The actress also opens up about the secret behind the Osama Bin Laden film and talks about her new movie, ‘The Zookeeper’s Wife.’
Jessica Chastain would never have made Zero Dark Thirty if it weren’t for one person: Tom Cruise.
“I got cold-called by [director] Kathryn Bigelow,” said the actress, describing how she first got word of the role as a CIA agent for the 2012 film. “I was in Toronto, and I had heard from [producer] Megan Ellison. We had done a film, [2012’s] Lawless, together. And she said, ‘By the way, do you know Kathryn Bigelow’s trying to get a hold of you? She wants to meet with you on something.’ And I was like, ‘What? Please give her my number.’ ”
After speaking to Bigelow, she accepted the part even before reading the screenplay. But with the Mark Boal script in hand, she knew she had to make the film. That’s when she encountered trouble.
“I was signed to do another movie,” she continued. “I was contractually obligated to do something else that I was really wanting to do, and I was excited to do [the 2013 thriller Oblivion, starring Cruise]. But when this came my way, I realized I had to do this. And the person who made it possible for me to do this movie is Tom Cruise. Someone contacted him from my agency and said, ‘Listen, she wants to work with you. And she would love to, but there is this other film, and it’s so important.’ And he said, ‘OK, we’re going to let you out of your contract.’ ”
The two have never worked together, said Chastain, but “I really hope to find something in the future to do with him because I’m very grateful.” She added, “I’ve seen him afterwards. And I was like, ‘Dude, you’re awesome!’ ”
So is the character Chastain plays in her new movie, The Zookeeper’s Wife, based on the Diane Ackerman book about the real-life Antonina Zabinska, who saved hundreds of Jews from the Nazis by hiding them in her Warsaw zoo. The picture opened March 31. Chastain never got to meet Zabinska, who died in 1971, though she did speak to her daughter. But she has thought about whether she might do the same thing in similar circumstances.
“I think to answer that so easily diminishes the danger and the peril and the sacrifices that people made,” she said March 29, speaking at Loyola Marymount University, where she took part in the Hollywood Masters interview series. “I would like to think in every part of my being that I would have done the same thing. It was a big decision for them to make, This is why there was so much tragedy in that time period. You know, if you did anything to help, your children would be shot.”
While making Zookeeper’s Wife in 2015, Chastain wrote an impassioned article for The Hollywood Reporter on the pleasure of having so many women working on a movie.
Asked if anything’s changed since, she replied: “I haven’t witnessed big changes. The more we hold people accountable, that’s how you get action. It’s one thing to say, ‘Oh, thank you for talking about it,’ [but what matters is] what are you doing about it? All the studio heads who say, ‘You know, when I’m casting or I’m hiring a director for a film, they’re not on the list,’ well, if someone hands you a list that’s only male directors, it’s your job to say, ‘Can I please also have female directors on this list? Can you give me some diversity?’ You have to look at your life and say, ‘What can I do to put it in action?’ Because talk is cheap.”
She added: “Someone should write an article about [the] incredible filmmakers that I love, and look at their life and their career and say, ‘Have they ever made a movie about a woman?’ And that’s the sad thing, because there are many people I would love to work with [who haven’t].”
A transcript of the interview follows.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: In 2011, you were not widely known in the movie business, and suddenly you’re in Cannes with a movie called Tree of Life, and everybody knows your name. It wasn’t that long ago. What was that experience like?
JESSICA CHASTAIN: I knew at that moment it was life-changing. Because I was there with Tree of Life and with the film Take Shelter. Walking down that red carpet with Sean Penn holding one hand and Brad Pitt holding the other, and everyone’s like, “Who is this girl in the yellow dress? Who is this person?” I knew that that red carpet, after having that premiere, it would just be a turning point in my life.
GALLOWAY: How did your life change after that?
CHASTAIN: Well, all of a sudden people started sending me scripts, instead of the opposite where you are begging for auditions or for directors to take notice of you, or your agent is begging for people to take notice. And then, all of a sudden, people actually start to seek you out rather than you seek you out.
GALLOWAY: You were at Juilliard and you were scared of being thrown out. How is that possible?
CHASTAIN: I am the first one in my family to go to college and I felt a great responsibility when I was at school, because my family was making so many sacrifices for me to be there. I was raised by a single mother, my grandmother got on the plane and helped me move to New York and moved me into the dorm. It was just a big moment, and, yes, it was my dream to be an actress, but also I didn’t want to let them down. As soon as I found out, at the time, that there was probation and cutting [students] —
GALLOWAY: Which is terrible —
CHASTAIN: Oh, it’s terrible.
GALLOWAY: [To students] They should have it here. You guys could all be on probation. [LAUGHTER]
CHASTAIN: But, also, it was very expensive. The first two years it was really tough on us. The second two years I got a scholarship, but the first two years were very difficult, and to be cut after spending so much money and after my family doing so much for me to be there I just couldn’t think of anything worse to be responsible for. So, it was a great fear of mine.
GALLOWAY: You won the Robin Williams Scholarship. Did you ever meet him?
CHASTAIN: I didn’t get to meet him. I was so sad. The thing I discovered about Robin Williams is that he gave without wanting to be acknowledged for it. He gave just for the act of giving, and the more I learned about him, the more I learned it wasn’t just scholarships at schools, because he was an alumni of Juilliard. It was after my second year I found I got that scholarship, and it paid for not only all my schoolwork, but it paid for my apartment, and my books, and my flight home to see my family for Christmas. It took care of all of that. I wrote him a couple letters thanking him. Each year I wrote him a letter about how significant that gift was to myself and to my family. And, he definitely knew, because I talked about it all the time, you know, on the Jimmy Fallon show or whatever, and my best friend, Jess Weixler, worked with him, and she’s like, “You know Jessica Chastain? You’ve really changed her life.” And, he said, “I’m really, really proud of what she is doing, and I’m so happy that I could help.”
GALLOWAY: You got into Juilliard by doing a monologue, a soliloquy, from Romeo and Juliet. Do you remember what it was and how you did it?
CHASTAIN: Yeah. [LAUGHS] I did the monologue “Gallop apace”, which basically it’s Juliet after the wedding, and she’s saying, “Hurry up, sun set, and then the moon will rise, and when it’s dark Romeo will come into my bedroom, and we’ll make love, and I’ll be a woman.” [LAUGH] That’s basically what the whole monologue’s about, and it’s written in a way that is very — like, there’s a climax in the way that it’s written. It builds to that, and so I performed it like that.
GALLOWAY: You performed the climax. [LAUGHTER]
CHASTAIN: I mean, I performed it like this girl who was, “I am ready for it now.” Which, I don’t think, maybe, they were used to. Afterwards, when I finished, because I started the monologue running around the room and like having so much energy, and then I ended on the floor, and when I finished I sat up and Michael Kahn, who was the head of the program — there were three of them, and it was Elizabeth Smith, Michael Kahn and John Stix, who’ve had significant careers and long careers — and they looked at me, and Michael Kahn said, “Did you have fun, Jessica?”
