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Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain’s friendship helped fuel marketing for the Hagai Levi-directed Scenes From a Marriage ahead of its debut thanks to their now-famous slow-motion premiere carpet exchange.
But during a special finale screening panel of the HBO limited series at New York’s Museum of Modern Art on Sunday night, the actors revealed their dynamic bled into everything from their decision to work on the limited series to filming some of the more emotionally challenging moments of the series.
The duo’s playful chemistry was on display during the panel event, where they joked back and forth about their bond on-set in a discussion that highlighted how their relationship, dating back to their days at Juilliard, helped them pull off Levi’s gender-swapped adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s series.
Chastain shared that the script came to her during quarantine, and while she loved the material, she typically spends time researching a character. However, that wasn’t possible for Scenes From a Marriage, as she started rehearsals just three days after meeting with Levi. So Chastain leaned into her existing relationship with Isaac to imagine how the job would play out.
“I knew I was going to be OK because of Oscar because we have such a history together. I just saw it all unfold,” Chastain told the panel audience. “We have a way of working; it feels sometimes like we’re playing the same character. My agent said that at one point. It’s like it’s not two different characters. It’s like it’s one character and the character’s marriage. So I just knew because of that it’s going to be easy to draw from.”
“I immediately felt like if I was gonna do this, the person I wanted to do it with was Jessica because of our history and just the way that we work and the nature of it,” Isaac said of working with Chastain. “Trust is so important.”
The show’s COVID protocols, then, acted like fuel for their organic chemistry. According to Chastain, the duo worked in “a pod,” which meant creating or having space for themselves “wasn’t possible on this job.”
“I love working with Oscar very, very much, but we never really had time to just, like, recharge,” the Scenes From a Marriage star explained. “In some sense, it was like a constant. We were always running lines. Sometimes we would do 20-minute takes, and it was just us.”
Isaac countered Chastain’s “constant” working narrative somewhat, noting that “there was some watching of The Great British Bake Off,” with Chastain adding that it came complete with their own “cozy blankets” and tea. Ultimately, the actress said that knowing each other “really well” on top of spending so much time together meant that there wasn’t just some on-set teasing but that they could settle immediately into scenes.
“You feel like you don’t have to push any emotion or make any plans because you’re working with someone who there’s just immediate trust [with]. You’re 100 percent there, listening to each other. Very present,” she said. “There’s no ego involved when we’re acting together. We’re not trying to one-up the other.”
When it came to their characters Mira and Jonathan’s darker moments, though, it was also “tough” because they “really know how to hurt each other.” “Like in episode four, there’s a reason it looks upsetting,” Chastain explained.
While the actress called that both “a blessing and a curse,” Isaac took a moment to deliver some more good-natured ribbing, telling the audience to laughs that for him, the familiarity their friendship provided while filming was “just a blessing.”
For Isaac, the close-quartered, pared-down experience that filming during a pandemic resulted in didn’t impact his rehearsal or on-set experience because the show was already so intimate. Still, he said, “it was a strange thing,” underscored by a sweet moment among the cast and crew at the end of filming.
“For me, the thing that I’ll take away from that is just a beautiful moment at the very end of the last day when [Levi] asked everyone that felt comfortable — we made a big circle, the whole crew — and he said because we didn’t know what anyone looked like really that anyone could come to the middle of the circle and do like burlesque where everyone would take off their mask,” Isaac recounted. “It was strange, like, ‘Oh my god! I didn’t know you looked like that!'”
For Levi, that increased on-set intimacy due to COVID protocols did play a bit into the result of the series. “We went, I don’t know, four months without seeing anybody’s face,” he said. “I think it contributed a little bit to the intensity of the show, what we were doing, and the fact that we couldn’t meet, even afterward, when we went home.”
In addition to the COVID protocols, Levi confirmed they had a month of rehearsals ahead of filming, with an additional day of rehearsal for each episode before filming began. This is where Chastain said both stars had a chance to act out their character’s emotional impulses and, according to Isaac, have a scene “go through all the things it’s not.”
Ahead of and during the panel, the duo also addressed some of the viral moments around their work and promotion of the show. On the carpet, the two kept arm’s length away in a playful moment that followed up that earlier premiere moment. Isaac also addressed his nudity in the show during the panel, which got him and the series trending on Twitter after episode four.
While discussing his and Chastain’s executive producing credits, Isaac said he thought he did little for it, but he appreciated HBO giving it to him. That’s when Levi noted that the duo could go back and watch footage before episodes were locked.
“That’s true. We got to look at the footage, but I just thought that was just for nudity reasons. Do my balls show in this one?” Isaac responded, earning a round of audience laughs.
The trio concluded the event by talking about the show’s ending, which features footage of Isaac and Chastain returning to their dressing rooms arm-in-arm. “We got to shoot this in chronological order, but it really is the documentation that’s happening, the reality of making the show,” Isaac said. “So that ending, it felt very real because it was. It was the very last day.”
Chastain called it a “beautiful moment” that doubled as an ending of their work on the show and the future and continuation of her and Isaac’s off-screen relationship. “It’s us saying goodbye to each other, but also as we’re walking, we’re like, ‘OK, I’ll see you on Thursday for dinner.’ It’s like, ‘OK, then when are you going there? Oh, OK.’ We’re talking about our future plans. So it’s a goodbye to the series and the characters, but it’s also because we have such a strong friendship. Like our friendship lives on.”
With Sunday’s fifth and final episode, the limited series is now complete, but ahead of the panel, Levi indicated this was just a “temporary ending.” When asked to clarify whether that could mean a potential follow-up or continuation of Scenes From a Marriage during the Q&A, the writer-director hesitated to confirm exactly what might be in store but did say he was already thinking about what he might do next with Isaac and Chastain.
“We had dinner last night. We had some ideas. I mean, I don’t know. We’ll see,” Levi said. “For me, it was the most amazing experience working with these two people, and I cannot accept the idea that it’s the end of it.”
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