Jessica Chastain: ‘I like playing complicated, ruthless women.’
Fed up with film-industry sexism, the star of ‘The Help’, ‘The Martian’ and, now, ‘Miss Sloane’ is taking on inequality in Hollywood and beyond, promoting diversity wherever she can
She replies to her fans on Facebook and Twitter. The first time she was nominated for an Oscar, for The Help, she took her granny. She loves animals so much that she’s a vegan. She’s empathetic, sensitive and generous, according to her invariably charmed interviewers. Even the late Joan Rivers could think of nothing scabrous to say about Jessica Chastain: “She’s the nicest women in Hollywood,” the comic once cooed between takedowns of, well, everybody who isn’t Chastain.
“Oh, cool,” the actor says as she greets me in a London hotel, before disappearing apologetically behind a napkin to giggle and snack on avocado. Then she leaps on to a couch, vegetarian stilettos and all, and leans in, with undivided attention.
If she isn’t the nicest woman in Hollywood she does an awfully good impression. “It’s not something I think about,” she says, laughing. “But I did grow up with a single mother who worked very hard to put food on our table. We did not have money. There were many nights when we had to go to sleep without eating. It was a very difficult upbringing. Things weren’t easy for me growing up . . . Because of my mother I do always try to think about how something must be for someone else. I’m not so interested in myself. I’m interested in other people.”
That interest has propelled Chastain to take on inequality in Hollywood and beyond. Last year she launched two production companies: Freckle Films, which will champion on-screen and off-screen diversity; and We Do It Together, a nonprofit dedicated to reversing the lack of substantial roles for women and the discrimination they face in film. Its advisory board includes the actors Juliette Binoche, Queen Latifah, Freida Pinto and Zhang Ziyi and the directors Catherine Hardwicke ( Twilight), Amma Asante ( Belle), and Hany Abu-Assad ( Paradise Now).
I grew up with a single mother who worked very hard to put food on our table. There were many nights when we had to go to sleep without eating Women don’t need to be taught about responsibility. Perhaps gentlemen need to stop talking about what women need or what they should do with their bodies
Chastain notes the not-so-magic numbers. “Seven per cent. That’s how many film were directed by women in America last year. I seek out female directors. I try to work with one at least once a year. It gets tough during a year like this, when I’m not actually going to do that many films. So I might look to work with someone on a short film. But it’s very important for me to do whatever I can to help someone gain the experience they need to get bigger jobs. I just worked with Niko Caro on The Zookeeper’s Wife. She’s an incredible film-maker. And now she’s directing a $100 million movie for Disney,” she says, referring to a live-action version of Mulan. “Not because of me, obviously. But because The Zookeeper’s Wife put a spotlight on her.”
Last month, in an interview with Variety, the two-time Oscar nominee revealed that she turned down a major role after being offered a fraction of what her male counterpart would earn. She didn’t name names, but recent history records that she was approached by Marvel Studios to play Maya Hansen in Iron Man 3. The role ultimately went to Rebecca Hall – and was controversially cut down because, as the director Shane Black told this newspaper, “Female toys don’t sell as well.”
“The thing I turned down,” Chastain says, nodding. “It wasn’t even a situation where I was asking for equal pay to what the male actor was getting, because he was very famous. But I knew that what I was being offered wasn’t . . .” She pauses. “It wasn’t appropriate, considering the amount of days they were asking me to work. And the size of the project.
“This is not a shocking or unreasonable thing. If there is a male actor who has the same level of experience as myself, and he’s working the same amount of days, then we should be getting paid the same. Of course I understand that if I’m working opposite Leonardo DiCaprio then he will be making more money than me. And that’s fair: he has a lot more experience than I do. However, I’m no longer going to accept a situation where I am being paid a quarter of what my male costar is being paid.”
Chastain was the first woman in her family to go to college and the first who didn’t have a child while she was still in her teens or early 20s. She is, accordingly, a passionate campaigner for access to affordable reproductive-health care for women and, in particular, for the organisation Planned Parenthood. Just hours before we meet the House of Representatives, in the United States, has passed the American Health Care Act, a move that leaves Planned Parenthood and the five million men, women and adolescents who require the organisation’s services at risk. “We are still going to go to the Senate. This is not just a done deal for us,” she says. “It’s a tough time right now. I do feel like there is a pushback. I mean, there has always been a war on women in terms of healthcare. There is a representative in Texas – and this made me so cross – who argued that if abortion was made illegal it would teach women to be more responsible. Now 80 per cent of single-parent households are taken care of by the mother. So as far as I’m concerned women don’t need to be taught about responsibility. They are the ones who stick around and raise the children. I think, if anything, perhaps gentlemen need to be taught to be more responsible. And perhaps gentlemen also need to stop talking about what women need or what they should do with their bodies.”