CHASTAIN: And, I said, “Yes.” And, they go, “OK, thank you very much.” And, normally, from what I’ve been told by my other friends who had gotten in, they would say, “OK, can we see something else? Do you have anything else?” I had one friend who performed eight monologues, and all I got to do was one. OK, I ran around the room and they were like, “This girl is crazy…”
GALLOWAY: And, we love her. What did they teach you that you use when you act now?
CHASTAIN: Everything they taught me I use now. The greatest gift they probably taught me was discipline. I have been told so many times on film sets, “Wow, you work so hard. I can’t believe how hard you work or what you put into.” And, for me, it’s nothing compared to the schedule that I had at school. We started really early in the morning, and also, I would show up even before the first class to take like Suzuki, or like an extra thing, you know, where someone would say, “Hey, I’m going to teach a movement class. Does anyone want to show up? And, I’d be there at 7:00 a.m. Also, I was so grateful to e there. I wanted to get every morsel of education that I could get, and we’d finish at like 11:00 at night and have little moments for lunch and dinner, but also on my breaks I would check out the rooms to work on a scene or whatever. And, I feel like that workload at school has never been duplicated in my profession.
GALLOWAY: Is it the Method school of acting?
CHASTAIN: Well, there’s different teachers that teach you a lot. Like, John Stix, he was our first year teacher, he came from the Actors Studio, and studied with [Elia] Kazan. He has since passed, but he was a wonderful teacher, and we started doing sense memory and substitutions, and we did one class—it’s incredible—and I remember thinking, “Ah, there’s something to this.” He said, “OK, you are going to be born today.”
GALLOWAY: Oh, I was going to ask you about this.
CHASTAIN: Ah, you heard that?
GALLOWAY: You played a fetus, yes.
CHASTAIN: We played a fetus.
GALLOWAY: How do you play a fetus?
CHASTAIN: Well, you don’t really know what you’re going to do, he just says, “OK, everyone find a space in the room.” It was like 23 of us, and then he said, “Um, you’re in the womb.” Then you get on the ground and you’re in the womb, and then he would start to lead you through your life, and we did the whole lifespan. I remember the first time that I thought, “Ah, something to this works” is when he talked to us about being born, I immediately started sobbing like a baby. It’s so crazy. It’s something that happens in the imagination where this colicky cry just started to happen, and we went all the way through our life cycles to death, and had experiences like that.
GALLOWAY: Did you have time to think, or did he just say, “OK, get down on the floor now and be a fetus?”
CHASTAIN: That’s it, just, “Get on floor and be a fetus.” I mean, when we auditioned for the school, before we did the monologues there was a group setting with everyone auditioning and John led us through these things where he said, “OK, there’s a faucet. Turn on the faucet and feel the water on your fingers. Now, it’s very hot, or it’s really cold, can you turn up the temperature?” I think they wanted to see us react to something that wasn’t real and see if we could create that memory in our body. And then, he had us behave like animals.
GALLOWAY: Which animal?
CHASTAIN: I was a bird in that one, which is fantastic.
GALLOWAY: What kind of bird?
CHASTAIN: I think I was a pigeon or something. We were auditioning. It was in San Francisco, so we had some pigeons.
GALLOWAY: I like pigeons.
CHASTAIN: I was so grateful for it, because instead of just going up in front of those three people and doing a monologue by yourself, they said, “OK, let’s get everyone in this room and see if they’re willing to be free and explore and learn things and not necessarily have something prepared.” And that actually really relaxed me.
GALLOWAY: How do you relax to act?
CHASTAIN: It’s very important. I don’t meditate daily, but, to me that’s a very important thing. It’s all about concentration. If you can focus your mind on something like when I was focused on being born, right? And, I wasn’t thinking about, “Oh, do I look ridiculous right now? Or, how does this happen? Or, is the teacher judging me?” I didn’t have those thoughts happening, I was just focusing on what it felt like, and because of that, the natural response came to it. I think in order to act you have to be able to have concentration on what you’re doing, and if your mind wanders, it’s terrible for being in the moment. But, if you’re able to be in the moment, that is, I guess, relaxation.
GALLOWAY: Is it different for film than stage? Preparing for a role.
CHASTAIN: Preparing for a role, no.
GALLOWAY: Even performing.
CHASTAIN: I don’t see it as different. The great thing about Juilliard is it was a repertory theatre program, so we were constantly working on more than one character at a time. So, I was playing really far-out-there characters. I had one teacher who was a guest director our first year, he came up to me and goes, “The thing about you, Jessica, I think you’re a character actor.” I had never been called that before. I had only ever been called an ingénue, and maybe that gave me —
GALLOWAY: Was that good, to be called a character actor?
CHASTAIN: I didn’t know what it was at first. I thought, “What is a character actor? Is it like the funny person?” Because, I’m not like the comedy person. But, for some reason, at Juilliard I was; you know, I played Smeraldina [in Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Masters], and they put me in all these far-out characters. I like playing different characters [different] from each other, very different characters from me, and maybe that’s what a character actor is, someone who doesn’t only play [one]. An ingénue is probably someone who plays a version of themselves many times. But, it took me a while to understand if that was a compliment.
GALLOWAY: When they say, “He’s a character” that always seems a little belittling. Tell me about your grandmother.
CHASTAIN: Well, my grandmother was very, very helpful and inspiring for me. She’s the one who first took me to a play, and as a kid I was very sullen and not very happy, just kind of like picking fights with people all the time, you know? I went through my rebellious teenage years at like eight years old, or something —
GALLOWAY: Do you still pick fights?
CHASTAIN: Never. No, I got it all out my [system in] the first 10 years of life.
CHASTAIN: And, I think she saw that I needed an outlet or something to find my people, in a way, and be creative. And so, she started by taking me to ballet lessons, or she was, you know, giving me gifts that had to do with finding a hobby, but in an art form, in expression. And, she took me to a play in Sacramento, and before we got there she said, “Just so you know…” Because, my family, you know, doesn’t have a lot of money, and, because it was a big deal, she had bought these tickets, and it was a professional theater company. She said, “This is, you know, their job. These are professional actors, it’s not just some little thing.” She wanted me to understand that we were going to a big event. And, I remember sitting in the audience, and it started, and there was a little girl on stage, and it wasn’t me thinking, “Oh, I want to do that when I get older”, it was just like, “Ah, this is what I am. This is what I’m supposed to do.” And, I found that out at like seven or eight years old.
GALLOWAY: This was “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” yes?
