Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac struggled to divorce themselves from their characters in this HBO remake of the Ingmar Bergman series.
There were days on the shoot for “Scenes From a Marriage,” a five-episode limited series that premieres Sept. 12 on HBO, when Oscar Isaac resented the crew.
The problem wasn’t the crew members themselves, he told me on a video call in March. But the work required of him and his co-star, Jessica Chastain, was so unsparingly intimate — “And difficult!” Chastain added from a neighboring Zoom window — that every time a camera operator or a makeup artist appeared, it felt like an intrusion.
On his other projects, Isaac had felt comfortably distant from the characters and their circumstances — interplanetary intrigue, rogue A.I. But “Scenes” surveys monogamy and parenthood, familiar territory. Sometimes Isaac would film a bedtime scene with his onscreen child (Lily Jane) and then go home and tuck his own child into the same model of bed as the one used on set, accessorized with the same bunny lamp, and not know exactly where art ended and life began.
“It was just a lot,” he said.
Chastain agreed, though she put it more strongly. “I mean, I cried every day for four months,” she said.
Isaac, 42, and Chastain, 44, have known each other since their days at the Juilliard School. And they have channeled two decades of friendship, admiration and a shared and obsessional devotion to craft into what Michael Ellenberg, one of the series’s executive producers, called “five hours of naked, raw performance.” (That nudity is metaphorical, mostly.)
“For me it definitely felt incredibly personal,” Chastain said on the call in the spring, about a month after filming had ended. “That’s why I don’t know if I have another one like this in me. Yeah, I can’t decide that. I can’t even talk about it without. …” She turned away from the screen. (It was one of several times during the call that I felt as if I were intruding, too.)
The original “Scenes From a Marriage,” created by Ingmar Bergman, debuted on Swedish television in 1973. Bergman’s first television series, its six episodes trace the dissolution of a middle-class marriage. Starring Liv Ullmann, Bergman’s ex, it drew on his own past relationships, though not always directly.
“When it comes to Bergman, the relationship between autobiography and fiction is extremely complicated,” said Jan Holmberg, the chief executive of the Ingmar Bergman Foundation.
A sensation in Sweden, it was seen by most of the adult population. And yes, sure, correlation does not imply causation, but after its debut, Swedish divorce was rumored to have doubled. Holmberg remembers watching a rerun as a 10-year-old.
“It was a rude awakening to adult life,” he said.
The writer and director Hagai Levi saw it as a teenager, on Israeli public television, during a stint on a kibbutz. “I was shocked,” he said. The series taught him that a television series could be radical, that it could be art. When he created “BeTipul,” the Israeli precursor to “In Treatment,” he used “Scenes” as proof of the concept “that two people can talk for an hour and it can work,” Levi said. (Strangely, “Scenes” also inspired the prime-time soap “Dallas.”)
So when Daniel Bergman, Ingmar Bergman’s youngest son, approached Levi about a remake, he was immediately interested.
But the project languished, in part because loving a show isn’t reason enough to adapt it. Divorce is common now — in Sweden, and elsewhere — and the relationship politics of the original series, in which the male character deserts his wife and young children for an academic post, haven’t aged particularly well.
Then about two years ago, Levi had a revelation. He would swap the gender roles. A woman who leaves her marriage and child in pursuit of freedom (with a very hot Israeli entrepreneur in place of a visiting professorship) might still provoke conversation and interest.
So the Marianne and Johan of the original became Mira and Jonathan, with a Boston suburb (re-created in a warehouse just north of New York City) stepping in for the Stockholm of the original. Jonathan remains an academic though Mira, a lawyer in the original, is now a businesswoman who out-earns him.
Casting began in early 2020. After Isaac met with Levi, he wrote to Chastain to tell her about the project. She wasn’t available. The producers cast Michelle Williams. But the pandemic reshuffled everyone’s schedules. When production was ready to resume, Williams was no longer free. Chastain was. “That was for me the most amazing miracle,” Levi said.
Isaac and Chastain met in the early 2000s at Juilliard. He was in his first year; she, in her third. He first saw her in a scene from a classical tragedy, slapping men in the face as Helen of Troy. He was friendly with her then-boyfriend, and they soon became friends themselves, bonding through the shared trauma of an acting curriculum designed to break its students down and then build them back up again. Isaac remembered her as “a real force of nature and solid, completely solid, with an incredible amount of integrity,” he said.
