MY LITTLE SECRETS
A character’s tiny details count for Jessica Chastain, and she is keeping many of them to herself, writes Philippa Hawker
Jessica Chastain has secrets, things she’ll never tell. They are part of what it means to be an actor, she says. When she creates a role, she always comes up with small, intimate details about the person she is playing: little, sometimes seemingly inconsequential things she keeps to herself. It’s part of the process of becoming someone else, “a way for me to take ownership of the character”.
It makes sense to her, she says. “I know my innermost being better than anyone else in the world, and I want to create something like that for my character. I want to understand their fears and desires and dreams and what makes them tick in a way that no one else could. And when I’m doing so, I’m creating them from scratch.” There are times she will share a secret or two with a director, she adds, if she thinks it may help the film. “But I will always have secrets that only I know.”
The other part of preparation is almost the opposite, the process of immersing herself in what is already known, in careful, thorough research. It’s almost her favourite thing, she says. “Everything I do before I get on set brings me so much joy.”
In her new film, The Zookeeper’s Wife, directed by Niki Caro, Chastain plays a real-life figure, Antonina Zabinski, whose husband, Jan, was director of the Warsaw Zoo before the outbreak of World War II. The couple began sheltering Jews and helping them escape, using the zoo as a hiding place. Jan Zabinski was also a member of the Polish underground.
In the midst of danger, Antonina is a graceful, nurturing presence, qualities that Chastain was happy to embrace. “So many times we associate heroism with people who use violence, who fight battles, who beat up bad guys, but she used love and compassion.”
The film is based on Diane Ackerman’s book of the same name, which drew heavily on Zabinski’s diary. Chastain devoured the book and spent time with Zabinski’s daughter, Teresa, in search of details and personal memories. “She told me that her whole life, she never saw her mother in a pair of pants. And when I asked her, ‘If your mother was animal, what kind of animal would she be?’, she said a cat.” It sounds like a trivial detail, Chastain says, “but I built so much of the character’s movement based on that idea”.
As for Antonina’s voice and accent, Chastain says, “she was born in St Petersburg, found herself in Warsaw as a young woman, so in creating the accent, yes, it’s a Polish accent, but it needs to have a flavour of Russia.
“I also wanted to pitch the voice up, to show the femininity, the catlike nature of this woman. And there are pauses in the middle of when she’s speaking, I wanted this very careful sense, that she was of another place.”
Chastain, born and reared in northern California, and a graduate of New York’s Juilliard School, has a rich and varied CV with a chameleon aspect. Her breakthrough film was Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, in which she played a serene maternal figure opposite Brad Pitt’s volatile father. She was nominated for an Oscar for her performance in The Help as a wideeyed, working-class Marilyn Monroe lookalike. Her first lead role was as the single-minded CIA operative in Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty.
An important project for her was Ned Benson’s The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, a little-seen work about a fracturing relationship that was made in two feature-length versions: His and Hers, plus an abbreviated combination of the two, released as Them. Chastain starred in it and also produced it. She remembers talking with Benson about the film during the course of years, and the idea of getting her favourite actress, Isabelle Huppert, involved — in a role, what’s more, as Chastain’s mother.
“Never did I ever think that it would come to fruition,” she says. “But I had the opportunity to get to know her in 2011,” (Chastain’s breakthrough year) “and I called her up and said, ‘Do you want to join me on the set?’, and I was really shocked when she said yes.”
Being involved in production is important to Chastain. She has a company, Freckle Films, whose focus she describes as “enabling female directors, writers and producers, and getting up stories of people who have really not had a voice. Most of the stuff I’m developing is not for me to play.”
Books the company has optioned so far in- clude The Magician’s Lie, a period novel about a famous illusionist accused of her husband’s murder, and Life and Other Near-Death Experiences, the tale of a compulsive optimist who makes dramatic changes to her life. There’s also a project about a group of South African women who band together to fight elephant poachers, to be written by playwright and Walking Dead star Danai Gurira.
Looking ahead, Chastain has completed several films to be released this year, including Susanna White’s Woman Walks Ahead, in which she plays an artist who sets out to paint the portrait of Sitting Bull; Molly’s Game, the directing debut of writer Aaron Sorkin, about a woman who runs a high-stakes poker game; and The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, an Englishlanguage feature from French-Canadian filmmaker Xavier Dolan.
She’s also revved up about a forthcoming project, a biopic of country legends Tammy Wynette and George Jones, to be directed by Taylor Hackford. “I’m going to play Tammy Wynette opposite Josh Brolin, and I’m so excited to work with him,” she says. She describes the film as “a dark script, an incredible love story … It’s like they’re the Sid and Nancy of the country music scene.”
Her preparation has already involved everything from watching YouTube videos to reading Wynette’s Southern Cookbook (even though Chastain is a vegan), plus every book she can lay her hands on. There also has been plenty of musical preparation. “I’m taking singing lessons, I’m working with someone I worked with at Juilliard, and I’m also working with T-Bone Burnett.”
And there will be the things she keeps to herself: the secrets of becoming Wynette that are hers, and hers alone. opens on May 4.
I WANT TO UNDERSTAND (MY CHARACTERS’) FEARS AND DESIRES
Jessica Chastain in The Zookeeper’s Wife