Making Memory: Jessica Chastain, Peter Sarsgaard and Michel Franco on Portraying Dementia and Addiction and Hoping Strikes Will Spur a Renaissance of Independent Cinema

When Michel Franco began penning the script for his latest drama, “Memory,” he knew the premise — an unlikely connection between Sylvia, a woman struggling to overcome addiction and sexual abuse, and Saul, a man with early onset dementia — but where the story ended up was entirely unexpected.

“I saw it very clearly in my mind,” Franco told Variety ahead of the movie’s premiere at the Venice Film Festival on Sept. 8. “Two characters run into each other at a class reunion and he follows her home and stays out there, but I didn’t know why or who they were. I just knew that was cinematic somehow. And then I realized I was writing about memory on both ends, but I was surprised when the outline showed me that.”

Starring Jessica Chastain and Peter Sarsgaard, “Memory” earned an eight-minute standing ovation at its Venice premiere, with Sarsgaard taking home the Volpi Cup for best actor at the festival’s awards ceremony. It next screens at Toronto Film Festival on Tuesday night.

Since “Memory” obtained an interim agreement from SAG-AFTRA, Chastain, Sarsgaard and Franco were on hand to promote the film at Venice during an otherwise star-less festival due to the ongoing writers and actors strikes. Below, the trio discusses their personal connections to the characters, filming emotionally intense scenes and why it’s necessary for the stars of independent movies to show up for their projects despite the strikes.

Jessica and Peter, how did you get involved with “Memory”?

Chastain: My agent called me and asked me if I would be interested in meeting Michel Franco. I was very interested because I knew his work, so I was excited to read it. And then as I read through the script, I realized I couldn’t find one cliché, which also was very exciting. I thought I knew the direction it was going — super edgy and dark, like this revenge situation — and it didn’t feel like it was salacious or it was using the #MeToo movement or this idea of violence against women to its benefit. It felt really healing and unlike anything I had seen. And then, I’ve always wanted to work with Peter. We’ve met many times socially. Not many times, I guess —

Sarsgaard: Two times.

Chastain: Five times, maybe, at parties? But of course, I knew his work before I could even get an audition. I had been so blown away by the things he’s done, because they were so complex and he seemed to shapeshift from project to project. Those are the kind of actors that I am drawn to watching but also am drawn to collaborating with, because it means that the storytelling aspect is the most important. I’m not really drawn to vanity in art. So it was a very quick response when he asked me who I would like to work with.

Sarsgaard: I have to say, my wife [Maggie Gyllenhaal] and I went to go see “Tammy Faye,” and I don’t usually go up to an actor — they’re vulnerable, you’ve just seen it and everything sounds like you’re just saying it. My wife and I were like, “That is one of the best performances we’ve ever seen.” So when this became a possibility, I was like “Yeah.” I’m actually somebody that draws most of my inspiration from music, but sometimes an actor is just the one to me, and I think she is one of the best we have.

Chastain: Aw, Peter!

Sarsgaard: Do you remember? We were both like, weeping! We were like crazy fans.

Chastain: You were not crazy fans. It’s funny that you say this, because usually at a premiere, you kind of feel like, “Oh, you have to say that.” But both of you guys came up to me and you were both so vulnerable in the way that you approached me. Just immediately, I was in love with the both of them.

Peter, how did you shape the character of Saul?

Sarsgaard: My uncle had early onset dementia. It’s very difficult to imagine having dementia as a person my age. But of course, I knew someone who did. And my experience being around him… I thought I really had something to say in terms of the character. I also saw how, in a lot of other portrayals of dementia I had seen, it didn’t look like what I knew, and the guy I knew. One of the things I loved about my uncle is someone would show up that he had never met, and he’d be like “Hey, buddy! How you doing? It’s so good to see you. How’s everything?” He just wanted it to be good until the day he died. And I thought, this is a great opportunity to play somebody who has an affliction but is just wanting positivity with everyone at any given time, right to the last second. You think of it as something that takes away your personality, but it doesn’t have to be.

Jessica, how about you? Did you relate to Sylvia in any way?

Chastain: It’s tough to talk about things like this, especially with films that deal with trauma. I mean, so many people have gone through horrific experiences and have found ways to move forward. I’m sure everyone at this table has known those who have experienced very dark things. So I think it’s pulling from that, it’s pulling from everything that you have and it’s also going forward and reading what you can that might remind you of the character. I spend a lot of time creating the memory of the characters I play. So even if it doesn’t have anything to do with a scene, even if I never talk about something, I create a history for whoever I’m playing, because then what it does is it will just always walk into the room with the character. Especially someone like Sylvia, who leads with it. She’s a hard one to talk about in that aspect, because also it’s very — friends and families and everyone’s experiences are quite private, just in the same way hers is. But I think it fed me a lot in doing that.

