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Interview: Jessica Chastain Talks ‘A Most Violent Year,’ Avoiding Brooklyn Cliches & An Unlikely Political Inspiration

Interview: Jessica Chastain Talks 'A Most Violent Year,’ Avoiding Brooklyn Cliches & An Unlikely Political Inspiration

After “All Is Lost” writer/director J.C. Chandor and “Inside Llewyn Davis” star Oscar Isaac both got passed over for Oscar nominations last year, the awards conversation has treated the pair to renewed optimism with their mutual 2014 venture “A Most Violent Year.” Chandor’s latest film is a viable Best Picture nominee and Isaac is a potential runner for the Best Actor category, and hype is high for the slow-moving crime drama. But the real power player in this discussion is the film’s female lead, Jessica Chastain (who was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Golden Globe this morning).

Chastain is about as dissimilar to her character as you can imagine. Onscreen, she plays Anna Morales, who emits a threat of danger with every click of her tongue (read our A-grade review here). But the Chastain that we met is welcoming and merry, smiling wide and laughing often throughout our chat about her latest cinematic effort.

A good deal of work went into creating Anna, from painting her back story with wardrobe and makeup to subverting viewers’ expectations of her with Chandor’s carefully crafted script. Chastain tells us all about developing the role, mentioning a few unexpected influences and the delicate line you have to walk when dealing with the trickiest of Brooklyn accents.

So often in the crime drama, female characters are relegated to these smaller, secondary roles. But your character here is much more than that. Can you talk about building a figure that is actually much greater than the usual moll or femme fatale?
A lot of credit goes to J.C. [Chandor], the writer. When he first sent me the script, the thing I said to him was, “You know what? I just have this idea for her, for what you wrote. Of course, I’m sure you’ve never thought about this. To me, she feels like Dick Cheney. I’d love to explore that more with her.” I love the idea that, in this film, you underestimate her. It’s fun playing a character that is underestimated. You see her putting makeup on, you think, “Okay, this is the ‘wife’ of this crime thriller.” But then you realize, “Oh, no, she’s a lot more than that.”

One of the interesting things about that misconception is that it plays a lot into the gender politics between her and Oscar Isaac’s character. What do you think that element of the film reflects about 1981, or about today?
Well, in 1981, it was absolutely a man’s world in New York City. You feel some change coming to the world, because you have the granddaughter [Annie Funke] starting to take control of the other heating oil business. But for sure when Anna — in 1970, maybe? — when her father gave the company to her husband… in 1970 in New York City, it wouldn’t have been very common for a woman to run that business. Thank God we’ve gone forward! Of course I don’t think we’ve gone far enough, and we have some ways to go, but J.C. shows the sexism in it. She’s a woman, she’s very smart, and she realizes she needs to use what tools she has when she can. And that even means when she’s going to the bankers’ dinner, she’s going to wear a very revealing dress, because that is her tool in a man’s world. I think he’s a very smart writer, J.C. His brain is crazy!

In developing your character, were there any specific influences from crime fiction, or elsewhere? Of course there’s the staple: Lady Macbeth.
It’s interesting. A lot of people mention Lady Macbeth because she’s the go-to when you think of a strong female character with a husband. But the problem with that is that Lady Macbeth goes crazy. Anna doesn’t. Anna is very comfortable doing what she’s doing. And she has no qualms about it! She has no regrets. She actually feels that’s the way things need to be done. So that is the difference. I can say yes to Lady Macbeth in that she is a woman who is inspiring her husband to be larger and bigger than he even thinks is possible. He’s her king. But she never regrets what she does.

What’s interesting is that in a movie filled with physically large, gun-wielding men, your character is the most intimidating character in the film. I don’t know if you consider yourself an intimidating person—
Oh, I hope not! [Laughs]

But going into what you were saying before about underestimation, can you talk about building a character who overshadows all of these more traditionally intimidating figures?
Well, Dick Cheney was something that helped me there. The idea that Anna wants to be with the most powerful man in the room. She wants to be with a man like her father. Her father was very adept in criminal activity. He was very powerful, people listened to him. And when Anna feels that Abel isn’t doing that her father would do, she starts to take over. When she shoots that gun, that’s when the whole character kind of breaks open for her. And she feels that power at her fingertips. And then she confronts the DA, and you start to realize that this is a woman very comfortable with being in this element.

