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Interview: Jessica Chastain

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The hardest working woman in Hollywood is back just in time for Oscar season. Stylist talks to Jessica Chastain about sexism, typecasting and bringing down the most wanted man in the world…

Words: Debbie McQuoid

It’s funny what a year can do. When Stylist first met Jessica Chastain while she was promoting The Debt in late 2011, she was all nerves at how her next five films (including The Tree Of Life, The Help and Coriolanus) would be received, charming chit chat about her Jimmy Choo shoes, and her need to risk it all in her roles. Not that she’s changed much (the 31-year-old’s still relaxed and friendly, “Top tip: don’t put your head underwater in the Red Sea, it stings,” and her enthusiasm for her job hasn’t waned, “Each character I play, I learn more about who I am,”) although her circumstances certainly have.

The girl has no time. We catch up with her in New York where she is currently in The Heiress on Broadway. Later she will head to The David Letterman Show to talk about her latest film project, Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. A campaign for YSL has seen her become recognisable to more than just the cinema-going public and a recent GQ cover will no doubt have won her an entirely different set of fans.

Firstly, we’re curious to find out if last year’s fears about her rising stardom were justified?

“The way life has changed most is that Kathryn Bigelow calls me on my cell phone. Or Gary Oldman says we should work together,” she tells us. “It’s been very welcoming. “The one thing I’ve been nervous about was being typecast, but no-one has tried and I haven’t been put in a box at all.” That is certainly true. Her last few films have seen her voice a jaguar in Madagascar 3, play a gangster’s love interest in Lawless and, now, a CIA analyst hell bent on finding Osama Bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty. Despite a stellar supporting cast this is Jessica’s film. It’s not the first time she’s picked up an Oscar nomination, but this year she could well go home with one.

“It was a very intense role and a lot of responsibility,” she tells us. “It creates a conversation based on a current event; a dialogue about the time we’re living in.”

Scenes of torture, the tension caused by the constant threat of bomb attacks; with a subject this charged, did the stress affect the working environment?

“It wasn’t tense between any of [the actors], but we definitely had some tension in that there was a lot of guerrilla-style film making. The dialogue was very difficult. There’s a lot of Arabic names, a lot of CIA jargon and facts.”

One of the things you will notice in this film is what a hard-ass Jessica is. In real life, she’s the opposite – her voice not exactly baby-ish but incredibly soft and… sweet; her nature is that way inclined too. Some might say, touching on the saccharine…

Maya is capable, strong and independent. She represents this generation of women

“Kathryn and I would send each other a video of a dog being rescued,” she says, explaining how they would relieve the day’s tensions. “As we were filming these very intense interrogation scenes, I’d get an email from her about a dog that was found in a dumpster and gets cleaned up and finds a new home. We tried to remind ourselves that there is joy and love in the world.”

The buzz around the film is not solely down to its subject matter. As the first female to win the Best Director Oscar in 2010, for The Hurt Locker, the pressure is on for Bigelow to perform again.

“Kathryn’s amazing,” Jessica gushes. “She’s very much the captain of the ship, but she also has great compassion and respect for all parties involved. You never see her yell at anyone, or treat anyone without dignity.”

A lot has been made of Bigelow being a woman in a man’s world but shouldn’t her gender actually be insignificant? Shouldn’t she be applauded for her talents regardless of being female?

“Absolutely. Being on set with Kathryn, all you notice is that she’s an amazing film maker. You never think, ‘She’s a great film maker and she’s a woman’. It’s the same thing with [my character] Maya; she is just an incredible CIA agent. Yes, she’s dealt with a lot of difficulties in her work because people didn’t take her seriously perhaps because of her sex, but she never made an issue out of it.”

This is true. One of the most refreshing things about Zero Dark Thirty is the lack of romance thrown Maya’s way. As much as it may explain why she doesn’t have a huge emotional connection with the audience, a fling with a marine would undermine her character. “I agree. I’m used to seeing movies where the lead female characters are defined by the men in their lives,” says Jessica. “They’re either the love interest or they’re the victim or the villain of the story. Maya isn’t any of those things. She’s on her own. She doesn’t have any crazy neuroses or issues. She’s just capable and strong and independent. I think she really represents this generation of women and I’m really honoured to be in a film that shows women like this. For me, that doesn’t happen very often…”

Work wise, next month sees Jessica in the terrifying-looking Mama from Guillermo Del Toro. “I’m a big fan of scary movies,” she says. “But I have to be careful, I don’t want to see a movie where someone just gets tortured. I’m not interested in watching someone get cut up.”

After The Heiress finishes, she’ll head back to her house in Venice Beach, before her next project takes her off to Jordan, Egypt, Japan… For such a busy woman, does the New Year mean any ambitious resolutions? “Right now I just feel so lucky with everything, I don’t really feel like I need to accomplish something else,” she says. “Maybe my resolution would be to take a vacation.”

Zero Dark Thirty is in cinemas nationwide from 25 January

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