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

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE - Miss Sloane is on gen­eral re­lease

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

Not-so-magic num­bers

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

Tara Brady

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