Suddenly, Jessica Chastain has become Hollywood's "It" girl, a performer who can tackle any role in any genre and not only demand attention but, in most cases, own every frame.
In the past three years, the ethereal, California-born beauty has given powerhouse performances in sophisticated pictures that gently push the envelope of the mainstream (Take Shelter, The Tree of Life), in blockbusters (a bubbly social outcast in The Help), tightly wound thrillers (the young Helen Mirren in The Debt) and family films (Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted). Along the way she amassed accolades, including a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for The Help, and used each success as another brick in the foundation of what is shaping up to be a major cinematic legacy.
This month the 35-year-old redhead has two radically different movies hitting screens. The first is the slow-burning, atmospheric Canadian/Spanish horror movie Mama from producer Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth, Splice) and first-time director Andy Muschietti based on his chilling three-minute short of the same name. Chastain plays Annabel, an aging, failed punk rocker who is suddenly charged with caring for two feral little girls found living wild in a cabin in the woods. As Annabel taps into her innate maternal instincts, she finds herself running afoul of an even more maternal wraith that isn’t as nurturing. Much terror and austere atmosphere ensues.
The other film is the instantly controversial, fact-based Zero Dark Thirty, an intense dramatic thriller directed by Kathryn Bigelow and penned by Mark Boal — the duo behind the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker. It details the search for Osama bin Laden, a mission spearheaded by Chastain's CIA operative. We spoke with the lovely actor — who TIME Magazine recently christened one of the "100 Most Influential People in the World" — on a crackling phone line from Los Angeles.
You have this uncanny gift for playing these strong, often troubled women in stressful situations. Do you ever find it difficult to disengage from your characters?
"Well, it's not hard exactly but sometimes it's a little sad in a way because some of these characters I play, I really, really like. It's almost like when I wrap the film, I know I have to say goodbye to them. For example Celia Foote from The Help…it was really tough to say goodbye to her because she was just so much fun to play with. And Mrs. O'Brien, the mother from The Tree of Life, it was just such a joy to make that movie. I mean, I'd show up for work and my director was Terrence Malick and I got to share the screen with those two adorable little boys. So sometimes yes, I feel sad in the knowing that those times end, and I'll be forever different, but knowing I won't meet that character anymore."
Technically, Mama is your first horror film. It’s based on a truly scary short film that caused quite a splash on the festival circuit and online. How much of that eerie ambience stayed intact when stretched to feature length?
"Well, the reason I signed on to do Mama is the name Guillermo del Toro. I'm a crazy fangirl when it comes to his work. So when I saw Andy's short film I was totally blown away by what he did in such a small space of time, in three minutes. It's like, one shot. Up the staircase, seeing mama. So that three minutes is the seed of what Mama has become, it maintains that strange feel of the short film which is incredibly exciting. We get to see more of what mama is, we get to understand where the two little girls come from and, of course, we are introduced to my character, Annabel, who isn’t in the short film at all."
I'm guessing that del Toro and Muschietti allowed you some leeway to design Annabel?
"Yes, absolutely. The essence of what the character was in the script is still there. She played bass guitar in a punk band, but she wasn’t very good so she'd never be famous, so she was playing for fun. Her boyfriend just wants her to grow up but she wants to stay in the world. And along comes this level of responsibility in these two girls. Now, I kept pushing for her to not be very likeable. I wanted her to be selfish and initially see these kids as a hindrance, a major drag. And as the story progresses, she rallies and finds her strength when she has to wrestle with 'mama.' She's the one you least expect would have that strength. This is not a cheap horror film. Though I should mention that I love cheap horror films, I love all horror films. But sometimes horror relies on nothing but loud noises and false scares and cats jumping out of cupboards, but this one refuses to do that…. Andy sculpted a feeling that no matter what is happening, something is just…not…right. It just builds and builds and builds."
Is there some kind of running thread in your work in that you gravitate toward women in unpleasant domestic situations?
"No [laughs], I'm just really drawn to very complex women who are very interesting. Which is why I don't play a lot of girlfriends, I suppose…they're not typically the strongest female roles. But my role in Zero Dark Thirty, well, that's not a domestic role at all. Quite the opposite."
You got to work with Kathryn Bigelow.
"I sure did."
Although Zero Dark Thirty is far from a horror film, she always seems to mine darkness in her work.
"Yes. She's always been a hero of mine. Not just because of masterpieces like The Hurt Locker but because of her earlier work, especially Point Break — I'm a huge Point Break fan and so, again, getting the chance to work with her was huge for me personally."
Tell us about your character.
"Kathryn gave me the chance to play this dynamic, strong woman, a character based on a real woman in this brilliant movie based on a true story. And I really don't think any other person could have directed Zero Dark Thirty other than Kathryn Bigelow. After all, she had spent so much time in this dark world for The Hurt Locker with Mark [Boal] and he researched this film intensely, which started off as this piece of investigative journalism he was engaged in and from there it became a screenplay based on what he discovered."
Was there a lot of pressure playing a character based on a real person?
"There certainly was. It was a great responsibility making this film and it was essential that we were all being as accurate as possible telling this story, it was really kind of like a dream team that came together to do it."
Chris Alexander is a Toronto-based writer and filmmaker and the editor-in-chief of the horror movie magazine Fangoria.