Peter Sarsgaard on ‘Memory’ and Playing a Man with Dementia



Though he plays a man dealing with dementia in the upcoming film “Memory,” Peter Sarsgaard found the experience immensely joyful. “I loved playing him,” the actor reveals on this week’s episode of Variety’s Awards Circuit Podcast. “I told my wife when I was playing him – I mean, it sounds arrogant, but it was true – I said, I’ don’t feel like I can miss. Like anything that comes my way. I don’t think I just am.’” And though his heralded performance has already won the prestigious Volpi Cup Best Actor Award at the Venice Film Festival, Sarsgaard downplays any suffering he did for the role. “Acting is easy when it’s going well,” he notes. “Even Daniel Day-Lewis would tell you that ‘My Left Foot’ was easy because he was clearly on a roll. You show up and you just know instinctively what to do.”

Written and directed by Michel Franco, “Memory” stars Jessica Chastain as a social worker who reconnects with a former classmate, Saul, played by Sarsgaard, after he follows her home from a high school reunion. She soon learns that Saul suffers from dementia. Despite his condition, the two forge a touching bond in a film that is surprising, heartfelt and even full of humor.

We spoke with Sarsgaard, who started by talking about how he first got win he was receiving an award at Venice. Sarsgaard has long been one of our most fearless and admired actors, although he has never received an Academy Award nomination. That might change with his performance in “Memory,” which premiered at this year’s Venice Film Festival, where the actor received the prestigious Volpi Cup for Best Actor.

It was actually Chastain who first suggested Sarsgaard for the role – though he didn’t become aware of that fact until filming had been completed. When he first took a meeting with Franco, Sarsgaard notes he was “in the worst physical shape of my life.” He had herniated a disc the year previous, and had been feeling lethargic. “I had a huge beard and I was just feeling homebound.” As it turned out, this worked to his advantage. “He said, ‘Oh, no, I want you to be heavier. If anything, I want you to really not be a physically fit person.’ Which makes sense for the part, the guy’s been sitting in his house for the last year.”

Sarsgaard adds that Franco wanted to make a movie that looked and felt as real as possible. Says Sarsgaard, “He didn’t want like a ‘beautiful people Hollywood love story movie,’ you know? That’s what we were avoiding.”

Sarsgaard had his own personal experience with the condition; growing up, his uncle had dementia. The actor wanted to show that Saul was a man “refusing to be his condition.” He consulted extensively with Dr. Peter J. Whitehouse, the co-author of “American Dementia” – in fact, the two continue to speak even after completing the film. “He’s interested in the way that this movie could positively affect his community, which includes the group Reimagining Dementia – it’s a group in New York that literally tries to help people reimagine what dementia is.”

Sarsgaard reveals, “Dementia is a pretty big box that everyone is put into. And [Dr. Whitehouse] said, ‘It’s so great to think that you might have expanded the box in terms of what we think of as dementia.’ I talked to many people who had dementia was all very different. It has all sorts of different ways of showing.”

“Memory” will have a limited theatrical release in the U.S. on December 22, 2023, before a wide release on January 5, 2024.

Variety’s “Awards Circuit” podcast, produced by Michael Schneider, is your one-stop listen for lively conversations about the best in film and television. Each week “Awards Circuit” features interviews with top film and TV talent and creatives; discussions and debates about awards races and industry headlines; and much more. Subscribe via Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify or anywhere you download podcasts. New episodes post weekly.


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