A Web Exclusive with Jessica Chastain

2011 has unquestionably belonged to Jessica Chastain.  After several years of making films, but not seeing them released, the flame-haired actress has suddenly found herself thrust into the spotlight with turns in Terrence Malick's Cannes-winning The Tree Of Life, hit literary adaptation The Help and serial killer tale Texas Killing Fields.  Add to that list her work in John Madden's The Debt, a thrilling remake of the 2007 Israeli film Ha-Hov.  She plays Rachel, a Mossad agent in the 1960s who is sent to East Berlin to help kidnap a Nazi doctor (played by Jesper Christensen) and take him to trial in Israel.


With the action cutting between these scenes and Tel Aviv in 2007 – where the older Rachel must contend with a secret she's harboured for over thirty years regarding events surrounding the kidnap – it meant Chastain had the daunting task of sharing her role with the Oscar-winner, Dame Helen Mirren.  Below, she talks about how she and her co-star set about creating one character together and how she is dealing with the sudden glare of publicity since The Tree Of Life.  She also enlightens us on her upcoming films – including Coriolanus, with Ralph Fiennes and Vanessa Redgrave, and John Hillcoat's Prohibition-era bootlegger drama The Wettest County In The World, co-starring Gary Oldman and Tom Hardy.



STUDIO: What made you want to do The Debt?

Jessica Chastain: I was really excited when I read the script, with the character.  It's rare I think to get a script where a woman is allowed to be very strong yet at the same time vulnerable.  Sometimes in a film, if the female role is strong, that's all she is.  I felt with Rachel there was so much complexity and duality in her.  It was really exciting to explore.  Then, of course, working with John Madden; I was such a fan of his work.  I knew I would learn a lot from working with him.


STUDIO: You're also in a love triangle with your fellow agents.  How was that to play?

JC: Ah!  The sad things we have to do, to sacrifice for my art and my craft.  No, it was wonderful to be in a love triangle with Sam Worthington and Marton Csokas.  Both of the guys are really actually very funny, which is surprising.  They don't take life very seriously, which is great.  All day being in that apartment – you just want a break.  But they'd really crack a lot of jokes, and we'd share a car ride on the way home.


STUDIO: How well did you get along with Sam?

JC: We really get along.  He teased me a lot.  He actually nicknamed me Tommy Cruise because of my running.  He'd done a lot of action films and I hadn't.  I guess I ran like Gumby.  So he taught me to run like Tom Cruise, to really pump the arms.  So now he calls me Tommy Cruise and we joke that we've got a three-picture deal together and we've done two.  But we might expand a three-picture deal to a five-picture deal.


STUDIO: How did you feel when you got the role?

JC: I was really excited.  I fought really hard for the role.  For a long time, for most of my films in my career, I've fought tooth and nail to try to get a film because I've been an unknown actress.  Even though I've done other films, I've always started everything as an unknown so, when I got it, I was really, really excited.  But immediately afterwards I was so scared about sharing the role with Helen Mirren, as she is so brilliant.  She kind of has everything, and to think how am I going to play a younger version of what she brings?  That was a bit intimidating.  But the wonderful woman that she is, as soon as we sat down to rehearse the character, she really made me feel like I was the second half of Rachel and that we were both creating this character together.


STUDIO: How did you both set about doing that?

JC: I can give you an example.  We were talking about the character at one point: twice Rachel is in front of a group of people and they're asking her 'What were you thinking? What was going through your mind?', and she says, 'I was thinking about my mother.'  And we both say that at different points in the film.  Helen said, 'It's interesting, she's telling the same story.  It's almost like being at a press junket and saying the same thing over and over again!'


STUDIO: That's very true!

JC: When she said that, we realised that in a way Rachel is telling the same story.  She's putting on a character.  So when you watch the part in the film – it's very obscure – but when we say 'I was thinking about my mother,' both of us touched our heart at the same time, because we assumed that for those thirty years she's telling that story, she's doing the same thing because it's almost like she's living her life as a robot.


STUDIO: How did you find the self-defence classes you had to take for the role?

