A Conversation With Jessica Chastain and Liv Ullmann

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.

Liv Ullmann smiling for the camera: Erik Madigan Heck for New York Magazine © Erik Madigan Heck for New York Magazine Erik Madigan Heck for New York Magazine

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!”

When was the last time you saw each other?Jessica Chastain: Was it Toronto? When we premiered Miss Julie. 2014, maybe?

Liv Ullmann: Yes, Toronto.

Have you kept in touch?LU: Not really, but she did suddenly tell me in a fax—

JC: I send emails, and someone then faxes them to her. [Laughs.] And then she writes on them, on top of the type. I have them all.

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. We started secret rehearsals three days later.

Secret in what sense?JC: Like we weren’t going to the studio. We were at my house, Oscar’s house, and Hagai’s house, working on the script and talking about life.

Scenes From a Marriage is such a weighty legacy to take on. Were you scared about that?

JC: Absolutely. The reason I thought it could work is that it explores gender in a relationship in that time period; I love that ours explores gender in a relationship in 2020. Now the woman is the breadwinner. What does that mean when she comes home? In our situation, she doesn’t want to emasculate her husband, so she makes herself as small as she can be at home so he can be the king, which is why he talks so much and is, like, ruling the house. But if you have to make yourself smaller in a relationship, it will always come back to haunt you. You can’t disappear who you are.

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.

JC: But you lived through the ’70s! Free love!

LU: I’m still …

You’re a little more traditional?LU: I’m traditional. And I’ve done all the wrong things, so it doesn’t mean I haven’t done them. But I think a commitment is a commitment. I get hurt if I break it, and I get very hurt if he breaks it. I wish I wouldn’t be like that; I wish I wouldn’t have that anger in me. But it’s still there. I know it’s too late for me. I’m 82 years old!

JC: Eighty-two years young, Liv.

I want to talk about the personal aspect of it, Liv. You’ve said that filming it felt in some ways like a documentary because of your romantic relationship with Ingmar.LU: Well, it was long after it had ended with us. But in one scene, I’m reading from a diary and Erland is falling asleep. When I had the script, I didn’t recognize it, but when I was doing it, I realized it was something I had written years ago when Ingmar and I lived together. I was reading what I felt about love. I didn’t say anything, but yes, it did hurt me.

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JC: So you didn’t know that he was going to use that until you were sitting there filming?

LU: We did it all in six weeks. We lived in little cottages, and we met in the morning at four o’clock and did our lines. So I probably hadn’t looked closely. But when I did, I said, “Oh, that’s my writing.” But the series wasn’t really [the story of my relationship with Ingmar].

JC: My husband watched the new series with me — he needs to see it because it’s very intimate. And we’re all friends; Oscar’s family is friends with my family. But still, it’s an uncomfortable thing sometimes. And afterward, he was like, “I feel mostly sad for Mira.” I was like, “What?!” And he goes, “Yeah, I just thought she made so many mistakes.” I was like, “Wow, that’s a man’s perspective.” I wonder if men will say, “You should have been nicer to Oscar Isaac.”

There are subtle little things I don’t know if anyone will pick up on. In the first episode, every time Mira tries to go for the daughter, he cuts it off. Because Mira’s success is at work, he wants to be the one the daughter wants all the time. I’m very defensive of Mira, but I think she’s happier in the fifth episode than she is in the first. She didn’t do anything wisely, but she did what she needed to do.

LU: Hmmm.

She’s not convinced. This is why it works; there are so many layers. Liv, at the time, your version was blamed for the rising divorce rate in Sweden.LU: Because people finally started talking to each other! At that time, 45 years ago, Scenes From a Marriage an incredible success. We were here in New York when the film premiered, and a taxi driver was driving us. He turned around and said to Erland, “You are behaving horribly to your wife!” It was very alive.