She smiles. “It is a very frustrating time, but I’m excited to be alive today. We all have a common adversary.”
Last March David Daleiden and Sandra Merritt, two of the people who, in 2015, faked videos accusing Planned Parenthood of selling foetal tissue and “baby parts”, were indicted on 15 counts. Their efforts, though entirely discredited, continue to influence the debate about federal funding.
“Completely faked,” Chastain says. “An absolute lie. I think we need to pass a law that targets those who knowingly create false news. I guess we’ll have to start right at the top.”
It’s interesting to see the ethical Chastain playing the mostly unethical Elizabeth Sloane. The titular anti-heroine of her new film – the enjoyable, twisty political thriller Miss Sloane – is a DC lobbyist, a woman whose personal code is elastic enough to allow her to “rep for Indonesia” but who appears to find a conscience when she is asked to oppose a Bill that imposes regulations on firearms.
“I like playing women that are complicated and ruthless,” Chastain says. “You see men play those kinds of characters all the time. So it’s about time women started playing those parts.”
Typically for Chastain, she helped fashion Sloane’s aesthetic, with a power wardrobe and darkened auburn hair. There was homework on the Hill, too.
“I went to DC and met with about a dozen female lobbyists,” Chastain says. “We did have a lobbyist firm attached to the film as consultants. But they were all men. For me, if I’m playing a woman who is incredibly successful working within a male-dominated industry, I needed to talk to someone with that experience. So I just started googling. And I found the women I wanted to meet with . . . I don’t know how I would have prepared the role without that weekend I spent with them in DC.” “Wait, actually I’m not dumb”
Chastain grew up in Sacramento, in northern California, where she struggled at school and was apt to ditch class so that she might read Shakespeare in peace. “You know, people become what you tell them they are. And at high school and middle school, for the longest time, I was just led to believe that I wasn’t smart, that I was a troubled kid, that I was annoying to teach. I was imaginative; I was creative. So I wasn’t focused the way they wanted me to be. They wanted to stomp the artist out of me. And once I got to Julliard, and was taking philosophy and humanities, I loved it, and I was excelling. And for the first time I thought, Oh, wait, actually I’m not dumb.”
After college Chastain relocated to Los Angeles and began chalking up screen credits, in Veronica Mars and Law & Order: Trial by Jury. A career as a respectable working actor seemed assured. And then Al Pacino cast her in a 2006 production of Salomé. All bets were off. “I love Oscar Wilde,” she says. “He started my whole career. Al Pacino and Oscar Wilde. Little did he know when he wrote Salomé.”
Within two years Chastain was Hollywood’s hottest ticket. In 2011 she appeared in no fewer than six films, including Ralph Fiennes’s Corialanus, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life and the box-office smash The Help. Her subsequent career has juggled awards contenders ( Zero Dark Thirty, A Most Violent Year), hits ( Madagascar 3, Interstellar, The Martian) and arthouse, including Liv Ullman’s 2014 version of Miss Julie, shot in Enniskillen. “I love the people there,” Chastain says. “And I bought so much incredible crystal. But the weather? In winter? Holy smokes, it’s cold.”
Chastain is a visible presence on red carpets, award ceremonies and such fashionable shindigs as the Met Ball. Yet she remains fiercely private. She has been in a relationship with the Italian noble Gian Luca Passi de Preposulo for years, but she often turns up to public events alone and is far more likely to discuss her rescue dog, Chaplin, than her other relationships.
“I think it takes some restraint,” she says. “But I believe any one of us actors has the ability to stay out of the spotlight. You have to be careful about who you decide to date – if you date another actor or famous person, that is going to multiply the attention on you. You have to be careful where you choose to eat lunch when you’re not working. If you go to the restaurant that’s the big new restaurant that all the paparazzi are at, then you are going to get photographed. There are people I know who encourage that.
“I had a lot of time when I wasn’t in the industry, and I got to watch it from the outside. And what I noticed was that the actors who would allow me to fall completely into a movie were actors I didn’t know much about. I knew I wanted that for me. They put their private lives on display, and it creates a lot of attention. I have no judgment about that. But it’s not for me.”
She doesn’t name names. She’s far too nice for that.
Below, from left: in The Help, Miss Julie and Miss Sloane; and at the Women’s March on Washington in January. Inset, left: with Al Pacino in 2006 (top) and with her partner, Gian Luca Passi de Preposulo. PHOTOGRAPHS: THEO WARGO/GETTY, STEPHEN SHUGERMAN/ GETTY AND KEVIN WINTER/GETTY