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Honor Roll 2012: Jessica Chastain on the Obsessive Secrets of Her Role in 'Zero Dark Thirty'

Photo of Nigel M Smith By Nigel M Smith | Indiewire December 17, 2012 at 10:51AM

On a rare day off from performing on Broadway in "The Heiress," Chastain sat down with Indiewire in a posh suite at the Ritz Carlton overlooking Central Park to discuss "Zero Dark Thirty."
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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.

READ MORE: Honor Roll 2012: Marion Cotillard Dances With the Fishes in 'Rust and Bone' and Explains How a Sex Scene Can Make You Happy for a Character

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.

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.


So you didn’t have to audition for Kathryn? That's pretty astonishing, considering that last year was dubbed your 'Breakout Year.'

My movies have only been out for a year and a half!

What do you make of that trajectory?

It feels overnight, doesn’t it? But I’ve wanted to be an actor for so long. I’m not 17 years old. I didn’t take the quick path, so it doesn’t feel overnight to me. The very strange way that my life has changed is that I get a call from Kathryn Bigelow on my cell phone. The idea of that happening two years ago, I would’ve never imagined. That’s how my life has changed, and that’s all for the better. But I’ve worked really, really hard.

"No matter what I’m working on, whether it’s a play or a guest spot on a television show, I give it my all."

Someone said to me -- we were talking about luck in the business, and, yes, luck has a lot to do with it -- but I had a great teacher that said: “Success is when luck meets preparation.” I believe that everyone gets lucky at some point; you just don’t know when it’s going to happen. Melissa Leo got lucky. It probably happened later than she thought it would. Mark Ruffalo did; he was bartending for 19 years before he was discovered. You just have to be prepared when your luck meets you. And that’s how I’ve always been; I’ve always been a workhorse. I love being an actor. No matter what I’m working on, whether it’s a play or a guest spot on a television show, I give it my all. I think, because of that, when certain things would happen and I’d get lucky, I was prepared. I was ready for it.

Does getting a call from Kathryn Bigelow and getting an Academy Award nomination make you supremely confident about your craft, or do you still have insecurities?

I think if I ever start to feel really confident about my craft, then I might need to be doing something else. For me, being an actor is about overcoming something. It’s about going beyond what you thought you could do. When I look at people like Isabelle Huppert, who is a great role model for me, her career – she’s constantly challenging herself, and doing theater. She puts herself in situations where: okay, we all know she’s a genius and a brilliant actress, she could take the easy road right now. But she doesn’t. She’s always putting herself in a situation where she goes: “I’ve never done this before. Let’s see what happens.” And that’s what I really respect. So if I ever start to feel like “Oh, I know what I’m doing, I’ve got this,” I’m probably not doing what I should be doing.

How much did this role scare you, in particular? It's no doubt a daunting task to embody this woman.

Every possible way, this role scared me. I’ve never carried a film like this. I was in a movie called “Jolene,” but I’ve never done anything like this. This is a major motion picture, a lot of attention, Kathryn Bigelow, a very large budget, I’m playing a real woman in a very important historical event -- there’s no room to fail. I can’t just show up and go, “Okay, I’ll just play myself as a CIA agent.” That’s not what I’m doing. So, yes, every part of it scared me. It scared me to think that I was going to be away from my friends and family for four months. The idea of all the research I was going to be doing for this film scared me. I wasn’t interested in reading about Osama bin Laden. But when I got the part, I realized that I needed to learn everything I could. I had to get interested right now. There’s a book called "The Looming Towers," which is a brilliant book. So it was daunting on all sides, but just like everything I do, I try to make it.


You slay one of the most quotable lines of the year: "I'm the motherfucker who found this place." It brought the house down, in a good way, at my screening. I can imagine that was a tough line to own and deliver.

Yeah! Especially for someone who doesn’t really cuss. It could go so cheesy. It could be like “The Terminator.”

Was that the hardest scene to play?

I found every scene with Maya difficult. The scenes where I’m talking to Kyle Chandler and I go, “Twenty detainees recognize this photo of...,” and I had all this information about it, but I have to make it be like, “[snaps fingers three times in quick succession] We’re just talking here, it’s not a big deal,” and I’m talking really fast. A scene like that requires a lot of work, and we were moving really fast when we were shooting. And it’s a lot of work when you’re thinking, “I have three lines in the film, and one of them is that line.” What I do is I just play with the reality of the situation: what happens when this girl, for close to a decade, works on this thing. No one believes in her lead, no one listens to her. She finally finds something, she gets traction, she takes it to the head of the CIA, she’s there and they tell her, “Okay, you sit in the back.” And I sat there and watched everyone else take ownership of the model, which I made with my own hands. When they start saying, “This is here, and this is here,” and they’re acting like it’s their thing... and when [Leon] Panetta says, “How far is this from the Military Academy?” and someone answers in a half-assed way, Maya says – by the feet – how far it is. And when he looks at her and says, first of all, “Who are you?” to be talking to me when you’re not being spoken to?


"Next year at some point, I need to sit in a room by myself and be like, 'Where do you want to go, Jessica?' because this year and a half has been...a lot."

All I had to do was have inside of me the subtext of what the entire scene was already. It’s like someone touching my stuff, and that scene is about claiming what’s mine. It makes it easier to say a line like that, because then you’re not thinking about that being a line of film that everyone would talk about. I just played it as real as possible, and that’s what she would’ve done. And the next time she’s in that room, she’s not sitting in the back of the room. She’s at the table.

What attributes do you share with Maya, if any?

You would imagine that there’d be a lot, but there’s less than you think. I grew up in Northern California, I’m a vegan, I despise competition, it makes me very uncomfortable. I don’t really cuss so much. I’m happy, and I’m very emotional.

But there is one thing I can understand with her, and that is obsession. And also – she was an ‘A’ student, I was never an ‘A’ student. I did horribly in school, until Juilliard. Juilliard was the very first time I started to really succeed at something. That’s when I realized: It’s not that I’m not smart, it’s not that I can’t do this – it’s just that nothing has really ever interested me before. I hadn’t found someone to light the passion inside of me. And when a subject inspires me, I can stay up all night reading about it. I can forget to eat.

I became like that with Maya. I was so blown away by the sacrifices she made, and the loss of self. It really is an interesting story because you see the evolution of this woman, where, along the way, she becomes a stranger to herself. At the very end, she’s confronted with that. That’s something that I share with her, because, next year at some point, I need to sit in a room by myself and be like, “Where do you want to go, Jessica?” because this year and a half has been... a lot.

This article is related to: Honor Roll 2012, Interviews, Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty





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