Oscar Isaac Biggest ‘Scenes From a Marriage’ Problem: He Couldn’t Hide From Jessica Chastain

TheWrap magazine: “You might want to get distance from the person, but you’re not able to, because she knows you so well,” he says of acting with his close friend

Oscar Isaac Scenes From a Marriage

Steve Pond

Steve Pond

Steve Pond’s inside look at the artistry and insanity of the awards race, drawn from more than three decades of obsessively chronicling the Oscars and the entertainment industry.

This story about Oscar Isaac and “Scenes From a Marriage” first appeared in the November issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

When he agreed to join the HBO limited series “Scenes From a Marriage,” Oscar Isaac knew he’d be in for a brutally raw experience. That’s not because he’d been a fan of the 1973 Ingmar Bergman miniseries for Swedish TV, or the condensed version that played in U.S. theaters.; in fact, he’d never seen it.

But in 2014 a theater director had given him a book of the script to Bergman’s six-part series, and just reading the dialogue between a married couple whose marriage disintegrated onscreen packed a punch.

“I would read an episode, put the script down and my heart would be racing,” he said. “It just felt very visceral.” So when director Hagai Levi asked him to be in an American remake of Bergman’s series, Isaac decided it was time to finally watch the original.

“I was just floored by it, and by its really dry, dark Scandinavian sense of humor,” said the actor while taking time off in Copenhagen with his Danish wife, Elvira Lind, and their two children after the recent release of “Scenes From a Marriage,” “Dune” and “The Card Counter.” “I could really feel that brutal Scandinavian irony. I felt there was a lot to explore and a way to make this new, modern version.” 

In Bergman’s version, the husband, Johan (Erland Josephson), has an affair and leaves his wife, Marianne (Liv Ullmann).  In Levi’s, it’s the wife, Mira (Jessica Chastain), who takes a lover and leaves her husband, Jonathan (Isaac). Isaac and Chastain had been close friends since they attended Julliard together in the early 2000s, and he said their friendship was key to a project that found them in one long, uncomfortable, searing conversation after another. 

“Usually you have to really get to know the person that you’re working with, especially when it’s this intimate and intense,” he said. “But we didn’t have a lot of time, so it was fortunate that we didn’t have to get to know each other. We were able to focus all our efforts on ‘Who are these people?’ and ‘How do we live in these really harrowing situations in a truthful, authentic way?’” 

But that doesn’t mean it was easy. “It was brutal to film,” Chastain said. “Oscar and I have great love for each other, and we can read each other’s minds. We can make the other laugh if we want to, but we can also really, really hurt each other. It became difficult when the characters are hurting each other. I would come home from work and say to my husband, ‘I don’t think Oscar and I are going to be friends after this.’”

That worry turned out to be unfounded, as anyone who saw the playful and viral red-carpet video from the Venice Film Festival can attest. But Isaac agreed that the familiarity sometimes made things difficult. “We know each other so well, we’re like family,” he said. “I know what she is thinking based on the little micro-expressions on her face, and she does the same with me. And at the same time there’s no pretense or formalities between us.

“But that pretense and those formalities give you distance from people, and the daily onslaught of situations that we had to act out made it difficult when you’d want to hide from the person or not want to seem so transparent. You’re not really able to, because the person knows you so well.” 

While he talked, Isaac was interrupted by a small voice in the background. “I’ll be there in a minute, buddy,” he said, and then turned back to the phone and laughed. “My son. It’s bedtime in Copenhagen.” And that’s one reason, he added, why “Scenes From a Marriage” felt so personal to him. 

“There wasn’t a lot of reaching that had to be done,” he said. “At the end of the day sometimes, I’d be shooting a scene where I’m reading a story to the 5-year-old actor playing my kid in a little wooden bed with a bunny lamp on the table. And then I’d rush home to read a story to my actual 4-year-old with the exact same little bunny lamp beside his little wooden bed. It was uncanny in a way I hadn’t experienced before.”

Read more from the November issue here.