Two years ago, it's possible that only friends and family of Jessica Chastain, along with a savvy casting director or two, would have been able to point her out in a line-up. But after a hugely busy 2011, and a fairly hectic 2012, she's one of the most in demand actresses around, something that's only been further cemented by her role in Kathryn Bigelow's controversial, much-praised "Zero Dark Thirty," which looks set to land her her second Oscar nomination — and possibly even her first win — in a few weeks time.
Once believed to be a sprawling ensemble piece, the film in fact sees Chastain front and center as Maya, the driven, dedicated CIA agent who spends ten years on the trail of 9/11 mastermind Osama Bin Laden. The character is reportedly based on a real figure, but Chastain told the assembled journos at a recent press conference for the film at which The Playlist was present that she wasn't able, or even allowed, to compare notes with this mysterious figure.
"I didn't meet her," Chastain said, "she's an undercover CIA agent and that would not be good to do. But I got a lot of material from Mark [Boal, the film's screenwriter]. I had to approach her like any other character I'm playing. I had to use my imagination and Kathryn's imagination and Mark's to create a character that went along the lines to respect the real person. I'm playing a person who's unemotional and analytically precise, which goes against everything you're trained to do as an actor. And that would have been impossible without Kathryn and Mark's leadership."
Indeed, even the existence of the real-life basis for Maya was somewhat shocking to Chastain. "I was in NYC during 9/11 and when I found out Osama had been killed," she recalled. "When I was reading this script, every page was a shock to me, especially to Maya and the role she took. And then I got upset – why wouldn't a woman be involved in this search? Typically, women in movies are defined by their relationship to men, and this woman isn't like this. And Kathryn would never make a movie like this."
Still, even without meeting the real Maya, there was plenty of homework to do. "I had the prop person print out all the terrorists we were looking at and I hung them in my hotel room. In terms of research, there was a great deal of information in the script about who this woman was. And our screenwriter is an investigative reporter, so I had three months of going to school before filming began."
One thing that she was keen to distance the film from was Bigelow's previous film, "The Hurt Locker." Chastain responded to a question comparing the two movies' protagonists by saying: "I didn't connect Maya to the character in 'Hurt Locker.' I was thinking of her like a computer. A woman who is really good with facts and details and putting a puzzle together. And what happens when that woman is put in a situation which is much bigger than any situation she thought she would be a part of – either the interrogations and that part of the world and supriors that don't believe in your lead, and how she unravels in that. Just because she's trained to be unemotional and analytical precise doesn’t mean that she's unemotional. In the hallway with Kyle [Chandler, who plays a CIA station chief], she's basically blackmailing him. That's a very emotional reaction. So I found it to be a very compelling piece with a lot of complexity and a lot of depth and I really saw her as her own woman. I never connected it to another performance."
Of course, much of the talk around the film has involved its depiction of torture, which according to the viewer, Bigelow either endorses as vital to the capture of Bin Laden, or depicts with far more ambivalence. Chastain admits that the scenes were difficult to shoot, but she certainly finds shades of greys in there that some of the more breathless critics have passed over. "Those scenes were tough to film and we filmed that section in a Jordanian prison. We weren't on a soundstage in Los Angeles. It creates an atmosphere that is absolutely in those scenes. That was a tough week. [But] it's part of the history of the characters," she explained. "Instead of looking at it and making my own judgements, I try to look at it as part of the character. This is the introduction of a character who was recruited right out of school and she shows up in her suit thinking it's going to be a more traditional interrogation. And from where she starts to where she ends at the end of the film is very important."
Indeed, the film's ending seems to be crucial to Chastain's take on both the film and the character. "My favorite moment is the last moment of the film. Because it says more than just what this woman did. It's not a propaganda movie, like 'Go America!,' it's through the eyes of this woman who sacrificed, became a servant to her work. But it's bigger than that. Where does she go but also where do we go as a society? And to end the film with that question is far more interesting than providing an answer."
"Zero Dark Thirty" is in limited release now, and goes wide on January 11th. For more on the film, check out what director Kathryn Bigelow had to say right here.
– Reporting by Drew Taylor