JC: I am not a fighter at all.  Before I started this film, I didn't even known how to punch.  I took Krav Maga, which is the Israeli Defence Army's way of fighting.  It's what the Mossad uses.  I would punch and my wrist would always buckle.  So I spent four months, three times a week, training.


STUDIO: Did you punch Sam Worthington for real?

JC: No, but I definitely got close to punching Jesper Christensen for real.  I think because of the tension between Rachel and David in the film.  Rachel is never close to hurting him, but there definitely was a moment in the scene in the doctor's office with Jesper.


STUDIO: Yes, that must've been a very awkward scene to film...

JC: I hated filming those scenes on the table!  It was awful!  You're lying there for a week and even though he's a lovely man, it's just embarrassing!  Also, there was a lot of stress in those scenes being in German and the training that goes into that.  When I finally did the scene where I got to grab him, it was so built up for me - after a week of doing this other stuff - that I grabbed him and jabbed the needle in his neck and he actually sobbed 'Jessica, that really hurts!'.  I got so carried away, I was ready to attack!


STUDIO: This film was delayed in coming out.  Which films, of all the ones you have coming out, did you shoot before and after The Debt?

JC: Well, Wilde Salome was my first film, with Al Pacino.  Then I did Jolene and a very small part in the film Stolen Lives.  Then I did Tree Of Life and then I did The Debt.


STUDIO: Because in Venice 2011, you were there with Wilde Salome and Texas Killing Fields...

JC: Those films were made four years apart!  Isn't that crazy?  I thought everyone would joke that there was a Chastain curse.  You work so hard and you think, 'I'm in a movie with Al Pacino and with Brad Pitt in Tree Of Life', then years go by and, every time you do a movie, everyone treats you like it's your first film.  Like you're in your hair and make-up and they're so excited for you, and you go, 'It's my tenth film!'.


STUDIO: You're very spirited in Wilde Salome.  Did that independence come from the theatre?

JC: I think it did.  I went to Julliard and I studied for four years.  I have done theatre and also I was working with people – especially Al Pacino – he is not someone who wants to be a dictator.  He encourages you to speak your mind and also there is the energy of Salome, this character, of whatever she wants.  So when I play a role, I'm not a method actress – where I have people call me by the character's name or anything like that.  But if you're going on and off from the scenes it just stays with you a little bit.  With Salome, I definitely felt the need to speak my mind whenever I was inclined to.


STUDIO: Was it off-putting when a film crew came in when you were doing the play?

JC: The first day was really strange.  It felt a little like a reality television show.  You were very aware when the camera was on you.  Then, after a couple of days, you ignored it.  You realised you just had to or, rather, we had to open the play and, if we were so nervous about how we looked on camera, then we were never going to be able to do the play.  Also Benoit Delhomme is such a fantastic cinematographer.  He's so quiet and subtle that you felt like he was part of the company and you stopped seeing him as a camera operator.


STUDIO: How did Pacino first hear of you?

JC: Marthe Keller recommended me.  She's the actress that did Bobby Deerfield with him and she's also in Marathon Man.  I was in Australia, and just out of Julliard, and I got a call that Al Pacino had wanted me to audition for Salome.  I thought it was a crank call!  When I auditioned, he was there and he said, 'Do you know Marthe Keller?'  I didn't piece it together that she had clued him into me.  She saw a play I had done off-Broadway and, when he was talking about making the movie, she'd suggested me.


STUDIO: Was it good reuniting with Sam Worthington for Texas Killing Fields?

JC: Yeah.  It's funny.  I worked with Sam before Avatar and after Avatar.  It was very strange to all of a sudden realise, when we were doing Texas Killing Fields, that people just stare at him.  Before, when we were doing The Debt, we were all hidden.  All of a sudden, doing Texas Killing Fields, we'd all be at a restaurant and everyone is staring at Sam.  So that was the most strange thing for me.  He's still the same – a normal Australian guy.  So he hasn't changed at all, but the way people treat him has changed.


STUDIO: Is that a reality check for you?

