The week after Jessica Chastain won the 2022 Best Performance by an Actress Academy Award, she and Peter Sarsgaard began work on Michel Franco’s micro-budget character study Memory. It was barebones, shot in a downmarket part of Manhattan, with no dressing rooms. Jessica did her own hair, makeup, and wardrobe. She plays Sylvia, a down-on-her-luck, recovering alcoholic single mother of a teen who reluctantly attends a high school reunion. She Meets Saul (Sarsgaard) whom she believes abused her as an adolescent, and rushes away from the party. He follows her and sleeps in front of her house and thus begins a complicated relationship; he has dementia. What She Said’ Anne Brodie attended a Critics Choice news conference with the pair:
Peter Sarsgaard – My wife (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and I saw Jess as Tammy Faye and we hunted her down afterward, she was extraordinary. When I heard she was attached to Memory, I wanted the part.Jessica Chastain – I wanted to work with Michel. He’d never worked in New York before. He has a great sense of place! And he has such a different view of the city and its character. Michel wants to explore the unexplored and unexpected. Then I saw Sylvia’s apartment over a tire store, a side of New York I had never experienced.
PS – The brownstone (near Grenville) was pretty much unchanged from what we found in it. A rower was removed and the rest of it was great, the photos and books. There was a photo of the deceased wife who also has red hair. When you attach yourself to real life, it’s kismet.Jessica Chastain – I knew Michel’s work and that he can go quite dark. I got to the scene of Saul and Sylvia in the park, this is a reaction to the #MeToo era of revenge films, the women causing havoc on everyone, and as I turned the page, Michel goes against expectations for cliches and with each page and each scene I didn’t know what was going to happen next. He never let me know ahead of time, he doesn’t want people to know anything about the film before they see it, to walk in with an open mind.
PS– I try to work with people I think I will have a connection with, like this. I stopped reading after a scene, put it down for a minute, and thought, that’s a bummer, but I wanted to play that guy. And when I started reading it again the character came alive for me and it was like “Oh no, I have to do this”. As for me as an artist, what do I have to express now? His is a good place for me to experience what I have to know. If this is a guy who is close to me, it’s not easy, it’s so difficult. It doesn’t work out as well as this.JC -I was never thinking about the audience for this project. I was only thinking about what Sylvia knew. She is such an island, didn’t open up and think about others. It’s a strange thing to say. She doesn’t have the privilege of thinking about others. She’s moving into a place of survival and protecting her child in a world she thinks is out to get her. I think of her only from this point of view.
PS– The scenes were difficult for me, thinking about storytelling and character, the reunion, and the pick-up at the reunion. What is this guy up to? It seemed nefarious. I had a strong idea of everything I was doing. My wife came back to me, not the top thought in my head, always in my mind. He had so much love and no place to have it and Sylvia comes along and I’ll give her as much as she will take. I would feel disappointed, the character’s disappointment that she couldn’t go further, even a slight step. That’s the beautiful thing. And now they come together, giggling. The relationship works in its own time, it’s spontaneous, and from moment to moment he doesn’t even sense her trauma. It was beautiful to play a man with such respect towards women.
I think it’s important that there be a large submerged part of the character the audience wonders about and a visible side of the character that satisfies a lot and shows a personal side. If you think about it and watch the movie, you get an idea why he sleeps in front of her home. Lots of little things in the movie I see now.JC – (on doing her own hair, makeup, and wardrobe) Once you see the movie, it’s not that big a feat to do. I look raw in this film, which is perfect for what Sylvia is meant to be. I started doing small plays and theatre and still; sometimes do my own hair and makeup. And we started shooting right after the Oscars (JC won 2022 Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role for The Eyes of Tammy Faye). People have an idea that you have all these creature comforts. I am not saying I never want them, but sometimes more money in a budget slows everything down, you don’t have to be creative, and with a smaller budget, it feels more collaborative, and everyone contributes. I like that I showed up for my first scene and I was in a real AA meeting with a bunch of people. I realised that working this way forces you not to be an actor but a human being. I love working that way.
PS– At a party the night she won the Oscar, it occurred to me, that we are going to a very small film, this is the smaller side of independent films. It was pretty phenomenal to see you at the Oscars to being in these little rooms on an offramp.
JC– The rehearsal was what you see in the movie, the first time they kissed, the first time we shot on camera. Michel watches and gets a sense of where you want to be and then he figures out where the camera will be one way; instead of being in the editing room, he’s editing on set, the confrontation with the mother, the mother keeps standing in front of Sylvia – erasing Sylvia over and over again, he’s doing these little subliminal things on set but he’s directing your eye.
PS –My head is cut off. and then in the next scene, and I thought he’d tell me, I go frommy head being cut off to my back, she’s telling the intimate stuff of her life that he might not remember. The shot suggests his memory lapses.
Memory opens in theatres Friday, Jan 19.