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The Fretts on Film Interview: Jessica Chastain

December 16, 2012

To say that Zero Dark Thirty is one of this year’s best films isn’t exactly making news, but pick up today’s New York Daily News to read my inside story about the making of the Osama Bin Laden manhunt film. I had the pleasure of interviewing the film’s leading lady (and Oscar front-runner) Jessica Chastain, as well as director Kathryn Bigelow, writer-producer Mark Boal and costars Jason Clarke and James Gandolfini, and I’ll be posting transcripts of outtakes from all those chats soon. First up is the lovely Ms. Chastain, who’s even more luminous in person than she is on the big screen.

First of all, I’ve gotta say I was blown away by this movie. My expectations were very high going in, but they were absolutely exceeded.

That makes me so happy!

What made you want to be a part of this film?

Kathryn Bigelow. I read the script, and I was immediately reminded of All the President’s Men, one of my favorite films of all time. I love the movies of the 70’s that connect current events to society. Coming Home—I know that’s a work of fiction, not based on real characters, but that movie rocked my world and changed my ideas of what cinema could create in society. So when I read this, it was amazing to find out that there was a woman central to this mission, but also, what I loved so much is that they weren’t making a propaganda film. It wasn’t to one side or another. They were just trying to be honest. And what moved me so much is in the script, the very last scene ends with a question, ‘Where do you want to go?’ And it’s not just Maya because yes, of course, we see throughout the 10 year journey she goes on, she descends into the rabbit hole until she becomes a stranger to herself, but when the pilot says ‘Where do you want to go?’ she has no idea where she could even say—where does she go? It’s bigger than that though because it’s where do we go now as a country and as a people. After I read that, I was like, ‘I’m all in!’

That reminds me of another ’70s film with Robert Redford, The Candidate, which also ends with a question–‘What do I do now?’

That’s exactly right!

Interesting parallel. Maya is a big role. You carry the whole movie. Did you have any doubts going in?

Holy smokes! Hell ya! I haven’t done anything like this before.. I got a lot of attention for The Help, but that’s really different.

  finally-she-switched-it-up-playing-the-younger-version-of-helen-mirrens-operative-in-the-debtWell, you kicked ass in The Debt.

Thank you. But that character is suffering from survivor guilt. She’s so stunted. And this woman is so capable and intelligent and she stands on her own, it’s fantastic. I was a little surprised by that, and I was worried that I couldn’t do it, but the second that I felt like Kathryn had faith in me, I didn’t want anyone else to hear my doubt of myself so I kept that to myself.

So they consciously didn’t give your character a backstory in terms of what would make her so driven. Did you create one for yourself?

Absolutely, you have to. Every character you play, you have to create a whole world. So I had three months before I started making this movie and it was like going to school. First, I had to learn all the facts that I could. It helps that the screenwriter is an investigative journalist, and this movie came from all first-hand accounts. That’s a huge tool for me to get information about this woman and the CIA. I had a reading list I had to get through to understand Osama Bin Laden. All these things I never thought in a million years I’d be studying. I had to study intense interrogation techniques. All of that, but then in addition to that, I had to answer all the questions. Why was Maya recruited out of school? Things that aren’t’ answered in the film, I had to figure that out. Everything had to be answered.

How grueling were the interrogation scenes? I talked to Jason Clarke and he said it helped that you guys had worked together on Lawless and Texas Killing Fields, since it was such an intense experience to go through.jasonjess5

If I were doing that with someone else besides Jason, that would have been much scarier. But here’s the thing—in playing Maya, I’m playing someone who is trained to be unemotional and analytically precise. It doesn’t mean she is unemotional because we see scenes where she has explosions or in the end of the movie where she’s really vulnerable. My life, I’ve been trained to be emotional for like 20 years so for me, doing those scenes were incredibly difficult. It would have been like a release if we were working on this kind of stuff and then I got to cry–that would have felt really good. But the difficult thing in doing those scenes were filming them in an active prison where there are prisoners, in the middle of nowhere and haven’t seen a woman in a long time and haven’t seen a Western woman in a very, very long time. It was a strange energy to be around.

Did you feel personal connections to the film? You’re originally from California, but you went to Juilliard. You’re part of the New York theater scene. And your father is a fire fighter.

And my brother served in Iraq. I was a student at Juilliard during 9/11, which went beyond just that day. I remember the months afterward–do you remember watching the news all the time? I was afraid about Anthrax. I remember there were no airplanes flying over, but then when they started flying over again, it was really traumatic. And of course, not planned at all, I had moved to Los Angeles and I came to New York for a couple days and was having dinner with my friends, and the waiter came over late at night and said, ‘They’ve just got Osama Bin Laden.’ So it was like a circle that was closed in New York, and at that moment, it wasn’t a lot of, ‘Yes we did it!’ It was a feeling of, ‘Okay what does this mean now? We’ve got him, but now what’s going to happen?’ Which is also why I think Kathryn ended the movie like that. I don’t know if that’s what she felt, but…

In terms of the film’s commercial and Oscar potential, compared to The Hurt Locker, since this film has a more conventional happy ending, do you think it can reach a wider audience and still do well at the Oscars?

Yes. When I was reading the script, every time I turned the page, I was learning something else that was just shocking me. The character of Maya is an incredible woman who was at the center of this all, but no one knows about her. So I think that everybody understands what this movie is, but it could not be more different than what you expect this movie to be.

 How do you mean that?

Mostly people thought, Zero Dark Thirty, it’s going to be about going in and getting Bin Laden. They’re not going to understand that it’s actually the decade of the search. So I that’s very interesting. Also, we’re not used to seeing women like this in movies. It’s based on a true character. She is defined by herself and her job, and she’s capable and she’s strong and she stands on her own. I’m not used to seeing women like that in the movies and I think it represents our current generation of women. Kathryn Bigelow making this movie, it makes quite a statement, I think.

One last thing: I love the moment in the film when you say to James Gandolfini, as CIA director Leon Panetta, “I’m the motherfucker who found this place, Sir.”

That’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever done because The Sopranos is my favorite TV show. I never once called him Tony Soprano, but I wanted to!

Does Jessica Chastain blow you away? Post a comment!

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