Fresh off of appearing in "Interstellar," the biggest movie of her career, Jessica Chastain next stars in "A Most Violent Year," J.C. Chandor’s tense follow-up to last year’s "All is Lost." In the film, which already won her the National Board of Review’s Best Supporting Actress award, Chastain plays Anna, a mobster’s daughter and wife to Abel (Oscar Isaac), an upstart businessman struggling to succeed in ’80s-era New York. Chastain spoke with Indiewire about the project and her passion for playing strong female characters.
Last time we spoke you were enjoying a nice break from acting.
Well, I’m working right now. I’m flying to Budapest tonight. I’m doing Ridley Scott’s film. I finished "Crimson Peak" in the end of April so I’ve had May to December off.
Are you exhausted?
It’s good. I love this film. The flying sometimes is tough. That’s the tough part. I was in Budapest a few days ago doing some fittings. Then I flew to New York for two days and now I’m flying back.
And with "Interstellar" you did the biggest press tour you’ve ever done in your life.
I never had a press tour like that. I’ve never been in a movie that big.
What surprised you about the experience?
God, I don’t even know. We had four premieres. And each city we went to we had TV junkets and it was a complicated thing for me to talk about. You’re not supposed to give away spoilers. It was an interesting experience. It’s such a huge press tour for a film that you’re not really allowed to talk about.
You shot "A Most Violent Year" while you shot "Crimson Peak," right?
Oh my gosh. Flying back and forth to Toronto.
What was that like?
I don’t think I’ll ever repeat that. I’m glad I did it because if I hadn’t done it, I would never have been in this film, and I love it so much. Wait until you see "Crimson Peak" because these characters are so different. I’m the English governess in it. A completely different energy. It was a lot flying back and forth. It was really scary. But sometimes I like doing things that scare me. You feel like you’re getting by by the skin of your teeth. It really forces you to rise to the occasion.
"A Most Violent Year" only marks J.C. Chandor’s third film. How did you first come to discover his work?
Well, I saw "Margin Call." I really love that film. The dialogue’s fantastic. The relationship’s are fantastic. It’s very intelligent. And then you watch "All Is Lost," I saw that premiere in Cannes, and it’s a film with no dialogue. No relationships. And it’s really smart. And I thought, "Well, how incredibly versatile is this director? Intelligent and brave. The first and second film. Let me do what works for me." He completely goes, "Let me try this." It showed me that this is someone who could do a lot. Like we haven’t even seen the beginning. So I wanted to work with him and he sent me the script. And the character, I told him, reminds me of Dick Cheney.
I actually watched documentaries about Dick Cheney when I was preparing for the role.
What similarities did you find between Cheney and Anna?
She’s doing everything she can to support him and she’s doing things in her mind that she thinks are necessary and the dirty work. But it’s better not to tell him about it, or to keep him out of it. He can believe that things are pure. We’re talking about capitalism in America. My first meeting with J.C. I said that and he was like, "Oh my god."
You’re drawn to playing women who take no prisoners. Do you consider yourself a feminist?
You use a lot of interviews as a platform to demand for better roles for women in film, but it’s clear you’re managing to find them. Is it just luck?
I’m lucky. When I speak out I’m not doing it from a selfish place because I get incredible opportunities. I get incredible roles and experiences with these wonderful filmmakers. I’m speaking out as an audience member who is going to the cinema and noticing there’s a problem here because I don’t see women being represented. I don’t see Asian-American actresses begin represented. I don’t see women in their 60s being represented in film. I want to see incredible actresses like Sarah Paulson and Lily Rabe in movies. There are these really fantastic actresses out there, but there are so few opportunities.
Thank you, Ryan Murphy.
Thank god for that man. And look at Rosamund Pike. How fantastic is she in "Gone Girl"? And she’s always been a brilliant actress. But we really need more dynamic female characters. Whenever I speak out, it’s never from "this is what I need." I’m actually really lucky. But if you look at the films of 2014 and you look at the films everyone is talking about on shortlists for Best Pictures and all that, and when people talk awards, there’s not one film that’s from a female protagonist. I mean, of course, there’s the acting prizes. But if you think of Best Picture, there’s not one that has a female lead.
What’s the chief road block that’s keeping Hollywood from progressing?
I think it’s something everyone wants. I don’t think this industry is racist or sexist. I think people in this industry are good people. We all talk about this — and I love reading articles about it. I love that it’s becoming the forefront of conversation. I love when I’m reading an article and someone points out that three percent of women are DPs. Three percent.
No, of course. It’s an important article. And I didn’t know that until I read it. But the more people that actually put the numbers out there, the more we are outraged together. And it’s not just me. It’s you. It’s Oscar Isaac. It’s J.C. Chandor. We are all starting to realize this is a problem. So if we support each other, we realize "OK. Three percent of DPs are female. That is not right." What can we do to help nurture female cinematographers? What can we do to nurture female writers and directors? We are missing female point of views. And that begins for me at the script level.
Reese Witherspoon launched her own production company to produce female-fronted efforts.
I would love to do that. I think the problem is that that needs money. [laughs]
She’s been at it longer than you.
And she’s done some really successful films. And also I’ve been lucky because I’m playing really interesting female characters. One thing that surprised me when I was doing press is that Christopher Nolan said that Murph was originally a male character. He changed it to a woman. That was interesting to me. Look also at Ripley in "Alien." That original idea was a man.
Same with Tilda Swinton in "Snowpiercer."
Exactly! Thank you! There’s these three incredible opportunities that were actually written for men, where the directors said, "Oh no. Let’s change it to a woman." And men and women aren’t that different. We all have the same hopes and fears and loves and anxieties. We all understand what that is. If a female character, if her purpose in a film is for her sexual attraction, if that is the actress’ goal in the film, or what the character is about – that’s one thing. And I don’t play those characters. I’m not very interested in those characters. But a character like Ripley or Tilda Swinton’s character in "Snowpiercer" or Murph — these were male characters that could easily change to female roles, and the more we talk about this hopefully the more it inspires directors out there who have these scripts with 15 male characters and one female character. And they look at it and go, "What part of this is the important thing about the character that isn’t based on their sex? It’s their brain instead."
You’re one of the most outspoken actresses working in Hollywood today. Did you have a really strong female role model growing up?
For me, it’s more like, I always root for voices in society. There are groups of people that have, growing up, felt like they don’t have a voice. And I don’t think that’s right. I recently did an interview with, and I love him so much, Xavier Dolan —
I’m so psyched you’ve signed on to work with him.
It’s amazing. And he’s such a lovely man. And he said that beautiful thing at Cannes about Jane Campion. He said that growing up as a gay man, he kind of connected to women because of a need to be heard. Everyone wants to be seen and to be heard. And that’s what I want to fight for. That’s why I talk about Asian American actors or African American women. I’m an audience member first, and when I go to see a movie, I want to see the voices of everyone.
How excited are you to go bad? I don’t think you played a full-on villain yet. From what Dolan has described of the project, the character you’re set to play is pretty evil.
It’s very different and it’s a very, very different character. Xavier Dolan is my spirit animal. I love him so much. And the first time I ever met him I opened my door and there he was with a huge bouquet of flowers. I just adore him. He’s telling me these fun things to do and I love all of his films. I think he’s so talented and so sensitive.
And so young. It’s crazy.
So young. It’s so exciting to be here and watch it happen.