Jessica Chastain and Liv Ullmann – Same Role, 48 Years Apart
New York magazine|September 13 - 26, 2021
Jessica Chastain reprises Liv Ullmann’s part in the Ingmar Bergman classic Scenes From a Marriage. Their approaches couldn’t be more different.
By Rachel Handler

Jessica Chastain and Liv Ullmann are cheerfully arguing about monogamy. The two women—who first met when Ullmann, 82, directed Chastain, 44, in 2014’s Miss Julie—have reunited in the name of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage, the critically acclaimed 1973 miniseries starring Ullmann and Erland Josephson, which was blamed for destroying thousands of previously happy Swedish marriages. This month, Chastain and Oscar Isaac will viscerally dismantle their own fictional marriage, and perhaps the sacred unions of HBO subscribers the world over, in a remake of the series written and directed by Hagai Levi.

Levi has taken Bergman’s premise— Johan (Josephson), a haughty professor, cheats on and leaves divorce lawyer Marianne (Ullmann), who is stunned but slowly finds a sort of liberation in her solitude— and turned it on its head. Chastain’s dissociated tech exec, Mira, is the one who has the affair, leaving Isaac’s forlorn work-from-home father, Jonathan, to pick up the pieces. Chastain and Ullmann can’t quite seem to agree on a few key themes addressed in the series. Forty-eight years after the original aired, Ullmann is still aghast at her character’s decision to have a later-in-life affair with her ex-husband—“In our version, I hated it!” she says—while Chastain sees it as “free love,” something pure and beyond moral reproach. (The disconnect may be related to Ullmann’s deeply personal connection to the story: Before filming Scenes, she was in a serious, yearslong relationship with Bergman, which he drew upon while writing his script.) The two actresses also wildly disagree about the end of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, one of the many productions Ullmann is famous for and which Chastain will be starring in on London’s West End early next year: Chastain thinks the protagonist, Nora, abandons her family at the end, while Ullmann is horrified by the notion. “She comes back the next day!” says Ullmann. “I never knew you were so …,” Chastain says, making a square with her hands. “I like it!”

Jessica, when did this part come your way, and why did you decide to take it?

JC: It was January of 2020. And Oscar Isaac—who’s my friend of 20 years; we went to college together—emailed me and said, “I just had a meeting. They’re doing an adaptation of Scenes From a Marriage. I really wanna do this with you. I’m not attached yet, but are you available?” And I was like, “Well, my year is pretty booked. I’m playing Nora in A Doll’s House on the West End and all of these things, but if people can wait, I’d love to do it.” Then I heard nothing. Because of course nobody wants to wait. Studios and people want to just make things. Then comes covid. A Doll’s House gets postponed, and I’m suddenly very free. But by then they’d already cast [Michelle Williams].

In October, I got another email from Oscar that was like, “Listen, as you recall, you were the first person I reached out to. The actress who was gonna do it fell out. Please, can I send you the scripts?” I read the scripts, and I loved them.

Liv, how did you feel when you realized the characters had swapped places in the new version?

LU: What is amazing about it is that Hagai is following every plot situation even though he’s switched the gender. To me, it’s very clear that it’s a man looking and writing and directing this version. Whereas with Ingmar, it was a man that always looks as a woman at whoever he works with. That’s why we worked together so much. I always thought he wanted me to be him. But that wasn’t it. He wanted the woman in him to come through me.

In the original version, when they become lovers again, I was against that. I said, “I really don’t like it. Why would I have another life and meet with my ex-husband every Thursday?” I was morally upset with that.

JC: That’s so interesting! Because I love it. I like that it’s love without expectation of another person. He doesn’t need to be her husband; she doesn’t need to be his wife. There’s no ownership. It feels very pure.

LU: I suppose I haven’t come that far.

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM NEW YORK MAGAZINEView All

Ruth Ozeki, Amplifier

Her latest novel teems with voices—most of them belonging to what she might call “nonhuman persons.” The book of form and emptiness is out September 21.

4 mins read
New York magazine
September 13 - 26, 2021

The ‘Bingo' Heiress's Fantastical Duplex

With its Fragonard staircase, koi-pond bathroom, and rodeo-themed kitchen, Gail Ann Lowe Maidman’s apartment is like nothing else on the Upper East Side. Or anywhere else, really.

10+ mins read
New York magazine
September 13 - 26, 2021

THE POPE OF GLOOP

For 60 years, Gaetano Pesce has been preaching the gospel of uncertainty in design. Finally, the world has caught up.

10+ mins read
New York magazine
September 13 - 26, 2021

The Group Portrait: Emerson String Quartet

They’re moving into the coda of a peerless 47-year run.

2 mins read
New York magazine
September 13 - 26, 2021

THE U.N.'S OWN HUMANITARIAN CRISIS

Four years after promising to address its internal “scourge” of sexual assault and abuse, the massive, multinational, extralegal institution remains in conflict with itself.

10+ mins read
New York magazine
September 13 - 26, 2021

The Money Game: Jen Wieczner

The Antiquarian’s Approach to Crypto Wall Street’s top cop wants to police new finance with old rules.

10+ mins read
New York magazine
September 13 - 26, 2021

The National Interest: Jonathan Chait

Democrats for Rent The wealth lobby is buying them up to defeat Biden’s tax reform.

6 mins read
New York magazine
September 13 - 26, 2021

You've Heard This One Before

Maggie Nelson believes we react too quickly and think ungenerously. In her new book, she’s guilty of doing both.

10+ mins read
New York magazine
September 13 - 26, 2021

Ride Like Hell

Exploited by apps. Attacked by thieves. Unprotected by police. The city’s 65,000 bikers have only themselves to count on.

10+ mins read
New York magazine
September 13 - 26, 2021

Jessica Chastain and Liv Ullmann – Same Role, 48 Years Apart

Jessica Chastain reprises Liv Ullmann’s part in the Ingmar Bergman classic Scenes From a Marriage. Their approaches couldn’t be more different.

10+ mins read
New York magazine
September 13 - 26, 2021