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.
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