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'Memory' explores our perception of the past and how it affects our present


What happens when a woman trying to forget her traumatic past falls in love with a man who isn't able to remember anything from his? The new film "Memory" explores our perception of the past and its consequences in the present through just such an unconventional love story. It stars Jessica Chastain and Peter Sarsgaard, and Peter Sarsgaard joins us now. Welcome to the program, Peter.

PETER SARSGAARD: Hey. Thank you for having me.

SCHMITZ: You know, I was struck by how you portrayed your character in this film, Saul. He's a middle-aged man. He's suffering from the early stages of dementia. And we see him struggling to remember, you know, common daily routines like where he is and what he's doing. How did you prepare for this role?

SARSGAARD: Well, I'd known people with dementia. My Uncle Bubba had dementia. So dementia is as unique as we all are. Each case is a little bit different. There's a doctor - Dr. Peter Whitehouse here, who's a neurologist, put me in touch with some people that have dementia just over the phone because it's awkward to study someone's affliction in person, I suppose.


SARSGAARD: And I was really struck by all that they could do, and that was something I really wanted to explore in the film.

SCHMITZ: Yeah. That's interesting because I think, you know, many listeners may have family who have suffered from dementia, and they've probably seen many films where the portrayal of that condition is much less subtle. It's more, you know, exaggerated, maybe, or violent. But your portrayal of Saul shows a far more subtle and, I would say, probably realistic approach to someone suffering from this condition. In fact, in a few scenes in this film, your character seems pretty self-aware and tries to make light of his condition. Here's one of those scenes.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) The usual for you?

SARSGAARD: (As Saul) Hmm (ph)?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) The usual?

SARSGAARD: (As Saul) Oh, yeah.

JESSICA CHASTAIN: (As Sylvia) Oh. What's the usual?

SARSGAARD: (As Saul) I don't know.

CHASTAIN: (As Sylvia) You don't?

SARSGAARD: (As Saul) No.

CHASTAIN: (As Sylvia) Do you remember her?

SARSGAARD: (As Saul) No.

CHASTAIN: (As Sylvia, laughter) OK.

SARSGAARD: (As Saul) I don't think I know her.

CHASTAIN: (As Sylvia) But you do remember that the food is good.

SARSGAARD: (As Saul) Oh, yeah.

CHASTAIN: (As Sylvia) OK (laughter).

SCHMITZ: That's Peter Sarsgaard and his co-star Jessica Chastain in a very poignant scene in the film. You know, describe your approach to this. Were you aiming for kind of a more realistic portrayal of this?

SARSGAARD: It was important to me to do that because there are people that really have the condition. And if we sit around and watch movies that are mostly about the later stages of dementia - most of the movies that have been made - then it's not reflecting back our own reality. And I thought that was important. And Dr. Peter Whitehouse - actually, when I was working with him early on, we both talked about that quite a bit that I wasn't going to be dementia. The character was not his condition. You know, one of the things that he pointed out early on is - he said, you know, everyone has dementia the day before they are diagnosed with dementia. We live with people that are in cognitive decline all the time and don't limit their activities, you know, just call them absent-minded or they irritate us. And I really wanted to lift that veil.

SCHMITZ: The one thing - when I was doing a little research on this, I've read that you grew up playing soccer but that you quit after suffering concussions. Is that true?

SARSGAARD: That is true. Yeah. I had what's called repetitive concussion syndrome in college. It just got to be where any amount of contact - I would get a concussion. So I stopped. I didn't actually think about that very much when I was playing the role. And my uncle, actually, who had dementia - I attribute to the fact that he played center for LSU and that he boxed, and he did a number of other things that everyone knows are not good for you.

SCHMITZ: Yeah, 'cause I was wondering if that may have motivated you in taking the part or preparing for the role in any way now that we know the connection between concussions and some of these conditions.

SARSGAARD: I mean, what really motivated me in terms of taking the part was the opportunity to play someone that really just wanted connection. There are a lot of movies about revenge. There are a lot of movies about all kinds of things that are the darker parts of humanity. And I love that what my character wanted was so pure and that the thing that was in his way was not just his own condition but this woman's trauma, which made it difficult for her to be with anyone. And there's a scene in the movie where she tells me her trauma, and I ask if I can write it down, and she says yes, you know, so I can remember it. But, of course, I don't think I look at that book very often. So it's really playing someone who doesn't put someone else's trauma on them every time he sees them. So I loved all the strengths of the characters, and what he wanted specifically was what drew me.

