Jessica Chastain on How ‘Scenes From a Marriage’ Tested Her Friendship With Oscar Isaac
“Every day I was ripping myself open,” says Jessica Chastain, explaining why this remake of Ingmar Bergman’s groundbreaking 1973 Swedish miniseries, Scenes From a Marriage, about a troubled marriage was, emotionally, the most difficult experience of her career.
The intimate five-episode adaptation from writer-director Hagai Levi (The Affair, In Treatment) — filmed in riveting 20-minute takes — changes the story by making unsatisfied wife/mother/tech executive Mira the one who wants to leave. He also scripted her academic husband, Jonathan (Oscar Isaac), as an ex–Orthodox Jew, like himself, and more sensitive than the chauvinistic spouse Erland Josephson played opposite Liv Ullmann in the original. Here, Chastain sets the stage.
You and Oscar also played a couple in the 2014 film A Most Violent Year. How did you prep for this series?
Jessica Chastain: We’ve been friends a long time. I was trying to see him in a different way. I got a book, like All About Us, with questions like, “What’s your favorite memory of the wedding?” I filled it in as Mira, Oscar as Jonathan. I even changed Oscar’s name in my phone to Jonathan.
Why is Mira unhappy?
She’s been trying to live by the gender roles she thinks society dictated: The wife and mother can’t be dirty with her husband. When we meet her, she’s a muted version of herself.
That seems reflected in her wardrobe.
I wanted her to be lost in the background of the house, almost like she was invisible, because her husband wasn’t really seeing her and she wasn’t acknowledging her own needs and desires. I said, “Can you give me a costume that helps me disappear?”
Shooting the end of Episode 4, which we won’t spoil, must have been a harrowing experience.
The first time we read it in rehearsal, I looked at Oscar and said, “Are we going to be friends after this?” I’ve never done anything like that — the humiliation. We were emotionally and physically hurting each other. Even talking about it, I get angry. It felt real.
Does life get better for Mira?
At the end, it’s a love story without ownership, possession, gender roles, or a mask. I wanted to show that happiness can come from being an independent woman. And Oscar is still my friend!
Scenes From a Marriage, Series Premiere, Sunday, September 12, 9/8c, HBO
This is an excerpt from TV Guide Magazine’s 2021 Fall Preview issue. For more inside scoop on the new fall TV season, pick up the issue, on newsstands Thursday, August 26.