Memory is a movie that reveals itself to the audience as it goes on, which is exactly how Peter Sarsgaard first experienced it, too. "I didn't know anything about it," the actor recalls of his initial read of writer and director Michel Franco's screenplay. In fact, his familiarity with Franco's previous work — including 2012's After Lucia and 2020's New Order — left him even more unprepared for what Memory beheld.
"I knew Michel's movies, so I think I expected there to be more of a third-act twist than there was," admits the actor. "It was one of those cases where knowing a director's work actually leads you down the wrong path."
Equally unpredictable was that Sarsgaard's performance in Memory, playing a man with early-onset dementia, would win him the Volpi Cup for Best Actor at the 2023 Venice Film Festival.
Memory centers on the complicated relationship between Saul (Sarsgaard) and Sylvia (Oscar winner Jessica Chastain), a single mother and social worker, whose chance encounter at a high school reunion upsets the already fragile foundations of their lives and reveals a new path forward for both of them. As Saul, Sarsgaard emerges as both the moral center and unlikely emotional anchor of the film.
"I've been around people with dementia. It's different with each individual that has it, so I knew I didn't have to necessarily stick a landing there," Sarsgaard tells A.frame. "There was nothing I had to do here... The condition of dementia is just that — it's a condition. It's an obstacle that the character has. It's getting in the way of what he wants, and it's nice to have obstacles to play."
A.frame: The movie is very patient in how it unfolds. Saul is learning about himself at the same time that the audience is. What was that like for you as an actor?
There's a point early in the story where Jessica and I are sitting on a log, and she says something to me. When I read that moment in the script, I was worried I wasn't going to like it. I didn't really want to play the kind of part that's set up in that scene. Then it flipped. So, I really did go with it as it unfolded the same way you did. And everything in the film was all very scripted from the beginning; I know the film feels quite improvisational, but I think that's just owing to the way it's shot versus the way that it's written.
There are moments in the film where we watch Saul grow more and less aware of his circumstances. Did you and Michel break down those moments together, or did he leave those up to your own discretion?
He left that entirely up to me. I don't think I ever communicated anything about those moments to him. Jessica and I also rarely spoke to one another when we weren't acting. Like, almost not at all. I would say about 98 percent of the interactions that the three of us had were when we were on set doing scenes together. I don't like to let directors behind the curtain too much, you know? [Laughs]
It's interesting that you and Jessica didn't prepare together, because on screen, it does seem like there was a lot of trust between you as performers. Did that just come naturally?
The trust was always going to be there between both of us, unless it was lost. We gave it to each other on day one, like working professionals do, and we always honored each other and respected each other. I think as long as you do that, then it grows, and because we were shooting the film chronologically, that meant the relationship could grow on camera, too. That's good, because there aren't many scenes of real heart-to-heart conversations or anything like that. The way our characters grow closer is not conventional in terms of movie language. You just have to sense that they're getting closer. It's never like, "Wow, remember when we first met and I couldn't look at you?" There's none of that in this film.
Michel shoots the film in a very particular way. He doesn't include many close-ups. Almost every scene is shot from a distance. How does that sort of directorial style impact your performance and your own process on set?
You try not to think about the restrictions of being filmed like that. The way he shoots, if you think a thought, most people might not pick it up, because the camera's not saying, "Pay attention. Even though he's not saying anything, pay attention to what he's thinking." The challenge really is to give that up and not worry about it. I just trusted that whatever needed to be communicated would be communicated. If the camera's over in the corner of the room and you're a stage actor, you start to think of yourself as being on a stage, where the proscenium is in one place and the camera's in another and you have to turn out and perform. Of course, that's not what Michel wants. He wants your head to be cut off by the camera like mine is in certain scenes, and he wants you to sit down with your back to the camera. He wants the audience to lean in and have to participate. He's always encouraging the audience to participate.
You're required to act at a very specific, low pitch for almost the entire movie. You're rarely allowed to get loud or overly expressive. What was that like for you?
I just thought about it from the perspective of a guy who is really set on taking care of other people. So, my attention all the time wasn't even on me. It would always be on the other person. "How's she doing? How's she feeling? How's her kid doing? What's my brother doing?" A lot of the performance was defined by always thinking about other people. I think the only time in the movie where I really articulate exactly how I'm feeling is in the penultimate scene with Jessica's character's daughter at the end, when I tell her I'm having a hard time. Of course, Saul's been having a hard time the whole movie, but the only person I ever say that to is a child. I knew that I was not going to be somebody who ever wallowed in his condition onscreen and felt sorry for himself or wept over it.
There's a moment in the movie when I do weep, and it's when Jessica and I are watching TV together. But that's only because she's watching a movie that apparently made her cry. I wake up and I weep with her, because the character is just so empathetic. He's so in tune with what other people are feeling that bizarre things like that happen, which was scripted, by the way. It said in the script, "She’s watching a movie. It makes her cry. He wakes up, sees she's crying, and he starts crying." I thought that was interesting enough behavior to try to explore. That's not normally the way I would like to work. Most of the time it's like, "This is what's going to happen. You justify it." Most of Memory was not made like that. Most of the time, Michel would say, "Let's see what you're going to do," and because he shoots from one angle without cutting, you can explore everything take after take without having to match at all what you did in previous takes.
Saul does feel like a kind of character you haven't gotten to play many times before. With that in mind, does Memory hold a special place for you? Or do you hold every movie in the same regard when you're done with them?
I definitely have ones that I care about more than others. I really like my performance in this movie. I like the guy, though. I think that's one of the things about it: I like the character in particular. If I were to hang out with any of the people that I have played, Saul would be at the top of the list. That's usually what stands out to me more than whether or not I did a good job in one movie and a bad job in another. There are a couple of movies I don't think I'm that great in, and TV shows I don't think I'm that great in, but for the most part, I don't rank them. I usually just say that it either worked out well or it didn't — and the didn't pile is small enough.
By Alex Welch