In the next window, Chastain blushed. “He was super talented,” she said. “But talented in a way that wasn’t expected, that’s challenging and pushing against constructs and ideas.” She introduced him to her manager, and they celebrated each other’s early successes and went to each other’s premieres. (A few of those photos are used in “Scenes From a Marriage” as set dressing.)
In 2013, Chastain was cast in J.C. Chandor’s “A Most Violent Year,” opposite Javier Bardem. When Bardem dropped out, Chastain campaigned for Isaac to have the role. Weeks before shooting, they began to meet, fleshing out the back story of their characters — a husband and wife trying to corner the heating oil market in 1981 New York — the details of the marriage, business, life.
It was their first time working together, and each felt a bond that went deeper than a parallel education and approach. “Something connects us that’s stronger than any ideas of character or story or any of that,” Isaac said. “There’s something else that’s more about like, a shared existence.”
Chandor noticed how they would support each other on set, and challenge each other, too, giving each other the freedom to take the characters’ relationship to dark and dangerous places. “They have this innate trust with each other,” Chandor said.
That trust eliminated the need for actorly tricks or shortcuts, in part because they know each other’s tricks too well. Their motto, Isaac said, was, “Let’s figure this [expletive] out together and see what’s the most honest thing we can do.”
Moni Yakim, Juilliard’s celebrated movement instructor, has followed their careers closely and he noted what he called the “magnetism and spiritual connection” that they suggested onscreen in the film.
“It’s a kind of chemistry,” Yakim said. “They can read each other’s mind and you as an audience, you can sense it.”
Telepathy takes work. When they knew that shooting “Scenes From a Marriage” could begin, Chastain bought a copy of “All About Us,” a guided journal for couples, and filled in her sections in character as Mira. Isaac brought it home and showed it to his wife, the filmmaker Elvira Lind.
“She was like, ‘You finally found your match,’” Isaac recalled. “‘Someone that is as big of a nerd as you are.’”
The actors rehearsed, with Levi and on their own, talking their way through each long scene, helping each other through the anguished parts. When production had to halt for two weeks, they rehearsed then, too.
Watching these actors work reminded Amy Herzog, a writer and executive producer on the series, of race horses in full gallop. “These are two people who have so much training and skill,” she said. “Because it’s an athletic feat, what they were being asked to do.”
But training and skill and the “All About Us” book hadn’t really prepared them for the emotional impact of actually shooting “Scenes From a Marriage.” Both actors normally compartmentalize when they work, putting up psychic partitions between their roles and themselves. But this time, the partitions weren’t up to code.
“I knew I was in trouble the very first week,” Chastain said.
She couldn’t hide how the scripts affected her, especially from someone who knows her as well as Isaac does. “I just felt so exposed,” she said. “This to me, more than anything I’ve ever worked on, was definitely the most open I’ve ever been.”
“It felt so dangerous,” she said.
I visited the set in February (after multiple Covid-19 tests and health screenings) during a final day of filming. It was the quietest set I had ever seen: The atmosphere was subdued, reverent almost, a crew and a studio space stripped down to only what two actors would need to do the most passionate and demanding work of their careers.
Isaac didn’t know if he would watch the completed series. “It really is the first time ever, where I’ve done something where I’m totally fine never seeing this thing,” he said. “Because I’ve really lived through it. And in some ways I don’t want whatever they decide to put together to change my experience of it, which was just so intense.”
The cameras captured that intensity. Though Chastain isn’t Mira and Isaac isn’t Jonathan, each drew on personal experience — their parents’ marriages, past relationships — in ways they never had. Sometimes work on the show felt like acting, and sometimes the work wasn’t even conscious. There’s a scene in the harrowing fourth episode in which they both lie crumpled on the floor, an identical stress vein bulging in each forehead.
“It’s my go-to move, the throbbing forehead vein,” Isaac said on a follow-up video call last month. Chastain riffed on the joke: “That was our third year at Juilliard, the throb.”
By then, it had been five months since the shoot wrapped. Life had returned to something like normal. Jokes were possible again. Both of them seemed looser, more relaxed. (Isaac had already poured himself one tequila shot and was ready for another.) No one cried.
Chastain had watched the show with her husband. And Isaac, despite his initial reluctance, had watched it, too. It didn’t seem to have changed his experience.
“I’ve never done anything like it,” he said. “And I can’t imagine doing anything like it again.”