CHASTAIN: Yes. That’s what helped me find my way of life. [LAUGHs]
GALLOWAY: Who, as an actress, do you particularly admire? Did you have a role model?
CHASTAIN: When I was younger I remember I had such a crush on Ralph Fiennes, right? I saw The English Patient, and then I also saw Schindler’s List, and I saw them one right after the other. And, I was so impressed that he could play such different characters and he could play someone in Schindler’s List that was so terrible but I felt sorry for him. And then, when I was at Juilliard, I went to a theater just because sometimes when you had a break we were right across from Lincoln Plaza Cinema, which had foreign films, and I hadn’t seen a foreign film until I went to New York. I was not exposed to it at all.
GALLOWAY: What was the first foreign film you saw?
CHASTAIN: The first one? I can’t even remember, but it would have been at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema. But, at this point, I went into a screening of The Piano Teacher. And saw Isabelle Huppert and that was directed Michael Haneke, and it was at that time that I thought, “I’ve never seen this style of film acting. And, this is genius on a whole other level.”
GALLOWAY: I don’t know if you’ve seen Elle, her new film? There’s a scene where she talks about her past, growing up with this father who was a serial killer and you would expect her to let the tears role, and she plays it as if “I’m just talking about what I had for lunch.” It’s such intelligent acting.
CHASTAIN: It’s so smart, because there’s no vanity in that. She’s playing a character who is emotionally cut off. It’s the reason why she finds herself in these situations. Like, being hurt helps her feel alive, in a way, I guess. And so, she’s not someone that’s that free to be vulnerable, and, to let the tears flow. But, as an actress, sometimes it feels so good, you know?
GALLOWAY: That’s why I think to really act well you have to have that intelligence.
CHASTAIN: Exactly. There are many characters that I have played, because I am, in real life, a very emotional person, where you kind of go, “I’m so unhappy. It would be so easy for me to just like have this relief. I need this release right now in the filming experience,” whatever, but you have to understand whether or not the character would do it.
GALLOWAY: It’s interesting, because you can’t act like you do without being extremely intelligent, but you said growing up you didn’t feel intelligent at all. You dropped out of school, you went to the local community college later. Why did you not feel intelligent?
CHASTAIN: I think it was the cycle that I was living in. My grandmother got pregnant when she was 17, my mom got pregnant when she was 17, my aunt got pregnant when she was a teenager. It was this cycle we were in. They didn’t have access to healthcare or birth control. You know, I’m a very strong proponent of women’s healthcare.
GALLOWAY: I know.
CHASTAIN: And, I’m sure it’s because of the family that I grew up in. they didn’t get to make the choices that I got to make. And, I was very clear, “OK, I’m not ready to be a mother as a teenager, but because in my family so many people had dropped out of high school, it was not accepted, but it just felt maybe expected thing to do. And so, when it happened, I mean, I was sitting in my car reading Shakespeare, and I wasn’t doing drugs or anything like that. I always knew what I was interested in, and I wasn’t interested in what the teachers were teaching me. And, also, I don’t think they knew how to connect with me, because once someone tells you you are something you start to believe it. And, at a young age I hadn’t done well in school and so, I just started to believe that I never would do well in school.
GALLOWAY: That’s terrible.
CHASTAIN: Right? When there was that one teacher that goes, “You know, your brain is special.” Then, all of a sudden, you behave that way. And if you’re treated like you’re a troublemaker, or not concentrating because you are being too creative, you start to think there’s something wrong with you. And it wasn’t until Juilliard that I realized, “Oh, no. I’m loving this. I’m loving reading about Greek theater and philosophy, and all of these things that in the past I just wouldn’t have thought would have interested me.”
GALLOWAY: I read that when you were growing up, at one point you were evicted —
GALLOWAY: — from your home. How old were you and what happened?
CHASTAIN: Because my mom had us very young, many times we were in situations where we didn’t have stability. So, we moved around quite a bit when we were younger, and one time I came home from school, I was probably 13 years old, and there was people there locking the door. And, they looked at me, and I was like standing there with my school books.
GALLOWAY: Oh, my God.
CHASTAIN: “What are you guys doing?” And then, of course, they felt terrible, so they said, “Well, do you want to go inside to get some of your things before we lock the door?” And, I was like, “OK.” And, I went inside and probably because we’d been in situations before, I went and I unlocked all the windows. [LAUGHS] I pretended that I got my stuff, and I came out, and then they locked it up, and then when my mom came home I was sitting outside, and I was like, “Yeah, we can…” And then, we went into the windows and got our stuff.
GALLOWAY: Are you still afraid of that?
CHASTAIN: Not so much anymore. I mean, I guess I’ll be afraid in that I’m very frugal with how I spend my money. It takes me a long time to make a big purchase, and I don’t want to be in a situation where I have more credit than assets because of that. Because, so many times I’ve seen bad situations happen, especially in my family. So, yeah, it’s something I think about.
GALLOWAY: People don’t realize, when you are looking ahead and you are imagining being successful, there’s no point where you actually are successful. There’s always, “Well, what am I going to do next?” especially for an actor or actress, because you can’t map out a career.
GALLOWAY: At that age, when you looked ahead, how did you imagine your life?
CHASTAIN: Since I can remember I was always asking my mom if she would take me to L.A. to do commercials.
GALLOWAY: Did she ever say yes?
CHASTAIN: Well, first of all, we didn’t have money to do that. She said, “OK, we’ll see.” And also, I was never getting good grades, so it never worked out. We had one thing, in Sacramento there was a place called Broadway Academy, and it was run by a gentleman named David McDonald, and my grandmother had given us, for Christmas, classes every Saturday and at the end you’d do this musical play, and he was so sweet and so generous, this man. He one day came up to me after rehearsal, and he says, “I want you to take dance classes here.” And, I said, “OK.” And then, he came up to me another day, and he says, “Why haven’t you signed up for dance classes? And, because I hadn’t even asked my mom, I said, “We don’t have any money. You know, I can’t take dance classes.” And, he says, “OK, come with me.” And, he took me to the office, and he says, “This is what you’re going to do”, and he handed me a dance class pass for like 10 classes, and he says, “Here’s a gift for you, and if you would like more, just do the work/study program so you will work in the office for an hour and a half, and every hour and a half you work you’ll get an hour dance class.” He was an incredible person. I think he saw, also, that I was someone that needed that encouragement.
GALLOWAY: He saw something special. You can sense it. You come out of Juilliard in 2003? John Wells signed you to a holding deal, you did some television, and then you get this film that not many people have seen. Let’s watch a clip from Jolene.
CHASTAIN: I haven’t seen that movie in so long.
GALLOWAY: And, it’s awesome when you see it so close to the screen because you see every detail.
CHASTAIN: Like, “Gosh, I have so many freckles.”
GALLOWAY: I love you in that film. It was just such a surprise? How did it come about?
