MY LIT­TLE SE­CRETS

A char­ac­ter’s tiny de­tails count for Jes­sica Chas­tain, and she is keep­ing many of them to her­self, writes Philippa Hawker

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - The Zookeeper’s Wife

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

Jes­sica Chas­tain in The Zookeeper’s Wife

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