Jessica Chastain and Peter Sarsgaard’s Experience on ‘Memory’: No Trailer? No Makeup? No Problem

TheWrap magazine: Mexican director Michel Franco says he warns his actors before filming to make sure “they know how I work”

Jessica Chastain and Peter Sarsgaard in Memory
Peter Sarsgaard and Jessica Chastain in "Memory" (Credit: Ketchup Entertainment)

Early in his casting process, Mexican director Michel Franco feels obligated to deliver a warning to his actors.

“I ask them if they know how I work,” the auteur behind uncompromising, challenging films like “New Order” and “Chronic” told TheWrap. “I tell them, ‘I don’t have trailers on my movies. I don’t have hair and makeup. I don’t do coverage. And these actors were fine with that.”

“These actors” are Jessica Chastain and Peter Sarsgaard, the stars of Franco’s “Memory.” Chastain, who reported to work not long after winning the Best Actress Oscar for “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” plays Sylvia, a single mother who lives in New York City, works at an elder-care facility and is haunted by a string of sexual assaults in her childhood. Sylvia activates her alarm system the minute she walks in her door and demands that the technician who comes to fix her refrigerator must be female; when a repairman shows up instead, she flinches as he walks by.

Sarsgaard plays Saul, a man with early-onset dementia who follows Sylvia home from a high school reunion she didn’t want to attend. She can’t forget her traumas, he can’t remember his, and they slowly find a connection in a film that also features rich supporting performances from Merritt Wever, Josh Charles and a fearsome Jessica Harper.

“From Michel’s other movies, I knew the way that he worked and what he was interested in,” Sarsgaard, who is a contender in the Best Supporting Actor category, said. “It’s a way of filming that obviously gives a lot of power to actors to control tempo and character and all kinds of other things. I’ve had many performances that I’ve given where they’ve changed the tenor of the entire thing in the edit, so it’s nice to have more artistic control.

“I feel like the performance you see in this movie is the one that I intended to give. And I loved that,” he continued. “I find it much more difficult, and I think most actors do, in some of these big movies where you’re shooting one scene for six days.”

Chastain, a Best Actress candidate, knew what she was getting herself in for, as well, even buying her character’s wardrobe on a pre-shoot shopping trip to Target. Still, she was in for a shock right from the start.

“My biggest wake-up call was my very first day of shooting,” she said. “I showed up in Brooklyn and went to the set. Michel shoots in chronological order, so it was the AA meeting [that opens the movie]. I walked in and met these people and I realized it was an actual AA meeting.

“I don’t understand how he got all these people to agree to this, but he filmed them speaking about their experiences,” she explained. “It was terrifying to me because I was like, ‘I don’t want to look like the actor in this room.’”

Sarsgaard, meanwhile, was researching his character’s condition. “The box of this thing that we call dementia is way bigger than we give it credit for being,” he said. “That was one thing I really wanted to do with the part. I talked to a lot of folks on the phone through this doctor who had a group called Reimagining Dementia in New York, and they could remember who I was when I called back after a week.

“One guy would talk about how he had post-it notes all over his house. He kept a little book like my character does, and he wrote things down. But the amount that he remembered was kind of astounding. So I wanted to reimagine dementia on a certain level.”

For her part, Chastain worked out a detailed biography that addressed the trauma we know about as well as the moments that never surface in the film. “By doing all of that and then just being in her energy, it was like a magical thing,” she said. “There are shots in the movie where I don’t remember behaving the way that I did. I never made a conscious decision to blink a lot during the sex scene — it just happened. You just show up as the person and you respond authentically.”

Franco shot the film in long, unbroken takes and then moved on; there was no resetting for reverse angles or coverage. “And he doesn’t really rehearse,” Chastain said. “Our first rehearsal is the first take.”

The process, Sarsgaard said, was ideal. “This has been a way I’ve tried to work with many people,” he said. “Anytime Michel ever asks me to do anything, I’m going to do it.”

As for Chastain, she’s already made another movie with Franco. “Wait ’til you see the next one,” she said with a laugh. “Woo! Holy smokes.”

This story first appeared in the SAG Preview/Documentaries issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more from the issue here.

Lily Gladstone Wrap cover
Photo by Jeff Vespa for TheWrap


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