There’s an embarrassment of riches in the Best Actress Oscar race this year and that’s often because women are doing it for themselves. It’s basic math: since studios have a rotten track record for delivering juicy parts, smart actresses take a more active role in pursuing them. Their agents know they are willing to go independent in order to expand their range, if not their paychecks.
Jessica Chastain has been crazy in demand ever since 2011, when she was featured in six radically different movies. She starred in Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus” opposite Ralph Fiennes and Vanessa Redgrave, played Brad Pitt’s ethereal wife in Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life,” and scored a Supporting Actress Oscar nomination as a ditzy Southern belle in “The Help.”
Clearly, this is a woman who won’t be put in a box.
One of the Juilliard grad’s first roles was in John Madden’s “The Debt,” where she played a heroic ’60s Mossad agent who grows up to be Helen Mirren. Chastain and Madden (“Shakespeare in Love”) have hoped to join forces again ever since. When he sent her “Miss Sloane,” the first screenplay by Jonathan Perera (a corporate lawyer-turned-elementary schoolteacher) she jumped at the chance to star in this “West Wing” meets “Michael Clayton” story about a hard-charging D.C. lobbyist.
Chastain always seeks scripts with strong women. Famously, she starred in Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” as a CIA agent smarter than the men in the room who was not defined by her relationships, but by her work. Her single-minded agent chasing Osama bin Laden nabbed Chastain her second Oscar nomination, for Best Actress. In Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar,” she played a brainy scientist in a role originally written for a man (Topher Grace admitted to feeling like he was playing the girl part), and in Ridley Scott’s “The Martian,” she’s the captain who leaves her astronaut stranded on Mars and then risks her life to save him.
It’s easy to see why Chastain wanted to play Elizabeth Sloane, a high-powered Washington lobbyist who is so confident in her own abilities that she takes on the National Rifle Association. “Jessica’s politically engaged over the whole idea of women in power in society,” said Madden, who once taught acting at Yale. “Empowering them is a big thing for her, she gravitated to it. She’s one of rare people who seeks out challenging material and goes after it, even if it’s not coming her way.”
It’s a pleasure to watch Chastain as the fast-talking Sloane, stalking conference rooms and Senate panels in stiletto heels, hyped up on caffeine and adrenaline, ordering her minions and ruthlessly charging forward as she masterminds her campaign, heedless of collateral damage.
In our video interview, Chastain keeps her high heels on the floor and her feet tucked under her dress as she talks about going to D.C. to research the 10 percent of Washington lobbyists who are women. She checked out their unforgiving environment, where people work 16 hours a day, glued to their smartphones. She also discovered that these women had style — and almost all of them wore black nail polish.
Besides having to jam the movie between her production commitments, Chastain had to carry an intense shooting schedule as a character who talks at top speed in nearly every scene. “The engine keeps running for this character,” said Chastain. “She doesn’t get tired at any point until the end of the film.”
“It was in our mind that the movie be about a powerful heroine who is deeply flawed and complex,” Madden said. “She does questionable and despicable things. She’s merciless and unrelenting. There was weirdly a moral unraveling and coming together in the story.”
Chastain admitted she felt liberated and emboldened playing Sloane. “I would say to John, ‘am I being cold enough?’ It was OK for me to not be likable or easy to understand. It was important to me that she be ambitious, ruthless, a loner and perfectionist who has flaws and is also noble and self sacrificing at the end.”
“It was a colossal line load for her,” said Madden. “It’s a wordy film. She’s smart and clear about the script, objective about the way she appraises things. She’s one of my few actors who’s welcome to look at the replay. She looks at it quite dispassionately, sees how a scene is working.”
He puts Chastain in the same zone as her “The Debt” costar Mirren. “She has an extraordinary set of skills. As a director, you can’t see quite what she’s doing. She’s open to direction and adjustment. Then she goes back in and inhabits the role so completely. That’s very unusual.”
“Miss Sloane,” which was produced for $18 million by sales company FilmNation and acquired by Luc Besson’s EuropaCorp for his new American distribution company, wrapped production in April and was completed in the nick of time for an AFI Fest World Premiere ahead of its November 25 release.
Madden thought the NRA-themed film would feel relevant, but it was political process and gender politics that became focal points in the U.S. election. Now that American voters have rejected an experienced, even over-qualified, woman politician as president, the world of “Miss Sloane” seems even more improbable.
The movie plays differently now “in the light of what we’ve seen,” admitted Madden, who said he was unsurprised by Donald Trump’s ascension after living through Brexit. “Hillary Clinton was criticized for being inauthentic for most of her career, and then became completely authenticated in a moment of politically astute and gracious concession. The film was always holding up some mirror to the political process, but it’s ended up sending back a reflection we hadn’t expected.”
More than ever, the status quo of what a woman is supposed to be must be challenged, Chastain said. “After the first debate, Hillary Clinton was criticized for being over-prepared. Have you ever heard that of a man? I am! I like to say I am over-prepared. No matter what you do, if you build a couch, how great to be over-prepared for your job! We need to examine how we see ambitious women and the spaces we put them in. Characters like Elizabeth Sloane can ask for a pay raise and promotion and put them out there.”
Actresses are being more outspoken about equal pay in Hollywood. Chastain has walked away from jobs where she wasn’t being “adequately paid compared to the male actor,” she said. “Amy Pascal two years ago said women are paid less because they don’t ask for more. It all comes down to that. It’s an exciting time right now, as negative as it can be: how important it is for us to step forward and take risks and not stay in the box that has been afforded us.”
As someone who handles her own social media, Chastain has seen some blowback. And she has experienced it on the job. “I had a British director say to me, ‘you got to calm down a little, all this woman’s stuff you talk about.’ No I don’t. What does that mean? If someone doesn’t want to hire me because they think I’m too vocal, fine. I will do a play, I will always find a job. Let them try to get me out of this industry. I am not going to be silenced!”
Meanwhile, Chastain forges ahead. After producing “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby,” Chastain asked her agents at CAA to help her set up a production company, Freckle Films. She signed a first-look deal with Trudie Styler and Celine Rattray’s financing-production company Maven Pictures, where she is developing “projects that celebrate many different voices and points of view,” Chastain said in an email. Maven and Freckle have already optioned two books: Greer Macallister’s “The Magician’s Lie” and Camille Pagan’s “Life and Other Near-Death Experiences,” as well as the true story of South African all-female Black Mamba group who fight elephant poachers in South Africa, to be written by “Walking Dead” star and “Eclipsed” playwright Danae Gurira.
Next up: Opening in 2017 are two films directed by women, “bad-ass chick” Niki Caro’s drama about Polish World War II animal-whisperer “The Zookeeper’s Wife” (Focus Features, March 31) and “Woman Walks Ahead,” Susanna White’s story of a woman who paints a portrait of Sitting Bull, which CAA is selling. And Chastain has started filming in Toronto November 7 Aaron Sorkin’s feature debut, “Molly’s Game.” “I just memorized 20 pages,” she said. “There are some 10-page scenes, just like ‘Miss Sloane,’ no pausing. I feel an Aaron Sorkin rhythm.”