Jessica Chastain, Oscar Isaac on Friendship, ‘Scenes From a Marriage’ – The Hollywood Reporter
Adapting one of Ingmar Bergman’s seminal works for American television is an ambitious and daunting task. But writer-director Hagai Levi brought a contemporary spin to his HBO limited series based on the acclaimed 1973 Swedish miniseries Scenes From a Marriage: He gender-swapped the roles, having Jessica Chastain’s Mira leave her husband, Oscar Isaac’s Jonathan. (In the original, it’s Erland Josephson’s Johan who asks Liv Ullmann’s Marianne for a divorce.) But even with the roles reversed, the new series is just as provocative — and emotionally harrowing — as the original, which was so popular upon its airing that it was blamed for rising divorce rates in Europe. Chastain and Isaac spoke with THR about how they learned to let go of their long history as friends to create a shared bond between their onscreen counterparts as their marriage falls apart.
How familiar were you with the source material, and were you apprehensive about the project?
OSCAR ISAAC I’d seen the original, and so when this came my way, I was really curious about it. And then seeing what Hagai had done and how he really found a different angle to it, a way to modernize it, I just thought it was fascinating — but really daunting because the subject matter is so heavy.
Jessica, I know you have a relationship with Liv Ullmann, having starred in her adaptation of Miss Julie. Did you feel like you needed permission to play this role?
JESSICA CHASTAIN I definitely emailed her when I was approached. I wouldn’t have done it had it been a remake that was closely connected to the first one. The fact that they switched the gender made it interesting to me. I find Liv’s performance in the original so incredibly moving and transcendent. There’s no [other] way to play Marianne.
You’re longtime friends — you went to Juilliard together, you’ve played a married couple before. Did that history help with this particularly emotional and raw material?
CHASTAIN It ruined our friendship. We’re not close anymore. (Laughs.) This was the first project that I came back to [in the] pandemic — we started rehearsals in late October 2020. I was super excited to work again. I work a lot, I love it. It’d been eight months not being on set, and I really missed it. So I really threw myself into this job. And I was so grateful for it and also really relied on the trust that we had with each other. I didn’t have to get to know this person. I had to re-get to know him because I had to switch things around in my brain to see him as Jonathan.
ISAAC It was so fortunate that we got to work at that point in time. In this little bubble, it was a very small crew up in the Bronx in this old factory, and it really was this tight team in the middle of this crazy thing that was happening. It was challenging and difficult but also felt like a little creative oasis, to be able to go in there and pour it out. It was such a strange hybrid between TV and movie and theater because it was very, very long takes. We really learned the script inside and out so we could just go and go. As challenging as that was, being able to do it with Jessica, there was something that strangely felt effortless about it, probably the most effortless of anything I’ve ever done.
Jessica, you started a journal for the two of you that you wrote in character. Is that a typical process for you?
CHASTAIN I create the memories in my head. Acting has to feel real, so you have to create an imagination, a world that isn’t a 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 journal helped. It was like, “What’s your favorite moment from your wedding?” And so as Mira, I wrote something, and then he wrote something as Jonathan, and we went through the entire journal. And one of the funny things I remember, one question was like, “What’s your most exciting fantasy?” As Mira, I wrote something pretty dirty. And Oscar wrote: “Having 12 children.”
What did you find in each other’s characters that helped you tap into your own?
ISAAC It was everything. I mean, it was all about her and just what she was doing with Mira. From the very beginning when I read it, it wasn’t so much the character that hooked me in, it was the situations. I found it so harrowing — I read that second episode, and the way it played out, it made my heart race and blood pressure go up. Because of that, and then knowing Jess so well and having complete trust in her, we just synchronized in a really intense way. We created shared memories together and then we were able to just be with each other and subliminally shift. I think that’s also what made it so effortless. I didn’t have to invent a bunch of stuff or self-generate anything. Everything was coming from her and her character, what she was doing, the way she was responding.
Isaac and Chastain in a scene from the HBO limited series Scenes From a Marriage
Courtesy of JOJO WHILDEN/HBO
It was such an intimate production that it had elements of a theater piece, in a way. What’s it like coming down from a performance, especially something so intense — was this something you could easily shake off when you went home?
CHASTAIN This was definitely difficult to shake off. We have kids the same age, and we have playdates and family get-togethers. I remember one weekend, Oscar’s wife said to me, “He told me he hit you on Friday.” “Yeah, yeah. He effing did.” It wasn’t an easy thing to turn off.
I loved the framing device that opens each episode: You walk onto set as actors and we see you get into character as Jonathan and Mira. Did that change the way you entered your characters, having a camera on you in those moments?
CHASTAIN As soon as I walked into the dressing room and put my costume on, I felt like Mira. It wasn’t like on “action,” all of a sudden, she emerged. There is something very symbolic about changing my clothes, putting on the skin of the person I’m playing.
ISAAC We had a lot of conversations about what that was. “What are we doing, what is it trying to say? Why are we doing it?” We’re not necessarily performing versions of ourselves, but at the same time, we kind of are — those scenarios aren’t exactly the way that they normally happen when there isn’t a camera following us. I thought it was a really smart, Brechtian kind of device. It allows a little bit of separation, allows you to engage your mind into it, not just your emotions.
CHASTAIN But here’s an example of how it’s not real life: At the very beginning, you see me take off my wedding ring and then put on Mira’s wedding ring. That wasn’t my real wedding ring. It was a symbolic Jessica, but I wasn’t really taking off my ring.
Each episode stands on its own in a way, showing the audience a specific moment shared by Jonathan and Mira. Was it a challenge to drop in and out of their lives?
CHASTAIN Every episode is like a time jump.
ISAAC We did shoot chronologically. That helped, to have that context, but the house would change with every episode. Every time we would walk into the new version of the house, that was always a very jarring thing. But I think it was also another wonderfully serendipitous, beautiful thing that we were able to shoot this in chronological order and follow the story.
CHASTAIN Each episode didn’t cover much time. We are really jumping in on a day or two for this couple, right? Every year, every six months. That, I found really interesting. And these 25- to 30-page scenes are all taking place in real time. Which means we have those long takes.
What were some strategies that you employed to keep energy up for those long scenes, or even shake them off afterward?
CHASTAIN Barbecue potato chips. Delish. I would actually raid his dressing room — he had a huge box full of chips, and I would steal them. I had a foot massager in my dressing room. We each had a little blankie, and we’d slump on my couch and watch The Great British Bake Off.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.