CHASTAIN: I had just played Salomé in Los Angeles with Al Pacino, in the play version, and Al had made like a film of it at the same time. And that play was a great showcase for an actress, because Salomé was a really good role.
GALLOWAY: Oscar Wilde.
CHASTAIN: And everyone in L.A. wants to go see Al Pacino on stage, so all of a sudden I was having the opportunity to go into audition rooms that I didn’t have before, and from that I got the audition for this. I went and I met with Dan Ireland, the director, and we had a very good meeting and audition, and then I heard that they wanted to test me for the role, and then = there was something that started to cool off. You can get this sense of, “Oh, this feels like something happened. They found someone else.” So I called up Al and said, “Can I have a scene from Salomé’” And I showed up to the screen test, and I guess they had found someone.
GALLOWAY: Oh, my God.
CHASTAIN: Actually, they found someone from Sumter, South Carolina, which is where the character’s from. They tested her in the morning and me in the afternoon, and so I showed up, and then I was like, “Here’s a scene from ‘Salomé’ that I just did,” and I got the role.
CHASTAIN: I like this role, because it’s about Jolene and these five relationships she has in her life and how the people consume her. She becomes what it is that they want her to be. They dress her up, in a way, like a doll, and it’s a story of this woman trying to find who she is in a world that had ignored her from birth.
GALLOWAY: When you do a scene like this, what were you thinking going into it?
CHASTAIN: Well, I flew myself to Sumter, South Carolina and stayed there for a week, and now, see, I’m even going, [with Southern accent], “Sumter, South Carolina, I’m getting ready with my tape recorder” [LAUGHTER] and I would just go into like the Piggly Wiggly, and all these places, and I found this girl where I loved her voice, and so I asked her if I could record her. And, we met for dinner a few times, and they talked to me about “going muddin,’” that’s what they like to do for fun, which is: you take your pickup truck, and you drive around in circle when it rains. So,you get the mud all over the car. All these things that you wouldn’t have known. The movie’s based on this E.L. Doctorow short story called Jolene. I really fleshed out the character from spending that week there.
GALLOWAY: What surprised you as you began to work on that character?
CHASTAIN: It was important for me to show the film in five chapters, and I had split the script into five different folders, and I took images for each look of me, of like what that would represent. And, I guess what surprised me is what I did physically, and I wouldn’t do it again, to be honest. If you watch the film, you see the character’s weight change a lot, because it was really important for me to show the age, what was happening to her, you know, the life that she was living. But we shot this film very low budget with no time, and so what I would usually do is each week it was like a new person coming in, it was a new chapter of Jolene’s life, and we didn’t shoot it in chronological order. We shot the chapters in their entirety, but, you know, it would be like, we shot maybe her very young, and then all of a sudden it’s the end chapter, was the second one. And so, I was doing things like towards the end of the week I would just start drinking juice or whatever to try to really slim down for the next chapter that was happening, so I would have like four days before that chapter started, or if I wanted her to be more curvaceous, I would just start like stuffing my face with potato chips. I mean, I did all this…
GALLOWAY: Sounds easier than juice. [LAUGHS]
CHASTAIN: I was super crabby when it was just juice, I’ll say that. But, when I finished the film, towards the end, I kind of realized, “OK, I need to create boundaries as an actress, because Dan Ireland, the director, was very protective of me, but I was throwing myself into it in a way that wasn’t healthy. My mom came—the last section we shot was the Las Vegas section—and she came to visit me, and I was so sick, and I was in the hair and makeup room, and I had someone doing my hair, someone doing my makeup, the paramedic giving me an IV, and Chazz Palminteri in there, and we were rehearsing the scenes. And, my mom was standing in there going like, “What the heck is happening?” And…
GALLOWAY: You were getting the IV, because?
CHASTAIN: Because I was dehydrated and sick, and not taking care of myself. And, it’s the first movie I ever did anything like that. It was like, “I have to give it everything.” But, you need to also understand that if you give it everything there’s going to be nothing to give. You have to always keep a boundary.
GALLOWAY: You know, when I was a teenager, a great Irish actor, Ray McAnally, said, “Always leave a little so that you can keep control.” So what are the boundaries? If you’re playing Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, is it right to put on 60 pounds?
CHASTAIN: Absolutely. And I have done it since. You know, I put on weight for The Help and all of that, but you just work with a nutritionist. I think because I didn’t have a support system that I needed, I did everything in an unhealthy way. But, now I know, “OK, if I have to play the piano, I need a piano teacher. If I have to gain weight or gain muscle, work with a nutritionist.” I give myself the respect to know that I am not a piano teacher, I am not a nutritionist, and I need to be able to take guidance from other people.
GALLOWAY: How much does playing the role influence what you’re going through at the time? Does the character weigh on you?
CHASTAIN: It depends on what the character is. You know, if I’m playing Elizabeth Sloane [in Miss Sloane] it really weighs on you, because even when I wasn’t on set I was memorizing lines, I was trying to say the lines as quickly as possible and, like, if I ever stumbled I would say the sentence over, and over, and over again so I wouldn’t stumble on wording. And so, when I was awake I was working on that character, and also because the pacing of that character, she had to be so on it. Working on Antonina Żabińska [in The Zookeeper’s Wife] was a great joy and I didn’t feel depleted after each day.
GALLOWAY: Is there something you find particularly hard to do? Michael Caine was here, and he said he finds it very hard to laugh on screen.
CHASTAIN: Oh. I think if it’s ever anything where someone gives you an expectation. At Juilliard, we had a clown class, and the very first day he said, “All right, everyone. I want everyone to get up on stage, say your name and make us laugh.” It’s like, “What?!” And so, we’re all freaking out, because like how do you just say your name, and that’s all you’re allowed to say, and you have to make the audience laugh. Anything like that I can’t do. If I need to laugh…
GALLOWAY: Did they laugh when you did it?
CHASTAIN: Yeah. And then, you realize, if you are honest it’s funny, because you’re super-uncomfortable or whatever, but if you’re trying to perform a result, then it’s never going to work. So, that’s one thing I can’t do. I can’t do a result.
GALLOWAY: When you go into film, do you have those conversations with the director What are you looking for when you choose a picture?
CHASTAIN: I am looking for a director that is hiring me because they want to give the character to me. And, I definitely love direction, and I love guidance. I love collaboration on set, but I want the director to know that the character is going to be in my body. I am going to know some things and some secrets that they won’t even know, and it is going to be a passing of. You know, they have to pass on the character to me.
GALLOWAY: So, I want you to tell the secrets of the character in the film that I really love, The Help. We’re going to take a look at a clip.
GALLOWAY: Was that a fun film to work on?