Sylvia and Saul’s relationship shifts frequently in the film — we see her go from thinking he abused her, to becoming his caretaker and then falling in love. What do you make of this dynamic?

Chastain: I have a very close family member who really struggled with addiction and did a lot of very complicated things. And sadly, she’s no longer with us. But I remember, for the longest time, there was a sense that she couldn’t free herself from it. Because every time she walked into a room, she immediately felt the judgment of her past and she didn’t know how to unchain herself to that version of who she was. And I find it so inspiring that this relationship is begun for Sylvia with the one person who sees her purely for the moment that they’re in. She doesn’t have to explain anything in the past, she doesn’t have to explain who she is, she just has to be present. And what a gift that is to give to another human being. So that’s what I think I find so inspiring about the two of them — without wanting to say any spoilers!

Sarsgaard: Sometimes, I think she has a left leg and I have a right leg, and together we can walk. But I actually think what’s beautiful about the film is that that relationship does change. Sometimes it might change because I forgot what our old relationship was a little bit, but I think that allows for the complexity of a relationship in life. I mean, this idea of like, “Are they in love or not in love?” Sometimes maybe, sometimes not, sometimes it’s mutual need and sometimes it’s like, “I need something and I’m going to take it from this person.” We kind of have idealized versions of love in movies, and I think one of the wonderful things about this movie is it’s a very real depiction of connection.

“Memory” has its fair share of really emotional scenes. How did you support each other when things got intense?

Chastain: The way Michel works is there’s no coverage, so you need to make sure you’re on set with someone who can bring it because you’re not going to be able to edit around a moment. I didn’t feel nervous before those scenes, actually.

Sarsgaard: Me either. I’m a very emotional person. At the same time, I get very irritated-slash-angry when someone says, “So, you cry in this scene.” And yet, it was kind of mapped out like this, but it was so unusual that I was like, “OK, I’ll try to be open in that way.” For me, it just sort of feels like I turn the key and we’ll see if it happens. And when you’re acting with someone else who’s having a real experience, then you have a real experience. So it would be very difficult for me to do with someone who —

Chastain: She looks like she’s faking crying!

Sarsgaard: Like, “Oh no, fuck. They’re pushing the tear out!” Acting really does happen in pairs and larger groups, it’s not a solo experience and it’s always better that way. I just rely on the company.

Obviously, Venice was a bit difference this year due to the strikes. What does it mean to you to be here promoting “Memory,” and is there a message you’d like to send to the AMPTP?

Chastain: Yes, there’s lots of messages to send to the studios. There’s also lots of messages to send, I hope, to my fellow union members and to other independent producers. SAG has been incredibly clear that working and supporting these interim agreements films is part of their strategy to end the strike. They’ve made a call to action for members of the union to step up and show up and support them, because in doing so and having the independent producers sign it, we’re letting the AMPTP know that actors deserve fair wages, we need protections from AI implementation and there needs to be a streaming revenue share. I think everyone’s really afraid to be the one to say anything — especially if you’re a successful actor, we have been trained from the moment we got our first job to be quiet because we don’t know when our next job is coming. It takes a lot of support of each other to link arms and do this. I also hope that it’ll create a renaissance, in some sense, of independent cinema. I like that the AMPTP has competition, and I think it’s a crucial part of SAG’s strategy. So I’m really very proud to be here.

Sarsgaard: I know a lot of people might look at this and think, because of their ideas about Hollywood, that these are privileged actors and privileged writers wanting more, and what do they make and looking at the salaries. Just leaving that aside, the fight against AI is crucial for everyone. And it is paramount that we win this fight because any job can be taken over by AI. A doctor’s job can be taken over by AI, your job could be taken over by AI. Aside from all of us living in a world that’s like “Wall-E,” the world will lose its humanity. AI can’t duplicate our individuality, and it’s that individuality that is in these small films. The AMPTP is mostly interested in films that already look like AI. So what we’re preserving, what we’re all fighting for is not just actor-writer stuff. It’s humanity, it’s individuality versus the corporate machine. It’s like a Kafka novel. We’ve gotta fucking win.

Chastain: A final note to the studios: I’ve worked with a lot of, if not all of the struck companies and I know them to be filled with a lot of empathetic people who care about others. So I am imploring them to go back to the negotiating table, because a solution will not happen unless there is an adult in the room. SAG has been willing to meet since July 12 to finish this contract to end this strike, and it’s time now for the AMPTP to show up.

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