Jessica Chas­tain: My true zoo tale

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - FILM JAMES MOTTRAM

THE ANNE Frank Cen­tre re­cently de­clared The Zookeeper’s Wife “one of the most es­sen­tial movies on the Holo­caust we’ve seen”. Telling the re­mark­able story of An­ton­ina ĩabiĔski and her hus­band Jan, keep­ers at the War­saw Zoo who hid more than 300 Jews dur­ing the Sec­ond World War at great per­sonal risk, it is cer­tainly a pow­er­ful re­minder of the hor­rors and hu­man­ity that went hand-in-hand dur­ing this time.

Play­ing An­ton­ina is Amer­i­can ac­tress Jessica Chas­tain (Zero Dark Thirty), who feels it’s not just a story about the past. “It’s so timely, with ev­ery­thing that’s hap­pen­ing — very, very timely.

“It’s ba­si­cally about refugees.” She’s re­fer­ring, in part, to her own char­ac­ter. “She was born in St Peters- burg and her fa­ther was killed in Rus­sia, and then she fled and ended up in War­saw.”

Star­ring along­side the Flan­der­s­born ac­tor Jo­han Helden­bergh (The Bro­ken Cir­cle Break­down), who plays her hus­band, Chas­tain was im­me­di­ately hooked when she read the script by An­gela Work­man, adapted from Diane Ack­er­man’s book, it­self in­spired by An­ton­ina’s di­aries.

“It’s an in­cred­i­ble story,” says Chas­tain, “and most peo­ple didn’t know about it un­til her jour­nals were found.”

With the cou­ple smug­gling Jewish fam­i­lies from the ghet­tos and hid­ing them in the base­ment of the zoo, the task is made all the more dif­fi­cult by the at­ten­tions of Hitler’s zo­ol­o­gist, Lutz Heck, played by Daniel Brühl.

“He was this tal­ented, pas­sion­ate zo­ol­o­gist,” says the Ger­man ac­tor, “start­ing off as a friend and col­league of this cou­ple, and then be­com­ing ab­sorbed by this hor­ri­ble Nazi ide­ol­ogy and slowly be­com­ing an an­i­mal and a mon­ster him­self.”

For Chas­tain, the project was more than just an­other act­ing role. Serv­ing also as an ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer— just her sec­ond such credit, after 2014’s The Dis­ap­pear­ance of Eleanor Rigby — the 40-year-old sees it as part of her evo­lu­tion as an ac­tress. With her own pro­duc­tion out­fit Freckle Films now in oper­a­tion, she’s keen to bring sto­ries like The Zookeeper’s Wife to life. “I want to cre­ate more sto­ries with di­ver­sity.”

Un­usu­ally, the film boasts a fe­male di­rec­tor (Whale Rider’s Niki Caro), pro­duc­ers, screen­writer and other key crew mem­bers.

“It was very strange to have so many women on set,” says Chas­tain. “And it was won­der­ful. Also the guys loved it! That’s why I don’t un­der­stand [about] movies [where] it’s mostly men. On the site, ev­ery­one was so happy. The guys were so happy be­cause there were more women around. The women were happy be­cause there were girls to talk to.”

The Zookeeper’s Wife opens on April 21st.

PHOTO: SCION FILMS

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