CHASTAIN: Oh, it was heaven to work on that movie. We were a bunch of girls in Mississippi. Oh, we had the best time. And, you know, it knew it was going to be fun, because I got the script, and I think it was sent for me to look at a different character, I think the Emma Stone character, and I responded to Celia. And, I said, “Oh, I want to go in for Celia.” And, I remember being strange, and I went and I bought a dress, you know, hiked my boobs up , went into the push-up bra, went into the audition and didn’t think I did, but Tate Taylor, the director, said that they thought I was from the south because, I guess, just thinking about it, I had a southern accent when I was like, “Hey, how you doing?” And, I did my first reading opposite Octavia [Spencer], and after the first time we read it she looked at me and she goes, “I love you.” And, I said, “I love you, too.” And, we had never met, and it was just love at first sight between us. And so, yes, it was heaven to work with her, but then also, we were a group of girls that weren’t the expected choices for that film. Octavia really had to fight…
GALLOWAY: Oh, really?
CHASTAIN: Even though the character is written for her in the novel.
GALLOWAY: Do you guys know this story? She. The director, the novelist, they’re all friends. But the studio’s the studios, and they want “names.”
CHASTAIN: Exactly. I think Mo’Nique had just won the Oscar. It was like, “They have just won. Let’s put them in every role.” But, you know, it was Viola [Davis] and Octavia, and Emma had Easy A, which was a good moment for her. I think probably the most successful at that point was Bryce Dallas Howard. And so, we were all just pinching ourselves that we were there, because, also, when we were auditioning, the film wasn’t the phenomenon that it was once we were filming. Once we were there we were like, “How did we sneak into this movie?”
GALLOWAY: Even while you’re filming, people knew it was going to be —
CHASTAIN: Yeah, when we were filming, that’s when the book just exploded. But, before, during the auditions, I know for my part, I kept coming in for auditions, and, Tate wanted me to play the role and all these things, but I kept hearing that it was getting offered to other people. And, thank goodness these very famous people that it was being offered didn’t see what a great part this was.
GALLOWAY: Yes. So, what is the key to doing a successful audition?
CHASTAIN: Ooh, I hate auditions.
GALLOWAY: Lots of people do.
CHASTAIN: Here’s the problem with auditions — I would always get nervous, so my voice would really squeak up when I was nervous, because I had problems like finding my breath. Now, I would just say to just make it a work session and not to call it an audition and actually, when you go in, not even be sure if it’s what you want. They would be very lucky to have you. And, when you come into the room, take ownership of the space. If they have a chair set up with this, if that’s not how you want to do it, change it. Don’t even ask them, just do it. Claim that space as yours, and people, first of all, they really like that confidence, they like it when someone takes ownership of a character, because then they feel comfortable passing it forward. But, also, you feel comfortable, and so that’s the only thing that I can recommend with an audition.
GALLOWAY: How much did that character change from when you auditioned and read it to when you actually did the performance?
CHASTAIN: It changed a lot, because I auditioned with this really kind of low voice like this [deepening voice], and I —
GALLOWAY: I like that voice.
CHASTAIN: Thank you. But, isn’t this better [her voice goes up]? [LAUGHTER] For the character? And, that’s how I auditioned, four times and screen tested for it, and that’s how I got the part. And then, when we were in Mississippi, I knew everyone knew each other, but we were at this party right before we started shooting, and I looked over, and I saw this amazing woman with blond hair, bright, white blonde hair that was up on top of her head, very curvaceous in a very form fitting dress, and she was squeaking between the couch and the wall, and I turned to someone, I was like, “That is how Celia Foote moves.” And then, later on in the party, I found myself sitting next to her on the couch, and I was like, “Hello, who do you know here?” And, she goes, “Well, I’m [novelist] Kitty’s mom.”
GALLOWAY: Oh, wow.
CHASTAIN: I had this instinctual feeling, “That is Celia Foote.” And I said, “I love your accent. Can I please record you?” And so we went out to lunch the next day, and I interviewed her and recorded her accent, and I called up Tate, and I said, “Listen, this is going to sound crazy to you, because I know it was a big deal to even get me this part, but I have an idea for the character, and I think I should really pitch my voice up. And, it says in the book that the character has a squeaky voice, and I really want to try this.” And, he says, “OK, but don’t sound like Betty Boop.” And, I was like, “All right.” And so, I thought this whole time it had been a secret, that I had been secretly studying Kitty’s mom for the character, until we were at the party scene where Celia gets drunk and throws up. And Kitty’s mom was an extra in that scene, she had a bunch of her friends, and I am in this like very tight, hot red, you know, pink/red dress, and she comes over to me with all of her friends, and she goes, “I just want y’all to know that I’m the one that inspired this figure here.”
CHASTAIN: It was like, “She knows!”
GALLOWAY: What was the toughest scene for you in that film?
CHASTAIN: Probably the miscarriage scene. But when you’re acting with Octavia, it’s
GALLOWAY: When you had conversation with Tate about that role, what were the conversations?
CHASTAIN: HE was just really fun. What I loved about working with Tate is, when I was in school, like I said, I was playing these crazy out-there characters. And then, when I started acting in movies and in TV, it kind of stopped. The sense of play and fun stopped and the set became very serious. And, with Tate, he was always like, “Just do this.” Then he’d throw things out there, and he’s so fun that it inspires that energy within you. And Celia Foote, to me, she’s like a clown character, you know? That clown class at Juilliard helped me find Celia Foote.
GALLOWAY: Do you have an acting coach? Who do you turn to for advice?
CHASTAIN: The director that I’m working with.
GALLOWAY: Just making a decision like the voice, how do you know you’re right?
CHASTAIN: You don’t. You’ve just got to run and jump off that cliff, because otherwise it’s going to be boring.
GALLOWAY: Have you done a role and at some point in it said, “Look, I got this wrong. Can we reshoot those scenes?” Would you?
CHASTAIN: [shakes her head] It doesn’t mean I’m confident. It probably means I’m afraid I don’t want to waste anyone’s money. But, when I feel like I’ve done something wrong, like, sometimes you don’t know what’s going to happen until the movie starts to unfold, so you do a scene from the end of the movie early, and then you start to see the relationship between the characters and you go, “Oh, this is so different than how I imagined it when I did the end. So, how can I connect the dots now in the scenes that I have left?” So, then you try to do that. You go, “OK, I have this, and this, and this scene. What can I do to make everything make sense?”
GALLOWAY: When this came out, you were suddenly on the map with all sorts of films, and you were working nonstop. How does that effect you personally? Because you are away from home — when you did Interstellar, especially. That’s a very long shoot. Were you in London for that
CHASTAIN: Well, I wasn’t in space [LAUGHS], so I got to shoot in chunks.
GALLOWAY: How does that effect your personal life? I know at one point you took a break for seven months. How do you recharge?