Did filming this make either of you reframe your own relationships?LU: No. Ingmar was remarried when we did Scenes From a Marriage, and Erland and I had a house wagon [a trailer]. We did makeup in the main house, which used to be mine. Ingmar and I had bought it together, and now Ingmar’s living there with his new wife [Ingrid von Rosen]. One day, Erland and I sat in the house wagon and talked badly about her. I said, “Can you imagine, I’ve been to the toilet and she’s reading this horrible women’s magazine!” Then I see Erland looking really strange —

JC: Oh, no. Was she there?

LU: Not she, he! Ingmar was there. I got so scared. I said, “Oh, no!” I ran out. People knocked and said, “You have to come out!” “No!” Finally, Ingmar came and said, “Liv, Liv, I’m sorry.” And later, he said, “I don’t know why I was sorry, but maybe I could get her out that way.” You say yours was personal … Ours was very personal. But it was loving. I cared for his new wife. I was also married again. We were very close, like I understand you and Oscar are.

Jessica, what’s it like to film these intimate scenes with someone you’ve been friends with for 20 years?JC: It’s a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that, at the end, we were feeling each other’s thoughts. There was no wall between us. We joke he’s my work husband. I could tell immediately if someone said something and it bothered him. At the beginning, we read episode four and I got emotional from reading it. In public, you put on your persona; you don’t want to be a wreck. But I was deeply affected by the read. Oscar looked at me and goes, “You okay, Jess?” And I was like [gasps]. He could see I was in a tough place where nobody else in the room could tell. That’s the curse part. Because I was like, Okay, I’m about to go on this journey with this scene partner who I can’t hide anything from. He’s like a microscope with me. It makes the work better but more terrifying because sometimes you want some space. You’re like, I don’t want you to be able to read my thoughts every moment.

LU: I can disagree with that. I love it that we can read each other’s thoughts. To me, that makes the work easier.

JC: You don’t ever need any space?

LU: No.

JC: I thrive on isolation. Going into a cabin for a week by myself with no noise, I would be so happy. Just to be alone and still. Not forever! But I like solitude.

LU: I like solitude, but not on the stage or in the film studio.

JC: When I’m acting, I’m so open that I need to be in a place where I feel like I can recharge. That’s why I go off by myself a lot.

LU: That I can understand.

I want to talk about the sex scenes in both series. They’re very different. Liv, you have one. It is more poetic and leaves more to the imagination.LU: The scene where we’re lovers?

Yes, in the office before they sign the divorce papers.JC: Your hair is down. It’s beautiful. She’s so powerful. Were you embarrassed?

LU: No, because I don’t think nakedness or anything private was shown. I just remember thinking it was good that the sex happened. Because he’d had an affair and it was so hurtful between them before.

You have two sex scenes, Jessica, and they’re relatively graphic. The way these scenes are shot has changed entirely in the years since Liv shot hers; we have intimacy coordinators and choreographers now.JC: Sex scenes to me are embarrassing.

Filming them? Talking about them?JC: I’m fine talking about them. For one scene, the intimacy coordinator came in after the first take and said, “It doesn’t look like you guys are having sex.” That was the note. I was like, “We’re not having sex.” [Laughs.] Both Oscar and I were like, “Okay, great, thanks.”

How do you make it look more like you’re having sex after that note?JC: I said, “Well, I think it’s just a romantic moment?” She said, “Maybe more up-and-down action?” See, it’s just embarrassing! So the next shot, it’s just like [moves her body awkwardly up and down]. I know it looks sexy, but it’s not. Oscar is such a good friend. Because I was so nervous, he played music and we drank a little bit of bourbon. He’d say, “Just pretend there’s nobody else here. It’s okay.” And there’s a song I really like, so he’d start singing in between the takes. So I was like, Okay, just lock eyes on him. The most beautiful part of one of the love scenes is the love in their eyes when they’re looking at each other. And he helped create that.

Liv, you were surprised they re-created the abuse scene.LU: I didn’t believe it when I saw that they’d make these two people beat each other. I can say this because I know Ingmar well: He was never violent. With his mouth he could be, but never violent. We had fun doing it. [Laughs.]

JC: And it’s off-camera, right?

Yeah, she’s off-camera; you only see him kicking her.LU: There was never a touch of anything bad. We knew each other, so it was so easy.