SCHMITZ: That's really interesting. I mean, your co-star Jessica Chastain plays Sylvia, and she has a memory of terrible trauma from her background. And she has worked her whole life trying to put that aside and forget it. How did you two go about portraying a believable-looking relationship when one person in that relationship cannot be as fully involved in it as the other one? You know, how did you, as actors, get around that?

SARSGAARD: Well, we barely spoke, which was one interesting thing...

SCHMITZ: Really?

SARSGAARD: ...That happened on set. I mean, we really barely spoke. Yeah. We would say hello in the morning. We were civil with each other, but 98% of the talking happened through the language that's in the film. We actually didn't even talk about the scenes that much before we shot them.

SCHMITZ: Was that a conscious decision?

SARSGAARD: It wasn't for me (laughter). It wasn't for me. But - and I don't know that it was for Jessica. But when she talks about it, it makes sense, in terms of her character, why she was like that. I felt sometimes like someone trying to, like, break into a bank, you know, like, crack a lock. I knew that I was with somebody that needed to be cared for, that needed to be thought about all the time, that needed to be treated a certain way. And it was like that when we were filming. And I think it helped. You know, the relationship is not the greatest love story of all time sort of love story. It's the kind that happens all the time in our lives, the sort of slightly compromised ones.

SCHMITZ: And that's what I was struck by, too. You know, I was also struck by how director Michel Franco filmed this story. It opens at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting where Sylvia is celebrating 13 years of being sober. She lives in a pretty gritty part of New York City. It's above a tire shop. There's sort of this melancholy feel to the work that matches some of the darker, deeper themes in it. It's not this neatly packed and presented film with a lot of Hollywood polish. It's messy, and it's sort of true to life. Was that part of the appeal when you were reading the script? Or, you know, is that something that Franco brought to the film after you signed on?

SARSGAARD: Oh, I knew his movies. I knew what I was getting into. I knew everything about the way he filmed. You know, Michel doesn't really shoot any coverage, which means the camera he puts in, quote-unquote, "the right place" in the scene, and the whole scene plays from that angle. And sometimes there's not even very many takes. You know, there's scenes in this movie that are one take. Or we shot the rehearsal, and he goes and looks at it and says, we have it. What that does is that gives you freedom because you don't have to match coverage into the close-up. And he's saying that's what he wants. He's saying, show me real time. Like, when she goes to the bathroom while we're watching the movie, he said, go to the bathroom. You don't have to literally go to the bathroom if you don't have to go, but go through all the time that it would take to go to the bathroom, and then come back. He wants the tempo of the movie to be familiar, to be like life, I guess.

SCHMITZ: And it felt like that as a viewer. You know, I know I like a film when I'm still thinking about it the morning after watching it. This was one of those films. It's powerful, but I would say it's not an easy film to watch. It progresses naturally, and it demands a lot from the viewer to follow what's going on and to make discoveries.

SARSGAARD: Yeah. He wants you to participate as a viewer. We meet in the middle. This is one of those films where the tip of the iceberg is visible in that we all imagine what is up with the rest of it. And one of the things, though, that I found that's been pretty amazing from its reception in Venice on - you know, I love watching it with audiences, and I typically will sit for the last 30 minutes. And I love that collective feeling, emotional feeling that happens at the end of this movie 'cause it's not despair. It's actually something like real, genuine hope.

SCHMITZ: And not only did it receive a warm reception at the Venice Film Festival, but it got an eight-minute standing ovation. I can't even imagine what that must have been like for you.

SARSGAARD: Well, you're trying to figure out when it's over. I mean, first it feels great, and then you start to worry about them. You know, it's an eternity. It's long enough so that we turned to each other and I said, is it our responsibility to end this? Like, do we need to leave?

SCHMITZ: That's Peter Sarsgaard. He stars in the new film "Memory," which will be in theaters Friday. Peter Sarsgaard, thanks so much for speaking with us.

SARSGAARD: Thank you.


NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.

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