Nicole Beharie and Corey Stoll create a dinner party viewers won't soon forget in HBO's Scenes from a Marriage.
The two actors play Kate and Peter, friends of the series' main couple Mira (Jessica Chastain) and Jonathan (Oscar Isaac). During their scene in the first episode, Kate and Peter act as foils to Mira and Jonathan, giving an example of a couple who is going through an extreme rough patch brought on by complications in their open marriage.
Shadow and Act talked with Beharie and Stoll about their roles and what it was like finding relatability within the dysfunction.
"In some ways, the relationship being so different from any relationship I've ever had, I think [that] gave us license to use our imagination in a way that maybe if we were playing something closer to my own experience," said Stoll. "…I might have censored myself more."
Beharie said that she and Stoll "had a little bit of rehearsal" and a "meet and greet table read," but apart from that and conversations with writer/director Hagai Levi, the bulk of what viewers saw on screen came together on set. She also revealed that conversations had with Levy were separate from other actors because of COVID restrictions. In short, the only time the actors were all together was for the dinner scene.
But both were excited about the opportunity to work with Chastain and Isaac.
"I was so excited to just be with some people outside of my own family sitting around a table, hanging out," said Stoll. "The three other actors I got to work with were so good and interest and fun. I think there was a sort of giddiness to just being able to be at a dinner party even if it was fake."
"They're just tremendous," Beharie said of Isaac and Chastain. "And they have such interesting chemistry. It was really lovely to get to do that scene first and then have another scene with Jessica upstairs and just get to like delve a little bit. With her, but everyone's super responsive and, you know, it's just delicate stuff. It's [a lot of] looks and glances and smiles. And honestly, it's what Corey said--we got to go to a dinner party and, you know, whether it was real or not with some pretty interesting artists."
"I think the whole style and framing of the series is very actor-friendly," added Stoll. "It's the kind of thing where you just get to behave and be present, and then you have, such strong, accurate, and accurate who, and they have such history and chemistry with each other that it really made our, we made our job so somewhat easier."
The job Stoll and Beharie successfully accomplished was to portray two people who want different things out of life, but don't know how to communicate their wants to each other. Kate, who is reeling from a breakup from a lover, wants to talk about her feelings with Peter, who isn't emotionally available to comfort her (even though being in an open relationship was his idea).
Beharie talked about how she talked to people in polyamorous relationships for her research.
"Everyone is so different, especially when you're willing to be open to color outside of the lines," she said. "And you have, there's like so many iterations of it. So I just kind of soaked in a little bit of that."
"I think monogamy…can be challenging. And I think like a lot of people, you know, in theory, the idea of having an open marriage sounds appealing and maybe in some ways more in keeping with evolutionary biology. That being said, it, it feels, so it feels so far from my understanding of every relationship I've ever been in [and] what I'm sort of capable of," said Stoll. "So there's that part I can totally see how somebody could have that desire to be in that kind of relationship, but I can also very clearly see the problems with it…There is no perfect way to be in a relationship. And I think anybody who's ever been in a relationship for any period of time knows that."
"What I do think is interesting [with] our scenes [was] that we had this…on the surface perfect couple that we're paralleling. That was really interesting," said Beharie. "For me, [it's] somebody who's like clearly coloring out by the lines and it's not working in a way. And then you have people who could potentially be judging you at the same table witnessing a sort of breakout of some sort. That just really struck a nerve with me…I haven't actually been in an open relationship. But I felt like that was enough to anchor me."
Regardless of Kate and Peter's type of relationship, their issues stemmed from something all people in relationships have to contend with--how to relate to each other. In Beharie and Stoll's scene, you can see how their characters don't know how to help each other navigate the problems that have arisen between them. To use pop-psychology terminology, the characters don't know how to read each other's love languages.
"I feel like [they] just missed the opportunity to satisfy a need or to really be seen and sort of understood. I feel like that's the nature of the piece, you know?" said Beharie. "Ultimately it's about navigating relationships and figuring out what does work for the other person, but also for you, if you want to live authentically. And I think that that's the other thing that they all have in common is they are after a certain type of authenticity for themselves in their life, like a certain kind of agency, and they're not necessarily willing to sacrifice that too much. There's obviously conflict, but I do feel like that's something that everyone at the table is navigating. And maybe that idea of the love languages is great terminology for those missed opportunities that you have when someone is giving you a gift, but what you really need is a hug."
"Not to be too much defending my character because he has a lot of work to do, but I think there's an inherent tension and…this sort of public face of the relationship and the private face are such different things," Stoll added. " I think for Peter, he's embarrassed. There's this sense of exposure. He's very proud to share the fact that he's in an open marriage because it feels very enlightened, but this shame of airing the negative side of it is really frightening. [O]n some level, it's a tension inherent in every relationship, where you have this intimacy in this private world and then you have to decide how much of that to share with the rest of the world. And I think a lot of problems within relationships are about how much to share. And I think that's a real tension between these two people."
As for what could happen with Kate and Peter if HBO ever decides to create a spin-off with the characters, Beharie and Stoll have ideas on what topics could be explored.
"I feel like they're on the path of figuring it out. I mean, as the actual [Scenes from a Marriage] series progresses, you get a sense that our relationship is actually working, that we figured something out, you know, in the little drop-in phone calls and moments, because we are sort of peppered in there, in conversation," said Beharie. "I feel like…you're just seeing the ins and outs of it. You're meeting the different characters--the other lovers, surrogate parents and the kids and all that good stuff. But I imagine they would stay together and try to figure it out. That's what I think."
"How it affects the kids, I think is really, um, you know, would be a complicated and maybe really painful aspect of that story," added Stoll. "We almost get the sense from the characters, you know, it feels like [they're] almost teenagers, you know, there's something. Seemingly sort of, um, immature about [them]…that sort of sense of adolescents or young adults striving to figure out how they're going to define themselves. And yet these are two people who are parents, who are responsible and modeling behavior for their kids. And like, this sense of freedom--even if you can figure out sharing a life with somebody and [you're] still giving them and yourself all this freedom--how does it affect the children? It seems really interesting and complicated to look at."
Scenes from a Marriage's final episode drops on Oct. 10.