Everyone is talking about “Zero Dark Thirty,” the newest film from the Oscar-winning “Hurt Locker” team of writer Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow. And for good reason, too — a breathlessly paced thriller chronicling the decade-long hunt for Osama Bin Laden, it’s the kind of brainy, surefooted filmmaking that we rarely get these days.
The film stars actress Jessica Chastain as Maya, a young CIA operative who is terribly mysterious (she can’t even give her boss a detailed biographical sketch) and terribly dedicated. It’s her single-mindedness that brings SEAL Team Six to Osama’s doorstep.
As far as we’re concerned, it’s the performance of the year, so it was a huge thrill to get to sit down and talk with Chastain about what it’s like playing a character cloaked in mystery, why she wants to play a James Bond super-villain and why people still consider her an “overnight sensation” (even though she’s really not).
Did you ever think about taking a year off from being amazing?
[Laughs] Well, it’s funny. I feel like I took ten years off before this. I mean, clearly I’m not 17 years old. It’s been a very strange journey I’ve had. I’ve wanted to be an actor my whole life but I took the slow path — I went to Juilliard, I trained, I did a lot of theater, I did some guest spots on TV…
Yes, “Veronica Mars.” All of these things. And my movies have only been coming out for a year and a half. So what’s happening is really incredible for me, but I know it feels like an overnight sensation. But it’s the longest overnight sensation! It really has been a lot of work.
I assume everything about this film is based on real life. So is there a Maya?
There is a Maya. She’s an active member of the CIA working undercover. So the more I talk about her the more danger there is that she will be discovered.
But you did take things from her?
Yes. It helps when your writer is an investigative journalist.
Was it hard playing such a mysterious character? Did Mark Boal give you any more information about her?
It’s tough. Thank god I had three months to prepare for this part. I love it when I have at least three months to prepare for something because I usually choose characters who are really different from me. And, to play a woman in the CIA — I’m a hippie from Northern California, who is trained to be unemotional and analytically precise. It’s just so different. I’m not organized. I’m kind of a mess. I would love to have a teeny bit of the analytical expertise this woman has. So to do that you need the time [to prepare]. It was like going to school for three months. I worked a lot from the script — anything I could glean or anything anyone said about her I would write on a list; anything she said about herself, I would write on a list. Those were my clues. I started learning about the CIA. All the characters that Maya deals with, I was trying to figure out what their seniority is with her, status-wise, because when Maya walks into a room I need to know who’s my boss and if I should speak to them in a certain way. But I am definitely playing that woman.
Was there ever a scene where you felt like you really “got her?” Like the scene with James Gandolfini where she says she can’t tell him anything about herself…
But that scene tells me so much about her! Look, if I weren’t an actor, I would like to think I would be a spy. I’m with a magnifying glass looking at the script. That scene — it tells me she was recruited out of high school. That shows that she’s probably a computer genius. Someone who is recruited out of high school probably doesn’t, socially, know how to let loose. So already that’s a huge clue. When he says, “What have you done besides Bin Laden?” And she says “Nothing,” that’s a huge clue, too. And that’s just one scene. Every scene is giving me something about who this woman is — she doesn’t have a boyfriend, she doesn’t have anything. If you take a snapshot of who this woman is at the beginning of the film and who she is at the end, they’re very different people. But it’s a subtle, detailed journey, and I had to get there.
Were there any touchstones you were looking to? As contemporary as the film is, it feels like a ’70s thriller.
“All the President’s Men”! Absolutely! It was very exciting because I remember when I first got the script, every time I would turn the page it would be like Oh my god! It was like a scoop. I’m the worst about secrets. As soon as I got cast I wanted to tell everyone I knew, “I’m working with Kathryn Bigelow and playing the most incredible woman!” But of course I had to keep it a secret. My agents couldn’t even read the script. I just said to them, “Trust me guys, it’s a good part.” I remember someone in the press saying, “Jessica Chastain has been cast in the film. She must play Joel Edgerton’s wife.” I was seething.
Was there any point where you just said, “I don’t know if I can pull this off?”
Yeah. There was a point when we were doing all the interrogation stuff, and it was the middle of the shoot. And we were filming in an actual Jordanian prison. It was an active prison. So there were certain times we weren’t allowed to walk outside. Also, they hadn’t seen a redhead, really. It was so strange, the environment to be in, as a woman. There were some moments when — since I’m trained to be emotional — not unemotional, and I’m not very good at keeping my feelings in check. There was a moment we were doing a scene where I just had to walk away and cry. Jason Clarke came over to me and said, “Are you okay?” There were those things, where I just didn’t know if I could do it. Also, I was having to play a character who is really confident and I’m not incredibly confident. Every time I take a part, I usually take the part because I feel like I can’t do it. If I read something and feel like I understand this woman’s journey but I don’t know if I can do it, that’s what makes me sign on. But it’s all from some non-confidence.
What does 2013 look like? You said you’d be down for a superhero movie.
Yeah totally! But here’s the thing — I want to be a villain.
Yeah. I haven’t really gotten a chance to play that. Or I want to be a Bond girl. I want to be a scary, scary, scary villain. Like with some really thick Northern Irish accent. Something really tough.
You were in the Terrence Malick movie that’s coming out next year and then you weren’t in it. Have you seen it?
No I haven’t seen it. You know, I wasn’t really expecting to be in it. It’s funny, I was on set for “The Help” and Sissy Spacek’s husband is Jack Fisk, who does all of his movies. So he was like, “Oh Jessica, everyone misses you so much, you should come down for a moral boost.” When you work on a Terrence Malick film you become part of the family. And the day I was supposed to fly down there I got a call from one of the producers and he said, ‘I have a feeling Terry’s writing something for you because he knows you’re coming down.’ So it was a last minute addition, I was never part of the main story.
So if Malick called you up again and asked you to do something, you’d do it?
Absolutely. If he called me up and said, “Jessica would you like to work in the costume department?” I’d say “Yeah!” I love Terry.
Was it similar working with Kathryn Bigelow? Like you’d do anything for her?
Yeah. It’s tough, thinking about being an actress in Hollywood. You look at Isabelle Huppert and these amazing French actresses, and I look at movies in the ‘70s with Jane Fonda, where the characters were really independent and not necessarily defined by the men in their lives. For some reason we’ve lost that a bit in modern-day filmmaking. I was blown away by this character because she’s a hero. But we also don’t say “Well, she’s also got mental problems.” Or sexual issues. No. She’s just a capable, strong woman who is able to stand on her own. Who else to tell that story than Kathryn Bigelow? She didn’t fall into any of the traps of formulaic filmmaking. They found the story, they found the woman, they didn’t add a fictional boyfriend. They didn’t change anything in her. She’s incredibly interesting and dynamic.
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