As the overstressed beating heart of “Zero Dark Thirty,” a CIA analyst named Maya who relentlessly chases after the hated phantom that was Osama bin Laden, Jessica Chastain is at times steely, at times shattered, potty-mouthed but somehow girlish, touchingly lonely but scrutinized by the entire spy agency’s hierarchy.

To get to her character’s essence, Chastain used her preferred technique, which is more methodical than Method. “Every project I start I make lists, and the first one is what everyone [in the film] says about the character, and what they say about Maya is she’s a killer.”

In an extended sense, that’s certainly the literal truth about the woman the screenplay calls Maya, the book by SEAL team member Mark Owen (realsurname Bissonette) calls Jen and the CIA brass apparently call overemphasized. (The Washington Post recently described how thereal-life operative was denied a rise in rank and pay, speculatively for drawing too much attention to herself. And yet the agency has not denied the script’s contention that the female analyst, bucking a certain degree of internal doubting and inertia, was the push rod of the effort to find and, yes, kill Bin Laden.) For screenwriter Mark Boal’s part, he told The Times, “I’m thrilled with how Jessica captured the dedication and sacrifice of CIA officers. In reality, as in the film, some of them do have big personalities.”

It says much about her character’s central role in the story that despite all the film’s awards buzz — and media wrangling about its gripping torture sequences— the most talked-about moment in the movie comes from a comic beat of sorts. It happens when Maya, who’s been placed in the corner during a tense meeting to pitch a raid on Bin Laden’s compound to the CIA director (James Gandolfini as, unmistakably, Leon E. Panetta) pipes up unexpectedly with an obscure if useful fact about the terrorist’s hideaway. When the boss queries, “Who are you?” she replies with an expletive, “I’m the … who found this place — sir.”

Though Chastain has never met the woman she portrayed, she knows where the language came from. “Maya was a girl that people said looked like a girl. She didn’t look like a woman, you know? And then I thought, ‘Ooh, that’s something really interesting to latch on to,’ that when at first you don’t understand what she’s capable of, you dismiss her immediately. Her voice even, there’s something girlish. Then, also, I’m told that there’s a truck driver mouth. Perhaps because people dismiss her when they first see her, she needed people to listen. So you shock them.”

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