Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac go way back—to the halls of the Juilliard School of Drama, in fact. “We read each other’s minds,” says Chastain, while Isaac nods solemnly. When asked for their worst audition horror stories, she begins reciting his without hesitation. (It involved Josh Brolin, he reveals. “I can’t believe you said his name,” she laughs.)
Since becoming two of the hardest-working stars in Hollywood, Chastain and Isaac have drawn on their rapport to reunite onscreen, first in 2014’s “A Most Violent Year,” and now, leading and executive producing HBO’s critical hit “Scenes From a Marriage,” Hagai Levi’s updated adaptation of the famous Ingmar Bergman limited series. Chastain also leads this year’s Searchlight Pictures hit “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” which she produced with her company Freckle Films; Isaac recently starred in both Warner Bros.’ “Dune” and Focus Features’ Gotham Award–nominated “The Card Counter.”
They bring a shared understanding and passion for the craft of acting to their work, which Chastain calls “a way of getting to know myself on a deeper level.” She makes a point of adding, “I’d like to be provocative. I don’t like to be comfortable. I find that if I’m really comfortable in what I’m doing, then I’m kind of just skating…. I can be quite severe and really brutal on myself by putting [myself] in situations that feel emotionally unsafe.”
For Isaac, acting must be “expressive and not communicative—not getting too caught up with some idea that I want an audience to feel or to think.”
“The most important thing is just to try everything,” says Chastain. It’s a lesson learned she learned at Juilliard—a way of being “more expansive than constrictive” when creating a character, she says. Taking on a role and making it different from the last, says Isaac, is about using “tools that either I could discard if they didn’t speak to me or use, but at least try using them and see what they do.”
Early on in their respective careers, they admit, the commitment to the craft verged on overly intense. “You can be in a scene, and you’re like, ‘What appendage do I have to cut off to be 10% better? I’ll do it—I’ll cut off my arm,’ ” says Isaac. “And then a year later, you can be like, ‘I don’t even care about that movie!’ But in the moment, sometimes it just feels like everything. So I think it’s [about] finding the balance between risking and being dangerous in your work, but also maintaining some sense of internal boundaries.”
Chastain agrees. “Instead of thinking, like, ‘I have to martyr myself at the altar of emotion,’ or whatever it is—it shouldn’t hurt in reality, because to be vulnerable with another person, to be intimate, to be open, to have an audience see themselves in you and to connect to you and feel a bigger part of humanity, is a great gift.”
“Scenes From a Marriage” enabled the two collaborators to crank up the vulnerability—not to mention the intimacy, both emotional and physical—knowing there was both mutual trust and a hard-won ability to maintain those boundaries. In their evolutions as actors, Chastain and Isaac are now somewhere between that youthful willingness to plumb heavy emotional depths and the wisdom of experience. “Hopefully, by the time we’re 80 and Oscar and I are, I don’t know, doing a remake of ‘On Golden Pond,’ we’ll have so much to pull from,” jokes Chastain.
For everything from audition advice to how to keep hope afloat in Hollywood, Chastain and Isaac’s joint interview is worth a listen. They also offer very different approaches to how to stay in the moment while working on set: Whereas Chastain jumps up and down or does dances to get out of her head, Isaac says simply, “I think about dying.” Listen to their many insights and tips wherever you tune into podcasts.