CHASTAIN: Well, right now I’m doing that. I’m probably only going to do one film this year, if that. Last year I did four. And I felt it the beginning of this year. I could really feel the exhaustion. But, also, it’s not just he physical exhaustion, it’s the emotional exhaustion, because your friends and family really fill you up, you know? And so, I’m taking that time now to spend time with them. But you do whatever you can. I’m in a relationship with someone who I love very much, and we travel together, and that is important, because then you always have your home no matter what city you are in. But, yeah, you get really good at Skype…
GALLOWAY: Do you have hobbies, do you collect stamps?
CHASTAIN: No, thank God.
GALLOWAY: You had a dog named Chaplin.
CHASTAIN: I have a dog named Chaplin, yeah.
GALLOWAY: Because, you love Charlie Chaplin?
CHASTAIN: Well, he was hit by a car before I got him, so he is missing one of his front legs, and when he sits he takes his front leg, because, of course, it’s got to center him, he does this, and it looks like Chaplin with the cane. That’s why I named him that.
GALLOWAY: Interstellar, how was that different from when you worked on a low budget film like Jolene? Are you doing innumerable different takes?
CHASTAIN: To me, Interstellar felt like a low budget film in a way, because —
GALLOWAY: It only cost 165 million.
CHASTAIN: But I am shot in this farmhouse in a field. And the trailers were a 10-minute drive away. So everyone was always on set. And [Nolan] does a couple takes, he doesn’t do too many. The very first thing I shot were the messages to the father, which was the first day of working with Chris Nolan. And now really? I’m looking into a camera, you know? And it was so easy. I really like working with Christopher Nolan because he secretly — or maybe not secretly —he loves actors. And he loves the process. And he loves people that even show up with different processes. For me, I can be very technical. If someone gives me a note, I can go, “OK, let me try and figure out how to make it work.” Some actors, everything has to make sense or be in the moment. And they say everything they feel and all of that. And you could see Chris kind of working around it and making the film work for everyone, which I love. I like it when directors collaborate with the actors that way.
GALLOWAY: Do you like to see a rough cut before it’s finished?
GALLOWAY: Because the editing can completely change the role.
CHASTAIN: Yeah, and I love ADR. When I worked with Al Pacino, he said that to me. He goes, “Oh ADR, you can completely help your performance.” And he says he did a lot of that on Godfather II, and it’s true, you can change the dynamic of a character. There’s one scene in The Zookeeper’s Wife where she felt a bit meek, and I wanted her to be stronger. So I did some ADR just on a couple lines in that scene to really show her strength and courage. And for sure if it’s an accent, ADR’s very important to me because I need the dialect coach to see the film to make notes. And anytime that there was something that was inconsistent and in addition to the director’s notes for ADR, I want to do the dialect coach’s notes.
GALLOWAY: You did a very difficult film, Zero Dark Thirty. And that was a very depressing experience because of the nature of the role. Let’s take a look at a clip.
GALLOWAY: This film has an astonishing history because Mark Boal, the writer, and Kathryn Bigelow, who directed, were going to make a different Bin Laden film, and then he was captured. At what point did you get involved?
CHASTAIN: I got involved, I think, just a few months before they started shooting the film. I got cold called by Kathryn Bigelow, which was pretty great. I was in Toronto, and I had heard from-I’m good friends with Megan Ellison. We had done a film, Lawless, together. And she said, “By the way, do you know Kathryn Bigelow’s trying to get a hold of you? She wants to meet with you on something.” And I was like, “What? Please, you know, of course, give her my number.” And I got this call from her, and she said she was interested in me to play this role. And she wanted me to send the script, and, you know, would I do it? And for me, it was just, “Yes, of course.” And especially once I started reading the script, I knew there was no other option. I will say this because most people don’t know this, I was signed to do another movie. I was contractually obligated to do something else that I was really wanting to do, and I was excited to do. But when this came my way, I realized I had to do this. And the person who made it possible for me to do this movie is Tom Cruise.
CHASTAIN: No one knows this. Because I was going to work with him.
GALLOWAY: What’s the other movie? Oblivion?
CHASTAIN: Yeah, the other movie was a movie that I was going to do with Tom. And so someone contacted him from my agency and said, “Listen, she wants to work with you. And she would love to, but there is this other film, and it’s so important. And with his support, I was able to do this movie. He is a pretty incredible human being.
GALLOWAY: I have heard that from everybody.
CHASTAIN: He said, “OK, we’re going to let you out of your contract.” No studio would ever do that. But when you have Tom Cruise saying [it]… So I really hope to find something in the future to do with him because I’m very grateful.
GALLOWAY: Did you write him, say thank you?
CHASTAIN: I’ve seen him afterwards. And I was like, “Dude, [LAUGHS] you’re awesome!”
GALLOWAY: So how do you prepare for a part like this? This was said to be based on a real woman, but the real woman has never been identified.
CHASTAIN: I know the real woman.
GALLOWAY: You do?
GALLOWAY: So did you speak to her, meet her?
CHASTAIN: Before we shot the film, I had only spoken to her. I hadn’t met her. But she’s an incredible human being. But it’s very important to her that she maintain her privacy, which to me is completely understandable. But she is an exceptional person.
GALLOWAY: And she works for the CIA?
CHASTAIN: She worked for the CIA. She is the person Maya’s based on. There are some things that are — like all movies: All movies based on true stories connect some storylines that weren’t in reality connected.
GALLOWAY: What was the burning thing you wanted to know from her?
CHASTAIN: Why? Why was it so important? So when I talked to her, I was just saying, why did you do this? And [she said that] 9/11 had a big impact on her. And that helped me a lot in developing the character.
GALLOWAY: How do you feel about the torture scenes in the film? Are they pro-torture or anti-torture?
CHASTAIN: It’s insane to me, this debate, because if Kathryn Bigelow had made a film that didn’t include waterboarding, then it’s a propaganda film in a way, right? Because we are erasing something terrible that people were doing. And I’m playing a person whose goal is revenge and murder. There are scenes where she is talking to her friend, and the feet are up on the table, and she’s watching a strike, a drone strike, where people are being murdered. And It’s just so easy. There is this sense of complications within the characters. They do things that you don’t agree with. And it’s never, for me — the film isn’t about the ends justify the means. That’s not the end of the film Kathryn Bigelow made. She is not celebrating at the end of this movie. And I have sometimes trouble with people who want everything defined for them. They want to know what they are supposed to feel at the end of a movie. And I like films that are complicated and ask you to engage. And that’s what Kathryn Bigelow does.
GALLOWAY: If it’s great art, you change your mind and see differently at different times.
CHASTAIN: She wanted to create a conversation.
GALLOWAY: Could you do a film whose politics you didn’t agree with?
CHASTAIN: I could, if the outcome was to make the audience go, “What the hell is happening?” Yeah, of course. If there was a film where women were treated abominably, but the point was to focus on that, yeah.
