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Whether you’re a lover of art-house abstraction or broad-stroke dramedy, chances are good you’ve seen Jessica Chastain recently. Since emerging as a virtual unknown at Sundance in the apocalyptic drama Take Shelter, she’s been seen as the female lead in Terence Malick’s The Tree Of Life, a Mossad agent in The Debt, and the Southern belle Celia in The Help. Before year’s end, she’ll be on screens thrice more: in the thriller Texas Killing Fields, opposite Ralph Fiennes in his film of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, and reprising her breakthrough stage role in Al Pacino’s Wilde Salome. So where did she come from, and how did she end up in everything? Turns out Chastain’s annus mirabilis has been years in the making, and it’s mostly the vagaries of film distribution that have stacked so many projects end-to-end. Nonetheless, it’s a remarkable body of work, with very little evident repetition.
In Take Shelter, which was shot near the end of the run, she plays wife to Michael Shannon, a construction worker who suddenly becomes convinced that imminent disaster is on the way. As Shannon quits his job and plows the money meant for their hearing-impaired daughter’s cochlear implant surgery into an impromptu backyard bomb shelter, Chastain is aghast and uncomprehending, but she begins to reconcile herself to dealing with her husband’s convictions, whether they be schizophrenic ravings or a genuine premonition. After Take Shelter and Coriolanus screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, Chastain sat down with The A.V. Club to talk about breaking into the boys’ club, working without words, and what her Shakespeare character has on her iPod.
The A.V. Club: Take Shelter is an elliptical film, and Michael Shannon and director Jeff Nichols have a relationship going back many years, including their previous film, Shotgun Stories. Was it hard to find your way in, both to the world of the film and to their world?
Jessica Chastain: Well, it’s a very strange thing. For me, with acting, I find that life always ends up in the performance, so a lot ends up being very real. Samantha is really left out of what’s happening with Curtis. She’s absolutely excluded in it. And they never excluded me, but of course they are family, Jeff and Mike. So perhaps there was an element of, we’d do a scene, and then they’d disappear. They’d go talk for a while. I’d be like, “Where are the boys?” and I’d realize they would be talking about the scene. So maybe there was that feeling of being a little bit on the outside for Sam. But I did, after a couple of times of it happening, go into the kitchen and tell them, “Guys? If you’re talking about a scene I’m in, I got to be included.” I said, “I know you’re brothers, but come on, we’re family now, and it’s me.” That’s a very Samantha trait. Jessica wouldn’t—I’m not very aggressive like that. I don’t mean aggressive in a mean way, but I was very assertive. And then of course as soon as I’d let them know it had happened they were both just so upset. Like, “Oh, so sorry! We didn’t mean to!” Now I feel like I’m family. I absolutely hope the three of us will work again in something in our future.
AVC: So both that feeling of being excluded and having to push back into it fed into the character, and then the character fed into how you behaved yourself on set?
JC: Right, and I don’t know if “excluded” is the right word, because it does sound like it’s something they purposefully did. It’s more a matter of starting with the handicap of almost not speaking the same language as someone. They have a shorthand, because they’ve known each other for years, that I didn’t have.
AVC: Movies don’t come out in the order they’re shot, and part of why you seem to be in everything right now is that you have four years’ worth of films being released around the same time. But Take Shelter was shot toward the end of that run?
JC: Yeah. It’s funny, I went straight from the set of Take Shelter to the set of The Help, then I had two weeks of rehearsal at The Help before I started shooting there. But yeah, it was last year that I shot both those films.
AVC: Even seeing you in so many movies in fairly short order, there’s no sense of an emerging screen persona. It’s not like we’ve seen you do your thing in six movies, and now we’re kind of...
JC: Sick of me? [Laughs.] We know what she does!
JC: I like that. I want to keep you guys guessing, because for me, as an audience member, I’m such a fan of films and filmmakers and actors, and I love going to see a movie where I don’t know exactly what to expect. And there are great actors who do that. [Michael] Fassbender is one. Tom Hardy is one. There’s so many great, especially emerging, actors that keep you guessing, and I think the mystery of what that is, when I’m an audience member, makes me lean forward. I want to watch, to see what they’re doing.
AVC: The Tree of Life is toward the abstract end of the scale as well. How did you approach that part? Actors sometimes say that you have to play a character, not an ideal, but that character is introduced as the embodiment of a certain principle.
JC: I got the part before I was allowed to read the script. I’d been auditioning for months, and I didn’t quite know what the character was. But when I read the script, it was very intimidating. It took me a little over four hours to read. It’s massive, and it’s very similar to what the film is. All the history, the creation of the world, all that’s in there. And when I finished, I thought, “How am I going to play this woman? She’s just the embodiment of grace.” She’s a representation of the spirit. I went to Juilliard, and there was a fantastic course there called “Approaching The Play,” and it’s all these things you can do starting out. It’s like these questions: “Who am I? What am I? What’s my favorite music? When was I born? What’s my relationship with my parents?”
So I absolutely do that on every film. I know my character’s favorite color. I know what music she has on her iPod. Not that Mrs. O’Brien has an iPod. I felt for Mrs. O’Brien it was so important that I do that, because I had to kind of create this—even though it was all in the subtext, and the mystery of what the film was, because you don’t see it explained to you—I had to make her as full of a woman as I could. And give her a first name, and do all those things. But also, I realized, you can do all that, but then you have to actively do something. For me, I found, “What makes her tick? What is something I can play?” and it’s absolutely the relationship she has with her kids. I could be active in scenes, protecting them, caring for them, encouraging them, giving me things that create and propel me forward.
