With writer-director John Michael McDonagh‘s The Forgiven now playing in select theaters, I recently spoke to Jessica Chastain and Ralph Fiennes about making the film. Based on Lawrence Osborne‘s 2012 novel of the same name, The Forgiven tells the story of two wealthy Londoners, David and Jo Henninger (Fiennes and Chastain), who, when driving through the Moroccan desert to a friend’s lavish weekend party, are involved in a tragic accident with a local teenage boy. Arriving late at the grand villa with the debauched party raging, the couple attempts to move on from the incident. But when the boy’s father arrives seeking justice, the stage is set for a tension-filled culture clash in which David and Jo must come to terms with their fateful act and its shattering consequences. The Forgiven also stars Matt Smith, Saïd Taghmaoui, Christopher Abbott, Abbey Lee, Mourad Zaoui, Caleb Landry Jonesand Ismael Kanater.
During the interview, Fiennes and Chastain talked about what drew them to the project, what it was like working with John Michael McDonaghwhat’s the fastest they signed on to a movie, how they get ready for a project, the way they prep for an emotional scene, and more.
Check out what they had to say in the player above, or you can read the conversation below.
COLLIDER: I just want to start with congrats on the movie. I thought you both did such a great job in this. Jessica, I’ve asked you this question before, so I’m just going to ask it to your partner in crime today. Ralph, if someone has actually never seen anything you’ve done before, what is the first thing they should watch and why?
RALPH FIENNES: I do not know. I’m embarrassed to know what to tell people to watch. I guess what comes into my head is Grand Budapest Hotel. I do not know why, because it’s such a great film in its own right as a film apart from whatever I did in it. But I like it because I thought Wes Anderson saw a sort of comedic thing that I could do in his particular way and his world. And I think the film has wonderful humanity and wit and it’s very unusual, very unusual film. I would say that’s just come out top of my head.
So funny, that’s the last time I spoke to you was for that movie, of all things for you to say. But anyway, for both of you, what is the quickest you signed on to a project and why?
JESSICA CHASTAIN: The quickest I signed on is, I was at the Venice Film Festival and a friend of mine came up to me and said, “I’m getting texts from James Gray. And he knows you’re at this party and he wants to know if you’ll do this film. ” And I had James’s number in my phone so I just texted him. I said, “Of course, I’ll do your film.” I hadn’t read the script yet. I knew he wanted to make a story about his life, so that was the quickest.
James and I hadn’t even spoken, I hadn’t read the script yet, but I knew it was about his childhood and it was a passion project for him. And I was very happy to be a part of it.
FIENNES: It would have to be Schindler’s List, I guess. I had met Steven briefly and I was one of many people he was meeting and then I did not even … I just wanted … The part was great clearly. And when the offer came through, it was a no brainer. It was a wonderful one …
I think there are moments you could be lucky to have as an actor when you’re asked to be part of something that feels like it’s going to be quite momentous. I mean, Steven, it was going to be his passion work, I think. And it was a no brainer. I just was delighted. I did not even say yes, did not even need to say yes. It was a given.
Jumping into why I get to talk to you guys today. I would imagine you guys both get sent a lot of scripts. What was it specifically about this script and this story that said, “I need to do this.”?
CHASTAIN: I had read the novel years before. I loved the book and I tried to get the rights to the book actually, because it seemed so important, and it felt like it could be a great film. The rights were taken. So I just forgot about it a little bit. And then it came my way again. And I heard that John McDonagh was involved, who I love his writing and I love what he does as director. And then I got a text from Ralph telling me that he was going to do it. And I was like, “Okay, I’m in.” So, I loved the character all the way from the novel. And then I loved the people involved.
FIENNES: I imagine we’re both sent scripts all the time. And I think within two or three pages of a script, you’re either interested or you’re not. And sometimes you have to read through something you’re not enjoying because you got to give someone an answer. But this, I remember there was an economy to the writing. There was a danger, a kind of wit, a dark sense of humor. The characters, yes, yes, yes, we could all say they’re unlikable, but there was a sparkle to the dialogue. I mean, good dialogue, whatever the characters are, is just attractive. You just hear the crackle of something that has a bite on the ear. It has a dramatic punch and that’s what the script had and the setting of course, and how it evolved. The part had a great arc to play. So the combination of the part, John’s work. I admired very much his early work, The Guard and Calvary particularly. And so yes, it was the writing.
I think we both probably are at a stage where you do not know how a film’s going to pan out. I think you’ve just got to follow your gut about something that appeals to you as an actor because of the combination of factors involved. But who knows? You can forever say … People say, “Oh, this script has great commercial possibility.” Well, no one knows, no one knows. You’ve got to follow the center voice inside.
I’ve said this many times, but I’m a big fan of both of your work. And I love talking to actors about the way they like to work. If you guys both have say a really big scene on a Monday and you know it’s a challenging scene, how early on are you preparing for that scene? Is it weeks out? Can you tell me a little bit about your process?
CHASTAIN: I guess for me, it depends on, what’s challenging about it. If it’s challenging because it’s a ton of dialogue, then absolutely, I’m spending my weekend or even maybe a week before. If it’s an Aaron Sorkin thing, I have to be syllable perfect, I know before I get on that set with Aaron. So it’s then yes, I am working on it. But if it’s a dramatic scene, I try not to think about it at all because I do a lot of my work before I arrive on set. When I’m on set, I want to be just open to the actors around me and malleable and sensitive. And if I pre-plan things, or if I exhaust myself with anxiety, I find that I’m not as open to whatever the moment is.
I’ve since become more zen-like with acting than I used to be. In the beginning, I felt like I had to try to figure out how to control things. This idea, “Oh, this has to happen at this time, so I need to make sure that happens.” And now I’ve just realized whatever I’m feeling in the moment, my character’s feeling. So, whatever it is, it always makes sense for the character to be feeling the same thing. And getting out of my own way and allowing myself to just be present for what shows up, I found has been a great gift to me.
FIENNES: Yeah. I completely agree with everything Jessica said. I feel that you get to a point where you can not control everything. You’re in the hands of the director and the editor and you … I mean, it’s wonderful if there’s a director that’s sympathetic to the actors being present. But I mean, Anthony Minghella was wonderfully sympathetic to what his actors might give. He did not try to control. I think it’s great when you are in the hands of someone who’s allowing stuff to happen.
I mean, John was like this, although he had a very tight schedule. I knew he was under the cosh, as it were, under the pressure. So we did not have maybe … Just by the sheer tightness of the schedule, perhaps we did not have the time we might have otherwise have had with a bigger budget film. I do not know. I still feel though that when we were there, we had time.
My memory of the scenes with Jessica is that we were enjoying playing off of each other. And I totally agree with you, Jessica, about the thing about being present and feeling the current flow between and not … And I also agree with you, if you have a lot of dialogue that’s really important, especially for a script where the precision of the dialogue is a real factor that is precisely spoken as written. You’ve got to do the homework the few days before, the Sunday before, but if you’ve got a big dramatic scene, which involves anger or tears or some big climactic moment of catharsis in the character, I think you got to be careful. You certainly do not want to practice it alone and have as it were, done it in your bathroom and not do it on set. Hopefully, you’ve thought about it a lot and you’ve nudged into the lines of what it might be, but you want to let it come to you for the first time on the day when the cameras are rolling.
And that note I need to wrap. I’m just going to say again, congrats on the movie. Thank you so much for giving me your time.
FIENNES: Thank you. Great talking to you.
CHASTAIN: Nice to see you.