GALLOWAY: That’s a different thing. I’m talking about the point of the film, where you disagree with. Could you do it?
CHASTAIN: I could play a murderer. I disagree with that.
GALLOWAY: Let me give you a real-life example. Could you play Kellyanne Conway in a sympathetic way?
CHASTAIN: In a sympathetic way?
CHASTAIN: I think it would be a hysterical portrayal! That’s how I could play that role.
GALLOWAY: So going to the farcical —
CHASTAIN: Yeah, to die for, almost like to die for, Kellyanne Conway.
GALLOWAY: Let’s watch a clip from Jessica’s new film, The Zookeeper’s Wife. This is a story about a real-life woman who ran a zoo in Warsaw and saved hundreds of Jews’ lives.
GALLOWAY: How did this come to you? Because you are now producing as well.
CHASTAIN: I was drawn to Antonina’s story. I think actually how it really came to me is it was right after Zero Dark Thirty. And I was talking to my agents, and I said, “I really want my Gorillas in the Mist.”
CHASTAIN: I really wanted my film with animals and showing that they were more than just things to be possessed. Antonina saw animals as equals. They were, every living creature to her was important. And so when the script came to me, I was really excited to learn about the woman that she was. And I was really excited to meet with Niki Caro, the director. I loved Whale Rider, and it was important for me to work with her.
GALLOWAY: Tell us about the real-life woman.
CHASTAIN: Antonina was born in St. Petersburg. And when she was young, her parents were coming home from dinner, and they were asked to show their hands. And they were shot because they didn’t have callouses on their hands. Because that’s how they could tell the difference between the intelligentsia and the laborers. So from a very young age, she understood what it was to be scared and hiding and looking for sanctuary and safety. She’s a refugee because she finds herself as a young woman or she found herself as a young woman in Warsaw. And that’s where she created her sanctuary. The movie begins with the beginning of World War II. And to give a Jewish person a glass of water, you would be shot. Your children would be shot. So she takes great risks. She sacrifices her personal safety, the safety of her children, of everything she loves to hide people at the zoo. And she saves the lives of over 300 people. And in addition to saving their lives, she bolstered spirits. She created music and gave them art and helped them keep their humanity intact.
GALLOWAY: How did she save so many people?
CHASTAIN: They would smuggle Jews out of the Warsaw ghetto and hide them in underground tunnels and in the animal enclosures because the zoo had been bombed. And many of the animals had been taken away that weren’t killed. And so they had all this space. What was so incredible about her is we’ve seen so many versions of so many stories about the Holocaust from the male point of view, the masculinity, the aggression, the fighting. And Antonina was at home every day with 20 people in her basement below her before they were transferred out or hidden with soldiers on the grounds. And any sound, anytime one of those soldiers could have said, I want to come in the house or I want to go downstairs. And her children would have been shot. What she did was remarkable, and I like to celebrate the compassionate hero. And I think we should acknowledge those that used kindness to fight war.
GALLOWAY: Any there any other heroes you’d like to celebrate?
CHASTAIN: Oh, all you have to do is look back at women’s history, and there are so many stories we don’t know. I mean, I created a production company because I want to focus on that, and I want young girls to know that there have been women before them that have created these paths. And I grew up in history class, where — maybe, the reason I wasn’t very interested in school is because it was all about men.
GALLOWAY: The male history, yeah.
CHASTAIN: I don’t know if any of you guys know about Belva Lockwood. Have you ever heard of her?
CHASTAIN: Belva Lockwood was the first woman to run for president in the United States. And she was an incredible human being. All you have to do is start looking back at women’s history, and you realize there were these women that did extraordinary things. And these stories are untold. So I don’t know if any of you guys are writers or what, but you should start looking at that because it’s a wealth of knowledge.
GALLOWAY: You know what’s amazing is the studios are still so male-oriented. Why is that?
CHASTAIN: I think people are really good at talking about it, but not putting anything into action. Thank god for Ryan Murphy, right? Because he says “OK, I want 50 percent of my people to be women.” It’s like Justin Trudeau in Canada. And when they asked him “Why 50 percent women?” He says “because it’s 2016”, when he said it. I think we need to, instead of just focusing on certain professions, like instead of just focusing on female filmmaking or, you know, directors or cinematographers, it’s really sad when you look at those statistics. And studio heads, it’s actually across the board because, yes, it’s the people making the decisions about what films are worthwhile, how many of those are women, but also let’s look at film critics. When you have 90 percent of critics…
GALLOWAY: You wrote a piece while you were on the set of The Zookeeper’s Wife, and how amazing it was to have crew members who were women.
CHASTAIN: We had about 20 percent of the crew, women. And it was a huge difference. And it wasn’t threatening. The guys were happy as can be. [LAUGHTER].
People were bringing in cookies. Like, everything was great. But in terms of critics, when you have 90 percent critics that are men telling you what is worthwhile, how do you expect an audience to understand that a feminine perspective is important too?
GALLOWAY: Just before we turn to the students, I wanted to ask you a couple more questions about Zookeeper’s Wife. That person, that character, is not alive anymore…?
CHASTAIN: No, but her daughter is. Theresa Zabinska’s alive, and I had the opportunity to meet with her at the Warsaw Zoo. And it’s still there. If you guys have a chance to go to Warsaw, the tunnels are there. The house, the villa is there. The piano Antonina played, the bug collection, it’s all there.
GALLOWAY: What did she tell you about her mother that you wouldn’t have expected?
CHASTAIN: The biggest thing when I talked to Theresa is she told me, when I was talking about clothes, she said her whole life she never saw her mother in a pair of pants. And I thought taking care of animals, she’d be like in an overall. And then she said if her mother was an animal, because I said what kind of animal would she be? She said a cat because there was something very catlike about her. And the father had nicknamed her “Punia,” which means small cat, I guess. She told me that her mom loved nail polish but the father didn’t like it. So every once in a while, she’d wear it but not too much. But it was so helpful because talking to Theresa, I understood the femininity of Antonina. And what was so wonderful having that perspective is a lot of times people say to me, oh, I play very strong women. I see every woman as a strong woman. I think what they mean to say is some of the times I play women who are very aggressive and have traits that, in the past, people would associate with masculinity. And instead, we now need to look at actual femininity as strength. And it shouldn’t be equated with weakness. So Antonina is incredibly feminine, but still very strong and very brave.
GALLOWAY: Is Celia [in The Help] a strong woman?
CHASTAIN: Absolutely. Celia is a woman who pushes against society. You know, society tells her what she is supposed to be, how she is supposed to treat people. She does not care. You know, I mean, she cares about what people think of her. She wants friends. She is very lonely, but she is never going to do anything against her will. And she even says to the Minnie, you take a frying pan and you hit him over the head. I mean, she is… You know that she has got fight in her.
