Jessica Chastain at a lunch for "Zero Dark Thirty" in New York, hosted by The Peggy Siegal Company
Amanda Schwab/Starpix Jessica Chastain at a lunch for "Zero Dark Thirty" in New York, hosted by The Peggy Siegal Company

Honor Roll is a daily series running throughout December that features new or previously published interviews, profiles and first-person stories of some of the year's most notable cinematic voices. Today, we're running a new interview with Jessica Chastain, who was recently nominated for both a SAG award and a Golden Globe for her blistering performance in "Zero Dark Thirty."

After netting an Academy Award nomination for her supporting turn in "The Help" and garnering a slew of praise for performances in films as varied as "Take Shelter," "The Tree of Life" and "Lawless," you'd be forgiven for forgetting that 35-year-old Jessica Chastain only rose to prominence early last year. After her astonishing 2011, during which she appeared in a whopping seven features, Chastain is back in select theaters Wednesday, Dec. 19, in her most high-profile role and project to date: as Maya, a CIA agent at the forefront of the manhunt to track down Osama bin Laden in Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal's riveting follow-up to "The Hurt Locker," "Zero Dark Thirty."

On a rare day off from performing on Broadway in the current acclaimed revival of "The Heiress," Chastain sat down with Indiewire in a posh suite at the Ritz Carlton overlooking Central Park to discuss playing a character based on a real-life person, working with Bigelow, keeping her role a secret up until now and what scared her most about the controversial project.

What were your first impressions when you came across Mark Boal's dense script?

When I read the script a year ago, I thought, “This is one of the best scripts I have ever read. This is 'All The President’s Men!'” All the movies that I loved, the kind of filmmaking I loved from the 1970s -- that is what this is. And this is a real woman, and it’s not fiction, and it’s incredible. It’s so current, and it holds a mirror up to our society. But then I had to keep it a secret for a year. People just saw it a week ago.

"It’s amazing to play a lead character in a Kathryn Bigelow film. And to not really be able to celebrate that moment was really difficult for me."

So many were trying to guess whether the film would take a political stand on the war and who exactly you play. No one knew you were the lead of the film until a couple weeks ago – what’s it been like, keeping that secret?

It’s hard. I’ve been working for a long time. I’ve wanted to be an actor since I was seven years old. I didn’t go the fast route -- I went and I trained, I did theater, I did a lot of guest spots on TV; I’ve really worked my way up. When I got this part, it was a rite of passage. It’s amazing to play a lead character in a Kathryn Bigelow film. And to not really be able to celebrate that moment was really difficult for me – my agents couldn’t even read the script.

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I knew, however, because of the importance of what the film was, I absolutely had to keep it a secret. But I’ll tell you right now, nothing made me madder than when I’d hear things like... It’d be announced that I’d joined the film, and everyone was trying to make me joining the film as unimportant as possible; they would mix me with other people, “Oh, also, Jessica Chastain is joining the cast." People were speculating that I was playing Joel Edgerton’s wife! When I was reading stuff like that, I was like, “You have got to be kidding me.” When all I want to say is, “I’m not the wife! I’m not barefoot and pregnant while the husband goes off and does the important work! I’m actually the woman who is a true hero in this story.”

Did Kathryn sell you on why you had to keep Maya a secret?

I just do what I’m told. It was very important to them that it remained a secret, and I understood. I could tell. It’s based on a true story; it’s based on a real woman who’s still working in the CIA undercover. We had to protect her. We also had to protect the process of making the film. If people knew what it was about, then who knows? I don’t know what the reaction would’ve been while we were making it. Would they have allowed us to go inside Jordanian prisons, knowing that it was about this woman? I love Kathryn Bigelow as a director; I think she’s an amazing woman, so I was very, very happy to do what she asked me.

Zero Dark Thirty Jessica Chastain

Were you ever made privy to who the woman is behind Maya, or the people who inspired the character?

It’s one woman. Maya’s a true story; they incorporated some aspects of other people for Jennifer Ehle’s part, but Maya is based on one woman. I did as much research as I could. It definitely helps that Mark Boal is an investigative journalist. Of course, it’s a really difficult thing to talk about because no matter what, I don’t want anyone to go out there looking for her. We’ve all been told, “Please don’t talk about Maya.”

How did you land on Kathryn’s radar?

This was really lucky. I was shooting a film in Toronto – I didn’t even know this movie was casting, because I’ve been very lucky and my schedule was booked up. I came back to L.A. to do press for something, and I got a text message from Megan Ellison, who I had worked with on “Lawless,” and who was financing and producing this film. It said, “If I ever ask you for anything in my life, please call me right now for five minutes.” I was like, “Wow, that’s dramatic! Okay, what is up?” And she said, “Listen. I am doing this film, Kathryn Bigelow is directing it, there’s a role that we all want you to play, but we're told that you’re busy. And I will not accept that as an answer.” I didn’t even know this movie was happening, but I guess when your schedule is busy you don’t even hear about it when someone makes an inquiry to you. I was like, “Wow. Okay, I’m very interested. If you can make both of the films work out, sure.”

"I would’ve gone crazy if someone else had played this role."

Then, that next week, Kathryn Bigelow called my cell phone. I said, “Hi! Wow, it’s a great honor to be talking to you..." -- freaking out, you know, trying to remain calm. She asked me to read the script; I read the script, and I was so moved that I sent her an email that said, “Listen. If you can make this schedule work, I want to do it. I’ve always wanted to work with you." I’ll tell you right now -- my agent told me, if you read a script and you’re okay seeing someone else play the role in a year, then you don’t necessarily need to do it. I would’ve gone crazy if someone else had played this role. From the moment I read it, I loved her, and I wanted to go on that journey. And they made it work! They were able to get CAA and Universal [on board], and everyone helped to make the schedule work.