Mexican auteur Michel Franco welcomed being able to have Jessica Chastain and Peter Sarsgaard at his side for the North American premiere of Memory at the Toronto Film Festival on Tuesday night.

“I’m very lucky to have my actors with me in this difficult time, but we’re hoping independent cinema will keep finding its place and this will make us stronger,” Franco told a Princess of Wales Theatre audience. The indie, which signed an interim agreement with SAG-AFTRA to have the stars promote Memory in Toronto, which has been decidedly short of Hollywood A-listers in town amid the dual Writers Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA strikes.

The austere family drama has Chastain playing Sylvia, a social worker who lives a simple life structured around her daughter, her job and her AA meetings. But her routines are disrupted when Saul (Sarsgaard) follows her home from their high school reunion. Their encounter profoundly impacts both of them as they open the door to the past.

During the post-screening Q&A, which followed a standing ovation for the director and lead actors, Chastain said she welcomed working with Michel on a low-budget indie after reading his script. “We got on a zoom and he said ‘you know I don’t have trailers?’ I said that’s fine. ‘And you’ll be doing your hair most days.’ No problem. I even went to Target and bought my costumes,” Chastain recounted.

And after walking the red carpet first in Venice and now Toronto to launch Memory, it turns out Chastain and Michel earlier completed production on a feature that shot this summer in San Francisco, Dreams.

As Sylvia in Memory, Chastain plays a young woman who has lived years of fear and rage after a childhood trauma, but who learns to trust and open up when she meets and falls in love with Saul.

“The idea was every time since she was a child and she walked into a room, she walked in with shame and judgement of herself. And now she’s meeting someone who, every time she walks in a room, she walks in with who she is, in that moment, and she’s not walking in with her past,” Chastain said.

Sarsgaard, who won best actor award in Venice for his performance In Memory, said playing a character with extreme vulnerability and weaknesses was made easier by in part recalling the dementia his uncle faced before his death.

“Clearly playing someone who has his present, and the rest is a jumpball, means when she (Sylvia) comes before me, I’m just so delighted. This person wants to make out with me! I watch her become available,” he recalled of playing Saul opposite Chastain.

The Toronto Film Festival runs through to Sept. 17.

Etan Vlessing

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