The prospect of working with Jessica Chastain under the direction of Michel Franco was enough to pique Peter Sarsgaard’s interest in Memory, but what really sealed the deal was how Franco had written his character, Saul. Since Franco rarely defines the character on the page, Sarsgaard was given the freedom to create a personal portrait of a man just beginning to struggle with a debilitating illness. Here, he explains how was influenced by a family member with early onset dementia, and why he chose to focus on the joy and humor in the character’s life, rather than the disease.
DEADLINE: How did you get involved with making Memory?
PETER SARSGAARD: The usual way. My agents called me and said that there was this project they thought I’d be interested in, which is how they preface anything that they think I should do. I heard who was involved even before I’d read it, and obviously I was already thinking that it was quite possible I would do it. I’m a huge fan of Michel Franco’s and a big fan of Jessica [Chastain]’s, and it was shooting in my backyard. I took a meeting with Michel.
I had read the script a few times, which I do before a meeting for a project that seems like something I might want to do, and we took a walk for several hours. I showed him around the Lower East Side and he was very interested in New York City. This was going to be one of the real characters in the movie and he’d been spending a lot of time in New York trying to feel the city. I’m not a New Yorker, but I’ve been here since 1993 and I used to live on the Lower East Side, so I just took him on a walk around that neighborhood. And it was kind of new for me too because the neighborhood has changed so much since I lived on Rivington in the ’90s.
I really felt like I could add a lot to the character on the page. Michel doesn’t perfectly define the characters on the page, so there’s a lot of room for how you might play it, and I thought I had a very strong tack on who this guy was, one of which was that I really put dementia in the back seat. I really wanted to spend most of my time thinking about the person and not the disease, but I did my due diligence. My uncle had early onset dementia and he was a big influence in my life, and I definitely thought about him more than I thought about his disease, just how much life was in him every day and how much joy and joviality.
DEADLINE: What was your research process for playing a character with dementia?
SARSGAARD: Well, if you’re playing someone who has dementia it is kind of weird to go meet people and hang out with them studying their affliction. So, I wanted it to feel sort of anonymous for anyone that I was talking to. Dr. Peter J. Whitehouse [co-author of American Dementia] was a godsend for me, he really gave me the freedom to see that there’s as much difference with how this affects people as there are individuals. And I told him I was really interested in the beginnings of dementia, that sort of period where people around them may unconsciously know, but nobody’s put the name on it yet. And you’re kind of irritated with these people and they put you out and you have to help them, and you’re thinking, what the hell’s going on? This guy’s losing it.
The film starts right after he’d been diagnosed, I would say a year after he’s been diagnosed, that we’re with this character in the movie. So, I really wanted to meet people that were at that moment and not living with it for years. There were two different guys that I talked to on the phone and it was remarkable how much they remembered about the beginning of the conversation and how they remembered that I was the guy who calls. Sometimes I’ve thought about that, because I thought I would have to introduce myself and explain it every time. I was really inspired by this group called Reimagining Dementia out of New York, and they literally help people do that. It is just as much for the people around the person who has dementia as it is for the person who has dementia, these ideas and how we treat people who have an affliction of some kind.
DEADLINE: Someone in my family had Alzheimer’s, so I’ve seen someone go through it and there were a lot of little things that I recognized, like the constant smiling and…
SARSGAARD: The nodding. That’s something I really notice that I did in the movie, but I literally didn’t know I was doing that in the movie. I watched the movie and I’m like, I’m always nodding in agreement with everyone. And calling someone your friend. “This is my friend.” And just always using indefinite articles and pronouns and things, because everyone wants to be normal. You want to normalize it. You want to have life go on in whatever way it can. You don’t want every single moment to be about what’s going on with you.
DEADLINE: I think what you brought to the character is very interesting, where he knows what’s going on with himself but is still very much trying to live life and find humor about everything. It’s not something you would normally see.
SARSGAARD: Oh, it was the only way. For me, it was the only way I would’ve ever played it. I am a lot less interested in the movie that starts at the end of this one, and what was interesting too is I had such an enormous obstacle to this relationship. I mean, Jessica and I barely communicated on set. Not in a way that was any animosity, it was just that she’s playing someone who doesn’t want to connect with other people really and is quite self-contained.
I really felt like I was robbing a bank or I was a locksmith all the time. I’d have a nail file in my mouth while I’m listening to the clicks to try to figure out what’s going on with her. And I think I’m playing a very intuitive guy even though I’ve written down her trauma. It’s not like I’m reading my book every day and yet I treat her as someone who needs to be approached carefully and slowly because I’m an intuitive person. I know it even if I don’t literally know it.
DEADLINE: And what was it like to work alongside Jessica Chastain for this?