JC: For me, it was the most difficult thing to do. We had a stuntperson on set, but honestly, it was real, what we did. He manhandles me trying to get the keys, and I start hitting him. But it was real. When he [mimes someone slapping her], that’s real. I was like, Whoa! But we were like, “Let’s just do a take, see what happens.” We only did it once because it was shocking. For me, the most painful thing, which is also Mira’s, is right afterward, looking into the eyes of someone you love that you know loves you but also is hurting you. [Tears up.]

Yours was real, and you felt emotional. Liv, yours wasn’t, and you had fun.JC: And you guys laughed!

LU: But, you see, this was in the old times, and we didn’t have coordinators. Maybe if we had one …

JC: The reality is we didn’t really use the stunt coordinator. Because we were like, “It’s so real.” We’re not violently hurting each other. We’re just slapping each other.

LU: It looked real.

JC: Have you ever had someone slap you on-camera? I know Oscar has been hit a lot, on Star Wars and whatever.

LU: Not a real, real one. Maybe Erland did in that fight scene. I did a movie with Charles Bronson [Cold Sweat], and I think he —

JC: Manhandled you?

LU: Manhandled me a bit. And I had to cover up his blood [in the scene]. I was waiting with a handkerchief on the floor, and I helped him put the blood away. And he stopped the scene and said, “Are you drying my face with the handkerchief you had on the floor?”

JC: He sounded like a real gent, that guy.

LU: Oh, he was terrible.

These safeguards are in place now because of how lawless things were during Liv’s time. Did you ever feel unsafe, Liv?LU: No, I’ve never felt that. I’ve never had Me Too. And if I had, it was very easy to go, “What are you doing?”  Have you felt safe as an actress?

JC: Yes, because I’m very outspoken, and I started my career later. But I’ve definitely been in inappropriate situations and in situations with people who were the gatekeepers to a job and who were incredibly inappropriate. I had to figure out how to turn them down without hurting their ego.

LU: I really understand what you’re saying. You had to be careful not to turn the male ego down.

JC: We don’t have to worry about that anymore. Who hit on each other first: you or Ingmar? Who made the first advance?

LU: That was toward the end of Persona. We were walking on the beach, and he said, “I had a dream last night that you and I are painfully connected.”

JC: Was that your first kiss? If this is too personal—

LU: I think we held hands. Saying “We’re painfully connected” could also be a bad thing with his advantage. But I thought it was beautiful, and I took it as a proposal. This was towards the last days of filming. We were both married, but neither of us moved back home.

Did you have a sense that he felt that way during filming?LU: It never happened during filming. I did see through the movie that he was looking at me a lot. But why not? I was playing the part.

Did you have feelings for him then, too?LU: Oh, a lot. Yes.

JC: So you must have been very happy when he said that.

LU: Yes. When we were making it, it would never dawn on me that he would talk really privately to me like that. But he did.

You’ve said before that you’ve felt deeply connected to him, even after his death.LU: When he was dying, I came into the room, and this sounds stupid, but I said while Ingmar was lying there, “You called for me.” This is also in the film Saraband [the unofficial sequel to Scenes From a Marriage]. Erland, my husband in that movie, says, “Why did you come here?” And I say, “Because you called me.”

I sat there for an hour, and he died a couple hours after. We always joked that when one of us died — of course, he was 21 years older — we would come back, but not frighten the other one. We’d fly or something. At his funeral, I went where we used to walk [on Faroe Island], and I said, “Ingmar, you have to come, I haven’t seen you yet!” And nothing happened. My husband was there, too, and we went to Switzerland and woke up in the morning and the window was open. A bird was sitting on the table in front of the bed. He said, “That’s Ingmar.” The bird flew out of the window, and then while we were sitting there, the bird came back. I do not believe it is Ingmar, but I do believe it’s the energy.

JC: He told the bird to come say hi.

LU: It was so, so clear. I always felt very connected to him. It was not good to work with him while we were together. We worked on two movies while we were together, and nightmares followed me on the set. But we had wonderful work together. And the energy is there, for those who leave us.

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