Jessica Chastain on Breakthroughs, Big Years and the Awards-Season Crash Course


You've expressed your hesitance to repeat your characters, but in three films -- The Tree of Life, Take Shelter and Coriolanus -- you've played a wife to three particularly willful husbands. Obviously they're different women in different circumstances, but what draws you to this dynamic?

Well, first of all, on those three films, it was working with the people I was going to work with. Terrence Malick and Tree of Life was just beyond anything... I was so excited to work on that. Take Shelter was Jeff Nichols and Michael Shannon, and of course, Coriolanus is Ralph Fiennes. It's being able to be in a room with him and Vanessa Redgrave. I did try to approach the characters very differently, and like I said, Samantha -- even though she is a supportive wife -- she's like the most dangerous animal in the animal kingdom: A mother grizzly bear. The female bear or female tiger is the one who does all the kills, because they're protecting their young. And I absolutely felt that way with Samantha: No one was going to hurt her kids. No one was going to hurt her family. She actually reacts with violence. There's a scene where I go over and hit Mike in the face. He did something that I felt affects my child badly.

Now, with Tree of Life, I'm playing this embodiment of grace and compassion. Even with all the negativity that comes at Mrs. O'Brien, the response is love. "You give me hate, I give you love." There is this selflessness that arises from playing that part that I found to be a challenge and a wonderful opportunity. And with Coriolanus, Virgilia is this feminine energy in this very masculine world of war -- a world dominated by male aggression. To be honest, I thought that dynamic was most interesting: when that softness is put into that aggression. But also I just wanted to be a fly on the wall and watch Vanessa Redgrave do Shakespeare. She's been a hero of mine for such a long time, and I just wanted to watch her work. It was like a master class. Hopefully in 30 years I'll be able to tell my children, "I got to work with Vanessa Redgrave!"

Of course there's The Debt, Texas Killing Fields and Coriolanus as well. Regarding the first, did I hear correctly that you researched Helen Mirren's life to play a younger version of her character?

Yeah. Of course, I've seen all her films; I'm a huge fan, and I think she's a brilliant actress. But I do find that every person brings something unique to a role. It's like [The Debt director] John Madden says: Each role only has one actor who should play it. It's their role. They should claim it. And we all play roles through the prism of what our life is. So me playing a role is obviously different from someone else doing it. I knew Helen as Rachel Singer was going to be played through her rich experience and life. So I wanted to do whatever I could to soak up what that was. I read her autobiography that had just come out, which is great. But I also watched as many YouTube videos I could find of her being interviewed. I found rather than watching her act and play different characters, I wanted to just get an essence of who she was -- to feel her energy, if that makes any sense.

And I found one interview that was really helpful to me. It was given when she was about my age. Of course she was Helen Mirren, but a different incarnation of herself. She was unsure of her footing, a tiny, tiny bit awkward, a little bit shy. Her voice was pitched up a bit. I saw that interview, and I thought, "This is fantastic, because yes: I see that this is the woman whom Helen Mirren becomes today." That interview opened the doors for me to play Rachel Singer 30 years before Helen plays her, because of course Rachel Singer at that age would be more unsure of her footing and not have the gravitas she would have as an older woman.

You also trained in Krav Maga techniques for the film. How confident do you remain in your ass-kicking abilities?

I don't know! Whenever I research or work on a character, I totally disappear into it. I could speak German when I was working on The Debt! I took a German course months before we started shooting; I had a German coach. Now I can't speak anything; every once in a while I'll hear something and I remember it. But it was very short-term memory for me. I did four months of Krav Maga -- many times a week -- and there are some things about it that I remember. One of the things about it was that it's a state of mind. My trainer told me, "It's not about self-defense; it's about killing your opponent as quickly as possible." So there is that ruthlessness and effectiveness with Krav Maga -- do it as quickly and as cleanly as you can -- that I do remember. But who Jessica is when I'm not playing a part is very separate from it. I'm not a fighter at all. I very much try to be a peacemaker with my friends and my family. I don't like confrontation. I feel very far away from the Rachel Singer I played when we were making that movie.

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