moving and transcendent. Not available [other] how to play Marianne.

You’re longtime friends – you’ve been to Juilliard together, you’ve played a couple before. Does that history help this particular raw and emotional document?

CHASTAIN It ruined our friendship. We are no longer close. (Laughter.) This is the first project that I come back to [in the] pandemic – we started rehearsals at the end of October 2020. I’m excited to get back to work. I work a lot, I love it. It’s been eight months without being on set, and I really miss it. So I really threw myself into this job. And I’m grateful for that and also really rely on the trust we have in each other. I don’t need to know this person. I had to get to know him again because I had to convert everything in my brain to see him as Jonathan.

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ISAAC We were fortunate to be working at that time. In this little bubble, it’s a very small team in the Bronx in this old factory, and it’s really the tight-knit team in the middle of what’s crazy going on. It was challenging and difficult but also felt like a little creative oasis, to be able to go in there and let it go. It’s a strange combination of television, film and theater because it goes on for a very, very long time. We actually learned the script from the inside out so we could go and go. Such a challenge, to be able to do it with Jessica, there’s something strange about it that makes me feel so easy about it, probably the most effortful of anything I’ve ever done.

Jessica, you’ve started a diary for two people you’ve written characters for. Is that a typical process for you?

CHASTAIN I create memories in my head. Acting has to feel real, so you have to create an imagination, a world that isn’t reality. We’ve known each other for 20 years. I had to erase that memory and go, “OK, how do we create this invisible history?” And that magazine helped. It’s like, “What was your favorite moment at your wedding?” And like Mira, I wrote something, and then he wrote something as Jonathan, and we went through the whole diary. And one of the interesting things that I remember, a question like, “What’s your most exciting fantasy?” Like Mira, I wrote something pretty dirty. And Oscar wrote: “Having 12 children.”

What did you find in each other’s characters that helped you to exploit yourself?

ISAAC That’s everything. I mean, it’s all about her and just what she’s doing to Mira. When I first read it, it wasn’t the characters that attracted me too much, it was the situations. I found it annoying – I read that second volume, and the way it was, it made my heart beat and my blood pressure go up. So, and then knowing Jess so well and trusting her completely, we synced in a really intense way. We made common memories together and then we could be together and flourish. I think that’s also what makes it such an effort. I don’t have to invent many things or create anything myself. Everything comes from her and her personality, what she’s doing, how she reacts.

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Isaac and Chastain in a scene from the HBO limited series Scenes in a marriage
Courtesy of JOJO WHILDEN / HBO

In a way, it’s such an intimate production that it has elements of a theatrical production. Feeling like you’re going down after a show, especially something so stressful – is this something you can easily shake off when you get home?

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CHASTAIN This is certainly difficult to remove. We have kids our own age, and we have family outings and gatherings. I remember one weekend Oscar’s wife said to me, “He told me he hit you on Friday.” “Great. He did it.” It’s not an easy thing to turn off.

I love the episode-by-episode framing device: You walk into the set as an actor and we see you get into the character of Jonathan and Mira. Does that change the way you enter your character, having the camera with you in those moments?

CHASTAIN As soon as I walked into the changing room and put on my clothes, I felt a lot like Mira. Unlike in “action”, suddenly, she emerges. There’s something very symbolic about changing my clothes, putting on the skin of the person I’m playing with.

ISAAC We had a lot of conversations about what was. “What are we doing, what is it trying to say? Why do we do that? “We don’t necessarily make versions of ourselves, but at the same time, neither do we – those situations aren’t exactly the way they usually are when there’s no camera tracking us. I think it’s some kind of really clever Brechtian device. It allows for a little separation, allowing you to engage your mind, not just your emotions.

CHASTAIN But here’s an example of that’s not real life: In the beginning, you see me take off my wedding ring and then put on Mira’s wedding ring. That’s not my real wedding ring. It’s a symbolic Jessica, but I didn’t actually take off my ring.

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Each episode has its own way, showing the audience a specific moment shared by Jonathan and Mira. Is it a challenge to drop in and out of their lives?

CHASTAIN Each episode is like a time jump.

ISAAC We shot in chronological order. That helped, to have that context, but the house would change with each episode. Every time we step into a new version of the house, it’s always a very jarring thing. But I think it’s also another wonderful, beautiful, incidental thing that we were able to shoot this scene chronologically and follow the story.

CHASTAIN Each episode does not include multiple lengths. We’re really jumping in for a day or two for this couple, aren’t we? Every year, every six months. That, I find really interesting. And these 25 to 30 page scenes all happen in real time. That means we have long periods.

What strategies did you use to keep the energy going for those long shots, or even shake them off afterwards?

CHASTAIN Grilled meat with French fries. Delicious foods. I’m actually going to raid his dressing room – he’s got a giant box full of chips, and I’m going to steal them. I have a foot massager in my dressing room. We each have a little drum, and we’ll lounge on my couch and watch The Great British Bake Off.

The edited interview is long and clear.

This story first appeared in the June issue of The Hollywood Reporter. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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