SARSGAARD: We really barely communicated. I’m going to say 98% of the words we spoke to each other are the ones that are in the movie. And the movie was basically shot in order, except we have one day of subway stuff at the end and some other little stuff like that, but that last scene of the film was one of the last things we shot. We didn’t really know what it would be until we came up onto it. I had lots of opinions about what it could be, but the only way it’s successful to work in that way with another actor is if they are as focused and present as Jessica is. There are not many actors that I can imagine doing no coverage, very few takes, shooting in order like this. I mean, there’s almost no coverage in the movie.
DEADLINE: You generally hear about people meeting to do chemistry reads or how they connected on set, but it makes sense for this film that there was really no outside connection.
SARSGAARD: Yeah, because in the movie there aren’t intense heart-to-hearts. We don’t talk. Many movies develop a relationship by people revealing things about themselves, sharing, being asked to hold that idea. For us, it’s really animal. It’s really just intuitive. It was scripted that she was watching a movie and started crying, which made me wake up and then I start crying. So that’s the way that Michel Franco would write a moment of breaking through to the next level of a relationship. Other people, that scene would have dialogue in it and they wouldn’t necessarily specify that everybody starts crying. And I pushed up against scenes like that. Sometimes I’d be like, “Don’t tell me what to do.” It says I cry. He is like, “You don’t have to cry. I’m just saying something like that.”
DEADLINE: The whole romantic element of the story is very different. At the beginning when Saul follows Sylvia home, it’s not really the typical meet cute situation.
SARSGAARD: Yeah, that’s the hardest part of the film for me. The rest is quite easy in the way that being in the flow of something is easy. Once you get into the river of doing it, it’s like you can’t make a mistake. But the beginning of that movie, yeah, you’re meant to be scared of me and I have to honor the story at that moment, but I also have to find a way to honor my character and not play two different people, one that is scary and one that is not. When we started working, that’s a lot of what I talked to Michel about.
We didn’t really rehearse. Jessica had just finished another project the week before we started and she came straight into this one. She just won the Academy Award [for The Eyes of Tammy Faye]. I think the most amount of talking about the movie I’d done with her was after she won the Academy Award. My wife [Maggie Gyllenhaal] and I were at the Academy Awards that year because of Lost Daughter, and I saw her at a party and she was just sitting there and I started talking to her about the movie. And I’d been hanging out with Michel a lot at that point, and I was talking about him and at that party is probably the most we actually talked about it beforehand, and then we went straight into doing it.
DEADLINE: You mentioned that there were no rehearsals, do you think that helped with filming this particular story?
SARSGAARD: Yeah. Well, the story’s quite simple. I think what makes the film feel unique and pretty captivating is the level of humanity that’s in it. That decisions take the length of time the decisions take. When I’m watching the movie and she gets up to go to the bathroom, Michel said, “Go to the bathroom. Go through it all and then come back and have it be that length of time.” Because she was like, “How long should it be?” There’s no other movie where they wouldn’t compress that time. Or ask me to do something interesting on camera. Like, maybe you pour yourself a drink and then… There’s none of that. It’s just observed. That’s really what it has, and it asks something of the people watching it.
You are asked to fill in some of what is hidden. If the movie is an iceberg with just the tip showing we’re all asked to daydream about what is underneath the surface. And really, for me those are my favorite characters in movies. Those are the movies that I like to watch when people say, “What kind of parts do you want to play?” I want to say, “I want to play the kind of parts like I see in life.” There are some interesting people who show us what’s inside of them all the time, but there are very few people like that. A lot of actors are asked to do that in movies in ways that just make us all feel like we’re living the pretend life and they’re living the real one.
DEADLINE: What were some of the biggest challenges for you on this project?
SARSGAARD: The feeling that I wasn’t getting as much connection as I wanted. I am playing somebody who’s obviously willing to have any amount of connection at this point in his life, and Jessica is not an ideal partner. She’s obviously going through a lot herself and very closed off. I felt like Pepé Le Pew, like I was badgering her. So, a lot of times I’d come home and I would feel kind of unfulfilled, and I think was the hardest part, even right up until the end of the movie because you can say, “Oh, I only need this much love.”
I mean, the guy obviously has experienced a lot of love in his life because of the way he talks about his wife. I think the character that people don’t think about, but feel unconsciously is my wife. The song is my wife, at least at the beginning of the movie and then the meaning of the song kind of changes throughout, but the piano in the room is my wife. The picture when she’s flipping through the album and there’s a redhead that is my wife. That woman is actually the deceased wife of the guy who actually owned the house. A lot of coincidences as we were going through this. As he leaves the production design is what the person has. So yeah, the most difficult thing is just that feeling of wanting something and not getting it.
DEADLINE: What’s next for you? Are you working on anything currently?
SARSGAARD: I’m going to do a movie with Maggie in March which is about to be announced. It’s a really, really exciting film, and I’m not just saying this because it’s my wife. It’s the best thing I’ve ever read. Period.