I studied the time period 1981. I even thought about the idea of the nails. She’s a predator in terms of business. This is also a woman that doesn’t bathe her children. With those nails you don’t do housework. Her strengths lie elsewhere. The clothes — Mr. Armani was on the cover of Time magazine at that time. He was such a famous rock star designer. She’s newly rich, and she is going to present herself as the most powerful person. She’s going to wear all Armani. So there definitely was this idea that I wanted to portray, when playing her, of a woman that was coming forward.

I mean, she’s from Bayside, Brooklyn, so, I wanted to show also that she was newly rich. The nails had to be a tad too long. Even the dialogue: instead of saying, “That went well,” she says, “That went really good.” You know? You feel like she’s not the most educated. She thinks she doesn’t have an accent, but she does. In her mind, she feels like she’s Jackie O, or whatever. [Laughs] But what she’s presenting to the world is different from what people are seeing.

I’m glad you brought up her accent and her roots. So often, when people play these characters… there’s something about Brooklyn…
I know! They go so, like, “Whoa! Ho!” [Laughs]

Right! They fall into stereotype. Was there anything you had to do to keep from crossing the line?
I definitely didn’t want to go into stereotype. I know what you mean. I found this woman from Bayside, Brooklyn — I said to my accent coach, “Anna does not think she has an accent,” and I think a woman that had a really thick Brooklyn accent, it’d be obvious [to her] that she had an accent. People would say, “Wow, your accent is really thick!” [Laughs] They’d comment on it. But there had to be this air of… she’s hiding it sometimes, but maybe when she gets angry it comes out a little bit more. And we found this woman in Bayside, Brooklyn, who said she did not have an accent. She said she used to have one and it went away. And she teaches English. Everything about her was like, “That is exactly what Anna would say.” So that’s why I went like that. I didn’t want it to be this really heavy deal.

Also, I know a lot of people from Brooklyn! And I’ve watched a lot of documentaries. There’s this incredible one [“If These Knishes Could Talk“]. There are three documentaries that I saw all about the New York accent, and about how the New York accent is disappearing. And I watched those to see, in 1980, how Brooklyn was different than it is today. Because, of course, we have lost our accent. Nowadays, if someone like Anna spoke, people would be like, “My God! Her accent is so intense!” [Laughs]

You mentioned the hair, the nails, the clothes. The wardrobe is so instrumental in building this world. Can you talk about working with the costume designer Kasia Walicka-Maimone and the makeup department to build that part of this character?
Well, we were making this movie for hardly anything. And I was reading one day, and I was thinking about this woman and, like I talked about, how Armani was a big star. And I thought, “Well, I know people from Armani.” I had just worn their dress to the Oscars. So, I sent a text to Roberta Armani, and I said, “I’m doing this movie…” Well, first I called J.C., and I said, “Would you be interested in this?” He said, “Absolutely!”

So, I said [to Roberta Armani], “I’m doing this film, and I feel like this character would wear all Armani. Would you loan us some clothes?” So they invited us to Milan and we went into their archives. And I got to actually wear vintage pieces, which is great! Sometimes [a period movie] becomes like a costume party. [Laughs] You know what I mean? A ‘70s party, ‘80s party, where you kind of take every look from the ‘80s and put it in one outfit. We didn’t want that. And if you look at a lot of the clothes that she wears — of course, the shoulder pads are a little intense — a lot of those, styled differently, could be worn at any time. J.C. didn’t want it to be… it’s not a comedy, so he didn’t want to make it a joke.

It isn’t just Anna’s character that is surprising, but her story arc itself. Several times, you suggest calling your gangster father to help you and Oscar out of all these jams. In any other movie, you’d eventually make that call. Can you discuss working with material that remains so contained through and through?
That’s all J.C., to be honest. He’s fantastic at subtlety. With the title “A Most Violent Year,” you expect it to be an incredibly violent film. But this is a film that shows guns to be very scary. Most films don’t treat guns like they’re a scary thing. In most films, the father would come in and save the day, or do whatever. I don’t want to give the spoilers away, but you come to realize that Anna is far more important than we initially thought her to be. One of the last scenes she has, with the contract, you realize that she is actually pretty involved in this business, if not the boss of the business! And that was exciting.

“A Most Violent Year” opens on December 31st in limited release.

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