GALLOWAY: Playing this role, could you ever imagine doing that yourself, being in a situation of war where you have to save people?
CHASTAIN: I think to answer that so easily diminishes the danger and the peril and the sacrifices that people made. I would like to think in every part of my being that I would have done the same thing. But to make it like, like even in the film when the question arises, we wanted to show that it was a big decision for them to make because you can’t-I mean, this is why there was so much tragedy in that time period. You know, if you did anything to help, your children would be shot.
GALLOWAY: Back then, yeah. It’s not just you, it’s also others.
CHASTAIN: But I would like to believe I would.
GALLOWAY: Very last question from me, going back to that thing of her mother and if she were an animal, what would be the animal that you would identify with?
CHASTAIN: Oh gosh. It’d be a mixture of animals, [but] my favorite animal is a giraffe, because I find them so ridiculous. And just, I love how unique they are. There is nothing else like them. And they are so gentle and beautiful and graceful. And you are shocked that they’re graceful because they are so strange looking. But also they are not the most cuddly, so it probably would be something very cuddly too because I like a good cuddle [LAUGHS].
GALLOWAY: We all do. OK, questions.
QUESTION: The article you wrote for The Hollywood Reporter was in 2015. So my question is, have you witnessed those changes since then?
CHASTAIN: I haven’t witnessed big changes. I think and what I hope happens is the more we hold people accountable, that’s how you get action. It’s one thing to say like, “oh, thank you for talking about it.” What are you doing about it? That’s what we have to do. So all the studio heads who say, “You know, when I’m casting or I’m hiring a director for a film, I’m just, they’re not on the list.” Well, if someone hands you a list that’s only male directors, it’s your job to say, “can I please also have female directors on this list? Can you give me some diversity?” And it’s important for me. I try to work with a female filmmaker every year. I think no matter what you do, you have to look at your life and say, what can I do to put it in action? Because talk is cheap.
GALLOWAY: You know, when the anti-smoking campaign was at its peak, they started taking ads out in the trades saying, naming the heads of the studios, saying, “shame on you.” Wow, the smoking went off the screen pretty quickly.
CHASTAIN: But also, maybe someone should write an article about incredible filmmakers that I love and look at their life and their career and say, have they ever made a movie about a woman? And that’s the sad thing because there are many people I would love to work with.
QUESTION: What’s the best piece of advice in all your experience acting on film sets, that a director has ever given you?
CHASTAIN: The first time I ever acted, made a movie, was with Al Pacino. And that’s the best film teacher you can have. Because we did the play first, and so I got to see his performance on stage. And then I got to see what he did to transfer it to the camera. And there was something that happened. You know, there’s nothing about me that feels like a femme fatale at all. And Salome in a way, you know, she’s a great femme fatale. And there is this introduction scene, where she comes in, and she is like claiming her space. And she is trying to seduce this guy. And we did the first take, and then he came over to me and he goes, “That was great. That was perfect. We could go home now. We have nothing else to do. That’s the take I’m going to use.” But since we’re here, it’s fun, right? You want to do it again? I was like, “yeah, let’s do it again.” And then I was like, “I did it already, it’s great. He loves my work.” And then as he stands there while they’re changing the film in the camera, and he goes, “great, so you know, you’re coming out here, and you know everyone out there just wants you. Everyone loves you. Everyone” da-da-da-da-da-da-da, as the character, not as the actor. And I go, “oh, yeah, yeah, of course, of course, okay.” So then we go to do the scene again, and I start acting it in a more confidence because he told me, we already go the scene, that I’m great, that everyone out on that stage wants me, like all these things. And when that performance changed, I could then hear also from the sidelines, Al going, “good girl, that’s it.” And then also too, it made me go, “Oh, OK, I’m doing something right.” And so instead of coming up to me and saying, “could you be sexier? You know, we just need the character to be sexy” or… Which if he had said that to me, I would’ve immediately gone, oh my god, I am wrong for this role. I never should have gotten cast. And then that’s when suddenly you are spiraling down. He instead put it in a way that created the confidence and that just created it in me. For film, it has to be real. What you feel is what the camera sees. So if I am doing a scene or if I am feeling nervous on a day, I have got to find a reason that my character’s feeling nervous. You can’t lie to the camera. And so I would say that that’s the best advice I was ever given.
GALLOWAY: That’s brilliant.
CHASTAIN: Brilliant, right?
QUESTION: In 2016, you launched Freckle Films, which is your production company with all-female executives. And you’re also vocal about social issues, such as gender and racial inequality and mental health. So I’m wondering what your greatest dreams and aspirations are for your production company and how you plan to tackle some of those issues within the American film industry.
CHASTAIN: Well, I guess how I plan to tackle is just putting things into action. I am creating stories and trying to put together films and television shows that I am not even necessarily going to act in. Like, I have a film about the Black Mambas. There is not a role for me in that movie. So I am trying to create opportunity for people to shine and show their skills. I think my goals in the future, this year was an incredible year for filmmaking, and I love Moonlight so much. And I was so excited, you know, a film about gay black love won the best picture. I remember when Brokeback Mountain lost, and I was so devastated. And to see Moonlight win, I just couldn’t have been happier. However, yes, there were great strides this year, no female directors nominated. And we need to get to the point where we stop congratulating ourselves. That’s what my hope for the future is, when studios stop saying like, “oh, well look, we have three films in our slate with female filmmakers. Aren’t we great?” Or “look at all this diversity we have.” When that stops, where the congratulating stops, then actually something has changed.
QUESTION: Of the many roles you have played on stage and onscreen, which was most impactful to your life and to your career?
CHASTAIN: Probably the most impactful was The Tree of Life for many reasons. It was impactful to my life because I was playing a character who was the embodiment of grace, and love, and compassion. So when you are putting your effort on something, you build it within you. I meditated every morning before I got on set on gratitude and opening my heart. I studied paintings of the Madonna. I really spent my time cultivating love. And to be on that set, it was an Eden. You know, we took over this small little town, and everyone had their houses that they lived in. And in the morning, we would get up and-or we would go on walks together as the sun set. Chivo [Emmanuel Lubezki], who was our DP and Terry [Malick], and the little boys, and Brad [Pitt], and it was just magical. So for my life, it was an incredible project. And then for my career, it was the film that really put me on the map, in terms of people being interested in my work and who I am.
GALLOWAY: And it won at Cannes, didn’t it?
CHASTAIN: Well, it won the Palme d’Or. But then also, Take Shelter won the Grand Prix in Critics’ Week.
GALLOWAY: Were you there when they announced the wins?
CHASTAIN: No, but I was like the lead in both films, and they both won their categories. So it was really — it was an insane part of my life, and wonderful part of my life.