AVC: It often helps actors to understand the overall scope of a film, so they know how to modulate their performance, but on a Malick film, you really have no idea how it’ll turn out. You’ve already shot scenes for his next movie, but there’s no guarantee you’ll end up on screen. You might get hacked out like Adrien Brody in The Thin Red Line.
JC: I might. And I wouldn’t be surprised, because I shot less than a week in a very long shoot. With Tree Of Life, I was there working every day, all day long, for three and a half months. So I thought, “I’d be shocked if I’m not in this film.” I’d have been very confused and sad. But I won’t be shocked if I’m not in the other one. You do absolutely have to have immense trust. There’s a lot of actors where they can visualize their performance. Sometimes you can read a scene and go, “Oh, I know what this scene is,” and then you go in and you go within your ideas of what it was. But with Terrence Malick, his movies don’t work if you do that. If you show up saying, “Oh, I’m going to play the scene this way,” it’s going to be the least interesting choice. He’s the most wonderful person at inspiring you to see what’s in front of you, and if you want, throw away the script, throw away the scene, and just look at what’s here now, let’s just work with this. And that’s exciting. I don’t think that ever happens.
AVC: I know he does wordless takes on the set.
JC: Yeah. We experimented a little bit. During the audition process, when I was doing the grief section in the last audition, there was a long speech I had to the father, the husband, about what happened to the child. And we did it, and then he said, “Okay, Jessica, that was great. Can you now do the same speech without the words?” I had never been asked that before. And then I watch the movie and I think, “He wrote all that, that you see. Even though she doesn’t say it, you still see what he wrote.” He wrote everything. We would do takes of me saying it. Then we’d do takes of me doing it, but not saying it. And I think that shows the trust that he has in the actor to just be there and convey it, but also the trust he has in the audience.
AVC: That’s an exercise directors sometimes use in rehearsal, but I don’t know anyone else who films it.
JC: I’m a big fan of, and I’ll always try to do this if we have time, to ask people, depending on what the film is, especially if it’s a drama, after the scene to do a take with no lines. Because then I find that sometimes the same thing can be expressed without the words, and it’s probably more interesting. Then you have that to cut to. When you’re putting the scene together, you can go, “Oh, maybe we don’t need this person to say this line, we can just show them conveying it.”
AVC: And did that come from working with Malick?
JC: Absolutely. He was the first one to introduce me to the “no words” take.
AVC: Playing something like The Help, which is in such a different register...
JC: Even a voice register, because [puts on high pitched Southern accent] “She’s way up here.”
AVC: And there’s a coat of gloss on it. I imagine it’s more technical in some ways.
JC: Well, you know, I approached The Help the same way I approached The Debt. The Debt is actually a drama/thriller. Both characters have a different voice than me, so there’s the idea of the accent, and then also with The Help the idea of, in addition to the accent she has to have a higher and squeaky voice, because that’s what it says in the script. And then physically, too, there’s something. With The Help it was more of a change physically, with the gaining of the weight, and then the hair and the girdles and all that stuff that I was wearing. But I approach everything the same in that I do tons of research. For The Help, there was a lot of connections between her and Marilyn Monroe in the novel, that she was similar. So I read Marilyn Monroe’s biography. I wanted to know, “What’s not the expected connection?” And I found a Norma Jean kind of idea of where did Celia come from. That was interesting. I watched all of Marilyn’s films, because I thought Celia would love Marilyn, she’d be her favorite actress; she’d watch all of her films. I do tons of research, but I try to approach every film, even if it’s a comedy, or it’s a thriller, I approach it like a drama. The whole preparation of it, because it really helps me fill out the character.
AVC: How did you approach playing the wife of Ralph Fiennes’ warrior in Coriolanus? You can’t really figure out what she has on her iPod.
JC: This is a strange thing to say, but for Virgilia, she is the feminine energy in this very masculine, aggressive world. I guess we could say there’s something about her that’s akin to Diana, where there’s this softness, almost like she’s ill-equipped for the position she’s in. Not that Diana’s ill-equipped, but there is a vulnerability to her in this world. So I started there. Also with Virgilia, because there wasn’t much, she doesn’t go through huge arcs in the script, it was an opportunity to be in a room with Vanessa Redgrave and Ralph Fiennes and watch them do Shakespeare.
AVC: Vanessa Redgrave is the most masculine character in the movie.
JC: Oh my God. She’s a genius. And I’ll be able to say for the rest of my life I got to rehearse with her and be in every scene with her doing Shakespeare. So that was big for me. I absolutely, for every character, I have a playlist that I listen to. I’m not the actor that’s on the set listening to the iPod to gear myself up for the scene. I don’t do that. But when I’m reading the script, when I’m preparing, when I’m thinking about the role, when I’m at home, all that stuff, I start to create, “Oh, this song, she’d probably like this song,” or, “This is what she’d listen to.” That’s what, when I say “iPod,” I mean.
AVC: Ralph Fiennes talked to your class when you were at Juilliard, didn’t he?
JC: Yes. You know what’s so wonderful is when I was at Juilliard, Ralph Fiennes, Philip Seymour Hoffman, David Suchet, and Fiona Shaw came in and spoke. Not a workshop, per se, but a Q&A. When they were there, I was so excited at the prospect of being an actor and what my career would bring. And when we got out, I’ve since worked with all of them. That’s a big thing. It’s an emotional thing to be on a set and look over and be like, “Ralph Fiennes is directing right now. I’m playing his wife in this film.” And it wasn’t that long ago, seven years ago, he was there at Juilliard and I was dreaming of this moment. Or Philip Seymour Hoffman. So it’s really an emotional and inspiring thing for me every time that happens.