For Scarlett Johansson, starring in a film about a marital breakup — Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” — meant reliving something very close to home.
When she met with the director to discuss working together, “I was actually going through a divorce,” Johansson recounted Thursday in Venice, where the Netflix title is set to world-premiere in the evening. “I didn’t know what we were going to talk about … I just kind of blew into the room, ordered a glass of white wine and started complaining” about the relationship she was in.
“And he was just listening and very attentive,” she said. “And then he kind of cut it short and said, ‘Funny you should mention it.’”
Baumbach then warned her: “This is probably a project … that you are either going to really want to do, or not.”
She did. “It felt sort of fated in a way,” Johansson said. “It was an experience to share with him and have him share with me. And it somehow came at just the right time.”
Baumbach has said that “Marriage Story” draws on his own divorce from Jennifer Jason Leigh. In the film, Adam Driver plays an avant-garde guard theater director, Charlie, who is going through a breakup with an actress named Nicole (Johansson’s character), who feels suffocated by her husband’s self-centeredness and needs a more gratifying career.
It features a powerful meltdown scene between them, which prompted a question at the film’s press conference about how Johansson felt playing an actor. Johansson said that the dynamic in Nicole’s family — her mother is a former TV star — “plays a big part of who she is, and why she becomes an actor. She struggles to feel legit as an actor.”
That was something Johansson said she could empathize with. “There were parts of her career … different parts of her career, that I could certainly relate to,” she said, who was joined by Driver, Baumbach and Laura Dern on the Lido.
Driver said that the meltdown scene and the film in general made him reflect about “the theatrics of divorce.” “In getting a divorce, you are performing in front of a judge,” he said. “It wasn’t something that we winged … It felt like theater to me.”
Baumbach said of the meltdown scene that “to have these two actors completely lose themselves..even while they were in control … was something so harrowing.”
“It was like watching two of the best athletes compete … one of the best experiences I’ve had as a director,” he said.
Dern, who plays Nicole’s lawyer, latched on to the theatrics of her own role. “Noah wanted a character to personify the business of divorce,” she said, noting that for divorce lawyers, “the theatrics that is required of the job is to become your [client’s] best friend.”
“It’s very complicated,” Dern said. “You [the client] don’t know what’s happening until years later…when most people are broke.”
The Netflix film will segue from Venice to Telluride, Toronto and the New York Film Festival.
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