JC: You know, it's funny, he's in Avatar – a huge film – and I'm not in a film like that.  In fact, every day my Mom is saying, 'Okay, you've got to stay the same', but every day things happen that humble me.  I was at a big party at the Toronto Film Festival for a magazine and I went to go check in and they asked me for my ID, but I didn't have it on me and they didn't believe that I was who I was.  So I had to go into another line and there are all these people around.  Then finally I said to the woman, 'I'm sorry I don't have an ID, but I'm in your magazine this month – with my face and my name.  So maybe that'll work!'.  So constantly embarrassing things are happening to me like that.


STUDIO: You also worked with Ralph Fiennes.  How was your experience with him directing Coriolanus?

JC: Great.  That's an opportunity where you get to be in a room with Ralph Fiennes and Vanessa Redgrave and watch them do Shakespeare.  Every scene I was in was with Vanessa Redgrave.  I was just sitting there in Serbia, in rehearsal, even in scenes where I had no lines, just there to watch her work.  She would bring a bag and sometimes have props.  The way she had this child-like sense of play when she approaches a role, she's very 'this is the way I'm doing it!'.  She is like a child.  It reminds me of being a little girl and having the trunk, my mom's clothes, putting things on and playing dress up.  That's the same way Vanessa approached it.  It was like being in a masterclass.


STUDIO: And how was Fiennes?

JC: I always knew I was going to be an actor, but the first time I thought about the kind of actor I wanted to be, I was very young.  One of the first grown-up movies I saw was The English Patient.  I saw it and I'd never really seen love scenes before.  I was like, 'What is this movie?'.  And how brave and raw those performances were.  Then, when I saw that he was the same actor who was in Schindler's List, and how he could play such a despicable human being and at the same time play this character with this lovesick heart?  And the duality of what that is, and the complexity of how human that is, that made me realise I want to be an actor that plays characters like that, that's very complex and contradicts themselves often.


STUDIO: Are you afraid of over-exposure?

JC: Well, the great thing is I'm so afraid of over-exposure, yet I can't get into a party!  The great thing is people are seeing my films, but maybe they're not connecting me with the actress that's in them.  So that's good I guess.  It's wonderful when someone wants to come up to me and they do want to talk about Tree Of Life, or The Debt or Take Shelter.  I keep saying my life is exactly the same.  It really is exactly the same.  I'm not being treated any differently – except the only strange part is when I was at Toronto (the 2011 film festival), I was walking down the hallway and I saw Geoffrey Rush and I thought, 'Gosh, I want to meet him!', so I went up to him and he went 'Oh, Jessica!', and then Charlotte Rampling came up and said, 'Yes, I know who you are. You have eight films coming out!'


STUDIO: So the right people are recognising you...

JC: Yeah, the people that I geek out around, the ones that I want to work with, and that's the exciting part.


STUDIO: You're upcoming role is in The Wettest County In The World.  What can you tell us?

JC: I play a gun moll from Chicago in the 1930s.  Well, I'm the only gun moll in the film.  I'm the fish out of water.  Gary Oldman is my ex-boyfriend in the film – I don't have a scene with him, sadly – but I make a journey to Chicago from Franklin County and take up with these three brothers and they're shocked by my presence.  She has nice clothes and is a good dancer and very experienced with men but they are not experienced with women.  They're very experienced with violence.


STUDIO: Do you feel New Hollywood?

JC: I definitely am New Hollywood, because I feel like I'm very new to the scene.  But, at the same time, everyone keeps saying 'You're very old Hollywood' because of the way I look.  Maybe that's why I do so many movies that take place in another time period and, when I first moved to LA, it was very difficult for me.  All the casting directors, they didn't know what to do with me and the way I looked.  I'm not blonde with tanned skin and I am not tall and skinny.  I looked very different – and they said I looked like I was from another time.  So maybe I'm old Hollywood that is now New Hollywood, which I like.



The Debt is out to own on Blu-Ray and DVD January 23rd.

"I was so scared about sharing the role with Helen Mirren. She is so brilliant - she kind of has everything."
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